In 1947, in the process of yielding the governance of Hindustan, Britain divided the subcontinent into primarily Hindu India and primarily Muslim Pakistan, formalizing a religious and nationalist divide that has caused millions of deaths and that today still dominates politics within the two nations. Part of the legacy of Partition is a host of entangled relationships among numerous Hindu majority communities in India, the Muslim minority that stayed in India after Partition, and various communities in Pakistan. The complexities of these interactions are both fascinating and of vital importance to the region. And so it is no surprise that they are a fertile source of material for good movies, like Sarfarosh, that explore them.
When Ajay Singh Rathod (Aamir Khan) is a young college student, his brother is killed and his father gravely and permanently injured by terrorists. Ajay is inspired to enter law enforcement - every criminal, he says, reminds him of the men who tore apart his family - and quickly rises to the rank of assistant commissioner. He is assigned to crack a weapons-smuggling operation that is arming bands of village militiamen, backed ultimately by Pakistani intelligence service, with the assistance of a network of local elements within India. On Ajay's investigative team is a brooding Muslim police inspector named Salim (Mukesh Rishi). Ajay also meets a contemplative, philosophical ghazal singer whom he has admired since boyhood, Gulfam Hassan (Naseeruddin Shah), and enjoys a sweet romance with Seema (Sonali Bendre), a girl he had a crush on in college. As Ajay's investigation gets closer to the truth, he comes into greater and greater peril, and learns that some of his friends are not as trustworthy as he thinks.
Sarfarosh means "one who is prepared to die for a cause," and indeed, Sarfarosh is most compelling not for the story itself (which, though it provides an interesting glimpse into the infrastructure of terrorism, is not particularly suspenseful), nor for the fight scenes (which are violent and plentiful), but rather for its variations on the themes of religious and national identity. Inspector Salim is passionately patriotic, but as a Muslim he suffers from the prejudice and unwarranted suspicion of his fellow officers. When one of the smugglers escapes after a shootout with Salim, the inspector is accused of allowing the culprit - a fellow Muslim - to escape, and temporarily removed from the investigation. Salim is deeply wounded, and lashes out with a moving speech in which he admonishes Ajay to "never tell a Salim that this is not his country."
Gulfam sahib's story also raises the identity question. He is a Muslim whose family was driven from its ancestral palace during Partition; he fled across the border to Pakistan. He is revered as one of Pakistan's national treasures, yet, he tells Ajay, even fifty years later he is still held apart as a muhajir, a refugee. He is no longer Indian and yet not fully Pakistani as well. He is an engaging character, and the sad eyes and smile of the perfectly cast Naseeruddin Shah add depth to the sense that Gulfam sahib is something of a lost soul.
The gun-running story provides the canvas on which Gulfam sahib's and Inspector Salim's inner conflicts are painted. Indeed, the film could have been even better had it been more about them, and less about Ajay, who is too fresh-faced to be believable at his elevated rank in the force, and too flawless to be a compelling character. Ajay's romance with Seema, while very charming, is a distraction that is completely unnecessary except perhaps to provide a few moments of peace - for both Ajay and the audience - between rounds of gunfighting. (In one delicious scene, Seema teases Ajay for being old-fashioned when he comments on her short short skirt; moments later, she blushingly insists that she can't meet Ajay's mother that day because "my skirt is too short!") Also enhancing the mood is some beautiful desert cinematography and a hit-and-miss assortment of songs by Jatin-Lalit. The standout here is the song that plays over the opening credits, "Zindagi maut na ban jaye" ("may life not become death"), an upbeat and patriotic call to arms that plays over the films opening scenes, which are a menacing overview of the smuggling operation's clandestine transport of automatic weapons. The film has some weaknesses, but on balance it is a solid and substantial piece.
My thanks to Amit for comments that helped refine my initial impressions of the film.
Sarfarosh is available for free download at Jaman.com.