By Kartik Iyer
Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai released in 2001. I was three years old. My family went to watch it. They took me along. Watching the film is one of my earliest memories as a human being. I remember my reaction to the film even today.
Inside the theatre in 2001, I remember being totally confused within the first 10 minutes. I saw three people talking about something. I had no clue they were Akshaye Khanna, Saif Ali Khan, and Aamir Khan. To me, they were just three dudes. But suddenly, I saw a car’s tire braking in front of a house. An old lady opened the door to the house and two dudes, who were just now talking on the phone in separate houses, rushed inside asking about someone. Moments later, they enter a room and I see the familiar face of the bald guy from the hospital. But what was he doing here with a paint brush? What is happening?
To the three-year-old Kartik, the opening of Dil Chahta Hai was absolutely incomprehensible. Years later, meaning only 3-4 years ago when I watched it properly in one go, did I realize that it was a flashback.
The opening shot of the movie is an ambulance rushing on the road. That’s Sid taking Tara to a hospital because she is critically ill. He waits in the waiting room and calls Sameer, who calls Aakash. Then Sameer drives to the hospital. That’s when the aforementioned tire braking shot cuts in. What I did not realize then was that this is possibly Sameer looking back in time. We have cut from the current timeline of Tara dying in the hospital and Sameer driving to her, to another timeline that is occurring entirely inside Saif Ali Khan’s head. So, we have a ‘real’ event occurring while simultaneously there is a ‘memory’ being played out. There is objective reality and there is a subjective reality. Moving on.
The scene inside Sid’s house ends with a sweet slow-motion shot of the three friends jumping on top of each other, after which we cut inside the hospital following Sameer. He meets up with Sid and exchanges pleasantries. Life updates are shared. Then Sid asks about a girl that had a crush on Aakash. He asks. Therefore, when we quickly cut to the shot of the girl inside a disco, we can presume that this is Sameer telling him the name of the girl. But we don’t see Sameer saying anything. We directly move to a space and time where the girl is present, and so are all the guys. We have moved to another timeline. Is this the same timeline as the previous one where Sameer was thinking about the gang having fun in Sid’s apartment? Is it, therefore, the same subjective reality we have entered, the one that exists inside the head of Sameer? His memory?
This is critical to Dil Chahta Hai because when you think of the movie from this perspective, you start to think that the movie is possibly, for the most part, a memory. That begs the question: whose memory?
For the next 90 minutes of the movie, we live in a subjective reality. We are not in the timeframe that was first introduced to us, the one inside the hospital. We are in a different one where the gang has gone to Goa, Sid has met Tara, etc (what is typically the most fun part of the movie). Then Sid slaps Aakash and we have the intermission. We return to the hospital immediately after intermission and Sameer is the one talking. Once again, we can presume he has been talking all this time. He tells Sid what he did after the night Sid slapped Aakash. We cut to that other timeframe. For a very long time after that, we are in Australia; by then my three-year-old brain had possibly given up and fallen asleep.
I remember being awake around the time of the opera where Aakash has a stirring moment. The white people on stage are singing something in a language I can’t understand. And then suddenly, I see weird images that are of a different colour. I refer now to the sequence where Aakash sees Shalini in his mind’s eye, realizing that he loves her.
My question, when I watched the movie recently, was this: by this point in the movie, who the fuck is narrating the story? Just before that opera scene, I was in India following what Sameer and Sid are up to. And then I see this weird fucking series of shots of what Aakash is seeing inside his head. What in the world is going on?
Just to wrap it up, we stay in Australia, and that subjective reality, until nearly the end. We move back to the hospital. Sid asks Sameer a question. And Sameer replies. Once again, we can presume Sid is responding to what Sameer was saying. Then, only for the second time in the movie, we see Aakash in the objective reality, in the ‘real’ timeframe of the movie. He is at his home, he drives, mysteriously sees himself with Sid and Sameer at the entrance of the college in the middle of the day, and then meets up with Sid and Sameer at the hospital. At that point, the alternate, subjective timeline comes to an end. We stick to the one and only timeline after that. And the movie comes to an end.
Did I just now make Dil Chahta Hai seem like an extremely complicated movie? Well, it is!
I will now answer the questions I have asked. Firstly, there are three primary characters and 5-odd secondary characters. Let’s forget the secondary ones. Now the way the movie is set-up, there is a clear indication that nothing you see outside of the hospital for 95% of the movie is happening in real-time, simply because two people cannot be at different places at the same time; duh. So, what is happening? The first time we moved away from the current timeline was when Sameer was reminiscing in his car. Okay. So, the first alternate timeline that was established was of Sameer’s memory. Then we have Sid and Sameer talking about their past. Sid asks Sameer a question and then we move to the disco scene, and the rest of the 90 minutes before intermission. Interestingly, Sid is asking Sameer a question before we jump to that disco. So, did Sameer answer the question? Naturally. Why won’t he? That conversation must have moved on. But we don’t see them talking, do we? So, how can we be sure? We can’t. But we can guess that it did. Because we (and Sid?) got the answer to the question in the form of that disco scene.
Earlier I asked, is this a different timeframe? Or do we instinctively presume that this is once again Sameer sharing his memory? It is the latter. Or else, the movie would not have worked. Because of the question-answer nature of the conversation where it is Sameer who is filling in the details, and the fact that we have already been inside Sameer’s head, we automatically accept this reality as the one inside Sameer’s head. Therefore, based on these observations, the conclusion is that 95% of Dil Chahta Hai is just one dude’s memory. And that dude is Sameer played by Saif Ali Khan. Sameer is the narrator of Dil Chahta Hai.
What makes the movie very confusing is that whatever happens in the second half, especially the whole of Aakash’s arc in Australia and Sid’s arc with Tara, Sameer is not present with them. This happens often in the first half too. Whatever we see and hear is basically Sameer’s memory of the events. Or worse, whatever Sameer was told. For example: Aakash’s stirring moment inside the opera. How the hell did Sameer know? Aakash must’ve told him. So, Sameer is telling Sid what Aakash told him about what he saw in his mind’s eye inside the opera in Australia roughly two years ago. Rashomon my ass!
I state all of this for one simple reason: if 95% of Dil Chahta Hai is Sameer’s memory and its narration to Sid, what are the chances that either Sid or Aakash have a different story to tell? What if the rosy, comforting feeling that you get while watching the movie is because the guy who suffered the least is narrating the story? And if Sameer was not present in large sections of his friends’ lives, how well does he know what happened?
The big, sad truth is that whatever happened in Dil Chahta Hai possibly didn’t happen that way. How different would the story be if Aakash had been the narrator? Or Sid? Where and how would the subjective timeline begin?
Suppose the opening ambulance and call scene remains the same. The way it is, after the call we jump to Sameer and see his memory play out on screen. Suppose we stayed with Aakash and saw his memory play out. Would the following scene, therefore jump into the subjective reality, be Aakash getting slapped by Sid? Suppose we stay with Sid after the call. What will he think about? What will we see? Dil Chahta Hai will not be the same without Sameer. Take him out of the equation and the whole movie will flip on its head.
What is very peculiar to me is that I did not think of any of this before. I have been watching Dil Chahta Hai for 22 years now. I have grown up with it. I have dreamt and aspired for a life and friends like Sid, Sameer and Aakash. But never once did I think that the movie is possibly a sham, a fraud since it’s basically one guy’s memory. Think Memento.
Now that I think of it, did Dil Chahta Hai invent a new form of youth aspiration? One that is unquestionably cool, without the boring parts. The last shot of the movie has the three friends and their partners having a drink and some food around the table. Today, all of us live that life. Or was Dil Chahta Hai simply lucky in tapping into what was happening at a mass level, and a personal level with Farhan Akhtar? Perhaps both. For a movie to become that iconic, I guess you need some luck on your side.
Is the romanticism associated with the movie threatened by this? I don’t know. But it sure as hell makes me think. It brings to mind that famous Don Draper dialogue from Mad Men: “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent”.