It does not seem that long ago, but John Mathew Matthan’s Sarfarosh was released twenty years ago. As this week’s release, Blank, has an ATS officer (played by Sunny Deol) battling terrorists, it is interesting to flash back to one of Aamir Khan’s best performances as ACP Ajay Singh Rathod, dealing with arms trafficking and cross-border terrorism. It is shocking to realise how things have got from bad to worse in the intervening two decades.
Now, of course, the masks are off, but back then Pakistan’s ISI was carrying out a proxy war against India, and managed a network of terror operatives. The arms smuggled into India in imaginative ways, reached the underworld, forest bandits and terrorists, who then used them to attack innocents; early on in this film a wedding party is gunned down mercilessly.
In Mumbai, a Pakistani singer, Gulfam Hassan (Naseeruddin Shah) performs for fans, including Rathod. Mathan created a wonderfully sympathetic character in Inspector Salim (Mukesh Rishi in a careerbest performance), he is discriminated against and not trusted by his colleagues because he is a Muslim. He is even more disgruntled when a younger officer like Rathod is given charge of the anti-terrorism task force. Rathod knows Salim is not just honest and patriotic but has a great network of informants in the field and convinces him to join the team. The ACP’s own past includes the death of a brother and maiming of his father by terrorists.
Rathod does not know that Gulfam – a Mohajir, who was displaced during the Partition of India and carries those wounds-- is working for Pakistani intelligence and spies for his country. His investigation into the complex gun-running trails eventually lead to Rajasthan, where Gulfam has his ancestral home. The singer-spy attempts to block Rathod from unraveling the network and it takes a while for the cop to uncover Gulfam’s treachery. The pitched battle to destroy the terrorist organisation, ends with Gulfam’s suicide.
The film had songs and a romantic track, with Sonali Bendre playing Rathod’s love interest, but Matthan made a taut, realistic, well-researched, fast-paced and intelligent thriller, that did well commercially and won the National Award for the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, plus a string of popular awards and was remade in Telugu and Kannada.
A film like Sarfarosh should have put the director into the big league, but after the failure of his second film, Shikhar, he quietly vanished from the scene.