Etan Weisfogel’s review published on Letterboxd:
Haven't posted on here in a while—blame a combo of laziness and writer's block—but some friends just watched this film for the first time, and I told them I'd send them the essay I wrote on it for an Indian music class I took last year. I reread it and thought it held up pretty well, so figured I'd put it here for anyone else who is interested:
The musical sequences in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se feel strangely separate from the rest of the film; they exist in an entirely allegorical realm, taking place in landscapes and environments that do not appear otherwise in the narrative. This choice is appropriate for a work about an impossible love, one which must necessarily occur only in the minds of its protagonist but never be enacted in actuality. However, there is another dimension to this choice; the film’s music is removed from the daily lives of its characters, becoming an inner expression of their emotions without ever crossing over into being a real part of their world and culture. This remove is rarer than one might expect from the musical form. Though there is always an element of the fantastical in the sudden break into song or dance, most filmmakers attempt to mediate that element by placing characters in situations where singing or dancing would be expected (think about the popularity of wedding scenes in Bollywood films) or by having extras react with appropriate excitement at the expert performance occurring in front of them. Neither of those techniques are deployed here; the very first musical sequence in Dil Se occurs on top of a moving train, to name just one typically incredible example, and the extras in each performance are, for the most part, emotionless backup dancers, appearing as if conjured for the express purpose of performing rather than being endemic players in the environment. The effect of creating a separation between these characters’ lives and the expression of their innermost emotions becomes particularly interesting when considering the question in the context of A.R. Rahman’s unique and diverse musical score, as well as the nature of Indian identity that the film suggests.
Composer A.R. Rahman worked with a number of disparate genres in constructing the music of Dil Se, including but not limited to traditional qawwali, modern qawwali, rock, reggae, and contemporary Tamil pop. Further, Rahman studied Western classical music in college, while also citing Queen and Michael Jackson as significant influences. Thus, there is a global sensibility to the film’s soundtrack, inclusive of the modern and the traditional, the Western and the non-Western. Its fusion of these many elements aligns it with the world music movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which Steven Feld connected to processes of globalization occurring at the same time. Such a globalized aesthetic is appropriate for a Shah Rukh Khan film, considering the actor is often positioned as the ultimate exemplar of globalized Bollywood.
Yet, Dil Se is not a typical Shah Rukh Khan narrative, nor a typical narrative of globalization. Playing Amar, a New Delhi journalist relocating to northeast India for a job with All India Radio, Khan falls in love with local woman Meghna, played by Nepalese actress Manisha Koirala, who is later revealed to be a radical northeastern separatist planning multiple suicide attacks on an upcoming celebration of India’s independence. His love for her becomes an obsession—only strengthened by her consistent rejection of his advances—and even after he returns to Delhi and finds an appropriate, ideal Indian bride, he is unable to let go of his infatuation for the mysterious northeasterner. When he discovers her true identity, and her planned attack, he becomes intent on stopping her, putting himself in all manner of danger to do so. He eventually catches her outside the celebration and pleads with her to call off the attack and marry him instead. Briefly relenting to his advances, without fully accepting his proposal, she falls into his embrace, setting off her suicide vest and killing them both.
His love for her is based in both classical tradition—the film was explicitly based on the “Seven Shades of Love” as defined in ancient Arabic literature—while also reflecting contemporary political discourses. With Amar as the avatar of central India and Meghna as the northeast, the film portrays the ultimately one-sided, possessive love of a centralized India that seeks to claim various disparate regions as its own while also systematically abusing those regions and ignoring their desires and needs. It is no coincidence that Khan’s character is the son of a military officer, part of the same army shown destroying a northeastern village and assaulting a young Meghna and her older sister. In contrast to the aggression represented by his father, Amar may claim good intentions, indeed travelling to the northeast in order to shed a light on the issues in the region, but even when Meghna explains her motivations to commit the attack, he is focused solely on his desire to protect her so that he can eventually possess her. The end of the film positions a unified India, one that ignores the needs of specific regions while espousing a generalized sense of patriotism, as bound to result in the destruction of India itself.
In this context, the separation of the musical sequences from the narrative proper, and the use of the world music fusion aesthetic, can almost be interpreted as a representation of the loss of specific regional vernaculars as India continues to be affected by, and itself perpetuate, the processes of globalization. Significantly, all these musical sequences can be read specifically as existing within Khan’s mind, despite the inclusion of other characters within the performances; the first number, for example, portrays his journey from Delhi to the northeast as an imagined utopic vision of unity in which he is the star. Because it is imagined, the music being performed has no connection to the actual music that would necessarily be performed daily by actual inhabitants of the region; the song itself is based on a traditional qawwali, but it has been thoroughly modernized. In that sense, the musical sequences present the privileged Amar’s view of the unified and modernized India that he has access to, while ignoring the view of India that Meghna knows as a marginalized subject.