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Film Review
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Producer & Director :John Matthew Matthan
*ing: Naseeruddin Shah, Aamir Khan, Sonali Bendre, Mukesh Rishi, Govind Namdeo & Akash Khurana
Music: Jatin Lalit

Released on : April 30, 1999


Reviewed by: Mohammad Ali Ikram
ali@indolink.com


out of 

John Matthew Matthan's Sarfarosh may be "A Reason To Live", but everyone must be wondering if there is a reason to go see it?  The answer folks, fair and square is... yes but....  Matthan's directorial debut is a well-crafted piece of entertainment, but be forewarned that it also has its fair share of flaws.  Unlike most films these days, it is worth both your money and time, but the film lacks one crucial element needed for the theme it is tackling:  fairness.

Assistant Chief of Police, Ajay Singh Rathod (Aamir Khan), comes from an upright, middle-class family whose lives have been traumatized by a terrorist attack.  In serving on the Crime Branch of India's police force, Ajay hopes to avenge the wrong against his family; he views all criminals as the same ones who wronged his loved ones.  The true battle for Ajay begins, however, when he must apprehend a band of hidden criminals smuggling arms into the country from Pakistan, via the Rajasthani border.  It is a well-organized criminal ring and attacks on Ajay's life prove that the leaders will not be easy to apprehend.  And how will the Indian Police Force succeed if it has so much trouble trusting its Muslim officers, including Inspector Salim (Mukesh Rishi).  Are these policemen working in the best interest of India, or do their allegiances lie elsewhere?

What is so great about the movie, you might ask.  Great characterizations and performances for one.  As usual, Aamir Khan is far beyond competent.  He fits into his role with the greatest of ease, making ACP Rathod come alive on screen.  Unlike most stars, one of Aamir's forte is that he never tries to hog the frame.  This thespian lets the audience focus on the dialogues between him and his co-stars.  It works to great advantage in Sarfarosh, allowing us to really 'meet' Ajay's family members and friends.  From the eternally paranoid mother to the adorable and witty little nephew, the Rathod family's 'realness' is a rare treat for cinema-goers.

Matthan also gives Sonali Bendre her first true acting opportunity.  Sure, she is just part of the supporting cast, but it is Seema's simplicity, witticisms and great trademark phrase, "Don't mind" (à la Raj Kanwar heroines), that will have you finally recognizing the Bendre beauty's latent acting talent.  (Her presence also provides a logical prelude to the film's otherwise unnecessary inclusion of songs.  "Jo Haal Dil Ka" and "Is Deewane Ladke Ko" work because you know they take place in the mind of a love-besotted, middle-class girl who has likely seen one too many Hindi movies.   That's fine.  We understand, because so have we.)

Mukesh Rishi also breaks free from his eternal evil image to give us a strong and commendable performance as a socially outcast Indian patriot.   This guy has always had great screen presence, but this is the first time a director has relied less on Rishi's brawn and more on his acting prowess.  Naseeruddin Shah too is flawless in his role of a Pakistani ghazal singer, but one also wishes he had a more substantial character to chew on.  This one is child's play.   (Watch this true blue 'Shah' tear away the competition in China Gate and you will see what I mean.)

Newcomer Matthan shows that he has strong directorial control on the affairs.  The "love your country, neighbours and life" theme is generally well presented, and few scenes have a déjà vu-ness or tediousness about them.  It is also nice to see a director presenting most types of people as good and bad.   Unlike J.P. Dutta's extremely biased Border, Matthan shows that people of all religious backgrounds, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, etc., can be good or bad.  (It is another matter altogether that Bollywood has yet to learn the simple concept that a maliciously evil and hateful person does not really have a religion.  No religion condones killing people of another religion unless it is in true self-defense.) 

As for the flaws of Sarfarosh, in fairness, they are quite visible.   The film is fair in its presentation of people from different religions, but it is near malicious when it comes to the depiction of Pakistan.  The problem is that in laying blame on Pakistan's Intelligence Agency, the ISI, for many terrorist actions in India (which is probably even true), Sarfarosh forgets that India's own CID is probably not 100% blameless for many of the terrorist actions in Pakistan.  Realistically, we all know that Indian and Pakistani politicians are just a bunch of idiots playing an international game of one-up-manship.  If India tests a nuke, so must Pakistan.   If one attacks the other's border one week, the other will reciprocate the action in a future malicious event. 

Matthan decides to point fingers at one side of the border, which is both naive and even insulting.  India is no victim, but then again, neither is Pakistan.   (That whole Pakistani immigrants' lowly status theme is also not true 100%.   My grandfather will attest to the fact that his emigration from India to Pakistan in 1947 never labeled him an "outsider" the past fifty plus years.)  It makes great cinematic scandal though.  Enough politics now; let's just forgive this major flaw as an abuse of cinematic license Mr. Matthan.  Try to be a bit more objective next time you deal with a political issue.

Tying into the above flaw, one must also add that the film's villains are occasionally too 'comic book' like.  For a film that purports to present a fictional version of reality (an oxymoron in itself), one cannot help but laugh at the main villain biting off a little goat's ear in the movie.  (Poor thing.  Having seen its bandaged head a few scenes later, I hope they did not really harm that little animal for the movie.)  What was the audience supposed to think in that scene?  We all know that for a 'serious' movie, it was just plain stupid.  Some may forgive the error in the name of entertainment, but Sarfarosh has loftier ambitions.

The main problem for Sarfarosh is that it tries to connect with the audience on multiple levels.  As an entertainer, it absolutely rocks.  As a crime drama, it also works real well.  Even as a family tale, it is commendable.  It is just the political message delivery that is not up to par.   If John Matthew Matthan really wanted to present a strong political and social message to the audience, he should have remembered to present all sides of the coin, even where he does not agree with them.  (Maybe that is why I liked Satya, Bombay and Dil Se so much.  The directors of these movies never condone the actions of all the characters in these movies.  Neither does the audience.  But at least we see the world from numerous different angles.)   You've got the entertainment bit down nearly perfect, Mr. Matthan.  Try to be a bit more cerebral in the future though...  Oh, and by the way, welcome to Bollywood.  You are a welcome addition.

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