115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Feeling Itself: Terror(ism) and Trauma in Mani Ratnam's Dil Se

Christine Weidner, University of California, Santa Barbara

     Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film Dil Se, appears to most critics as a “picture perfect ode to love.” Yet the film reveals more than the vicissitudes of desire once the role of the female protagonist’s childhood trauma, the force driving her to complete her mission as a suicide bomber, moves from the footnotes of such critical analyses to the forefront. This paper explores the relationship of personal and political histories as staged in the film’s exploration of terror, trauma and the role of dismembering in remembering.



     While commercial success initially eluded Mani Ratnam’s 1998 film Dil Se, critics were quick to embrace the “picture perfect ode to love” commending the “entire feel of the film [as] appropriately poetic, with a few romantic exchanges standing out quite memorably” (Deosthalee). In the ensuing years scholars, too, gravitated towards the film’s romantic valences and lush imagery for their critical analysis. Such responses, while compelling, limit themselves to a single viewing register in which the film’s romance serves a single purpose: dramatizing the impossible desire between Amar, a radio reporter from India’s heartland, and Moina, a woman from a peripheral state. These accounts privilege Amar’s status as the main romantic protagonist and relegate Moina’s role as a terrorist suicide bomber seeking to disturb India’s Independence Day celebrations to an aside. They factor Moina’s trauma, her childhood rape by Indian soldiers, and her terrorist mission as a mere footnote, a functional plot device interchangeable with any other obstacle that would prevent her from living freely with the male protagonist. This sweeping critical inability to spot the vital role of trauma and terrorism in structuring the film gestures to the way in which trauma, as unintegrated experience, cannot represent itself to us in any easily digestible totality. Dil Se parses the obsessive entanglement between two lovers occupying opposite positions in the eyes of law and society as a way of encountering the fraught relationship of trauma and terrorism. The film seeks to understand how both trauma and terrorism can serve as acts attempting to reconstitute certain forms of meaning and registers of recognizing. Distinctions between the intersubjective and intrapsychic become purposefully blurred and nearly impossible to disentangle in any neat fashion. Intense intimacies illuminate fraught extimacies as charged bodies communicate unconscious psychic vicissitudes. Moina’s suicide mission acts as a politically-charged assertion of her own subjectivity and identity as a person whose trauma is denied recognition by the State. Exploding her own body operates as a political assertion of her own subject-hood that demands recognition previously denied to the individual and collective nature of her trauma. Moina forefronts the way in which the potential dismembering of a body serves as an act of remembering and recognition through destruction. Dil Se reminds us that even though the etymology of the word “remember” does not directly implicate the feeling of bodily experience, the act of remembering is a felt, bodily experience. It calls and returns that which is outside or distant, back to the mind and the body. The film interrogates the relationship of dismembering and remembering, those acts that call and return that which is outside or distance back to the mind and the body in the culminating act of terror.