For Mani Ratnam’s admirers, Iruvar and Dil Se are two films that didn’t get the credit they deserved. Iruvar, about the friendship between a movie star and a screenwriter that eventually sours, came out in early 1997. Despite earning praise, the film under-performed at the box office. Ratnam had already moved on to his next project, his first in Hindi after years of releasing dubbed versions of his Tamil-language productions.

That was Dil Se, starring Shah Rukh Khan as Amar, an All India Radio employee, and Manisha Koirala as Moina, a member of a terrorist sleeper cell. The movie was released exactly 25 years ago, on August 21, 1998 (it is now available on Netflix). Although Dil Se under-performed like Iruvar, it remains one of Ratnam’s most seductive films, in addition to being a favourite of Shah Rukh Khan fans.

Dil Se was the only film produced by the short-lived India Talkies, created by Ratnam, Shekhar Kapur and Ram Gopal Varma. (India Talkies itself was modelled on the Hollywood studio DreamWorks, set up by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen).

Mani Ratnam.

Despite its flaws – a half-baked exploration of a self-determination struggle, needless bursts of drama, underdeveloped secondary characters – Dil Se is the work of a storyteller in full command of the language of cinema. Dil Se has moments that could only be articulated through the form’s unique grammar.

Every filmmaking tool, from Santosh Sivan’s cinematography to Samir Chanda’s production design to Suresh Urs’s editing, is put to stunning use. The theme of unrequited love is present in the shot-taking, editing rhythms, and AR Rahman’s haunting background score. Ratnam’s ability to inspire his cast and crew is amply evident in Dil Se, whose shortcomings are eclipsed by its mesmerising portrayal of doomed love.

The maddening distance – romantically and politically – between Amar and Moina, as well as the sexual tension when they are together are conveyed through fluid camerawork, intimate close-ups and editing montages.

Among the film’s enduring moments is when Moina, who is part of a group from somewhere in the North-east, gatecrashes Amar’s engagement with Preeti (Preity Zinta in her acting debut). The camera slowly zooms in from Amar and Moina’s perspectives, revealing their feelings. If Amar is thrown off balance by Moina’s sudden reappearance, she is more disturbed about his engagement than she cares to admit.

Amar and Moina have previously met in Ladakh, where they have bonded over the things she loves and the things he hates about her. Yet, Moina abandons Amar for her mission – a suicide bombing at the Republic Day parade in Delhi. A fantasy sequence reveals her group’s plans. Rather than dialogue, meaning is conveyed through a montage cut to background sounds and Rahman’s score.

Another acclaimed sequence is built out of a shot-reverse-shot pattern, the actors’ faces and Sivan’s gorgeous lighting scheme between illumination and shadows. In a corridor at All India Radio, where Moina works as part of her cover, she and Amar have a conversation about what is and what could be.

Having completed his magnificent two-part period drama Ponniyin Selvan, Ratnam is now working on his 29th feature. The 67-year-old filmmaker spoke to Scroll about finding the correct visual language for Dil Se, working with Shah Rukh Khan, the shooting of the iconic song Chaiyya Chaiyya and more. Here are excerpts.

Pre-release television commercials for Dil Se boasted of an enviable roster of talent. Even production designer Samir Chanda’s name was mentioned, which was unusual. How did you assemble this team? And why did you cast Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala?
In the South, technicians have always been credited – and that is how it should be. Without them, the film is not the same. They add so much to a film, so it belongs to them too.

About Shah Rukh, to be honest, I had planned a completely different film. I had told him about the script and he had agreed. It was the film that we later made in Tamil as Alai Payuthey [starring R Madhavan and Shalini; released after Dil Se in 2000].

But I hadn’t cracked the climax correctly, it didn’t fall into place. I kept it aside and then we went into Dil Se. So it wasn’t like I had this in mind and he fitted in correctly or anything like that. It was something that evolved.

Dil Se (1998).

I had worked with Manisha before in Bombay. That was a completely different kind of a role. It was interesting to see if we could pull off something diametrically opposite – somebody who looks delicate but is very steely inside. And then we see a vulnerable side too. She is very driven, and this is a challenge she has to cross.

Shah Rukh Khan was already a huge star by then. What was the outdoor shooting like?
With Shah Rukh, shooting is very easy, in the sense that he will do anything for the film. We could take him in a car, get him out at a place, shoot and go away and then come back again. We had to do a lot of shooting in Delhi, a lot of street shots. But he was game for everything, he liked all those things.

It was difficult, but that’s part of our job. It was good to have somebody who was very supportive and who liked the entire idea. He was willing to go that extra mile instead of the comfort of a controlled ambience. There is always an unexpected magic that happens in a real place with real people, which adds something to the film.

Among Shah Rukh Khan’s feats is jumping up and down on a train for Chaiyya Chaiyya. There are songs featuring trains and then there is The Song on the Train. What conversations did you have with choreographer Farah Khan?
That’s all sort of there in the lyrics [by Gulzar]. When we recorded the song itself, we had a clear idea that we wanted to do it on top of a train. It was a journey that Amar was going through. The film is set in the fiftieth year after Independence, and we were getting into the inlands.

Chaiyya Chaiyya. Courtesy Madras Talkies/Red Chillies Entertainment.

The beats of the music go with the rhythms of the train. We looked for a railway track at a lot of locations. We couldn’t shoot the song on a narrow gauge. Sometimes that might get too narrow, and the top of the train is not amenable to it.

We looked at Darjeeling, we looked at Shimla, we went scouting all over the place, but we just couldn’t find the track. We landed in Ooty – what we thought we’d never do. We had to change the train to make sure it didn’t look the Ooty toy train.

With Farah, the song was so energetic, so dynamic, that it kind of drove the choreography. She knew this script, she knew where it was coming from and what we were trying to do. We saw her compositions and they were great. Malaika [Arora] was there too, and she was brilliant.

Then we took the song to the location. There was improvisation in shots in terms of what was practical. The train goes through several tunnels. We had to count the tunnels, and we knew some of them were short tunnels. So we had to scream at everybody to duck, and then they had to go ahead when they came out [of the tunnel]. So it needed preparation.

The songs are either solo (Chaiyya Chaiyya) or fantasies (Dil Se Re, Jiya Jale, Satrangi Re). Bits of Ae Ajnabi are used throughout in the background. This is part of the theme of doomed love, which you have also explored in Raavanan and Ponniyin Selvan. What about unrequited love attracts you?
If you have to blame anybody, then blame William Shakespeare, Laila Majnu, all the classics that are there. Doomed love makes for a good study of characters and situations. There is an emotional bond. So, to an extent, the film is a product of the traditional narrative.

What we were also trying to say is, we were celebrating 50 years of Independence but there were still pockets which were really dark. There were wounds which had not yet healed. We tried to explore this through the doomed love story.

Manisha Koirala and Shah Rukh Khan in Dil Se. Courtesy Madras Talkies/Red Chillies Entertainment.

The militants have their own dream too – the remarkable dialogue-free montage of what they are planning for Republic Day.
I had totally forgotten about this scene. I watched it again only recently.

Sometimes, you can’t analyse things. Theorising makes them sound different. You have a story and you don’t want to explain everything, put it in words for the audience. You want the scene to be a part of the narrative.

These people are wounded and are taking an extreme step. They’re not going to sit and explain what is to be done. We see their rehearsal and put it together.

Beyond that, it’s instinct. How you shoot is just like how you write. Sometimes, it is there as you are writing. Sometimes, instinct, the situation, the shooting restrictions take you there.

Similarly, so much of the ‘so near yet so far’ dynamic between Amar and Moina is expressed through the cinematography. You had previously worked with Santosh Sivan in Thalapathi, Roja and Iruvar. What was your brief to him for Dil Se?
Santosh is very much a team player. All of us are interested in making as good a film as we can.

When the actors are performing really well, we realise that all we have to do is just be there and watch it. Don’t do too much with the camera. Let the truth come out.

A scene has to ring true. Somewhere along the line, keeping in mind the music that you’re going to have later also defines the pace, movement and rhythm.

Essentially, we are trying to capture story-telling and performance. If there is something happening that the actors cannot express and there is just a look, the camera moves to bring it across. Sometimes, we stay with the close-ups, which communicate a lot more than any camera movement can.

Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala in Dil Se. Courtesy Madras Talkies/Red Chillies Entertainment.Courtesy Madras Talkies/Red Chillies Entertainment.

Another highlight is the beautifully lit corridor sequence at All India Radio.
I had originally conceived the recording studio scene as a lift scene. You go in, the door opens, somebody comes in, you don’t talk. The most private moment between the two is disturbed by several people going in and out.

Only, when we landed at All India Radio, there was no [suitable] lift. So we had to improvise the idea of these two people talking about something so important to the both of them in the midst of people coming in and out.

This pattern was there in the writing. The scene was conceived with the disturbances. Once we had the setting, the lighting accentuated and lifted the scene.

AR Rahman’s background score too is inseparable from the film’s themes.
Rahman worked on the score for several months. I think it’s one of his best scores. When you talk about a montage communicating, the music does a lot of it. There are enough variations and pauses. The emotion of unrequited love comes through with so much pain and agony because of the music.

Dil Se theme music.

It was your first film in Hindi, with dialogue by Tigmanshu Dhulia, and produced by India Talkies, which didn’t make another movie.
We all went our separate ways. But we had a great time, and we are still good friends.

I had written the dialogue entirely in Tamil and had it translated into English. Tigmanshu made it so real and so good. We had artists who made it sound good too.

We didn’t want the script to sound dialogue-like. We wanted it to be easy and real, like you and I speak. Tigmanshu managed to get that flavour.

Dil Se had a divided response. Among the criticisms was that it’s never clear where in the North-east Moina is from. The movie leaves this hanging.
Possibly. The reason was, there were several troubled border states, and we were looking for a representative story. Otherwise, it would have become a story of a particular place. The film represented several places that were going through turmoil.

You do what you think at that point in time. If you accept something that works very well and is appreciated, you also accept something that hasn’t connected or is not well-received. Maybe the way that you’ve told the story hasn’t reached? You learn from it and move on. You can’t be too worried about the appreciation or the criticism that comes your way.

What do you make of Dil Se’s legacy on its 25th anniversary?
I haven’t seen the film in 25 years, so I don’t know how it has stood. I have only seen only bits and pieces, and that too on mute – or any of my other films, for that matter.

Has it aged well? Is it still watchable? You tell me.

Dil Se (1998).