20 years of Dil Chahta Hai: A case for Sameer
How Saif Ali Khan’s funny, easygoing character anchored Farhan Akhtar’s film about three best friends
Has your favourite Dil Chahta Hai character changed over the years? Growing up, I always responded to Sid, the lovelorn painter who’d become a mood. He seemed like the obvious pick opposite the brash, aromantic Akash (though I dug Aamir Khan’s hair). Lately, though, my feelings have changed. Over numerous broken friendships and lost groups, I’ve come to admire the character of Sameer.
As played by Saif Ali Khan, Sameer is the soft centre of Farhan Akhtar’s film. Too many BFF gangs and their Goa plans would fail if not for guys like Sameer. They manage egos, defuse arguments and take up very little space. They’re always available, and thus often invisible. In Dil Chahta Hai’s context, Sameer is not only the most important character but also, I feel, its silent narrator. Let’s explore why.
The film opens with a flash-forward to the present day. Sid (Akshaye Khanna) calls up Sameer from a hospital. Almost immediately, Sameer says he’s coming, adding that Akash is in town and he’ll bring him along. Sameer knows how heavy the feelings hang, but won’t miss a chance to bring the old boys back. The slight pause that Saif takes–right before ringing Akash–neatly underlines this.
The film is full of instances of how dependent Sameer is on his friends. In this early scene, he gets an ultimatum from his girlfriend. “Akash or me,” she asks him to choose. Sameer, of course, blows it, showing up late because he was kicking back with the boys. Time just flew.
It’s dropped in jokingly, but notice how Akash says there are ‘two Sameers’. It’s an accusation most old friends tend to make, after any one of them starts dating. And it makes sense that it comes from Akash, who’s the neediest and won’t accept any other version of Sameer.
The sundown scene at Chapora Fort in Goa is perhaps the most iconic image from Dil Chahta Hai. Yet, it turns dark for a moment when Sid spots a distant, disappearing ship and compares it to their lives. “It’s possible our destinations are different,” he muses glumly. I always find it lovely how Sameer is the first to react, smiling incredulously and walking over to Sid’s side. “We’re friends for life,” he assures him, in a tone that’s more confident than hopeful. Their closeness is a fact to him—like the sea and sky around them.
The film’s funniest moment is when Sameer is honey-trapped in Goa and left moaning in his boxers. It’s so iconic that, in 2017’s Chef, Saif pays a direct tribute by relating the incident to his aide. So steeped is Dil Chahta Hai in our memory that the reference hits at once. Nostalgia is a mirror.
Compare two scenes.
In one, Sid invites Tara (Dimple Kapadia) to his home to see his paintings. “Aaj maine tumhare bare mein kuch jaana hai (today, I learned something about you),” she tells him, rightly sensing that Sid keeps his real self tucked away.
Now skip over to the scene where Sameer, finally on the brink of love, shows his room to Pooja (Sonali Kulkarni). It’s cluttered, unadorned, nondescript. For Pooja, there are no Akash-like inner worlds to discover. All she can really find is a framed selfie of the trio. “Looks like a deep friendship,” she remarks, to which Sameer says, “Either that… or this picture is 3D.”
The scene where Sameer discusses his feelings about Pooja is also notable, for it reveals his exact coordinates in the group. Nobody—not even the kind, sensitive Sid—takes him seriously. “Aaj Pooja…kal koi dooja,” Akash jokes. Sameer’s always been the fool of the group, and now that he’s actually falling in love, it’s too much of a surprise.
Dil Chahta Hai is often regarded as a masterwork of tone. You could be watching something funny and suddenly the mood will flip (the sunset scene, for example). It was certainly stressful in 2001, when I was seven and couldn’t arrange my feelings around Tara’s ruined birthday. I felt like the air was choked out of me, like I was watching some entirely different film. I needed some relief, which, after five difficult minutes, came from Sameer. “We can go anywhere for cake,” he quips, after the boys take her out for dinner.
There’s another example of this. Before leaving for Sydney, Akash apologizes to Sameer for making fun of his affairs. We’re meant to think of Sid, whose feelings for Tara he’d insulted and is possibly feeling guilty about. It’s a small, emotional scene and Farhan doesn’t linger on it. Instead, he has Sameer reveal to Akash that he isn’t the only one playing pranks. Is he lying? You know, just to lighten the mood and see his friend off on a long journey, unburdened by past guilt? Would you?
In a year that saw Aks, Gadar, Indian, Nayak and Asoka, Dil Chahta Hai was miraculously non-violent. There are just two punches in all—thrown more out of necessity than anything sensational. The only time it resembles an action movie is the climax, with Akash against the world. It’s framed like a standoff, and we see Sameer backing him up. He’ll probably get a black eye—as Akash does at the start—but he shows up just the same. That’s Dil Chahta Hai for you: a boy’s film that's nothing like one.