When John Matthew Matthan’s Sarfarosh begins, we only hear the name of ACP Rathore. A gangster’s right-hand man is intimidated and repeatedly warned to tell his boss to appear in front of ‘ACP Rathore’.
The name ACP Rathore fits right into the universe of the moustache-twirling, physically buff Bollywood cops.
In separate thread of events, we’re introduced to Ajay going about his daily chores of buying bread, playing with his nephew. Ajay loves ghazals and never quite tries to stand out in a crowd. About 25 minutes into the film when we finally realise that ‘Ajay’ and ‘ACP Rathore’ are the same character, Mathan’s film successfully demystifies Bollywood’s manly cop routine.
The hyper-masculine cop prototype can be traced way back to Amitabh Bachchan’s breakthrough performance in Zanjeer. Aamir Khan does his own version of kicking-the-chair routine. However, it’s not followed by the now-iconic ‘jab tak baithne ke liye naa kahaa jaaye, tab tak sharaafat se khade raho‘.
Sarfarosh isn’t too much about the dialoguebaazi. Khan never tries to duplicate a baritone, deliver a punchline or fill that large shadow of a Bollywood cop, approaching the role of ACP Ajay Rathore with a refreshing restrain. He doesn’t really brood, but he’s a man of few words. He doesn’t mind slipping in and out of the ‘tough cop’ routine, like we see when he meets a gangster’s mother. Realising that she’s telling the truth about not knowing anything about her son’s whereabouts, Rathore apologises to her for the inappropriate language.
Compare this to Akshay Kumar’s cop films, where he singularly goes around taking down crime syndicates with his flying kicks in films like Main Khiladi Tu Anari or Mohra. In fact, few films before Sarfarosh, needed their cop to just be normal human beings. They were either kicking ass like Akshay Kumar and Sunil Shetty, or they were tickling your funny bone like Govina in The Gambler or Bade Miyan Chotte Miyan. It further propelled the one-man-against-the-system myth, reducing the Bollywood cop to an alpha stereotype. Sarfarosh dived deeper into the mundane procedural of a cop film, that punctuated the action set-pieces. The paper work, the bureaucracy, the information network – the chief ingredients of police work. Mathan’s film even manages to fit in a few scenes about identity.
But that doesn’t mean that Sarfarosh lacked the requisite masala for a late 90s Hindi film. It checks most of the boxes, where the cop is afforded a family tragedy, a romantic relationship and a friendship that ends in the most devastating manner. But at no point during the film, does that derail the cop’s work life. In fact, in that rare moment where these two lives do intermingle, Rathore’s girlfriend refuses to believe that he’s a cop in plain clothes. Equally hilarious and tense, it leads to a thrilling chase on foot.
In the current era, where Rohit Shetty seems to have taken Bollywood back to the hyper-masculine filmy cop, Sarfarosh is a timely reminder. The camera doesn’t need to gape at the Bollywood cop flexing his muscles, or bounce the light off his perfectly twirled moustache. It doesn’t necessarily need to look up at its cop protagonist as a larger-than-life figure. Like in John Matthew Matthan’s film, the camera can only be an observer. Sarfarosh proves that the Bollywood cop can be quietly dignified, professional and… normal, even when befallen by tragedy.