There is a scene in Safar, in which Avinash (Rajesh Khanna), a young man who has blood cancer, asks his doctor how long he has to live. Dr Chandra (Ashok Kumar), doesn’t know how to tell him the bitter truth, so he picks up an hourglass with very little sand left in the top half. No words are needed.
That spare, minimalist quality is one of the things that makes Safar so beautiful. Written and directed by Asit Sen, the 1970 movie came the year before Rajesh Khanna’s far more famous dying-man act, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. But while the latter is a more warm and fuzzy, smiling-through-the-tears take on the business of life and death, Safar has a darker feel to it. It also has a message about the role and importance of women in the medical profession, one that seems all the more timely given the pandemic we are living through.
When most people think of Rajesh Khanna, they think of his better-known musical dramas like Anand, Amar Prem, Aradhana or Kati Patang — all of which are immensely watchable even today. But today, on the superstar’s death anniversary, we rewind to Safar, an underrated, understated gem elevated with powerful performances as well as beautiful music composed by Kalyanji Anandji and written by Indeevar.
Of love, life and death
The movie opens with a female voice thanking people for honouring her with an award, one that she would like to share with every woman of India. The voice belongs to a surgeon named Neela (Sharmila Tagore). When the movie begins, she is middle-aged and greying. She gets a call from her mentor, Dr Chandra, to perform a complicated surgery. It’s a challenge she would have jumped at in her younger days, but now, she is nervous and not confident in herself.
Later, Dr Chandra tells her that he knew even before the surgery that the patient wouldn’t survive. He says that Neela did everything correctly, but he wanted her to learn that sometimes, despite a doctors’ best efforts, patients don’t make it — a lesson she hasn’t yet had to confront because all her surgeries have so far been successful.
The movie swiftly goes into flashback to when Neela is a young medical student who lives with her irascible aspiring writer brother Kalidas (IS Johar) and loving sister-in-law (Aruna Irani). To make ends meet, she takes up a side job of tutoring a young boy named Montu, whose older brother, Shekhar, a share-market tycoon (Feroz Khan), takes a shine to her.
Neela has other ideas, though. She has grown close to her classmate and neighbour Avinash, whose real passion is painting — specifically, painting portraits of Neela. Her family loves him as well, and there are some lovely scenes of the four of them enjoying a cup of tea and a laugh, making gentle fun of Kalidas’ aspirations to become as legendary as his namesake playwright.
But Avinash, knowing he is terminally ill, doesn’t want Neela to waste her time with him and urges her to marry Shekhar, even though it hurts him immensely to sacrifice his own chance at happiness. What follows is a moody, melancholy meditation on life, death, love, duty, trust and marriage.
Dark and pensive, this is cancer without a candyfloss patina
The thing about a lot of movies about terminally ill people is that they are often deliberately, resolutely cheerful. The person who knows they’re dying takes it upon themselves to teach those around them the true meaning of life, with pithy phrases and determinedly happy song and dance. What makes Safar stand out is that Avinash is not like that. And neither is Neela.
In fact, one of the movie’s finest scenes is when Avinash begs Neela to marry Shekhar. There is no sugarcoating of his illness, no pretense that all will be well and that he will be happy in her happiness. There is real anguish and sadness when Avinash says he has been defeated, when she asks him what he really wants, and when he says that she, as a doctor, knows perfectly well that neither his life nor her tears hold any meaning when confronted with a terminal illness. Both of them are losing in the business of life, and both of them know it.
Neela’s marriage to Shekhar, too, isn’t a source of joy, for while he is loving, he is also suspicious of her friendship with Avinash and even gets Montu to spy on them. The darkness inside Shekhar, which emerges in sharp, tragic relief when he suffers a professional setback, adds another layer to the tangled mess of human relationships and emotions that Safar is all about.
What the movie does beautifully, in fact, is show a married woman who is unapologetic about continuing a platonic friendship with another man, maintaining her independent equation with her friend whom she once had feelings for yet crossing no boundaries and doing her duty by her husband.
This idea of duty is one runs throughout the film. When Neela can’t accompany Shekhar to a dinner party because Dr Chandra has asked her to assist him on a major surgery, he is supportive of her professionalism, her duty to her patients and to her work. And when her marriage seems to be imploding, Avinash counsels her on her duty to her husband, especially when he is faced with a financial problem. Ultimately, the movie also comes with the message that one has a duty to one’s own life, to the idea of life, and that duty is to just keep on keeping on.