Asit Sen's 1970 hit Safar is a story of common people grappling with staggering challenges and compromises. But in this refreshingly non-melodramatic fare, a murmur of protest, an escaped sob and a half-concealed smirk are the only emotional luxuries its characters afford themselves in the inexplicable journey of life, the eponymous Safar of the title. It is a movie which had no villains, no negative characters not even a slap but still ends up tragically. A famous song from this film sung by Manna Dey emphasizes the primordial requirement for coping instead of moping: “Nadiya chale chale re dhara, chanda chale chale re taara, tujhko chalna hoga”… (The river flows on, as does the tide; the moon goes on, as do the stars; you too will have to move on).
Safar is narrated as a long flashback from a greying Neela's (Sharmila Tagore) point of view. A mother of young Master Sachin had just died at the operation table at her hands and the boy accuses her of negligence which takes her to her past. Neela is a bright Medical student who lives with her cynical writer-brother Kalidas (I S Johar at his deadpan best) and his wife (Aruna Irani). Avinash (Rajesh Khanna), their bachelor neighbour and friend, is a painter by profession and poet by aptitude. But behind his life-affirming smile lurks death. He suffers from cancer. Avinash silently loves Neela but never expresses himself though he paints her beautiful eyes in his canvas in various forms which is excellently penned in the Indeevar number, “Jeevan se bhari teri aankhen, majboor Karen jeene ke liye” .
To survive economically Neela takes tuition for Montu, the younger brother of stockbroker Shekhar (Feroz Khan) and Shekhar starts falling in love with her. When Neela reprimands Montu for reading adult materials during tuitions, she incurs the wrath of Montu’s mother (Nadira) and is sacked. An apologetic Shekhar brings her back but this time as his wife. Neela’s visits to Avinash continue after the marriage which sows the seeds of suspicion in Shekhar’s mind who asks Montu to spy on Neela. The drama now revolves around the question: which of these two men -- one eaten up with jealousy, the other by cancer and misplaced sympathy -- will win the right to ruin Neela's life even more?
The film affords a fascinating study of the link between worldly success and male self-worth in the sequences where Shekhar, after losing heavily in the share market, distracts himself by obsessing over the possibility of Neela's infidelity. His desire to divert his attention so that he can feel less uncomfortable in his own skin is a sad but telling comment on human nature. Shekhar ultimately commits suicide by getting an unsuspecting Neela to give him a drink laced with poison. Nadira testifies in favor of Neela, the court acquits her and Dr Chandra (Ashok Kumar) takes her in his guidance for making her a top surgeon.
Rajesh Khanna beautifully conveys his character's desperation and his conviction that surviving by a slender thread is not really living. Though he also played a cancer patient in Anand, which was released six months after Safar, but unlike in Anand where he spreads joy and makes friends wherever he goes, Asit Sen's Avinash seems more real. There is one unforgettable scene in Safar where you realize the importance of the visual vis-à-vis the spoken word in cinema. When Avinash asks his doctor Dr. Chandra if he will live long, Chandra places an hourglass on the table and says “Kaash main tumhe jawab de sakta” , Avinash stares at the rapidly falling grains of sand and replies “Mujhe jawab mil gaya hai sir” . Ashok Kumar had another great scene in the movie where he explains the irony of life when his own daughter who was confident that her father would save her dies at the operation table during operation which was conducted by the father himself.
It is Feroz Khan, in an author-backed role, who singes you with his simmering jealousy. The potassium cyanide he consumes to kill himself seemed like the external manifestation of the suspicion he is consumed by. He has the best dialogues in the movie “Yehi to seedha raasta hai Avinash ke ghar tak jaane ka, tum khaamaka galat raaste se jaati thi” when he confronts Neela or when he says “Neela tumhe aaj pata chalega ki zindagi kitna lamba safar hai aur maut kitna seedha raasta”. Though he did not get a Filmfare award nomination for Safar, actually he did not need one as he was already nominated for Himmat and Aadmi Aur Insaan and won for the latter one, Safar still happens to be one of his best performances as an actor.
Sharmila Tagore is a study in stoicism. She is largely effective, but does blow up a couple of crucial scenes due to her preoccupation with mascara and mannerisms. She did get a Filmfare award nomination. I S Johar is very good with his one liners one of which turns out to be one of the songs of the movie “Hum the jinke sahare” . Mahesh Kothari as Montu is good in some scenes especially the one where he holds Neela responsible for Avinash’s death.
The surprise package here is the director Asit Sen who is better known for his comic roles in the movies of 60s and 70s and who won a Best Director Filmfare award for this movie. Indeevar is at his best with lyrics to songs like “Jeevan se bhari teri aankhen” and “Zindagi ka safar” both sung by Kishore Kumar who was at the height of his powers. One of Kalyanji-Anandji's best scores, Safar had Mukesh's haunting rendition of “Jo tumko ho pasand” which had the honking of the car in between. It suited Feroz Khan's rugged personality to the tee.
Here is a trivia question for bollywood lovers, how can we connect the movies Safar and Love Ke Liye Kuch Bhi Karega released in 2002. The answer is whereas the former starred the trio of Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore and Feroz Khan, the latter starred their respective siblings, Twinkle Khanna, Saif Ali Khan and Fardeen Khan.