20 Years of Dil Se: Addressing Trauma By Subverting Melodrama

Source: IMDB.com

Last week on 21st August one of Mani Ratnam’s most important films, Dil Se (from the hear) starring Manisha Koirala and Shahrukh Khan completed two decades of its release. The film was important in more ways than one as it not only remains one of the rare pieces of mainstream (song and dance) cinema giving space to dissent against Indian state’s policies and army’s actions but also narratively, it shows how meaning of melodrama can be subverted to perform a dissenting role in a democracy. This piece tries to look at Dil Se from precisely these two perspectives.

Many peripheral regions in India continue to be marginalized politically as well as legally. While the larger population of the country enjoys benefits of rights, freedom and equality, these sections remain un-emancipated. But the mainstream discourse due to a blanket notion of democratic ideals ignores their problems and remains largely ignorant towards the problems of these discriminated sections. This results in blatant violation of the rights and liberties of these people. At such times a catharsis of sort is required for the traumatized population to voice itself out. And where it does not occur, the trauma stays back and continues to haunt the victims in many ways. Unchecked these individual cases of trauma seep into the very culture of the society and potentially a collective trauma develops.

Thus, cinema works as an important medium to represent this trauma and possibly allow the mainstream discourse to acknowledge these issues. Cinema then becomes the medium of catharsis. But most democratic societies due to their electoral nature become so prone to dramatic appeals and drama itself that melodrama, more than other narrative strategies, suits itself best for such representations.

But melodrama by its very structure of narrative and technique does not amply provide this space for dissent or sounding out of traumatised voices. As E Ann Kaplan suggests “In melodrama, the spectator is introduced to trauma through a film’s theme and techniques, but the film ends with a comforting closure or ‘cure’. Such mainstream works posit trauma (against its reality) as a discrete past event, locatable, representable and curable” (2001: 204). The key here is to understand whether melodrama in cinema as a narrative strategy can be subverted to genuinely address trauma and what it implies for political discourse in a democratic society.

Dil se by Mani Ratnam is a classic trauma text that represents the plight of the people who live in the north eastern region and by extension certain other parts of India who are continued to be denied equality before law, due process of law and as a result face continued repression at the hands of state and its instruments of violence especially with reference to implementation of draconian laws such as Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA). The time of the making and release of this movie is very significant. With the completion of 50 years of Indian independence, the film takes up the most sensitive issue of the very composition of the Indian state.

The radio programmer Amar Verma played by Shahrukh Khan travels to the north eastern region to tap on the country’s nerve to understand what does the golden anniversary of Indian independence (set in 1997) means for them. A classic melodramatic opening where the buoyant, dramatic and a very normal young man is flirting with a quiet, isolated stranger on a railway station, and the contrast is instantly set.  The stranger is Meghna, a simple village girl played by Manisha Koirala who stays withdrawn, silent and reflective.

But the classic romantic genre pretence is dropped just a few minutes later, as Amar starts venturing into the militant camps of the North East extremist groups and coaxes them into speaking up and venting out all their hatred against the Indian state. Although incomprehensible to him, the anger is still vented out and one can see the classic rendering of the ‘testimony’ which is at the heart of all trauma texts.

The deep tracking shots and the intense music suddenly change the mis-en-scène of the film and disturb the light heartedness that was established by Amar’s character playing with the contrast of the trauma and the normalcy. The entire film then not only in the characterization of the protagonists but also in the very essence of the film plays with this dualism. The scenic beauty and vast empty spaces of Leh, North Eastern regions etc. for instance are spatially contrasted by the clustered, chaotic streets of Delhi.

But there are two scenes which need to be specially mentioned for their treatment of the individual and the collective trauma and how they are interlinked with each other. The first scene is where through a series of petty squabbles while aboard a bus to Ladakh, Meghna and Amar keep flirting with each other. At some point things go awry and Amar tries to force himself upon Meghna. This action suddenly spurs a neurosis in her and she is afflicted by what can be called a panic attack with Meghna finding it difficult to breathe. This moment is for the first time when the theme of the film becomes, in an oxymoronic sense subtly explicit.

Amar keeps insisting to her to open up and vent out her trauma but Meghna remains incapacitated as she is unable to speak. The scene is surreal, as it is hard to decipher the reason for this reaction. The meaning however is traced in the climax of the story, when in the other important scene during another confrontation Amar asks Meghna, the reason for her intense hate for Indian state, for which she is ready to blow herself along with the Indian Prime Minister at the Independence Day parade in New Delhi in a ploy hatched by the militant organization that she belongs to. And it is there while recounting her traumatic childhood where she along with her mother was raped by the Indian army, that one is able to discern the reason why she broke into a neurosis in the earlier scene.

This represents classic traumatic neurosis as Cathy Caruth describes it. Caruth suggests that it is the unremitting and exact repetition of the traumatic event in the memory of the victim, which is at the heart of the catastrophe, that spurs such a neurotic reaction. She illustrates “… they seem not to be initiated by the individual’s own acts but rather appear as the possession of some people by a sort of fate, a series of painful events to which they are subjected, and which seem to be entirely outside their wish or control” (1996: 2). But another point that needs to be emphasized upon, is the way Meghna’s experience is linked to the fate of many other victims of the repressive law. This is achieved through a diffused editing of Meghna’s recalling face and the tracking shot of gun-fires and howling people. The traumatised body of Meghna is thus superimposed on a montage of violent images representing violence of one’s own nation’s army and state upon oneself. And thus, the cultural trauma is linked to the individual trauma, one of the ways in which melodrama operates.

Here the authenticity of the account or its correctness is secondary to what the recalling and remembering of the event signifies. It is how it resonates on a cultural level with many traumatized bodies and memories. As Janet Walker suggests “It is precisely the quality of exaggeration that enables us to read the event as momentous, thus giving the memory its historical resonance”. (2001: 213) It is here that melodrama comes into use as it renders itself useful to dissolving the distinction between fact and imagination and allows the narration of the memory to represent an exaggerated experience to reflect the significance of the event to the audience.

According to Adam Lowenstein “In the pathological, unhealthy state of melancholia, the ego refuses to let go of the lost object and instead acts out the loss compulsively, repeating (rather than remembering) the trauma by turning it inward and enacting the loss as self-torment.” (2005: 4) Meghna’s character and her neurosis represents this state of melancholy. It is important to understand in the political sense why Dil Se chooses to represent trauma thus. As already suggested the film talks about a politically alive issue and therefore a possible closure to its memory is absent and hence the only way it becomes representable is through such an open-ended melancholic work.

Dil Se subverts the formula of melodrama in cinema both in terms of story and narrative. The ending of the film does not provide a classic happy resolution, characteristic of melodramas. Even when many melodrama cinemas end with a tragic fate of a romantic couple they do so at behest of a romantic plotline. Dil Se’s couple meets tragedy on a political one; that of nation, legality and violence.

Even in terms of techniques for the displacement of narrative, which many melodramatic cinemas also employ, the treatment is quite different. For instance, the title track itself is not filmed in a classic Hindi romantic genre style, but in an extremely smart and intelligently symbolic form. The budding love story amidst the violent blasts and marching of army and towards the end of the song the little children dancing innocently provides an excellent message where the director is directly conversing with the audience about the dreams and aspirations of the people of the region to live a life of normalcy and peace.

Dil Se’s use of melodrama in terms of songs and displacement of the narrative from a cultural level to an individual level is strategic in a democratic set up and the kind of receptivity that democracy inspires among its constituents. The electoral politics in societies like India have traditionally been characterised by popular appeals, propaganda and dramatic overtures. These popular practices over the years have sensitized the majority of the public to adapt to such techniques of reception of messages. Thus, melodrama with its contrasting style and stark commentaries makes over the top appeals to the audience, in a way that’s mainstream and dramatic.

But Dil Se is not a classic melodrama in any sense of the word as already pointed out. The collection at the ticket windows also reflected the same as they remained deplorable and hardly any critical review appreciated the subject matter of the film in a perspective of trauma and memory. A review by Raja Sen on rediff.com loses the entire seriousness of the film by reducing it to an “unconventional love story”. He writes “Dil Se is also about idealism and the birth of the terrorist — simplified to a great extent, but neatly executed. Ratnam uses ‘passion’ as his keyword, exploring it on various (occasionally obvious) levels. His protagonist is a smart man, bewildered by the onset of great emotion, but well-grounded in nationalistic fervour.” (2005) The critic completely fails to acknowledge how the film is addressing the cultural trauma of a society that continues to be repressed and oppressed in the name of national security. The only elements present in his review are issues of different levels of treatment and valorisation of nationalism on expected lines. The film got many other similar reviews, and thus lost its message not only on its audience but also its critics.

Dil Se perhaps was a smart attempt at subverting the formula for a melodrama cinema but the variables of audiences and mainstream popular discourse let this equation down.


  • Kaplan, E. Ann (2001): “Melodrama, Cinema and Trauma”, Screen, Vol 42,2, pp 201-205
  • Caruth, Cathy (1996): “Introduction: The Wound and the Voice” in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Walker, Janet (2001): “Trauma Cinema: False Memories and True Experience”, Screen, Vol 42,2, pp 211-216.
  • Lowenstein, Adam (2005) “Introduction: The Allegorical Moment; Schocking Representation” in Historical Trauma, National Cinema and the Modern Horror Film, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Sen, Raja, “Weekend Watch: Dil Se”, 21st October 2005, Rediff.com; (http://in.rediff.com/movies/2005/oct/21dilse.htm)


-Sumit Chaturvedi

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