Friday Classics: Sarfarosh, Aamir’s Take on a Police Procedural

I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed this movie before! It’s so good, and so different from really anything else out there. Thoughtful, complex, and with a hero who is more about quiet thinking than quick action.

Before Lagaan, before 3 Idiots, before Mela and Mangal Panday and Thugs of Hindostan, Aamir wasn’t known for the ambitious large scale box office record breaking films, he was known for the quietly intelligent and thoughtful films. And this movie was one of the best of them, a film which managed to avoid all the action film tropes while still hitting the familiar action film beats. There is the romance, the backstory, the big bad charismatic villain, and so on and so forth. And yet it feels organic, not forced.

Image result for sarfarosh aamir khan poster

Also organic and unforced is Aamir’s performance. And at the time this film came out, that was what he was known for too. The raised eyebrows, the soft big smile, the quiet line delivery, and the generous interactions with his co-stars, that was Aamir. The Aamir of the bug-eyes and tics and strange vocal intonations, that hadn’t been born yet.

This movie has a great cast, Aamir is the first among equals. He is the lead more because he has the most screen time than anything else. Sonali Bendre’s character, Naseeruddin Shah, even Mukesh Rishi all have complex motivations and interesting performances. It’s a classic noir style film, in which the characters and setting and situation are all woven together into one story that expresses everything about a particular time and place. Aamir Khan lets himself disappear into this world, not the lead of it but just one of many other people trying to survive and move within it.

I want to give a lot of credit to the director, who spent 7 years preparing for this film, but it’s hard to know how much to give since this is his only successful film. This is the classic star ghost directing conundrum. Is this film the only successful film John Matthew Matthan has made because he poured his heart and soul into it and told the story he most wanted to tell? Or is it the only successful film he has made because Aamir secretly was the one directing it? So, I have no idea how much credit to give him. Someone made this film smart and different and special, and whoever that person was deserves credit because it really is unique in the realm of Indian film, making you think and not just react.

Although there are some moments of feeling. Mostly within songs, this film uses song sequences beautifully and perfectly, the feelings that these characters would never openly reveal are expressed to the audience. It’s this that makes it ultimately still a classic Hindi film, no matter the clever complex mystery and lowkey acting, the emotion is still there.


The movie takes its time getting to the central story. We start very deliberately with the full journey of illegal guns into India. They came across the desert, pass through many hands, finally end up with tribal rebels, and are used in a massacre. Gun running isn’t just a harmless crime with no victims, every link along the chain is connected to death. And then we go from there to see our harmless happy youthful hero, running into his family’s sari store, nodding at his silent father in the corner, playing with his nephew, greeting his sister-in-law and mother and uncle, and then dashing out again after his uncle gives him tickets to his favorite Ghazal performer.

We have the grand sweep of crime in India, and then our innocent young hero, in a normal film this is when we would see his life fall apart as crime traps him. But this film goes a different way, after seeing his happy life and carefree attitude we get a flashback that reveals both the origin of his romance, and the unusual situation of this being his life AFTER it falls apart. One of the biggest statements on how this is different from the usual action film, it doesn’t look for a reaction of revenge and constant anger after a terrible thing happens, it suggests that instead you should pause, think, relax, and build a new life.

The flashback itself is my favorite part of the movie, the whole thing. It’s Sonali’s flashback, she sees Aamir in the audience and immediately remembers their past together. Back in college, he followed her around but was too shy to speak to her. She liked it, they had a wordless teasing interaction and flirting, and it was going to turn into a proposal, she confronted him and let him know he could talk to her the next day, and then he didn’t show up. Instead, his life fell apart, his brother witnessed a crime and went to the police, was threatened, and finally was killed, and in the same attack Aamir’s father had his tongue cut out. The broken family moved to Bombay to live with his uncle, and now here they are, with a sari store and his little nephew recovered and smiling and laughing, his father happy to sit in the corner and watch, and Aamir himself still smiling and boyish too. They lost a lot, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t rebuild, couldn’t move on and be happy instead of filled with anger. And one of the things they lost is coming back right now, Sonali isn’t letting Aamir disappear again, she stops him at the concert by making an announcement into the microphone. Their romance was killed by the tragedies of his family that forced them to leave town without warning, and now they are getting a second chance.

Another nice thing, this is a second chance for SONALI, not Aamir. So far as she is concerned, it wasn’t the violence and so on that destroyed them, it was her own selfishness and immaturity, choosing to enjoy the flirtation and the chase instead of pushing the issue sooner and making sure they got engaged ASAP. And this time, she is not going to stop pushing and doing whatever it takes to get the man she wants. It’s great! We get the traditional kind of romance in the nicest possible way in the flashback, the stalking and glances and stuff, but all with the obvious enjoyment of both parties involved. And then we get the opposite of that, the woman aggressively going after what she wants in the present.

It’s not until after all of this that we get the reveal that Aamir is a hero cop. He doesn’t reveal himself in a big action sequence, but by walking into the office talking excitedly about paperwork. He is a police officer, but a patient intelligent one. He didn’t let his bitterness and sorrow burn inside, he turned it into determination to do the best job he can.

And then there is Naseeruddin Shah. We have the hero, the heroine, and then the villain. And again, a different kind of character from the regular villain. Naseeruddin is a Muhajir, that is a Muslim who was born in what is now Indian territory and moved to Pakistan with nothing during Partition. This is a distinctive community in Pakistan, one that is not always welcomed by the rest of the population. Naseeruddin’s character is an artist who loves his art, but also misses his home. Never feeling welcomed in Pakistan, and missing his family home left behind in India. He isn’t a wild-eyed crazed criminal, he is calm and intelligent but with a burning anger inside. While Aamir reacted to his family tragedy by trying to appreciate what he has and doing the best he could to protect it, Naseeruddin reacted with well-concealed anger.

With our three central character in place, all that is left is for the story to unfold. Sonali pursues Aamir, and he avoids revealing his feelings, although she is still confident in how he feels (and the audience is too, thanks to having a glimpse of his emotion through song). Aamir pursues the gun running gang with the help of Mukesh Rishi, his faithful assistant who struggles with his own sense of conflicted loyalty, the opposite number to Naseeruddin, the Muslim who chose to stay in India and must constantly prove his loyalty. The case is solved when they connect it to Naseeruddin and arrest him. But it’s never really solved, the ending of this film is one of the most quietly original parts. Sonali and Aamir have an understanding now, after her meeting his family in his hospital room following an injury (she is adorably embarrassed to meet them since she is wearing a short skirt), now she is nagging him about setting a date for the engagement, when he has to go off, one of the loose ends from this case has turned up, his team has to go. There is no solid ending, no grand finale, you just keep quietly working away at your job with no emotions and no hope of ever really “solving” things, just making them a little better. Your romance doesn’t end in a perfect embrace and wedding, your sister-in-law and nephew don’t get happy all of a sudden but will always have little moments of sadness, and the wounds of partition will get a little better every generation but will never really go away.

On the other hand, how hot is Aamir in his little mom jeans?

15 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Sarfarosh, Aamir’s Take on a Police Procedural

  1. I just watched this because I wanted to read your review and I’m so glad you pushed me to do it. It starts out slow but when it get going it’s absolutely riveting. I was shouting at my computer during the action scenes and I’m not someone who’s into that kind of thing, but they were so well choreographed and fit the characters, if you know what I mean. They behaved during the fights in a way that was congruent with what was already established about the characters, their values and morals. For example, Naseeruddin killing himself made perfect sense after all you’d learned about him.

    The only thing I wasn’t too crazy about was Sonali’s character. She was a bit too air-headed for me, though in the context of the film it makes sense that quiet, serious and smart Aamir would fall for the woman who is light hearted and brings out another side of him.

    The songs are great and perfectly placed. Jo Haal Dil Ka is a great song on its own and I’ve seen it on YouTube many times but when you see it in context it’s fantastic because Aamir’s has been so buttoned down up to that point that to see his inner character unleash his lust and longing is cathartic. I also love that the flashback is set to one of Naseeruddin’s songs, it works so well to bring the three main characters together and illustrate the joy and sorrow that permeates the film.

    Finally, I really miss “the raised eyebrows, the soft big smile, the quiet line delivery, and the generous interactions with his co-stars” Aamir. He can really act and I feel like that’s gotten lost in recent years with his twee performances (except in Dangal which was a bit of a throwback to that older acting style).


    • So glad you watched it! I forgot how long it is before Aamir shows up and the story starts going, if I’d remembered I would have told you to give it at least 20 minutes. And yes, I know exactly what you mean about the characters and the action scenes! It’s so much more interesting to watch action like that when you are trying to predict what will happen next and who will do what next based on what you know of the characters.

      I like their romance because we don’t usually get to see that kind of romance between opposites. In most films you would have Aamir with the perfect “homely” type of girl who is serious and patriotic and so on. It’s so much more vibrant seeing their push-pull.

      Yes with Jo Haal Dil Ka! Especially because it is introduced with the same slow smile and casual glance that we see Aamir use in reaction to Sonali for the whole movie. Meaning every time he has smiled at her, it has been covering up this same kind of burning lust and desire, and she has no idea.


      • I thought of another thing I love about the film: it works with Aamir’s size instead of trying to pretend he isn’t a leprechaun. He’s always the shortest man in the room but he commands respect anyway because he is also always the smartest and most determined man in the room. His size is also used well in the fight scenes, particularly the one at the truck stop, when Aamir is knocked to the ground and he grabs his antagonists’ leg. It’s not a typical heroic fight scene moment, instead you see someone who isn’t an obvious hero but defeats the bad guys through integrity, smarts, and sheer determination.

        This film has now entered my top favorite Aamir films (and one of my Hindi faves) along with Rang De Basanti, Talaash and Ghulam.

        FYI, I also started watching the documentary on the making of Lagaan and I’m already fascinated by first Aamir’s reluctance to do the film and then his determination to produce it so it can be done exactly as needed to realize Ashutosh’s vision and then how Aamir pulled in all the people he trusted regardless of whether or not they had ever worked on a film anymore. Just how relationship driven India is on every level. Also, I really like Aamir’s taste in wives. Reena is very cool. I know their marriage was already faltering at that point but he clearly respected her even when they were breaking up. (not enough to stop him from getting a white woman pregnant, though, that was VERY POOR FORM, AAMIR).


        • Yes! In Ghajini (which I don’t think you have seen yet?) they have him be kind of a rough kick boxer muscle-y fighter type, and it looks ridiculous, because he is punching up to hit people. But in this movie, they play on his intelligence more than anything else as an action hero. And now that you love this movie, I am trying to think of the other awesome Aamir movies you haven’t seen that I can guilt you into. Have you seen Rangeela yet? Mann? Dil Chahta Hai?

          On Sun, Mar 17, 2019 at 11:52 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. Even though I have watched this movie multiple times, I had to re-watch it for your review. There were two things I found interesting this time apart from the usual, which is that this is such a smart, well-made, cohesive action movie. One, I love the romance in this film. They are both intelligent adults who are attracted to each other. They both act a little coy at some point, but it is very clearly their way of flirting. And there is no unnecessary, cliched family drama, which is so refreshing!!! The second thing I noticed is that Sonali says “don’t mind” in a similar way that Aishwarya says “like” in Dhoom 2. Yet, I found Sonali’s character oddly charming and didn’t mind her overuse of the phrase but found Aishwarya’s very annoying. Finally – spoiler alert – on a completely separate note, even though I know Naseeruddin does not hurt or kill the baby goat after it breaks the pot, everytime I see that scene I have SO much anxiety, which, to me, just shows how terrific Naseeruddin is as an actor.


    • I feel the same way about the baby goat! It is such a relief when you see it again, fairly whole and healthy.

      And yes on the romance, they are independent confident adults who go into this romance knowing it is what they both want, even if Sonali has to push a little bit. Very different from the usual “stalker” romance where one is more interested than the other, or the romances where the family is trying to push them together or pull them apart. And I don’t know why Sonali is so much easier to take in this film than Aish in Dhoom 2! Maybe it is partly the contrast? Aamir underplays so much that her overplaying feels like it just balances him out. Both in terms of the energy of the scene, and how their characters work as a couple.

      On Mon, Mar 18, 2019 at 1:50 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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