Posted by: Vikram | May 9, 2009

Dil Se and marginal aspirations

Nita’s post on the question of the Kashmir valley started a furious debate on the legitimacy and practicality of the Indian nation. A variety of positions were taken, indeed the comments that the post generated have been a learning experience in themselves. However missing were the voices of the marginalized themselves. I have rarely seen Kashmiris engage with (other ?) Indians on India’s blogosphere. Apart from the Mizo community, there has not been much interaction with people from the North East either. I felt that this would be the right time to talk about a paper I had read a while back. The paper examines the Mani Ratnam movie Dil Se, in the context of the relationship between the dominant and marginalized groups of India.

It is interesting to note, first off, that Dil Se was not a commercial success, which was perhaps a bit surprising given the high profile director, actors and music composer. Why did the movie fail commercially ? Perhaps the movie raised uncomfortable questions. In her paper, ‘Allegories of Alienation and Politics of Bargaining: Minority Subjectivities in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se‘, University of Leeds professor Ananya Kabir points out,

Dil Se exposes the libidinal economy of the federal democratic framework, urging groups currently alienated within that framework to work towards a successful politics of bargaining in order to claim their rightful place within the nation, and initiates processes of mourning for cultural losses sustained through homogenizing majoritarian discourses

The three characters of the movie, Amar Verma (SRK) the ‘typical’ North Indian Hindu male, Meghna (Manisha Koirala) the mysterious ‘terrorist’ whose humanity is snatched away from her by the state and Preeti (Preity Zinta) who represents a previously marginalized but now assertive people from the margins.

Who are the marginalized ? In India this is a very complex question. In a vast and ancient land, masked as a new republic dominant groups can become marginalized when locations change. Marginalized groups can become dominant due to the actions of the state. Kabir defines the minority subject of Dil Se (Koirala) as being in,

a state of self-awareness when the subject finds her private allegiances at odds with the discourses of public culture. This moment is also one of solidarity, as she/he finds her/himself part of a group that does not share ‘the symbols of authority, the values that are propagated from the centre, and the culture that emanates from the centre’.

I think Kabir misses out on the point that one may also not share the values that propogate from the centre if the centre itself does not adhere to those values.

The protagonist Meghna rebuffs the advances of the ‘hero’ Amar, who sees her as beautiful, exotic and simultaneously dangerous. He pursues her, ostensibly trying to ‘rescue her’ (but really to satisfy his desires), not understanding her powerful motivations and lost innocence. His rather mindless pursuit brings both him and her to their ends with his love being requited only in his death with Meghna. He learns nothing from his conversation with a militant leader early in the movie,

Militant leader: ‘Fifty years ago promises were made to us but they havent been kept. Instaed we have been oppressed …’
Amar: ‘But India is your country, isnt it ?’
Militant Leader: ‘No. It only seems like that to you. Delhi is India. Do you know why ? Because small states like us, languishing in a corner, have no meaning for you;’

Wounds inflicted by a group cannot be simply forgotten for an individual’s naive curiosity.

For ‘mainstream’ India, the national space is

homogenised through the erasure of crucial differences such as the linguistic, on the one hand, even while fetishising, on the other, less crucial points of divergence, such as the physiognomic.

So. in addition to the attitude and actions of the centre, the movie, through the character of Amar Verma also exposes the crude and self-centred nationalism of the North Indian elite. A prominent example: the urban middle class of North India often displays an attitude to the Kashmir issue centred totally on territorial claims and consumerist fantasy rather than the aspirations of Kashmiris themselves.

But perhaps the most important and practical message is given by the character of Preeti. Her identity as a woman and a Malayali is forcefully asserted by her throughout the movie,

She uses her mother tongue, Malayalam, to assert her status as bride-to-be among the younger generation of Amar’s extended family, and she teaches Amar phrases from Malayalam, thereby encouraging him to speak her tongue.

Her power as an ascendant member of a minority is fully crystallised in the song Jiya Jale, where she transports herself and her husband to be from the pre-wedding henna ceremony of North Indians to her state in Kerala where,

she transforms herself from virginal and demure North Indian bride, with covered head and hennaed palms, to erotically empowered ‘Kerala woman’, dressed in the tight half-sari and blouse typical of Kerala fisherwomen.

If Preeti represents a previously marginalized group that has bargained effectively with the centre, then Meghna and Amar’s tragic reality at the end represents that if the marginalized groups are,

not allowed self-expression on their own terms, other groups who have ostensibly succeeded in their negotiations with the centre, and indeed the centre itself, will suffer.


  1. Great post Vikram.You have issued a grave problem in Indian context on this blog. The marginalized states lack their voice in mainstream public opinion and domination of hindi speaking belt over delhi makes it more diffcult for them. They fear the extinction of their unique culture limited in the small region either due to the shift of population of majority and imposition of the alien culture. The globalization has widened our reach to different part of India but even today respect and uncerstanding of other state culture is not achieved in India. The loss of diversity is major problem faced by us in the era of homogenization. But Indians can ensure their voice through democracy only. Without it we are no better than Balkans. And we need people like Maniratnam for it in every field of society.

  2. Vikram, interesting post. I have not seen Dil Se but caught the end of it on television some years ago. I think one of the reasons it was not successful was because it was a tragedy. Indian audiences are not comfortable with tragedy.
    It’s true that the marginalised do not engage as vociferously as others but they do engage. For example on a post I wrote on the north east I got a fair amount of response from those staying in the seven states, although ofcourse it was not immediately after I wrote the post, but later, as they arrived from search engines. Also I think there are many specific NE forums which I have stumbled upon and which I have been directed to.

  3. it is so funny to hear the Indian idol people say the winner to be ‘indias choice’ (whose viewership down south is minuscule),or to see news channels both Hindi and English who cover news stories from the north call themselves ‘national’. though its true that we,people south of vindhyas live in a world of our own and look up to Delhi only for central grants and railway budgets we are as much a part of mainstream as any one.they call us ‘regional’ which at times is derogatory .the four southern states have a combined population of nearly 220 million ,and gets news space lesser than bihar or Gujarat.

  4. Very thoughtful post Vikram. This is one of the reasons why I think a certain regionalisation of Indian politics is desirable and a good development and whi I dislike calls or a longing for some sort of singular dominant national party. The plain fact is that we weren’t all that well served in the past by single mega-parties that claimed to represent Indian diversity on paper but rarely did so in practise.

    There is of course always a problem in making the ‘subaltern speak’ a question which has aroused a lot of debate amongst post-colonial scholars – perhaps without too much light. Unfortunately too much of our ‘national imaginary’ is taken up by a very reductionist concept of India and Indians. The specificity of Bollywood plays a role in this; and it is interesting to see attempts to break out of this mode of thinking – like the famous upside-down map that Himal printed of India a few years ago.

  5. @ Yayaver, spot on. We seriously lack respect for various Indian cultures. I have seen Indians who have more respect and knowledge about different European cultures than other Indian ones. I hope this will change as the marginalized of the Hindi belt assert themselves. But attitudes of the elite have to change as well.

    @ Nita, that is true, thing is NE is a complex region in itself. The most restive regions are the triangle of upper Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. The rest of the region is actually relatively peaceful. So you might have had feedback from those places.

    @ Kiran, welcome to the blog. I hate the word regional myself. It was easier for the South to politically empower itself as it had the numbers, access to sea and social movements. It is much harder for the NE and Kashmir because of their small populations and our current federal setup.

    @ Conrad, Bollywood often seems to be one huge homogenizing machine. It has recently embraced western inputs, merged them with a pre-dominantly North Indian culture (both at the expense of other Indic cultural inputs) and now markets itself globally as the face of ‘Indian culture’.

  6. In TN for instance, people speak Tamil predominantly and a lot of them don’t know Hindi or bollywood. But it is a self sufficient regional conglomerate with their own heroes. In AP, people know hindi and are comfortable with the language. But people in both states, in my opinion, are equally comfortable to be a part of the Indian union.

    I think India offers enough opportunities for the marginalized and minority groups. If they want to live peacefully with the majority, they can

    Destination Infinity

  7. Really interesting post. I actually read Professor Kabir’s article and watched “Dil Se” a few years back as part of a course called “Anthropological Perspectives on Ethnicity and Nationalism” at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Our instructor was particularly interested in how film and Bollywood construct the discourse of nationalism. Another film that we watched in this connection was “Amar, Akbar, Anthony” which exemplies the notion of “Hindu Muslim bhai bhai”

    • Thats really interesting. I would really like to know what the instructor and other students in the class thought about the movie and the paper. And how it would relate to elite Pakistani’s own views of marginalized people they are related to, eg. Balochs and people of the Northern Areas.

      • Well, we didn’t really discuss Pakistan directly. Most of our case studies were from the West and India. Another article we read was “Landscape of IdentityL transacting the labels ‘Indian’, ‘Assamese’ and ‘Tai-Ahon” by Y. Saikia (2001).
        Regarding Pakistan we read “Enemies within and Enemies without: the besieged self in Pakistani textbooks” by Rubina Saigol. Saigol’s article did mention how textbooks portrayed Bengalis as the “enemy within” and traitorus. As far as I know, there hasn’t really been much serious academic discussion in Pakistan about 1971 and about the Baloch insurgency, though I think most people would not be amenable to the idea of an independent Balochistan.

      • Oh yeah one more thing. It seems important to mention that the instructor was not Pakistani. Her name is Marta Bolognani and she’s actually Italian. She had done her Masters from a university in England are her research focused on the Pakistani disapora in Bradford.

  8. Kabir read this blog and be enlightened about south asia

    • Thanks, yayaver, I’m actually very familiar with thesouthasianidea and comment there all the time 🙂

  9. Dear Vikram
    It was great to see my paper (written quite a few years ago, actually) being discussed and appreciated on this forum. Thanks for making sure the acknowledgement, and the separation of your prose and my prose, are distinct within your post. As for the response from Kabir, just to say that Marta Bolognani is a very close friend of mine and took one of my MA courses (on representing Kashmir) at the University of Leeds.
    My recent book, Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir (University of Minnesota Press, 2009, and available in India through Permanent Black from July onwards) will be of interest to your readers.
    It’s great to see such thoughtful and non-sectarian discussion in the blogosphere.
    Best wishes

    • Dr. Kabir, welcome and thanks a lot for your comment. It is really nice to hear from the researcher herself. The idea behind this blog is to bring out the research done by academics worldwide on India onto a public forum.

      I would like to congratulate you on your perceptive analysis of Dil Se and look forward to reading your book on Kashmir. Many thanks for your kindness and encouragement.

  10. excellent post Vikram but you always write so well.

    Thanks Tazeen. 🙂

    With reference to sense of alienation experienced by Pakistani from the margins, there is a sense of realisation among the urban elite to the plight of people living in the North Western Border (perhaps because of massive displacement of people in civil war engaged areas) but they are still oblivious – or so it seems – to the alienation that Balochis feel towards the state of Pakistan.

    The Balochis also feel exploited I guess, in the way the tribals of central India do.

  11. I like this post. But I don’t understand why you consider Malayalis ‘previosly marginalised’ groups? Sure, there is no representation of southern states in Bollywood and they would never let someone who doesn’t look like a Northie into their film industry (case in point Preity herself who plays a Mallu, as if there aren’t any talented actresses from Mayalam)but why would that be a standard for anything?

    Welcome rags. Malayalis were definitely not marginalized in the same sense that Kashmiris and North Easterners are. But there is still a strong sense in the North that the ‘mainstream’ Indian is an upper caste Hindu North Indian (even though that group only makes up about 20 % of the population). It is in that sense that South Indians were marginalized.

  12. […] See the rest here: Dil Se and marginal aspirations […]

  13. vikram
    despite dil-se, kerala continues to be marginalised and ignored by the centre.
    kerala has only itself to congratulate coupled with the inner-wish of its industrious people.
    and above all, kerala of today is so stratified because of the far-sightedness of its [earlier] leadership. unfortunately, the successors of the same people are working now to polarise the malayalee!
    i guess everything on earth follows a pattern of ups and downs.

  14. sorry! i guess the word should read as :de-stratified’?

  15. […] lives among them are a testament to Preeti’s distinct approach to her heritage. In the blog An Academic View of India, the editor points out that Preeti’s “Identity as a Malayali (person from Kerala) is […]

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