Amar is a radio presenter, visiting some of India's most remote provinces on the occasion of 50 years of India's independence to interview the people there about what independence has meant for them. At a remote train station he encounters Manisha Koirala and falls in love at first sight. When he crosses paths with her again he decides it is fate, and resolves to pursue her until she is his.
Shah Rukh Khan plays Amar with the utter conviction that he is the lead in a romance movie. It doesn't occur to him for even a moment that she might have her own story, let alone that he might not be the main character in it... until he actually is, and it's far too late to turn around.
Mani Ratnam lets us believe it too, until just before the intermission when he finally reveals what his film is really about. He dares to ask whether India's independence reaches all its lands and whether that hard won freedom is equitably distributed amongst the population. Unsurprisingly, it isn't.
Manisha Koirala is absolutely incredible as the symbol of India's inequality, whose unwilling casting in Amar's personal love story conflicts with her prior commitments, and for whom his guileless optimism is completely alien in a life defined by trauma. Although his attentions are initially unwelcome (and would definitely get him cancelled these days) the picture of a completely different life to the one she has always assumed would be her lot can't help but make her think.
Shah Rukh Khan is also rather fantastic, playing the charming goofball he starts the film as to perfection, as you'd expect, but also delivering the dramatic performance required later on when Amar's eyes have been opened to what's going on around him.
Preity Zinta's Preeti kind of gets a rough deal, dropped into the story half way through, but she plays her debut role with such charm and beauty that you know she's going to have plenty more opportunities to fare better.
Santosh Sivan's cinematography is fabulous (always), and especially captures the beauty and dignity of the mountain provinces with some stunning images, which are a fine match for A.R. Rahman's incredible soundtrack. I am not exaggerating when I say it is my all-time favourite movie soundtrack, and by far the one I have listened to the most (it's a shame the album only includes the songs, as the score is equally great)
Mani Ratnam is definitely one of India's most interesting directors, combining technical proficiency and commercial sensibilities with a strong political awareness and a willingness to challenge the prevailing narratives India tells itself about itself (a welcome tonic to the toxic nationalism of some other directors). I'm not sure whether this or A Peck On The Cheek is my favourite film of his - but the soundtrack probably gives DIL SE the edge.