Over 20 years ago when Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se… released, I immediately fell in love with Chaiyya Chaiyya’s choreography, while my elder sister was in love with Ae Ajnabee soulful lyrics. Both of us were, naturally, a little in love with Shah Rukh Khan’s lovelorn expressions.
And the only other thing that both of us, with our diametrically opposite song choices agreed on, was the admiration we felt for Manisha Koirala’s powerful performance.
Years later, I revisited the film and its nuanced storytelling left me feeling a gamut of emotions. The film’s poetic take on a forbidden love story was unusually powerful. And Manisha Koirala’s performance was still as evocative as when I first saw her.
The difference was, this time around, I could truly appreciate the gravitas she brought to her role – of a young woman shaped into a terrorist by her traumatic upbringing.
Dil Se… is a romantic thriller that focused on the unexpected romance that blooms between an AIR executive Amar (Shah Rukh Khan) and a female terrorist Moina/Meghna (Manisha Koirala). For both of them, love is an unwanted distraction that threatens to disrupt their well-laid plans. And yet, the attraction they feel is undeniably strong.
Amar’s conflict is one that a layman would relate to with far more ease than Meghna’s point of view. After all, we’ve grown up with the knowledge that terrorists are the antithesis to humanity. And yet, Meghna’s character prickles at your heart. Because Manisha Koirala infused a vulnerability into her role. One that was starkly different from the hardened, unidimensional characterization of terrorists that most movies stick to.
With just the right mixture of determination and regret, Monisha highlighted a terrorist’s unwavering conviction and a woman’s emotional turmoil. Simply put, she allowed the audience to dissolve the difference between a woman and a terrorist, and just view her as Meghna.
Meghna, who was a rape victim of the army. Meghna who was a suicide bomber using Amar for her advantage. Meghna, whose unexpected love for Amar brings a moment of indecision to a plan she’d trained years for.
At the time of its release, Manisha Koirala had already established herself as a seasoned performer with critically acclaimed performances in movies like Khamoshi, Bombay, and 1942: A Love Story, among others. And yet, her role in Dil Se… struck a chord in our hearts, even as she captured our attention in every frame she appeared in.
Her raw, ethereal presence made it impossible to take our eyes off her, despite her ‘de-glam’ serious avatar. A look that was devoid of the makeup or exaggerated style that 90s’ movie leads were famous for.
What else explains why two young girls, with little knowledge of the film’s socio-political setting, still left the picture hall feeling moved by her performance.