Remembering Sarfarosh, the turnaround patriotic thriller

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Aamir Khan as ACP Ajay Singh Rathod in Sarfarosh (1999). Photo: Trailer Video Grab

On April 30, 1999, adman-turned-filmmaker John Matthew Matthan’s debut feature, Sarfarosh, hit the screen. In an era when larger-than-life cinema ruled, it dared to be incisively realistic without sacrificing on its entertainment quotient.

It also spearheaded Aamir Khan’s foray towards cinema of a higher mainstream dimension. And 23 years down, this action thriller with a patriotic theme is as fresh as ever. Within a few weeks of its release then, the Kargil War took place, showing how prophetic was the plot with its emphasis on the internal enemy that insidiously helps India’s foes in their nefarious aims to make terrorism and allied anti-national activities succeed.

A world-class thriller, Sarfarosh was approved alike by masses, classes and critics, including the ivory-tower variety. Producer-director John Matthew Matthan also wrote the story and screenplay—and it became the second Hindi film after Border (which recreated a real war story, unlike this fictional saga) to openly name Pakistan as the enemy.

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Sarfarosh’s journey had begun a full seven years before it actually hit the marquee. John had asked writer Hriday Lani to work with him on the story of a Deputy Superintendent of Police who is killed by terrorists, and whose son, a medical student, leaves studies to turn avenger.

As they realized that the story was not really enthusing them, the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts happened. It was then that they decided to travel to Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to find out how terrorists operate—and a shocking world opened: They understood how easily infiltration could happen into India from across the border.

And on October 10, 1993, they sat down to write the final draft. John retained the story and screenplay credits himself, with the dialogues shared by Hriday with Pathik Vats.

The characters went through major changes. The hero’s father (played by Akash Khurana) now became a common man who is crippled and saw his elder son killed for daring to testify against terrorists in court. His younger son Ajay (Aamir Khan), who wants to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), now decides to join the Indian Police Service (IPS) instead and starts training as a cop. Obviously, the young man’s mother, desperate for his safety, hates her son’s career choice, but his now-mute father silently encourages his courageous son.

ACP Ajay Singh Rathod (as Aamir’s character is named) along with his intrepid team smash a complex plot of subversion against the country that involves Pakistani agents and local criminals and traitors spread across the nation. The ring of cross-country terrorism extends from vicious brigand and arms supplier Veeran (Govind Namdeo) in Karnataka to Rajasthan’s border town Bahid.

The key figure in this is ghazal singer Gulfam Hasan (Naseeruddin Shah) who was torn away from his roots—his ancestral mansion in Rajasthan— during Partition and who has since migrated to Pakistan. He has a festering hatred for India, where he now resides as a musician from Pakistan welcomed by Indians, a reality in the days when the film was made!

But for Hasan, music is just a front as he works for his superiors. Ajay has always been Hasan’s fan. When he attends his concert and meets him without knowing the truth, Hasan develops a soft corner for his fan, and by the time Ajay finally comes to know the truth, Hasan’s Achilles Heel is Ajay!

The script’s searing realism and gritty action helped connect instantly with the audience, and Sarfarosh as a film does not have a single extraneous frame, line or even word in the dialogues. The power-packed script just sailed from one high to another (the chase at Mumbai’s Flora Fountain, the grilling of the suspects, the hospital sequence, the Aamir Khan-Mukesh Rishi confrontation and many more).

It remains a cinematic expose of bitter realities then: like how a metropolitan underbelly of petty crime is a strong malefic arm of the larger nexus of crime and terrorism, how small-town businessmen are sucked into the vortex of betraying their motherland for Mammon and how dedicated cops surmount all odds and lay down lives without hesitation for the country while under various pressures in their professional and personal lives.

Even Ajay’s romantic angle was worked in smartly.  Seema (Sonali Bendre-Behl) meets Ajay after six years (they had liked each other in college, but nothing had come of it) at a Gulfam Hasan concert.

“I wanted my film to be very accurate in police matters and I myself do not like unanswered questions!” declared John, when I met him. Added Aamir Khan, “It’s a popular misconception that John took major liberties with police matters, but people do not know that everything was researched to detailed perfection.”

He added, “An ACP is the junior-most rank after passing the IPS. Every ACP is around the age I was when I did the film—between 25 and 30 years of age. My height is well above the minimum regulation height. And IPS officers are no Schwarzeneggers but very fit but and normal-looking individuals. A Mumbai cop actually can go to any part of the country to investigate and has the authority to take the help of the local force if needed.”

Adds the actor, “My character ending up as Salim (played by Mukesh Rishi)’s boss, the field cop who actually trains him, is another IPS fact.” And John states, “The Hindu-Muslim angle through this character was important as India and Pakistan both share Islam.”

More time was given to research than to actual shooting. Wintry mornings were spent by John and Aamir observing IPS cadets in training, action and going about their daily lives. John cast Aamir after watching his mock-rape sequence in Dil and admitted that he would have scrapped the film if the actor had turned it down, though he had to wait 30 months for his dates!

Naseeruddin Shah as singer Gulfam Hasan in Sarfarosh. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

Naseeruddin Shah, like the rest of the cast, was signed only after the script was ready. “I saw him with a grey beard in a television interview and I knew that I had found my Gulfam Hasan,” John quipped.

The better-known supporting artistes included Makrand Deshpande as Shiva, Smita Jaykar as Ajay’s mother and Govind Namdeo as Veeran. But to make characters look flesh-and-blood rather than stereotypes, then-lesser known actors from television and theater were cast—Manoj Joshi as Baiju, Ahmed Khan as Pakistani agent Haji, Pradeep Rawat as Sultan Vallabh Vyas as Pakistani Major Aslam Baig, Akhilendra Mishra as Mirchi Seth, Rajesh Joshi as Bala Thakur—Aamir was sign some of these actors for Lagaan, his maiden production.

The comic character of Fatka, a street-smart car-washer who doubles up as a police informer, was played by a stage artiste called Anil Upadhyaya and was based on a real person.

The film’s technical side was also immaculate, with Jethu Mundul’s editing, Vikas Sivaraman’s camerawork, Kesto Mondal’s art direction and the background score by debutant Sanjoy Chowdhury (son of the composer Salil Chowdhury) and veteran Dheeraj Dhanak, a musician who had worked with Shankar-Jaikishan.

The songs by Jatin-Lalit still endure and Sarfarosh had another first to its credit: each of the six tracks was separately billed in the title sequences with individual credits for lyricists (Indeewar, Sameer, Nida Fazli and Israr Ansari) and playback singers. This has become a norm now!

The Silver Jubilee hit picked up the National Award for Best Popular Film with Wholesale Entertainment. But to the film buff for whom awards do not really matter, Sarfarosh remains a textbook in filmmaking. And in the bargain, it made us rightly proud of the men who work relentlessly to keep the nation and its citizens safe.

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