Firstly, the execution is patchy. Sarhadi has everything in his fist, but he fails to maximise. He tries excessive poetry and imagery when he deliberately retains the cloud over what is happening. That Najma has a relation with Akhtar is clear but why she comes away from her ancestral home is a tad misty. What did Najma's mother demand of her and how come she blindly trusted Akhtar suddenly. This despite Salim loving her all the while. She keeps counting hours to get married to Akhtar and does everything to achieve the marital status, but is she so dumb so as not to realise that she is just a cog in this vicious cycle of crass commercialisation and greed? The dialogues are in chaste Hyderabadi Hindi and is the least bit difficult to understand. But they lack the spark somewhat.
Similarly, who is Akhtar's boss exactly and what does he do? It is clear that he is a rich merchant in the Gulf but his rational to wed a young woman is never really spoken in a threadbare fashion. Also, if Salim loves Najma so, why isn't he relentless or strong enough in his pursuits? Despite knowing what Salim feels for Najma, how come Akhtar is so alright about the two mixing so freely? These questions, and more, are niggling way at my grey cells...
Akhtar's middle-aged, already married, boss is suffering from a mid-life crisis. He wants his sexual wants satiated by a young woman. He wants to bed a fresh maiden but only after marriage. This would make his sin more justified. He discusses the prospect with Akhtar (Bharat Kapoor) who in turn convinces Najma (Smita Patil) to fetch a young bride for the boss from her hometown in Hyderabad. Akhtar promises that this would ultimately save his job, the flat that the boss has given them and be a ticket to their marriage. Najma is dying to get married to Akhtar so, despite seeing through the wretchedness of the action that she is being forced to commit, agrees to look for a bride for the boss (a weak spoke in the sterling cast!).
A misunderstanding ensues and Najma thinks that Nasreen (Neesha Singh, a commendable debut. I have to tell her that the next time I meet her!) is Sarju's (Farooque Sheikh) beloved, a brother who loves Najma dearly. In a quiet party, the evil boss's eyes feast on the innocence and prettiness of Shabnam (Supriya Pathak), who is actually Sarju's sweetheart and he makes it known to Najma that he wants Shabnam as the wife. Shabnam belongs to a poor family and nothing would more make her parents happy than to get her married to an affluent man, no matter how old he is. Though her father balks, Shabnam's mother (Sulabha Deshpande) reasons with him saying that the money Shabnam's marriage would bring in would be helpful in finding suitors for their elder daughter. So, practically they are selling off Shabnam. The young girl, who is blindly in love with Sarju, pleads and begs her mother to pardon her, but her life gets stuck in the cruel cycle of poverty, greed, lust and ultimate destruction.
There are some brilliant touches in the film. Like when Shabnam tells Sarju to hide her from the eyes of the cruel world after marriage. She just wants to be his sweetheart, loved and cared by him. But little does she know that despite all her efforts every lusty eye will single her out to satisfy their heinous carnal pleasures. This is true for all girls like her.
Smita Patil delivers a tremendous performance and so does Farooque Sheikh, Naseeruddin Shah and Supriya Pathak. Even Bharat Kapor is not bad. They somehow make up for the lack of a more solid and gritty screenplay. The love story between Sarju and Shabnam is innocent, pristine and and full of tenderness. It's heart-wrenching how their flower of love is nastily nipped in the bud. Farooque Sheikh is brilliant as the unassuming yet fresh Sarju and Supriya Pathak is a sweet sensation as Shabnam.
One superlative aspect of this moderately-tempered film is the fantastic music by Khayyam. Dikhaye diye by Lata Mangeshkar is a soft ghazal that lulls you to bliss, Dekh lo aaj by Jagjit Kaur is a sad yet blissful. But the gem is Phir chhidi raat. Talat Aziz and Lata create melodious magic to numb you into a joyful reverie...