Saturday, January 29, 2022

Audient Bollywood: Dil Se

This is the opening film in my 2022 monthly series catching up with a dozen notable Bollywood films from history.

I discovered two things upon coming up with an initial list of candidates for my Bollywood series:

1) I really want to watch films that feature Bollywood dancing prominently;

2) Bollywood movies are f***ing long.

Three different lists I found on the internet produced a list of 61 titles to work from, only one-fifth of which I will actually watch for this series. Do you want to know how many of them run less than two hours?


Most of the rest don't just barely eclipse the two-hour mark. They shatter it.

Because my appetite for extremely long movies is low, especially after watching more than 40 movies longer than two hours in 2021, I will indeed use the running time as some factor in paring down this list. I've actually included the running time as a note in my Letterboxd list to help guide my choices as I go. I'll be able to watch some longer ones as time permits, but this way I'll be able to tell at a glance which ones run between 120 and 130 minutes, for most of the months when I'm just not up for it.

However, the other guiding principle will be the third list, which was someone's breakdown of the ten best Bollywood dancing scenes of all time. 

Whether this person has any authority, and whether I should have consulted ten other similar lists, I'm not sure. In fact, I don't even remember where I got the list (though I believe it was a legitimate publication). But since I already had five times as many movies as I needed, I decided just to trust the one.

The movie that caught my attention from that list was Dil Se, a 1998 film directed by Mani Ratnam. The title is actually written as Dil Se.. on Letterboxd, with a confusing two-thirds of an ellipses after the title, but that doesn't compute in my English brain so I'm just excluding it. The title translates as "From the heart."

The reason it caught my attention was that the list maker trumpeted it as the movie where Indian star Shah Rukh Khan dances on top of a train. Now that I wanted to see.

It was two hours and 45 minutes, but I decided it was better to get myself off on the right foot with this series in terms of content than to prioritize brevity right from the start.

The other thing that appealed to me about Dil Se was that it wasn't from the last ten years. A surprisingly large number of the films that came up on lists of top Bollywood films were really recent films, either because Bollywood is having a peak period or just because internet list writers tend to be younger people weaned on more recent movies. While I had no interest in going in chronological order in this series, I thought it was at least good to start with something that legitimately stakes a claim to being a classic by being nearly a quarter of a century old. 

Well, all my decisions were right.

In addition to being a huge amount of fun on its own, Dil Se also held some good crossover appeal for me. I noted in the credits that A.R. Rahman, who has worked several times with Danny Boyle, does the music for this film, and also that it was produced by Shekhar Kapur, in the same year that he directed Elizabeth

The opening scene features Khan's character, radio journalist Amar Varma, at the very start of a very aggressive campaign of stalking a woman he meets on a rainy night in a country train station. The movie characterizes his actions as romantic, of course, but she should be filing restraining orders left and right against this guy, given the way she turns him down in no uncertain terms. She's Meghna and is played by Manisha Koirala. They part ways, without her giving more than the most minimal encouragement to him, but he's determined and manages to find her multiple more times on the streets of Delhi -- something I imagine is pretty difficult, but hey, these are the movies.

Although the first scene is not badly shot or anything, and it does accentuate Khan's charms as an actor, it didn't leave me particularly hopeful about the next two hours and 35 minutes.

But then the train dance scene kicked in.

My first Bollywood dancing scene confirmed what I hoped and assumed would be the case in these movies, that the dance scenes pop in pretty randomly, like musical numbers in American musicals. They don't proceed organically from the action but essentially are like music videos inserted into the action. And boy did this one deliver.

It's not just Khan, but a whole troupe of dancers, who do about an eight-minute number on top of the train cars of this train traveling through the countryside. The train is going slowly and the danger does not seem to be particularly high, but it's not the possible danger that makes this scene so enchanting. It's the marriage of Bollywood traditions with a sort of technical derring do that characterizes the most ambitious films. 

And it's joyous as hell, with one of Rahman's most infectious songs, "Chaiyya Chaiyya." I thought I knew this song from before the film, and Wikipedia says it was used in the opening and closing credits of Inside Man, so that must be it. 

I was tapping my toe and barely containing an instinct to get up and start dancing myself. Even though I was alone in my living room, that would have been pretty silly.

None of the remaining five or six dance numbers worked as well as this one, but each got my toe tapping and kind of brought me back into it if my interest was flagging a bit, or if I was starting to succumb to exhaustion. Loss of interest wasn't really a problem, though, as the story does move forward decently and I found all the actors appealing. If you remove the dance numbers it's just a regularly paced two-hour movie, so I suppose that in itself is the explanation for these films' long running times.

I knew coming in that I didn't care what the story would be, and I had almost hoped for less of a story if it allowed more dance numbers. As it turns out, the two are not mutually exclusive. Dil Se shows us you can have a movie about a man who doggedly pursues his love interest without realizing she is part of a terrorist group planning to bomb a parade in celebration of 50 years of Indian independence from the British empire (!!!!) without that a) being ridiculous, or b) detracting at all from the film's tendency to express itself via song and dance. It was a really hopeful thing to learn about Bollywood films. 

Another good discovery was that these are films first and foremost, utilizing clever techniques to tell stories. A half-dozen times I was tickled by a particular storytelling choice. One example was when Amar is telling the story of his meeting of the woman at the country train station to his radio listeners, getting into it and providing sound effects. As he's simulating the sound of the wind, the camera takes him out of focus as he rears his head back from the microphone, then brings it back into focus as he cups his hands and dives back in to make his blowing sound. I might not be describing it well.

I could probably continue to describe things the movie does well, and offer you other little strands of the plot, but you're probably not going to rush out and rent Dil Se anyway -- and if you do, maybe you'd prefer these surprises be kept. (I already blew the surprise that she's a terrorist, which doesn't get revealed until halfway through.)

Okay, this first viewing really gives me encouragement for February. I may keep the vibe going with another movie from the top ten Bollywood dance list, or go back into history to examine early Bollywood, or go with one of the countless more recent films now that I've started with something from last century, or maybe even watch a film actually directed by Shekhar Kapur.

The possibilities are endless, and that's a good feeling to have when you first start a new viewing series. 

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