The set-up: Promising medical student Neela (Sharmila Tagore) meets struggling artist Avinash (Rajesh Khanna). The two quickly develop an intimate friendship. But when Avinash's strange health symptoms prove to be terminal, he begs her to marry the elder brother of the boy she's tutoring, Shekhar (Feroz Khan) who has expressed interest. Neela agrees. It turns out to be a good decision at first--as the two share some explosive chemistry, and Shekhar seems to want her to pursue all her long-held goals. But since they don't share the special communication Neela has with Avinash ... their secrets and insecurities spell trouble ahead.
Despite some good performances and unusual themes, Safar is not an easy film to watch. It suffers from overly methodical pacing--there are fewer dramatic high notes than you would hope for in a plot including a love triangle, cancer, proxy proposals, a woman working her way through cardiology school, and an increasingly jealous husband. It tackles big topics, and makes big claims, and then misses by a mile. [The dialogue is credited to the same writer who did C.I.D., Aag, and Mard ... so it's easy to see how the verbal hits and misses would both be spectacular.] While not parallel cinema by anyone's definition, there's a devotion to realistic progression of events and conversations, and a dedication to letting events follow from each character's driving motivations.
Many moments that aren't especially well-crafted strike home JUST because they diverge a bit from formula. In tone, it reminds me the most of Dastak, released in the same year. Safar's clearly aiming at more of a commercial crowd (like I said, the plot elements advertise melodrama), has a budget for locations and side plots ... but still, its middle class sensibility and unique blend of traditional and modern ideals edge it nearer art house tearjerker than popcorn matinee. Looking at some of the earlier works by the director, such as Anokhi Raat (1968), the description of which screams experimental to me, it's easier for me to guess at what Safar is trying to accomplish: something thoughtful with enough tears and remonstrations to keep you in your seat.
In terms of regional film-making grammar, I think Sen ended up making a Bengali film about a problematic marriage in Hindi. To back that up? First, there's the lack of choreographed songs. Most are in bedrooms and hallways--claustrophobic Bengali specialties. The rest are in mountain or river locations, accompanied by sedate activities. Then I'd say that the use of topical, metaphorical conversations to further the character's misunderstandings and their perception of deeply ingrained differences is a standard feature of 1960s Bengali cinema. As is the use of nuanced economic pressures at crucial points to undermine a character's mental or relational stability. In classic Hindi films, it is *often* enough that a person is (A) motivated by jealousy and (B) does something stupid. In '60s Bengali films, environmental stressors tend to be used with political pressures and family pressures to erode someone's judgment and push them over the edge. I think you could make Safar in Bengali with Uttam and Suchitra c. 1970 (think their Nabarag) and it wouldn't lose much of its essence as a story. It might even be improved by a shorter runtime. Regional trends aside, a film anchored upon conversation is hard to sustain across 2/12 hrs.
Possibly related: people talk a lot in a film ostensibly about bad communication. Accidental irony? Or clever juxtaposition?
This is a good performance from Sharmila. She's best, I think, in the more sensible (rather than moralizing) dialogues, in scenes with her teenage science student, and in her character's believable switch from sexy intellectual (with Feroz) to unguarded schoolgirl (with Rajesh) ... changes that fit these chemistry and emotion driven relationships (respectively).
Feroz as Shekhar, the high-flying
businessman and (eventually) suspicious husband, is perhaps the post powerful role in this story. Yes, I did just write that, I guess. I do love Rajesh's sensitive and tortured Avinash--but frankly, such a human, mesmerizing performance from Feroz was unexpected (given other things I've seen). Cool factor sure. Bluster and heroics I've watched. His angst I've appreciated. But for once, something self-contained and purposeful, without being overdone. In fact, I swear you can see him exerting directorial influence over his own scenes, as they tend to use blocking, physicality, and zooms to achieve an edgier effect than the rest of the film. Might have been a nightmare for Mr. Sen, but I find it compelling, so, whatever.
Still, all the actors get time on screen that is unusually naturalistic ... a chance for them to shoot from the hip. Feroz almost literally ... as he gets a Western inspired showdown scene with some creditors and guitar strumming accompaniment. It was also fascinating to see the proto-Rajesh and Feroz egos collide ... you completely believe that these two men would be of comparable interest to the same powerful woman. One is energetic and impulsive, the other weak and over-analytical. One offers excitement and romance, the other idealism and bosom friendship.
People have been telling me to see this film forever. One look at the plot summary and you'll know why I balked. "Unfair" is right. BUT, y'all were also right that this is prime material for Rajesh appreciators. He's still so new here that one is tempted to throw out a lot of cheesy descriptors like "fresh faced" and "earnest" and "bright." But when you compare this with the hardened Rajesh characters in The Train (1970) or Ittefaq (1969), his diverse talents at this stage belie those adjectives. His role in Safar--Avinash, the young artist with cancer--is filmi-gold . . . and thus effing tempting to phone in. But he didn't. All you really have to do is look at that spot in the upper right corner of the frame and spout wisdom, and you have *cough* every non-alcoholic filmi invalid ever and maybe a hit. And also something laughable to present-day eyes. Mostly, this is not laughable stuff. Even though Avinash is an uncompromising white hat, he's not without darkness or struggle. Because he's terrified of his impending death, his scenes of existential reflection scrape away his veneer of perfection. He hasn't really lived yet, so when he sings zindagi ka safar, hai yeh kaisa safar? koi samjha nahi, koi jaana nahi [loosely: life's a journey, for what purpose is this journey? no one understands it, no one really knows it], you feel betrayed, too. And when he begs the girl he loves to marry someone else, it's not forced goodness. It's a desperate, panicky kind of logic--a bid for one person's happiness instead of two people's sorrow.
Unlike other musings along a similar topic (*ahem* Kal Ho Na Ho), the bride isn't given away. She's mostly in control. I don't think she would have married just anyone--she had already established a compelling rapport with Shekhar. In nearly every scene, she furthers her own will and opinion (usually in opposition to others). In the ongoing conversations about "trust" and "understanding" she always comes back to the fact that she trusts herself: her own perceptions. She's even supported in this by her VERY egalitarian family--who say she is "her own guardian" in major life decisions. [Likewise, Avinash isn't the self-sacrificial "ex" immediately ... he has to work through some occasionally hilarious reactions to his rival. And in a serious moment later, when he realizes Shekhar is being a tool (lez be honest), he doesn't instantly let him off the hook.]
It's not that Safar's ending is "unfair" in a traditionally sexist way, but rather, it's fatalistic where it could have been progressive. Instead of a strong woman who works through issues along "the journey of life," this is a strong woman hounded by other people's issues--problems she is expected to fix. Like in Amar Prem, Asit Sen doesn't really blame Sharmila's character for all the things that happen to her. If anything, she is deified in her chosen profession and in her good intentions. But of course, as in Amar Prem and Ray's Devi, the price for deity is more than any woman should have to pay.