Two films featuring an insomniac taxi driver roaming around the city at night to kill off the loneliness. Both films have a character involved in prostitution, who is saved by the protagonist. And that’s where the similarities die off. As “Sadak” by Mahesh Bhatt may be just inspired by the film by Martin Scorsese, in reality, both the films are miles apart in terms of the themes and the look and feel. Ravi in “Sadak” appears to be suffering from PTSD after having seen his sister fall to death in front of his eyes. While Travis in “Taxi Driver” has a deteriorating mental health, the reason for which is not known. His troubled state of mind is made clear with all the interactions he has with the people and the city throughout the film, bursting completely in the climax.
Ravi and Travis are polar opposites as people, and perhaps Ravi is drawn more to do what he does because of some clear explanations in his past life that are inspiring his moves. But with Travis, all we know is that he is a war veteran and has some really crude opinions about New York and the people it inhabits. The portrayal of the city and its space is central somewhat to both films, with Scorsese shooting on real locations giving the film an almost documentary feel with all the visuals from the street. Travis travels across the city and goes to all places as it doesn’t matter to him much where he goes, whom he picks up, and what they do when he picks them up. And seeing this other side of the city propels him to form extreme opinions about the lives of the people who live off the proceeds of crime. He wants all of them to be ‘cleaned up’ as he feels they are the real scum who are making his city dirty. The city and its people being in devastation is mildly reflected in “Sadak” as well, but the perspective is that of optimism rather than the extreme cynicism of Travis.
There is a song that comes right in the beginning where Ravi, along with his other taxi driver friends, dances off while talking about their worries. They seem to be complaining in celebration of the kind of lives they lead with no home to stay in, no bed to sleep in, and yet they believe in God to shoo away all their worries. In the subsequent paragraphs, the song goes on to explain how the country has been failing its citizens, with no one listening to their worries and their saddened state of affairs. What “Sadak” does through a song, “Taxi Driver,” has maintained throughout the film, calling out the nation’s failures through Travis’ interaction with the city and his skewed interpretation of it.
“Sadak” delves deeper into the shady world of prostitution by making characters like Maharani, the transgender boss of a brothel, more prominent. We get to see the brothel a number of times, looking at how young girls are forced to indulge in sex and often sold off by their family members to pimps. But Mahesh Bhat is progressive in his understanding of the entire thing, and we can see a touch of sensitivity while handling the subject. Gotya, his friend, loves Chanda, who is forced to work as a prostitute. They plan to marry, and it matters not to him what her background is or what she does. What matters is just the person, but not the occupation they are forced into, as with Ravi as well, who goes against his father when he disowns his own daughter because she ran away from home and was instead sold to a brothel. When the father comes to know this, he is overcome with shame that his daughter got infected with STD and hence polluted the blood that runs in her body; that he cannot take her to the same home. Ravi fights off and does away with his caste identity, of which his father is so proud. Choosing to keep his characters acting in this manner, Mahesh Bhatt makes a statement against ownership of the bodies of women and the inner misogynistic nature of various traditions.
On the other hand, Scorsese doesn’t seem to be making a statement on prostitution, but he very well portrays the darker side of the city in having teenagers being forced into sex work. Travis meets Iris, introduced as a 12-year-old who is drugged and forced to sleep with people. Travis is seemingly disgusted by this. His life attains some meaning when he decides to take matters into his own hands and help people with his vigilant-ish reasoning. He comes to that decision following a trail of thought that tells him people living in poverty are scum and should be eliminated. He is motivated after he has a conversation with one man in the cab who tells him that he will kill a man who is sleeping with his wife with a.44 pistol. Taking wrong inferences from this conversation because of his troubled mental state, Travis buys some pistols with the aim of “cleansing” the city, as he proclaimed earlier. His disgust seems to be for the people rather than the work they do, coming from a moralist understanding of the world. When he happens to be at a shop where a black man is holding up for money, he shoots him with the gun he just bought. It is not clear whether he holds prejudice against African Americans, but subtle signs are given throughout for us to draw a picture of how he thinks.
Scorsese wanted to paint a dreamlike picture. He felt that movies are like dreams, and he wanted to achieve that feeling between sleeping and waking up. And for this, he employs camera work that is blurry at times, showing the lights of the city at night as seen by Travis. It is also of consequence because it is the point of view of Travis, who is an insomniac, and it fits together perfectly well. Mahesh Bhat follows on similar lines in the early part of the film, where the roads of Bombay are shown as Ravi travels through. We can see the lights getting blurry and the city darkening beyond the lights. But the film is not as intensely placed in an actual city as “Taxi Driver,” owing to many portions being shot on set and also in another hill location. Both the films are different in the way they tell the stories of their characters.
“Sadak” has the stamp of Indian storytelling coupled with the songs and the dramatic action sequences. Both are seemingly violent films, and the violence stems from entirely different things in both. Ravi has a personal conflict that he uses to avenge the death of his sister and to stop his girlfriend from facing the same fate. He has a clear goal and a structural emotional payoff. But the violence in Travis emerges out of his loneliness and a troubling understanding of the world, blurred by his deteriorated mental state. He invokes Dostoevsky through his existential angst and, in the beginning, thinks he is in some way superior to others around him. That is when he gains a purpose in his life, making him decide some things, leading to an end filled with violence and bloodshed. Both the films carry some commonality in certain aspects but diverge into completely different paths of their own to explore varied themes. And when looked at together, their worlds being similar, one film speaks to the other. And it’s a treat to see how their protagonists end up creating their own fates.