The themes and character archetypes of Safar are so familiar that it seemed at times to be a dreamlike remix of other films. Out of careworn elements, it fashions a world vividly imagined and underpinned with hope. Should Safar have a thesis, it is that traveling through shame and struggle does not preclude one’s capacity for good, or even the possibility of personal happiness. The fundamental optimism of the story warmed me despite some pain along the way. Safar was directed by Asit Sen and produced by Mushir Alam and Mohammad Riaz for MR Productions.
[Censor voice: “Smoking is very injurious to health.”]
Neela (Sharmila Tagore) is a star medical student, but her brother’s inconsistency in meeting school fees occasionally keeps her from class. Hoping to alleviate this embarrassment without offending her pride, Neela’s mentor Dr. Chandra (Ashok Kumar) arranges a tutoring job for her. Drilling teenaged Montu (Mahesh Kothare) on chemistry and mathematics keeps her in pin money; it also attracts the interest of Montu’s stockbroker brother Shekar (Feroz Khan), notable as the owner of at least four different cars and innumerable matched tie and pocket square sets. Meanwhile, Neela’s former classmate Avinash (Rajesh Khanna) is no longer a student of Dr. Chandra’s, but his patient. As Avinash requires more and more care, he becomes increasingly amalgamated into Neela’s household; her one-time annoyance with him softens into tentative affection. Friends and family soon acknowledge that no one knows Neela’s mind better than Avinash. Therefore, when Shekhar begins to make inquiries regarding Neela, it is to Avinash that everyone directs him. After their interview, Avinash resolves to tell Neela everything: that he knows that he is dying, and that his dying wish is for her to marry somebody else.
Safar is based on Ashutosh Mukherjee’s novel Chalachal, which Sen had previously adapted for the screen—in Bengali and under its original title—in 1956. Nonetheless, the plot reminds me inescapably of Aarti (1962), itself an adaptation of a Hindi stage drama. The relationships are rejiggered and the overall ethos starkly different, but both narratives feature the same basic character types confronting similar ethical and medical quandaries. (The helplessness doctors universally feel when confronted with a cancerous Rajesh Khanna would be explored yet more exhaustively with Anand in 1971!) Without the benefit of knowing the novel, I suspect that certain aspects of Safar got lost in translation from one medium to the next. For example, the first scene in which Avinash appears establishes him as another doctor-in-training, attending one of Dr. Chandra’s lectures, loosely acquainted with Neela as a fellow student–yet he spends the remainder of the film working as a commercial artist. There are no further references to him attending school, or dropping out of school, or having ambitions relative to any career besides the one he (apparently?) already had. Presumably the novel would have explained this development. If some connective tissue was excised from the screenplay here, it was not substituted with anything else, making it seem almost accidental that Avinash is a medical student for precisely one scene.
In most regards, however, this story is the richer for being rooted in the more expansive format of a novel. Rather than being constrained by the narrative’s focus on a single protagonist, the world in which Neela lives feels surprisingly vibrant. Peripheral characters like Montu’s mother, Shankar’s business partner, or Neela’s sister-in-law come across as real people with complex mutual relationships. Each one has only a few lines of dialogue in Safar. I presume these characters were more extensively explored in Mukherjee’s book–or perhaps it was simply the repetitive thought-work of transferring them from novel to film to film again that makes them feel so thoroughly crafted. That degree of immersivity highlights the moments when its characters do act more like agents of plot than living people, but happily, those are few.
The wisest use of these side characters is to contrast Shekhar’s household and the one in which Neela has grown up. Both families are quarrelsome, yet there is something fundamentally intimate in the way Neela, her brother Kalidas (I. S. Johar), and sister-in-law Laxmi (Aruna Irani) interact. The physicality and tone of speech they use somehow compute to warmth, even when they are deliberately harassing one another. As the film progresses, Avinash gets absorbed into this messy equation to such degree that I increasingly lost track of which scenes took place at his house and which at Kalidas’s. Shekhar’s family, though cordial enough, feels barricaded away from one another by comparison. One cannot picture them cooking in other people’s kitchens and napping in other people’s beds in this happy, lazy, messy way. In Montu’s case, this sense of self-remove is sometimes heightened by the tactlessness and viciousness of childhood, provoking Neela’s horror. Her oblique attempts at shaping her student’s behavior along with his academic life further highlight the different ways of being their families have adopted. The first time Shekhar turns up at the house, Kalidas is taken aback by the simple fact of someone bothering to knock.
The character actors deserve particular praise for fleshing out these contrasting social worlds. Aruna Irani as Neela’s sister-in-law and Nadira as Shekhar’s mother both play convincingly against type and, despite the slightness of their roles, emerge as holistic characters. More than anyone else, I was impressed with Mahesh Kothare. Montu is the first link between Neela and Shekhar’s families; their competing influences wear on him most overtly. He is depicted as being in preparatory school, the kind of character that would typically be depicted by an adult actor playing under their own age. It was a surprise to see a teenaged performer in this part, much less one who so confidently matched the (mostly) naturalistic style of the older actors. As a younger child, Kothare portrayed the title roles in Raja Aur Runk (1968); he had grown enough in the years between that film and Safar that I did not recognize him here. The internet informs me that he went on to have a well-regarded adult career in Marathi cinema.
I must leave it to someone who knows from Bengali to explain how closely Safar may hew to Chalachal on a technical level. Being acquainted only with Sen’s Hindi films, I was surprised at how distinctive this movie often looks. Some of the editorial choices are deliberately intrusive–often at points of tension, but not always. For instance, the framing narrative introduces Neela while she is being requested to perform an emergency operation. As she hustles through the hospital, the scene transitions to focus on a set of dazzling lights. They are so bright that the image initially seems abstract. It is as though we the viewers are stuck on our backs awaiting an operation, with nothing to look up at but this brilliant many-bulbed light. I can think of some other Hindi films of this date in which the camera occasionally takes on a human viewpoint, but never of such a minor character as Neela’s unnamed patient. Another odd touch is the inclusion of train noises in some of the emotional scenes, despite no train being visibly in evidence. I understand the symbolic work that this is meant to do; in practice, it mostly made me grateful that I could rely on the subtitles for dialogue! Even if these touches attract the attention without necessarily being dramatically successful, I do appreciate that the filmmakers were attempting to do something different from the norm. Then again, I like how Manoj Kumar movies look, so I probably shouldn’t be trusted.
Conversely, the treatment of the Kalyanji-Anandji songs is both distinctive and effective. The only one I would term conventional is “Jo Tumko Ho Pasand,” picturized on Neela and Shekhar as they take a driving trip. Even this song, although beautiful, is a little odd: Shekhar sings but Neela interjects with spoken questions, using the accent of natural speech rather than accommodating the underlying rhythm of the song. All of the others are presented as being audible within the world of the film, a choice that offers interesting dramatic potential depending on who overhears what. Kalidas writes “Hum The Jinke Sahare” for performance on the local radio station; Avinash sings to amuse himself while he is laid up sick; Neela first hears “Nadiya Chale, Chale Re Dhaara” sung by sailors who are passing near her picnicking spot. This last-named song becomes an important touchpoint. Although the boatmen sing it simply to coordinate their rowing, Neela is attentive to its folkish metaphor of life as a river flowing irresistibly to the sea. (This idea, referenced in the title of the film, is first overtly introduced here.) The melody continues to run through her memory later on. Although the other songs are more emotionally fraught, it is from this one that Neela continually takes advice and courage.