Twenty years ago (1998), Mani Ratnam directed Dil Se. It’s one of the least understood and underrated movies in the history of Indian cinema. It was the same year that the leading actor, Shah Rukh Khan acted in the hugely successful Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, directed by Karan Johar.

However Dil Se was a flop at the box-office in India but did very well in overseas markets. Today, revisiting Dil Se after two decades, I realise how important the film is and its position in Hindi cinema. It is definitely a classic in its own right.

Mani Ratnam was already 42 when he directed Dil Se. He has carved his name as a reputable director in the Tamil film industry, having helmed some of the most audacious and controversial films like Mouna Ragam (1986), Nayakan (1987) and Iruvar (1997). And he made two films about terrorism, Roja (1992) and Bombay (1995) which later became part of the “terrorism trilogy” ending with Dil Se.

Dil Se is his first Hindi movie. But what a movie it is. It is a powerful movie with a powerful message. Call it a romantic thriller, but Dil Se is more than an obsession of a love-struck young man chasing a mysterious woman, it is also about politics and the Cause (with the capital “C’). Imagine two lovebirds with a background of politics and terrorism.

It isn’t your normal love story.

Meghna (or Moina) has a tragic story to tell. Played by Manisha Koirala, a viewer becomes witness to some terrible events that happen to Meghna. Her parents were killed, she and her sister were raped by the soldiers. This tragedy defined her character. And she was married to the Cause – which culminates into the plan to assassinate the president of India.

Manisha was known for her beauty and grace. But in Dil Se, devoid of make-up and glittery costumes, she was beguiling and enigmatic. There is a scene when she submits to the character played by Shah Rukh Khan; her submission then turns into fear as the memory of her rape is still fresh in her mind.

I agree with what blogger Mustaza Ali Khan wrote about Manisha’s performance: “During the portrayal, she goes through a gamut of emotions as we get to witness her unbridled innocence, cold detachment, epileptic delirium, playful interludes, vengeful rage and serene submissiveness.”

Manisha Koirala got to show her acting prowess in this film.

She’s truly perfect for the role. I cannot imagine anyone could play the part so gracefully.

Shah Rukh is still the Emperor of Hindi cinema. Even at 53 he is still the undisputed master of branding and image making. He still sell tickets as evident in hit movies Dilwale (2015) and Raees (2017). The latter is the fourth-highest grossing Hindi movie for the year. Since his first successful film as a leading man in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995, he has acted in many blockbusters, among them Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Hey Ram (2000), Mohabbatein (2000), Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham (2001) and My Name Is Khan (2010).

Many of these movies are pretty predictable, capitalising on the Khan brand. In my opinion, he has never acted better than the character he played in Dil Se, that of the executive producer of All India Radio, Amarkanth Varma (Amar). From the 60 or more movies he has acted in since, only two other times has Shah Rukh proven to be as good as he was in Dil SeHey Ram (directed and acted by Kamal Hassan) and Devdas (the third adaptation of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel into Hindi movie).

A scene from Dil Se.

In Dil Se he played Amarkanth joyfully, yet sensitively. It solidifies his persona as a hero – only this time a flawed one – caught between his obsession to win the love of a beauty and later his patriotic duty to save his country.

Mani Ratnam was lucky to have the finest people to work for him in the movie. He has lyricist Gulzar, dance choreographer Farah Khan, cinematographer Santosh Sivan and more importantly composer A.R. Rahman who has collaborated with him before. Rahman’s Chaiya Chaiya is one of the best remembered songs in Indian cinema history.

Like the film, the song resonates even today!

Johan Jaaffar’s love for the arts has not faltered despite his years in the media and the corporate world. He has just published a book, Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad, which chronicles his 50-year journey as a stage actor, playwright and director.