Bollywood movies have often depicted policemen as typical action heroes – quick to get into action and easily defeat a bunch of bad guys alone. From the old days of Amitabh Bachchan towering over criminals, to the modern day cops from the Rohit Shetty universe who flash 6-pack abs as they single-handedly take on thugs in the streets. In reality however, senior policemen seldom belong to a universe of action. These are often engineering or political science students, who study long nights for years to pursue the civil services and join the IPS. While they do have to have to pass a basic physical test to join the force, their primary tool is their mind, not their body. This avatar of a cop was particularly fascinating for me when I watched Aamir Khan as ACP Ajay Singh Rathod in Sarfarosh back in 1999.
Through Ajay Singh Rathod, Aamir Khan takes us into the world of newly appointed senior cop trying to solve a terrorism racket in Mumbai. As a newly appointed ACP, he has to prove his mettle to both his juniors and seniors. His subordinates, who have spent years in the force earning their place, have to now suddenly report to a boy in his 20s. His seniors in the system are mindful of his zeal, and don't want him to ruffle any wrong feathers.
His struggle within the system was depicted very well through his relationship with Inspector Aslam Baig (Mukesh Rishi). A senior inspector is miffed when his case is assigned to a newly appointed ACP. He suspects favouritism and religious bias in this change of guard and walks away from the case. However, Ajay needs Aslam by his side to take the case to its conclusion. Their friction that eventually leads to acceptance and cooperation was extremely fulfilling. In some sense, the journey of Ajay's relationship with Aslam is diametrically opposite of that with Gulfam Hassan. Through their interactions, we also see the underbelly of Mumbai that cops frequent on a regular basis – dance bars, brothels and the streets of Mumbai.
Add to this his complicated domestic life, the only son of a suffering family who lost their elder son to a terrorist attack, and rendered his father mute. His responsibilities at home and at work are not easy, but he makes sure one does not affect the other. He manages to establish the much needed work-life balance in these jobs. When he is at home, you can't perceive him as a tough no-nonsense cop. When he is at the office, he is simply a man on duty.
Some excitement in his life is brought by Seema (Sonali Bendre), his college friend from Delhi who reappears in Mumbai. Their interaction, while not very consequential to the plot of the film, is a good depiction of many modern relationships that are often halted by the everyday patterns of life. You liked someone in college and had a brief relationship. College finished and you parted ways trying to build yourself. And through fate you reconnect after many years as a changed person. There are some elements of the old you that are relatable, but so much of you is so new for the other person to grapple with. Seema and Ajay's love story brings the levity that prepares us to cope with the blood and guns in the rest of the film.
However, what was most refreshing was to see Ajay's interest in Gulfam Hassan's ghazals. It was rare at the time to see a leading man have an actual hobby, let alone a cop. There seemed to be no place in his mind for anything else other than the villain and the girl. Ajay's interest and passion for Gulfam Hassan's ghazals was indeed intriguing. His relationship with Gulfam – from strangers to close friends to enemies – was very well written by writer and director John Matthan. It gave us the opportunity to see cops as human beings, ones who can be as prone to an error of judgment like anyone else. In their initial interactions, we see Ajay gushing like a school boy for his favourite singer. He is thrilled to receive a mixed tape from his idol, and wants to impress him with his knowledge of poetry. As their friendship blossoms and we see Gulfam's true colours before Ajay does, we can't help but feel sad that very soon his childhood idol will be demonised for him.
The climax is perhaps the best part of the film as we see two giants of acting in Indian cinema – Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan – come face to face with each other. The pure passion with which the two deliver their dialogues is remarkable; Gulfam Hassan brings out the pain and humiliation of being separated from one's motherland by force, and ACP Ajay Rathore brings out the sensibility of letting go of old wounds and looking ahead towards the future. His frustrations are the frustrations of every Indian; how we are not just fighting enemies beyond borders, but in many cases there are elements within the country who seek to profit on the wounds of others. It is a particularly riveting scene, one that ends with Gulfam Hassan committing suicide as he can't bear the humiliation of going to prison.
Perhaps what makes Ajay Rathod my favourite Aamir Khan character is the subtle authority with which he plays a senior cop. We never see him raise his voice at his subordinates or berate them. At the same time, he understands hierarchy and is not over friendly with them. He states his authority through a calm yet commanding demeanor. In one scene, where he is instructing his team that they have to leave for Rajasthan for an assignment, one of them asks "Kab nikalna hai sir?". He does not give them a date or a day, or utter a single word; he simply stares them down. It means immediately. Nothing else has to be said. Such a clever depiction of understated authority is rare to encounter in cinema.