Before jumping in, let me give the 3 reasons I decide to do a scene by scene for a film:
- Enough people have seen it recently to enjoy these posts
- The movie is important enough to deserve it
- I have enough stuff to say
The last is the easiest, I almost always have enough stuff to say!
The second is a little rarer. “Important” meaning significant both critically and commercially. Every Khan film fulfills that requirement. And also random surprise films like Neerja, Bajirao, Airlift.
And then there’s the trickiest requirement. After spending gobs and gobs of time summarizing movies like Baaghi, and then getting no views on those posts, I realized that the smart thing is to just do a quick summary at the start of my SPOILER review and only spend the time to do the real scene by scene when a large number of my readers have actually seen the film and seem like they would want to talk about it in detail.
So, that’s why there hasn’t been a scene by scene since Bahubali! Tubelight, fails the “readers have seen it” requirement and the “I had stuff to say” requirement (not just a bad movie, but an uninteresting movie). Raabta, fails the “readers have seen it” and the “important!” requirement (although I totally had lots to say about it). And so on and so forth. But a Shahrukh Khan movie, knowing my commentariat, is something a large number of you will be seeing multiple times, and will enjoy talking about in great detail. Also, this movie is legitimately good. Not great and perfect, but a good film that will reward analysis. And it’s an “important” film because Shahrukh Khan is starring in it. Which means the industry will be paying a lot of attention to it, and it will inevitably have an effect on the next films that come out (either imitation or avoidance, depending on how the box office shakes out).
So, scene by scene! Woo-hoo! Let’s start!
We open with a song. Which is kind of unusual in Indian film, usually the song marks the beginning of the “real” film, the part after the first ten-twenty minutes when everyone is waiting in line for popcorn or finding their seats. To just jump right into a song is strange.
(Might explain why it doesn’t have a real song video, they wanted the audience to be paying attention right from the start)
And this is kind of a strange song to use as an opener. It’s not fun and bouncy and “hey everybody, get in out of the lobby and have some fun, the movie is here!” It’s kind of slow and has a unique bit of a bite to it.
But that’s also why it is the perfect opener for this particular film. This isn’t going to be a “hey, let’s have fun!” movie, this is going to be a slow and reflective and internal movie with a bit of a bite to it. And the message is going to be conveyed primarily through songs. Which is why we start with a song, this isn’t the “hey, the real movie is starting!” song, this is the exposition that sets up the rest of the plot. But in song.
And it’s a really good song! All the songs are really good in this film, both the sound of them and the visuals. They aren’t the songs that people think songs should be, not big bouncy club songs, or plot moving songs. But they are what songs used to be, back in the “classic” 1950s era. Scattered throughout a film, not a big break from the rest of the movie necessarily, but just part of the regular flow of it. You might as easily sing as you would talk. Sometimes more easily.
So, what is the point of this particular song? It’s “Safar”, which is really pretty, but also has really deep lyrics. It’s about traveling, or more accurately, being in transit. There is a certain kind of untethered feeling you get when you are traveling between point A and point B, whether it is commuting every morning or taking a plane from America to India. A not here or there feeling.
It can be refreshing, that feeling is part of the reason I enjoy traveling. I have my pleasure books and my little bag of snacks, and I enjoy being completely untethered for a while, not feeling like I have to do anything for my boss or my family or my friends. But you don’t want to feel like that all the time.
That’s what this song is about. Feeling like you have forgotten how to be out of that untethered space, like that is all you have now. The lyrics are really sad if you listen to them! And they give you the entire backstory for this character, nothing else needed. “I left my village and lost myself”, “milestones are my friend”, “the world is the same everyday”. There isn’t a lot we need to know besides that. He is a man who has become so used to traveling that he has forgotten what it is like to be settled, to be out of this limbo space.
(also, he’s really hot. The first set photos that came out were from “Safar”, and right away I went “oh wow, he’s hot!”)
And if we did need more, we have the visuals. Ready to get your mind blown? I realized later in the film that this song is supposed to be showing him on the job with Anushka’s tour group. It covers the month they spent together before they knew each other. On a second watch I will have to see if they hid her in the background of the crowd, as unnoticed by the audience as she was by Shahrukh.
So, let’s look at how this tour went. First, it is all the same places that Anushka and Shahrukh will go together later. This is never a movie about sight-seeing, about making us want to visit these places (Fan did a better job of making Dubrovnick look awesome than this movie does of making me want to tour all of Europe), but when it is Shahrukh and Anushka there, we don’t notice where they are, and they don’t notice where they are, because it is more about being there together than anything else. In this song, all those same places are half-glimpsed through Shahrukh’s tired eyes. A windmill in Amsterdam is filmed the same as the tour bus they arrived in. Because that’s what they are to him now, just part of his job, nothing exciting or interesting or beautiful any more. The whole world has become his office, in a way, and all the people in it have become no more than “clients”.
And let’s look at those people! Again, if this is supposed to be Anushka’s tour, it helps a lot with explaining his reaction to being forced to spend more time with her. And even if it isn’t supposed to be her tour, if it is supposed to be an amalgam of tour groups (because they all feel the same to him now), it still explains it, explains why he desperately wants his time by himself.
We see him making tired jokes he has probably made a million times before, herding them this way and that, and for all his troubles, getting an angry demanding speech in his face, during which we in the audience see him preparing to spit, but then pulling back at the last minute and putting on his polite professional face again. This is his relationship with these people, to him they are tools of his trade, not people, but sheep he has to take care of, or machines he has to press the right button on to make react. And to them, he isn’t a person either. He is there to be abused, demanded, invisible and forgotten.
This miserable song carries through out the rest of the film. It’s a good opener for the story they wanted to tell. This man is so sad and lost, and yet he is also fallen so low that he is afraid to lose the miserable life he has. He makes the tired jokes and is polite to the horrible people because he is deadly afraid of losing this job. He isn’t a young confident rich hero, he is old and desperate and has little security to hold on to. We see him sleeping on train benches, carrying his clothes in a duffel bag because he has nowhere else to keep them. He’s homeless, not in the poetic way, but in the literal way. He is so economically desperate, he doesn’t even have a home. We need to know all of this about him so we can understand how Anushka comes into his life like a bolt of lightening.
Oh, and one more thing about this song, we get little black and white faded flashes of the Punjab while it is playing. So we know exactly what it is he has lost. His identity is tied up in his home, in who he is supposed to be. As are all our identities. And he has lost that somehow, deep in the heart of him is supposed to be wheat fields and colorful saris and narrow brick lanes. But it has been closed off somehow, he doesn’t even have that any more. And he needs it desperately, so much so that his mind keeps searching for it even while he is walking through towns a world away.
(Imtiaz used the same effect in Highway to help explain our silent hero there, Randeep. But Shahrukh is way way more sympathetic than Randeep! Less “I’ll sell you to a brothel”y, which is kind of my baseline for a hero)
And then, finally, we meet our heroine! The woman who can “save” him from all of this. And now I get to talk about colors! Woo-hoo! I love talking about colors.
Throughout “Safar”, the skies are overcast, and Shahrukh is in grey and dull blue, the only splash of color being the orange sign he carries (oooo! Basanti!). For the rest of the film, he will dress in blacks, whites, and greys. Partly because Shahrukh looks dead sexy in blacks whites and greys, but also because that is who he is. Colors in Indian film aren’t just “colors” like they are in any other film, they are a signifier of Indian identity. Not a made up one, a real one. Indian clothes are way way brighter than clothes from other places. That’s just what it is. And for him to wear all these greys is as significant as wearing a tie or jeans in showing how he has lost his Indian identity.
Oh! One thing I will be coming back to later is how we also see, through all of this, that he is still wearing his steel bracelet. It’s the only thing remaining and it also kind of shows how much he has lost. If he is someone to whom a steel bracelet feels like second nature, so much that he doesn’t even think about whether he is wearing it or not, that probably means he was once someone to whom a turban, an uncut kesh, and everything else also felt natural. And now he has lost all those things.
Shahrukh says good-bye to her tour group at the airport. And immediately strips off his jacket and tie to return to who he feels he “really” is, this sexy bad boy type. And leaps in his sexy bad boy type sports car and leaves the airport. This is the part that felt most Tamasha-y to me, where I could suddenly really see Ranbir playing the role. It’s another split personality role. While with the tour, he has to become someone other than he really is. More than just putting on “company manners”, there’s a whole different way he talks, his expressions, his posture, it’s all different in “Safar” than the rest of the movie. But, I don’t know why I thought this should be Ranbir just because of Tamasha (which I hated, by the way). Shahrukh is the king of the odd double role/split personality movie. Has been from Baazigar straight through to Fan.
(Shahrukh might also have been able to make me find this character sympathetic in his misery, instead of just super cowardly and self-centered)
So we have Shahrukh, the “real” Shahrukh, pulling out in his car when suddenly Anushka shows up. A vibrant splotch of color on the screen. The airport is grey and white, the car is black, Shahrukh is in white, and there she is in a bright red coat. She is both the spot of color come to upset his life, and also so so Indian! Western style clothes, but in Indian type colors. Vibrant screaming colors that jump off the screen and make her stand out from the crowd.
And that’s why Shahrukh can’t stand her. Because she is a particular type of overly confident “pretty” Indian girl and he has spent the past month waiting on her family and doesn’t want to deal with another spoiled demand. If she had come out in a beige coat, it would have been different. Well, and if she hadn’t addressed him the way she had.
She comes out already making a demand on him, saying he “has” to take her back to the hotel. She is also a little panicky during that initial request, breathlessly explaining that she lost her ring, her fiance has broken the engagement unless she can find it, she has to go back. If he had responded as she was expecting, like the nice polite tour guide robot they have employed for the past month, she would have been perfectly happy. Probably calm and polite too. But instead he responded like Shahrukh, the free man. He doesn’t care and he won’t help. Which turns her into Anushka, spoiled brat. She yells, she threatens, she forces him to agree or she will call his boss. And then once she has her way, she gets in his car, perfectly happy.
Anushka is really awful in this scene. Seems completely unaware that Shahrukh needs some alone time now, that she can’t just expect everyone in the world to do exactly what she wants when she wants it. And I wish we had gotten just a smidge more backstory to explain why she is so awful. We know why Shahrukh is so awful, he is depressed and lost and hates having to give up his manhood serving these people. But why is Anushka so demanding and unaware of other people’s needs?
We get a little tiny bit of backstory to explain it later. We learn that her fiance always blames her for everything. We learn that she is the lawyer for the family business. We learn that her family makes her sing a sweet “Radha” song at every family event. So, I can kind of patchwork together motivation here. She comes out in a panic, because she is terrified of doing something wrong, of being less than perfect for the family and her fiance. She is trained to argue and fight in a situation. And so when she sees argument from him, and she really really needs something from him, she goes straight to the logical arguments and mild threats. She puts up a front of being confident and demanding like she has been taught in business, but underneath it she is a terrified little girl who doesn’t want to disappoint.
Oh, one final thing, she of course doesn’t realize that she is making more than a mild threat. She says she will call his boss to complain, and Shahrukh gives in immediately. Which seems like he was just arguing for the sake of it earlier, he must not have really minded if one little suggestion of a phone call was enough. But she doesn’t know that he already has dozens of complaints against him, that he is homeless, that he is terrified of losing this job. And so Shahrukh hates her, not for what she actually did (although, again, not a very pleasant person no matter what), but for the threat she unknowingly held over him, reminding him once again that he doesn’t even have the right to say “no” any more, his life is lived by the charity of others.