This is a bit of an odd duck for a “classics” post. It came out only 25 years ago, and isn’t as well remembered as some other films from the same era (Saajan, Khalnayak). I hadn’t even heard of it until it came up in an article on Sanjay. And then I watched it and went “wow! This is a brilliant movie!” So I am here to sing its praises, just in case you haven’t run across it before.
Yes, this is Taxi Driver. Very very slightly. The original taxi driver was a raw dark anti-hero film. Cynical about how you can do the right thing for the wrong reasons and still get credit for it. Cynical about the darkness and hopelessness of the world. And, also, very fresh in how it was made. The improvisation of the actors, filming on location, the realness of the costumes and make-up and hair and so on and so on.
Now, Mahesh Bhatt took this story and Bhattified it. Not modern Bhatt with the songs and the sexiness and all that. No, he took the Bhatt attitude towards the world and applied it to this story. What if the prostitute could be redeemed? What if our hero was sensitive and soulful and felt the pain of others? What if, ultimately, the world was redeemable too? Only after great suffering, but it could happen.
He also Bhattified the style. Again, not modern Bhatt with the glamour and all, but real original Bhatt. This is the real world, still, but filmed with such love that it appeared magic. Our heroine had an inner glow about her (we were seeing her through her father’s eyes, after all). Our hero, even with his unassuming clothes and manner, had a kind of power that shown through. And there were these little moments of beauty, an innocent girl in white holding a birdcage, the red lights glowing from windows, the world is both ugly and beautiful at the same time.
(Also, Birdcage! Pakeezah reference! Mahesh knows his classics)
The biggest similarity between the “original” Taxi Driver and this one is in how the star manages to somehow take over the film, become everything the character promised and even more. This film is Mahesh Bhatt’s brilliance, and Pooja’s innocence and (very much) Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s villainy, but it is Sanjay that takes it all to another level.
That’s why I watched the film. Rosie Thomas, who competes with Anupama Chopra (I know I know, but you have GOT to read her Sholay book!), Rajinder Dudrah, and Sheila Nayyar for being my favorite Indian film scholar, wrote a groundbreaking article on Nargis Dutt and Mother India and the whole onscreen/offscreen star persona relationship. And then she expanded on it and returned to it later to look at Sanjay’s life as kind of a “sequel” to the Nargis story. Sadak was the film she chose to focus on from that whole “damaged sensitive bad boy” era, and then Agneepath for a more modern perspective.
And, as always, Rosie nailed it. The Sanjay in Sadak is like the Sanjay in Saajan, or Khalnayak, or Vaastav (all other films she mentions), but slightly more perfectly Sanjay than in all the others. A little more heartfelt than in Khalnayak, a little more broken than in Saajan, a little more something-I-am-sure-I-still-haven’t-seen-it than in Vaastav. It’s just the perfect combination of character, story, and actor. If you’ve never really “gotten” Sanjay, this is the film that will do it for you.
This is also the film that will make you go “oh my gosh, mainstream films were so much more envelope pushing back in the day!” This was the second most successful film of 1991, and it has a prostitute heroine, and a Hijra villain. And not a cheesy Hijra villain, no, she is straight up terrifying. And also not a “terrible mistaken identity!” prostitute heroine. Okay, so Sanjay saves her before her first client, but she is straight up sold to the brothel by her relatives, it’s not some kind of “from a good family but kidnapped!” thing.
I am getting super close to SPOILERS, if not already crossing that line, and I really do want you to see this film if you haven’t already, so STOP HERE. Go watch it, and come back. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Our hero Sanjay is a taxi driver, kind of the leader/big brother of all the other drivers. If it were a different actor, he would be the handsomest and bravest and strongest and they would all respect and obey him and admire him. But Sanjay is Sanjay. And so he is just the one who gives the most, who cares the most. And the one everyone else loves.
His best friend is Dileep Tijori, because it was the 90s and it was The Law that the hero’s friend had to be Dileep Tijori. But this is a different Dileep. He is also a taxi driver, and he is in love with a lovely young woman who all the fellow taxi drivers (especially Sanjay) is excited about him marrying. Only, she’s a prostitute. Which is a problem for them as a couple, but not something that causes everyone to react with horror and dismay. It’s just a problem to be overcome. Because she loves Dileep and he loves her and they want to be married, but her madam/pimp Sadashiv Amrapurkar won’t let her leave the brothel unless Dileep pays her off. That’s the only problem, Sanjay and the other taxi drivers have no real issues with a prostitute becoming their friend’s wife. And Dileep has no issues with her past, and she has no issues either, no guilt or angst, just a wish that she could have a better future.
You see what I mean about progressive? And also realism. Because, I think, this is actually something that can happen. Obviously a prostitute can fall in love, and it’s not impossible for a nice man to fall in love back just like this, not with a huge amazing movie romance, but just because he likes her.
But there’s also the magic. Pooja appears, a vision in white holding a birdcage, in the middle of the night in the middle of the street. She hands the birdcage to Sanjay, asking him to take care of her birds, and then is pulled away by her uncle. And the film follows her, away from Sanjay’s ideal vision of her and into reality, where her uncle is selling her to a brothel. Not for any particular reason, not for vengeance in a family feud or something exciting like that, but because he doesn’t particularly care about her and the brothel would give him money.
See, that’s the thing, Sanjay’s vision of Pooja was real, she truly is this innocent kind presence in the world. But her reality of being sold into prostitution by her only living relative is also real. The goodness and the ugliness exist together. The key is being able to separate them, to appreciate that the goodness is still there.
That’s the backstory we finally get for Sanjay, the backstory that makes me fall in love with his character (if I wasn’t already). And also makes me fall in love a little with Soni Razdan. If you ever wondered where Alia’s talent came from, this is it! I mean, WOW. She literally has one scene and comes close to stealing the whole movie.
Soni is Sanjay’s older sister, we don’t get much backstory, just Sanjay and his uncle coming to see her after she ran off from home with a boy she fell in love with. They learn the boy sold her into a brothel, she was rescued, but her mind is gone. Sanjay’s uncle wants to forget her, damaged goods, no good to them. Sanjay can’t handle it, seeing her like this. And then she kills herself.
What makes me love Sanjay is that this isn’t a little sister, or his mother. This isn’t a woman he is “responsible” for, that society is telling him he has to love. This is his older sister, who he loves because she took care of him and he liked her and she was herself. And that’s what breaks his heart, that this woman he cares about is so injured. It’s not wounded pride or anything like that. It just hurts him.
And ever since then, things have hurt him. Dileep not being able to marry his girlfriend hurts him. General social unfairness hurts him. And the thought of innocent Pooja trapped in a brothel really really hurts him.
He manages to delay a little, sells his taxi to pay top dollar for her “virginity”. But then Sadashiv Amrapurkar can see by how she walks (SEE??? See how the 90s were so advanced?) that Sanjay didn’t really do it. And so she is at risk again. And Sanjay realizes she will be at risk every night, all the time, there is no way she can stay there.
I suppose he could have rescued her to begin with, but, again, this is the beauty in the ugly. Sanjay isn’t some guy floating over this world, he is part of this world, and he accepts the rules, you have to pay at a brothel. And Pooja accepts them too, someone is going to buy her someday. Until there is no other choice, and they are pushed to the breaking point, and Sanjay has to break her out.
In the happy time when they are on the run, it’s not Sanjay and Pooja that makes it magical, it’s Sanjay and Pooja plus Dileep and Neelima (that was the name of my college roommate and it gives me a kick to use it in this context!). Here are two women from a brothel, and two taxi drivers, and they are still capable of the beautiful happy simple love we see in movies. Dileep and Neelima are in the flush of happy married life (having performed their own little wedding ceremony), acting as guides and chaperones and encouragers for Sanjay and Pooja, who are having their own sweet beginning romance. They don’t even kiss!
But this is a false happiness. You can’t just run away to a better world, you have to go back and fight to make your own world better. And, on the other hand, there is no real better world. They can run and run, but they are turned in by the people they think will help them, the police (dang, 1970s-80s era filmmakers really do not trust the power of the state!).
In the end, it is all on Sanjay. Not on his love for Pooja, but on his essential goodness, strength, love, desire to stop harm from coming to anyone else in the world. Which is why it is completely appropriate for him to have the Christ shot in the end. Because, in the purest sense, he is reenacting that story, the sufferer who takes on all the sins of the world in order to save us all.