Asit Sen's 1970 hit Safar is a story of ordinary people grappling with staggering challenges and compromises. But in this refreshingly non-melodramatic fare, a murmur of protest, an escaped sob and a half-concealed smirk are the only emotional luxuries its characters afford themselves in the inexplicable journey of life, the eponymous safar of the title.
A famous song from this film emphasises the primordial requirement for coping instead of moping: Nadiya chale chale re dhara, chanda chale chale re taara, tujhko chalna hoga (The river flows on, as does the tide; the moon goes on, as do the stars; you too will have to move on).
Caught in the eddying whirlpool of emotions are Safar's protagonists Neela (Sharmila Tagore) and Avinash (Rajesh Khanna).
Safar is narrated as a long flashback from a greying Neela's point of view. Neela is a budding doctor who lives with her cynical writer-brother Kalidas (I S Johar at his deadpan best) and his wife (Aruna Irani). Avinash, their bachelor neighbour and friend, is a painter by profession and poet by aptitude. But behind his life-affirming smile lurks death. He suffers from cancer.
Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore, Feroz Khan
Neela and Avinash's touching match of compassion and artistic vivacity finds expression in the beautifully penned Indivar number, Jeevan se bhari teri aankhen, majboor kare jeene ke liye (Your eyes, so full of life, compel me to continue living).
But unlike Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand (which also saw Khanna play a cancer patient who spreads bonhomie wherever he goes), Asit Sen's Avinash seems more real. He experiences pendulum-like swings from fierce optimism to brooding pessimism as he sings, 'Phool aise bhi hai jo khile hi nahee, jinko khilne ke pehle hi khiza kha gayee (There are flowers that never bloom, autumn sets in even before they can blossom).'
There is one unforgettable scene in Safar where you realise the import of the visual vis-à-vis the spoken word in cinema. When Avinash asks his doctor Chandra (Ashok Kumar) if he will live long, Chandra places an hourglass on the table. Avinash stares at the rapidly falling grains of sand; he doesn't need an answer.
Neela, too, is fighting to survive -- economically. She teaches Montu (Mahesh Kothari), the younger brother of a stockbroker Shekhar (Feroz Khan). But when she reprimands Montu for reading pornography during her tuition, she incurs the wrath of Montu's aristocratic mother (Nadira) and is sacked. A contrite Shekhar brings her back, this time as mistress of the manor. Neela had been reluctant to marry him, but Avinash compels her to think logically. Though Neela had been content savouring every moment spent with Avinash, hoping he would miraculously survive, she finally relents.
Scant hours after the nuptial night and a honeymoon vow about 'Jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat karenge (I will only say what pleases you)' -- picturised imaginatively on the ghats of Mahableshwar with the sound of a car's honk serving as musical accompaniment to Mukesh's masculine voice -- the husband changes his tune. He resents Neela's visits to Avinash. He sees a hidden agenda in simple gestures like Neela rearranging Avinash's bedsheets.
The drama now revolves around the question: which of these two men -- one eaten up with jealousy, the other by cancer and misplaced sympathy -- will win the right to ruin Neela's life even more?
The film affords a fascinating study of the link between worldly success and male self-worth in the sequences where Shekhar, after losing heavily in the share market, distracts himself by obsessing over the possibility of Neela's infidelity. His desire to divert his attention so that he can feel less uncomfortable in his own skin is a sad but telling comment on human nature. Shekhar ultimately commits suicide by getting an unsuspecting Neela to give him a drink laced with poison.
The film folds up when the court acquits Neela of Shekhar's murder after his mother testifies in her favour. The mother's motivation for clearing Neela remains shrouded in ambiguity. Portions of the film are perhaps a bit too opaque for its own good.
Thereafter, Safar limps unnecessarily to show a dying Avinash unattended by Neela who is busy with an emergency. Montu's screaming declaration to Neela that she was responsible for Avinash's death, and her subsequent reaction that he shouldn't address her as sister-in-law any more, leave one a trifle baffled. The only conclusion one can hesitatingly draw is that Neela has decided to be unencumbered by emotional attachments so that she can unreservedly serve mankind.
Rajesh Khanna beautifully conveys his character's desperation and his conviction that surviving by a slender thread is not really living.
Jeevan se bhari teri
Zindagi ka safar
Hum the jinke sahare
Jo tumko ho pasand
Nadiya chale chale re
Sharmila Tagore is a study in stoicism. She is largely effective, but does blow up a couple of crucial scenes due to her preoccupation with mascara and mannerisms.
It is Feroz Khan, in an author-backed role, who singes you with his simmering jealousy. The potassium cyanide he consumes to kill himself seemed like the external manifestation of the suspicion he is consumed by.
If only the motivations for Sharmila's character weren't so often left to the viewers' interpretation, Safar would have featured higher on the list of all-time classics. Instead, it emerges as a collection of impressive segments.
Sharmila Tagore (remarking on Feroz Khan's unremitting jealousy): Suyee jab record par atak jaati hai, sangeet nahee shor nikalta hai (When the needle gets stuck on the record, you hear noise instead of music).
Within six months of winning accolades for his performance as a dying man in Safar, Rajesh Khanna played another memorable cancer patient in Anand.
After Safar's premiere, Meena Kumari remarked to Nadira that Rajesh Khanna looked too ruddy-cheeked to be a cancer patient. Nadira promptly conveyed the message to Rajesh Khanna.
Feroz Khan won a firm foothold in the industry by immediately following his flamboyant act as the corrupt builder in Aadmi Aur Insaan with Safar.
One of Kalyanji-Anandji's best scores, Safar had Mukesh's haunting rendition of Jo tumko ho pasand. It suited Feroz Khan's rugged personality to the tee. Consequently, Feroz employed Mukesh's vocals in most of his films, including Apradh and Dharmatma.