There is a significant scene in Asit Sen’s Safar where Sharmila Tagore’s Neela, a surgeon, is called in to perform the first surgery of her life but to make it to her professional commitment, she has to bail out of dinner with her husband Shekhar, played by Feroz Khan. When she talks to him about it, he says all the right things but the way he says it, you know this relationship is doomed. His dismissive attitude, sarcastic remarks and his mistrust towards his wife, all masked in the name of love, are evident red flags to Neela but as most women do, she plans on making it work.
The easiest way to describe Safar would be by calling it a love triangle and while it is essentially that at its core, it examines the idea of love and romance from a grown-up lens, where love isn’t all rainbows and roses but often finds itself living in despair and disappointment. The third angle of this love triangle with Neela and Shekhar is Avinash, played by Rajesh Khanna.
When Avinash and Neela first meet as college students, it is obvious that there is something to their relationship, or that’s just our conditioning in watching a hero and heroine on screen. As the film moves on, and we see them enjoying their friendship, it looks like theirs could be a love story that completes them both. Eventually, when Neela asks Avinash if there is going to be more to this relationship, he respectfully declines, and she doesn’t ask any follow-up questions.
In a very Kal Ho Naa Ho-like twist to the story, Avinash reveals he has cancer and asks Neela to marry the rich Shekhar, who is anyway interested in her. It is significant to note here that Neela is well aware of being emotionally manipulated by the man she loves, but gives in anyway. The manipulation continues by her husband after they get married. On one end, Shekhar sings ‘Tum din ko agar raat kaho raat kahenge (If you say that a bright sunny day is night, I’ll agree)’, but also does not leave a chance to remind her of her ‘duty’ as a wife – to take care of his household even when she is supposed to be working.
Best of Express Premium
For Rajesh Khanna, who played an eternal optimist in Anand (which came after Safar), this film is a darker story where his Avinash oscillates between battling his demons and living life to the fullest. As Avinash broods in front of his muse’s portrait in a dark room, he is visibly unhappy with her decision to get married but keeps reminding himself that it’s probably for the best. Neela, on the other hand, embraces the love from Shekhar but cannot let go of the attachment she has formed with Avinash.
Safar is presented as a tragic story where no one gets what they want, but it is Neela who gets blamed for everything but the filmmaker is extremely wary of how he handles it. When Shekhar dies by suicide due to a misunderstanding, Neela finds herself as the accused. Even when Avinash dies due to his long-standing illness, it is she who is accused. And in both these cases, the accusation comes from the fact that she never gave her undivided attention to these men.
Safar belongs to an era of movies where music was the backbone of a film. And much like many of its contemporaries, Safar’s music is melded into its screenplay. Composed by Kalyanji Anandji, with lyrics by Indeevar, the album’s songs appear to highlight a character’s state of mind. For instance when we hear ‘Hum the jinke sahare‘, Neela is struggling to accept how her and Avinash’s relationship can never get to the next level. Or when Avinash hears ‘Nadiya chale chale re dhara‘, it is to accentuate his state as a cancer patient, and accept his fate.
Safar does not defend its entitled, manipulative men, but it also does not defend its faultless woman. It punishes Sharmila Tagore’s Neela, for loving her work, and accepts that the only way she could prosper was by letting go of the men in her life. One cannot help but wonder, what if Neela was just celebrated for her work without the burden of those decaying relationships? Both men in her life were just too absorbed by how they saw her, instead of what she was as an individual.
Over five decades have passed since the release of Safar, but the film, and especially the complex nature of relationships, are just as relatable. They might seem orthodox and dated, but women in 2022 continue to live in a lopsided world.