Chapter 1: Introduction:
20 Years of Dil Chahta Hai
“Dil chahta hai, kabhi na beete chamkeele din.”
I clearly remember the first time when I heard about Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai was in the year 2000 during an episode of the popular quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati, hosted by Amitabh Bachchan. It was a Diwali special episode, and Aamir Khan was invited to be a part of it. Aamir had a unique look that included a goatee which prompted Mr. Bachchan to ask him a question about it. Aamir said that his look was for the character of a film that he was doing with Farhan Akhtar. About a year later, the film was released on 10th August 2001 as Dil Chahta Hai. I was in Class 9th at that time and used to watch movies mainly at home. Only once in a while did I go to the theater to watch a movie. It was those days where the neighborhood cable TV guy used to show movies. Somehow, I never got to watch the film when it was released. Even the cable TV guy did not telecast it. It was only a year later that I got a chance to see the film. I recall that the movie premiered on the channel Star Plus sometime during the summer of 2002, and it was then that I finally watched it. I still have not forgotten that day. I might not fully understand the nuance in films, but I fell completely in love with the movie even then. I had never seen a film like Dil Chahta Hai before, a film that I could call my special one.
In a fabulous interview with Madhavi Menon, Farhan Akhtar explained the meaning of the film’s title. It is usually translated as The Heart Desires in English, which he found pretty different from what he had initially meant. He says the real translation of Dil Chahta Hai is Because I Feel Like. He adds, “Anything that happens in the movie is because the person feels like it, so that was a literal translation. They made it ‘The Heart Desires’, which is quite troublesome. In Hindi, yes, the literal translation would be ‘The Heart Desires.’ But when you use it in everyday language, you don’t use it like that. You won’t say, kyunki main chahta hoon ki main. You’ll say dil chahta hai—Because I feel like it. ‘It’ can’t be defined.”
Dil Chahta Hai is the story of three urbane friends living in Bombay—Akash Malhotra, Sameer Mulchandani, and Siddharth Sinha—each having different views on love and relationships. They became friends in college and have just graduated. Akash is looking after his father’s export business. Sameer is managing his father’s computer business. Siddharth, also known as Sid, is a painter by profession. All three of them are the only child of their parents. Their friendship is tested when Sid falls in love with Tara, who is relatively older than him in age. Akash thinks Sid is only interested in a fling with Tara, which leads to their fallout. It is only when Akash himself falls in love with Shalini that he truly understands the meaning of love.
Farhan had initially written the movie with the hope of casting Akshaye Khanna as Akash, Hrithik Roshan as Siddharth, and Saif Ali Khan as Sameer. However, Hrithik turned down the role. Farhan asked Abhishek Bachchan to do it, but he also refused. He then approached Aamir Khan, who agreed but insisted on playing Akash. Farhan then requested Akshaye to swap his role with Aamir. Akshaye consented and played Siddharth. Saif, after some convincing, did the part that was originally written for him. Farhan had first met Preity Zinta when she came to Mumbai for the screen test of Kundan Shah’s Kya Kehna (2000). He had promised to cast her whenever he made a film and thus offered her the role of Shalini. Dimple Kapadia enacted the part of Tara. The role of Sameer’s love interest Pooja was initially offered to Hrishita Bhatt and Isha Koppikar, but they opted out. Sonali Kulkarni eventually played the part of Pooja. In an interview with The Times of India, she revealed that her casting in the film was due to an accident. Somebody was carrying her photographs, and they fell in front of Zoya Akhtar, the casting director, who happened to see them and called her for the role. This is reminiscent of the scene in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) when Sona Mishra (Konkona Sensharma) gives the photographs of Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar) to a producer, and he goes on to land the lead role on a big film.
The strength of Dil Chahta Hai is its writing. Farhan spent fifteen months writing the film and completed its shoot in just 108 days. He had started his career in the advertising world, where he worked with writer and filmmaker Adi Pocha for a few years, and it was he who put the concept of writing in his head. Farhan used to write ad films and scripts for television shows that helped him grow as a writer. From there, he got the inspiration to write a story of his own with the initial idea given by his friend Kassim Jagmagia. While he was writing it, he realized that he should turn his story into a film. He also felt that he could not give it to anyone else to direct it as no one will understand the characters the way he does. Direction happened to him because of his selfish need not to give away his script.
Farhan has said that the story of Dil Chahta Hai was adapted from the different experiences of his life. His friend from childhood narrated a story outline to him, which became the track of Akash. Farhan used to maintain a diary about his frequent trips to Goa. He also had a memorable trip to New York in 1996, where he partied at the city’s coolest bars. He wanted to capture these experiences in a film. Thus, there is Goa in Dil Chahta Hai. The film was also supposed to show New York; however, it would have been winter at the time of the shooting. Therefore, he chose to film it in Australia. Combining all these personal experiences, Farhan wrote a story about three friends and the evolution of their friendship when they fall in love. In another interview with Rediff, he said, “I always wondered what happens to the best friends of the hero after reel number three. Where do they go? When he needs them the most, they are never there. And so at some time, the weight of the story shifted from Aamir’s love story with Preity to becoming a story about the friendships and how individual love stories affect the friendships.”
In essence, the story of Dil Chahta Hai has been done before, but the way it has been presented with an urban flair was nothing short of a revolution. Farhan’s favorite film while he was growing up was Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981). His mother said that every morning before going to school, he would watch the film. He would finish it after returning from school. In a chat with Farah Khan, he jokingly remarked that he wanted to bring his own kranti—revolution to the kind of films that were being made at that time. He wanted to make a film where people behaved like us, they dressed like us, and they talked like us. Farhan wrote the dialogue of Dil Chahta Hai himself for the same reason instead of commissioning it or asking his famous father Javed Akhtar to write it. “I didn’t want any of the characters to speak a language I was not familiar with. So I wrote in the Hindi I know, which has a lot of English in it,” he said. It is true as the film’s writing comes across as natural as speaking to friends. Farhan used to host a chat show called Oye! It’s Friday on NDTV Imagine in the late 2000s, where he interviewed a new celebrity every week. He used to crack jokes in a deadpan humorous way. It was visible clearly to me that the characters in Dil Chahta Hai got their wit from Farhan. For instance, remember the dialogue, “Kitni ajeeb baat hai, ke ham teenon hi Sydney jaa rahe hain – tum, main aur yeh flight.” This has a clear Farhan style.
The poster cover of the film also eloquently summarizes the theme of the film. It says, “Dil Chahta Hai is about individuality. It is about accepting change. About opening your eyes to a world in which six billion people co-exist and understanding that not all can think the same. Somebody once said, ‘No two people are alike.’ He or she couldn’t have been more accurate.” Akash does not believe in love. He is a non-believer, and his relationships do not last more than two weeks. Sameer is on the other end of the spectrum. He is a believer and falls in love with every girl he meets. The blurb on the poster reads, “He wants to be in love, and he loves being in love.” Sid is the most mature and understanding of the three. He knows the true meaning of the world. The blurb about him says, “He feels his every day, every hour, every minute. For his best friends, his acquaintances, for the stray dog living outside his gate, for the tree that’s just been planted next door. He has, in a manner of speaking, reached modern-day enlightenment.” Maybe, it is why he is shown on the poster while with his eyes closed, in a state of trance. Like his namesake, Gautam Siddharth, who attained alignment to become a Buddha, Sid has attained his enlightenment and knows the real meaning of the world.
Dil Chahta Hai opens with an ambulance being driven to the hospital. We then see Sid talking to a doctor about an unknown patient suffering from a severe case of liver cirrhosis. He then calls his friend Sameer, who informs him that their other friend Akash is also back in Mumbai. There is palpable tension between the friends as Akash refuses to come to meet Sid. The film contrasts this by using a jump cut to the earlier time Akash and Sameer ran to Sid’s place even in the middle of the night. Sid had finished a painting, and he wanted his friends to see it. They had started playing with the watercolors, giving us a view of the vivid colors and the hues that make the rainbow of their friendship. The film then comes back to the present only for a few moments before it finally goes into flashback mode. We learn more about the three of them—their lives, their friendship, and their conflicts. By the end of the film, the tension between them is resolved through apology and forgiveness. They truly come of age and become even better friends.
Dil Chahta Hai received great critical acclaim. It won the national film award for the best film in Hindi. However, it achieved moderate success at the box office. It lost money in most of the territories barring a few. One of the primary reasons cited was that not many people outside the cities could relate to it. While its financial performance was ‘above average’ in the cinematic parlance, its cultural impact was huge, which gradually became apparent after its release. In 1997, India’s first multiplex theater opened in Delhi at PVR Saket. However, it was only after Dil Chahta Hai that the multiplex era films truly got the push. Goa became the poster child of road trips among friends. The images from the title song of Dil Chahta Hai, such as playing with the shadows, riding Harley Davidson bikes, and doing the fish prank, are still seen on the walls on Facebook. A trip to Goa is considered incomplete without a photograph at the Chapora Fort which came to be known as the Dil Chahta Hai Fort. The former chairman of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) Ralph de Souza said at a conference that the promotion of Goa with Dil Chahta Hai helped the tourism in the state immensely, especially, at that time when it was undergoing a lean phase following the terror attacks in the US. They invested Rs. 3 crores in a promotional campaign during the first release of the film on television. The campaign was a big hit, and they earned nearly Rs. 30 crores in profit.
The film also has had its share of criticism. Some of it is related to the film being too occupied with the problems of rich people. And the rest is about its overly melodramatic ending. For me, these were not significant issues. However, I wished the film had given a better end to Sid. That was the one thing I felt could have been done differently. Six months after Tara’s death, he meets a mysterious girl in Goa. I liked that he was trying to move on after his grief, but I hoped it was more fleshed out. Besides that, the film is perfect for me. The performances of all the actors are great. There is not any false note in any of them. Even the small roles are played wonderfully. Suhasini Mulay is memorable as Sid’s mother.
Dil Chahta Hai is about relationships that have a name. Like friendship. Like love. Like marriage. The people in the film have diverse views on these subjects. There are no villains in the film. The conflict arises because of their differing viewpoints. There is Akash, who does not believe in love, but later falls in love with Shalini. There is Sameer, who falls in love with every girl he meets. Sameer balks at the thought of arranged marriage when his parents set up a meeting with Pooja, but later, he kind of relents after he likes her. Dil Chahta Hai is also about relationships with no name that cannot be siloed into categories easily. There is Deepa, madly in one-sided love with Akash, and does not care if the entire world calls her crazy. There is Sid who falls in love with Tara, an older woman—something the society and his friends frowned upon. In the final minutes of her life, Tara acknowledges their unnamed relationship. Sometimes, it is only better that some things are not spelled out, and they remain special precisely because they do not need to be spelled out.
Over the years, I have watched this movie again, and again, and again, and I still cannot get over it. It isn’t easy to articulate what about this movie makes it endearing and personal, yet, I have written the most about this film and now writing this book. Meryl Streep has said, “I have a theory that movies operate on the level of dreams, where you dream yourself.” Good movies forge a connection and have a relatability factor that helps us see ourselves in them. Dil Chahta Hai is one of the few films where I saw parts of my life in it. I saw a little bit of myself in Deepa, Sid, Sameer, Shalini, Akash, and Subodh. I did not have many friends growing up. I wished I had friends like these people in my life. It was also an aspirational film where I hoped that I could lead a life like these people. I read a hypothesis by a scientist that said that the optimal age of movie appreciation for a person is when they are between thirteen to fifteen years. Before this age bracket, one is too young to understand the emotions in the film, while after this, one starts to look for logical inconsistencies in films veering towards the side of mockery. I was fifteen years old when I saw Dil Chahta Hai, and, perhaps, that is why this film has left an indelible impression on me. It is not that one cannot appreciate any other movie, but it is just that films such as this remain etched in our hearts forever. Decades after years of its release, the heart still wants it. Dil Chahta Hai.