Director: Asit Sen
Dialogue: Inder Raj Anand
Release: 1 October 1970
Director Asit Sen remade his Bengali film Chalachal (1956) in Hindi as Safar (1970). It won him his first Filmfare Award for Best Director.
Safar is a story of a woman, loved intensely by two men. One she loves. The other she marries. One she loses to sickness. The other to suicide. A surgeon by profession, she moves beyond her heartbreak to heal others. In that she hopes to deal with her lingering grief and the burden of unforgiving memories.
Safar stands distinct from more reasons than one. It was released in 1970, when Rajesh Khanna’s stardom was gathering unprecedented momentum. Yet, it remains his most non-stylised performance minus the hijinks and quirks (the head tilt and the crinkling of his eyes) he came to be known for.
It remains one of Feroz Khan’s most memorable act. Debonair and jaunty, he slips into the skin of the rich profligate with élan.
Sharmila Tagore, known for her glamorous swag, shed it all to acquire the air of a conflicted woman.
The narrative, shorn of melodrama, was embellished by its melancholic soundtrack. We revisit the tragic tale through its characters…
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AVINASH (RAJESH KHANNA)
Avinash (Rajesh) is Neela’s (Sharmila Tagore) classmate in college. He’s caught sketching an image of Neela by instructor Dr. Chandra (Ashok Kumar). Avinash invites an offended Neela to his home to unveil the truth.
There he shows Neela several paintings of a woman – a spitting image of herself – made over time. “Dekha nahin, magar barson se jaanta hoon!” he says giving a mystical twist to his fascination for the face – hinting at a spill over of a previous lifetime.
When Avinash falls sick, Neela nurses him back to health unaware of his grave ailment. Jeevan se bhari teri aankhen is about the desire she’s stirred in him to embrace life with all its enchantments.
Avinash and Neela draw closer but their emotions remain unsaid and undefined. The only suggestion of rousing passion being the moment when Neela rips his already torn shirt in jest.
Soon, Avinash becomes aware he’s suffering from blood cancer. When he asks Dr Chandra (Ashok Kumar) about his mortality, the doctor places an hourglass on the table. The rapidly falling sand grains suggest the impending doom.
Zindagi ka safar, written by Indeevar and sung soulfully by Kishore Kumar, is a comment on life's arbitrary course.
A defeated Avinash urges Neela to marry the blessed-with-wealth-and-health Shekhar Kapoor (Feroz Khan). Neela is appalled at the suggestion but finally gives in to a dying man’s wish. Avinash doesn’t attend her wedding and spends the night in solitude, an early morning train tearing ending the stillness.
Later, on sensing that he’s the bone of contention between newlyweds Shekhar and Neela, he quietly disappears only to appear in his final hours. He dies unattended and without a farewell.
Avinash’s character has elements of both bravado and brooding. He tries to sound exuberant yet can’t camouflage his excruciating situation. “Main marne se pehle marna nahin chahta,” he says refusing to get hospitalised. Averse to self-pity, he vows to prove that like life, death is also a joke – a latifa!
He likens himself to his ruling planet Mangal (Mars), which is self-luminescent and doesn’t borrow light - either from the sun or moon. “Bujh jaata hai magar raakh nahin chodhta,” he too avows not to leave behind any residue of regret.
NEELA (SHARMILA TAGORE)
The story unfolds in flashback via Dr Neela, her grey strands reflecting the seasons she’s survived…
Neela is a brilliant medical student. She bonds with classmate Avinash, who’s artistically inclined as well. Given her caring nature, she nurses an ailing and lonesome Avinash back to health, giving his heart and home a makeover. Avinash draws towards her but his terminal disease leaves him with no option.
Instead, Avinash urges her to marry the besotted Shekhar. An emotionally pressured Neela, gives in to his pleading. “Main jiske liye mar sakti hoon, woh mujhe jeene ke liye keh raha hai,” she cries. The song Hum the jinke sahare captures her devastation at the rude turn of life.
Sadly, her marriage is fraught with misgivings as Shekhar resents her care and concern for Avinash. Drowned in debts and overwhelmed by jealousy, he consumes poison albeit at the hands of Neela – something he orchestrates in a macabre twist.
Neela, eventually absolved of the charges of murder, loses Avinash too. If Shekhar brings her defamation, Avinash desolation. Sorrowful yet stoic, she plunges herself into her profession, which earns her both respect and respite - even if temporary.
Though the film has two heroes, Neela is the pivot. Dressed in modest sarees, understated hairdo and minimalist in expressions, Sharmila’s Neela is a woman, who gives her all, yet remains empty-handed.
SHEKHAR KAPOOR (FEROZ KHAN)
This is one of Feroz Khan’s most remembered avatars. Pulsating sex-appeal teamed with flamboyance; well-fitted suits with bright jackets… the killer instinct was palpable.
Shekhar Kapoor has a streak of excess. Edgy and emotional, he can’t reign in his feelings for Neela, his brother Montu’s (Mahesh Kothare) teacher. To digress a bit, everyt time Feroz’s character meets Sharmila’s an instrumental music plays in the background. Kalyanji-Anandji later turned it into the song Kya dekhte ho for Qurbani.
After an impetuous marriage, Shekhar whisks her Neela for an idyllic honeymoon. The song, Jo tumko ho pasand, filmed against the daunting ghats, as also the dash with which he carries his new bride in his arms, kicking open the door of their cottage… was passion undeterred.
Back home, the euphoria is busted by the paranoia (partly justified) that overtakes Shekhar – about Neela spending time with Avinash at his house, her keenness to look after his needs, her familiarity around the space… “Suyee jab record par atak jaati hai, sangeet nahi shor nikalta hai!” she once chides her stalking and sulking husband (though one wonders why she doesn’t inform Shekhar about Avinash’s fatal illness).
All this is compounded by Shekhar’s spiralling stocks – also a result of his nonchalance. Unable to harness his mind, powerless to tame his heart… he commits suicide by consuming poison, getting a gullible Neela to pour it for him.
Feroz Khan won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for this performance.
A fourth character in the film is the boatman’s dirge – Tujhko chalna hoga! As a metaphor of movement and moving on, it reminds that time and tide waits for no man, no memory.
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