20 Years of Sarfarosh: A Rare Patriotic Film that Asked the Right Questions


20 Years of Sarfarosh: A Rare Patriotic Film that Asked the Right Questions

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In a scene from John Mathew Matthan’s Sarfarosh, Ajay Singh Rathod (Aamir Khan), a medical student, haplessly scampers for help on a Delhi road after his father is kidnapped and his brother fatally crashes his scooter against the pavement. After moments of delirious arm-waving, Rathod realises his brother is dead and his father, a witness in a key terrorism case, gone. In a presumptively nationalist film, it’s this scene of apathy that forces Rathod to abandon his pursuit of a medical degree and instead become an IPS officer in Mumbai’s Crime Branch to help nab “terrorists”. Although the premise of the film set it up as a hyper-masculine journey of revenge via shirtless bodies and irrefutable swag, Sarfarosh chose to take its own path by being complex and sensitive.

Back in 1999, Sarfarosh released during the Kargil war and yet it is admirable how it refused to get carried away with histrionics. It stopped short of idiomatic slogans (unlike Uri’s Farz aur Farzi dialogue baazi) and instead employed its instruments in exploring identity and conflict within our borders. Rathod, a lean, modestly built man channels his pent-up rage into something tangible, so he chooses to become an IPS officer. And in contrast, his aide, inspector Salim (Mukesh Rishi) is forced to confront the role his religion plays in deciding his patriotism. In one electrifying scene, he makes his nationalism amply clear when he tells Rathod, “Kabhi kisi Salim ko matt kehna ke ye mulk uska ghar nahi hai”. Eventually though, both Salim and Rathod make peace, even embrace each other after having perhaps accepted that their differences are only by design and not intent. The latter is all the nation needs and the elasticity of the former is what is at stake. Sarfarosh, then, quietly critiques the discrimination Muslims face, once lines of war have been drawn.

For most patriotic Bollywood films, the villain is probably the easiest character to sketch: Black is the easiest shade that Hindi cinema tends to bestow on its villains – bereft of any nuance or depth. Yet Sarfarosh doesn’t make it that simple to disregard and by extension, disengage with Gulfam Hassan, who is played with chilling, mood-shifting demeanour by Naseerudin Shah. A revered Ghazal singer, Hassan, gets abundant love in India even though he believes that he is indebted to Pakistan, the country he left after Partition. By making Hassan, a muhajir torn between identity and love, Sarfarosh asks its audiences a pertinent question: Is one anything without the other?

Sarfarosh doesn’t treat its nationalism as a function of nationhood, but rather of good and evil in men.

In the film, Hassan’s anger is internal as he shifts between his persona of a composed artist to an instrument of politics that is broken, perhaps beyond repair. What stands out is how Sarfarosh doesn’t hand its villains easy access to file their anger – like picking up a gun or a bomb. It doesn’t even allow its heroes the apparatus of masculinity. In doing so, neither does the film address conflict with the “Let’s go kill them” blueprint, nor does it seek the easy territory of border-defined loyalties. Instead, it strives to take the time and make the effort to talk about the middle-men – men who work for money, men trying to climb ladders. And men haunted by history. Violence after all, is the fallout of everything humanly conceivable, be it the attempt to rule the present or avenge history at its cost.

More than anything else, though, Sarfarosh remains that uncommon nationalistic film that dares to avoid crystalline borders and the noise of their indistinct explosions to say something that although political, is sensitive and nuanced. It looks at people, as they are, without telling us who they must be.

Sarfarosh doesn’t treat its nationalism as a function of nationhood, but rather of good and evil in men. Here the state follows the virtue of men and not the other way round. Even in its most charged moments, the film doesn’t treat its people as shooting targets to exact a form of hot-headed salvation. Compared to today’s bullying brand of nationalism, Sarfarosh believed in re-investing in the old roots of good, calm men. Men who must confront different ideas of nationalism and identity, men who perpetually fight a borderless war.