You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
For this instalment, Virat Nehru looks at the 1975 landmark Hindi film, Sholay.
It makes me go all giddy with pleasure to admit that it was a childhood dream for me to write about this film one day. As a kid, I owned audio cassette versions of complete dialogues of just two films – Border (1997), mainly because it was shown on television every year on Indian Independence Day on every movie channel available, and the other one was Sholay (1975).
It’s difficult to explain exactly what Sholay means to a Hindi film fanatic without sounding a bit dramatic. And it’s got nothing to do with the fact that after adjusting for inflation, it is often cited as the most commercially successful film in the history of Hindi cinema. This film is part of a cultural fabric that has only become more enriching over time. Before I knew anything about cinema or could appreciate the technical brilliance of this ‘curry western’, I had already seen it multiple times and was quick to memorise some of its most memorable lines. My first experience of ‘acting’ was mimicking the character of Soorma Bhopali, played by the inimitable comedian Jagdeep – and the next instant – changing guard to inhabit the mannerisms of the infamous dacoit Gabbar Singh and trying with all sincerity and intensity to deliver the monologue that would serve to be the most memorable introductory scene in the history of Hindi cinema.
I know I’m not alone. Many others will have their own little personal anecdotes that makes Sholay an unforgettable part of their lives – from using dialogues from the film as part of everyday vernacular and using characters from the film to describe people in daily life so as to make them more relatable – for example, describing a chatterbox as a “Basanti”, a bully “Gabbar” and so on.
Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak and Raj Kapoor have their own place in Indian cinema. It’s true that without them I wouldn’t be in a position today to truly appreciate India’s social and cultural context. While these film-makers might bear responsibility for making me more pretentious and scholarly in my cinematic taste, it was the uninhibited madness of Sholay that made me fall deeply, head-over-heels in love with Indian cinema.
The question that has always bugged me is whether in my fascination over Sholay – am I projecting my childhood fantasy onto everyone else? Is there anything there except young Virat’s adulation and flair for the dramatic? So, before penning this essay, I went through my beloved DVD collection and watched it again, reliving the nostalgia for good measure. And by the end of the three hours of madness, I had a renewed appreciation for the film and even noticed a few things that I hadn’t before in the countless times I had seen it!
The film’s premise is utterly simplistic but the set-up incredibly powerful and compelling. You have an ex-policeman named Thakur Baldev Singh (played by the incomparable Sanjeev Kumar with his unique style of delivering lines) who hires two brave thieves/conmen – Jai (played by the baritone king and living legend Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (the original ‘He-Man’ and action hero of Hindi cinema, Dharmendra) to nab the infamous dacoit Gabbar Singh alive (Amjad Khan, in a breakout role that cemented his legacy) who terrorizes Thakur’s village Ramgarh. However, saving the village from the bandit’s terror isn’t Thakur’s only motive, he’s also thirsty for revenge of a personal nature from Gabbar. Do our unlikely heroes succeed? That forms the crux of the narrative.
There are some key contextual elements that often get neglected in the usual fanaticism surrounding Sholay. This was the second film in Indian cinema to be shot in 70mm. Earlier, Indian audiences had to contend with 35mm. Hence, you can imagine the sheer awe for the average Indian viewer at the time when they were greeted with the magnitude of the opening panoramic shots that introduce the village of Ramgarh. A western was the perfect genre to indulge in grandiosity of the canvas that revolutionised the visual medium with the advent of 70mm in Indian cinema. The sound effects in the fight scenes and the bullet noises, all filmed in stereophonic sound, really do amplify the atmosphere and brutality of the landscape.
Sholay can also be used as a landmark event in the history of Hindi cinema that started the long overdue movement of giving film writers (dialogue writers, screenplay writers, script writers etc) the recognition, acknowledgment and monetary gain they deserved. To put it somewhat in perspective, this was the #paythewriters initiative for the Hindi film industry that was needed. Scriptwriters were paid but a pittance for their efforts at the time. Up until the 1970s, writers weren’t even acknowledged in a film’s advertising material – such as film posters etc.
Sholay was penned by the most commercially successful writing duo in the history of Hindi film industry – Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (colloquially known as Salim-Javed). They were the first to push for an official acknowledgment of writers in the industry. 1970s superstar Rajesh Khanna was the first to offer the writing duo official writing credits in his film’s advertising. However, the massive commercial success of Sholay paved the way for writers getting recognition and adequate payment as an industry practice. It made the Hindi film industry more professional and transformed the art of scriptwriting into a plausibly profitable profession. Ironically, at the time, all the accolades were won by another film penned by Salim-Javed that released in 1975 – also starring Amitabh Bachchan – called Deewar.
Apart from having some cracking dialogues, the implied social commentary in the film lends it added gravitas. Even though one could argue that the film was unkind to its female characters – Basanti is portrayed as an unflattering village bimbette who’s a chatterbox, the widow Radha’s forbidden romance with Jai remains unfulfilled. However, one has to look at things from a contextual lens. The issue of widow remarriage has always been extremely taboo in Indian society. The mere hint of a suggestion that there could be a romance with a widow was scandalous to say the least. It’s also an extremely positive sign that all the characters in the film really want Radha to start a new life and are happy with the prospect that she may want to be with Jai. This was hardly a reflection of social norms and was quite a progressive idea at the time. Even to this day, widow remarriage is frowned upon in India in some social circles. And this is 1975 we are talking about!
Furthermore, the character of Basanti is often misunderstood. Yes, she’s a chatterbox but she also stands up for herself. She’s wary of Veeru’s attempts to woo her. She’s career-oriented and earns a living driving a horse-cart. This kind of female agency was frowned upon at the time but to her detractors, she has but one message – “If Dhanno being a mare can draw a horse-cart, why can’t Basanti being a woman drive a horse-cart?” These messages of female empowerment really challenge the social status quo at the time, especially given the socio-political climate of India in the 1970s.
It’s also important to note the uniqueness of the character of Gabbar, a kind of villain that Hindi cinema hadn’t seen before. In the 1960s and 70s, areas such as Chambal in Central India were riddled with dacoits or bandits that used to plunder local villages from time to time. The character of Gabbar Singh is often acknowledged as the first portrayal of true evil in Hindi cinema. He wants nothing else than to satisfy his own ego. If you chart the progression of villains in Hindi cinema, you’ll find there was a raison-d’être for their existence. In a socialist Indian environment, the villains were the landlords and ‘zamindars’ who used to oppress the poor farmers. Then there were those who felt wronged by the protagonist and/or their family and wanted revenge. Yet others were just sexually frustrated and had bad social morals. However, Gabbar doesn’t follow any code or rules. Even though he’s a dacoit, he’s not really interested in money. All he wants is to have the last laugh. He has a weird idea of justice and injustice. When his gang members fail to bring him the requisite loot from Ramgarh, he intends to do ‘justice’. There are three people but six bullets, so he fires three bullets in the air to bring parity to the situation – three bullets, three men. After initially appearing to spare their lives, he kills them anyway, shouting “death to the cowards”! The character of Gabbar Singh inspired a whole heap of egoistic villains that took Hindi cinema by storm in the years to come such as – a notable example is that of Mogambo in Mr India (1987), among others.
R.D. Burman’s music played a huge part in setting the dramatic points of the film – a catchy western theme and songs that suit the mood of the situation. The song Yeh Dosti became a bromance anthem in the years to come and is often touted as the most well-known song that epitomises friendship. Ek Haseena Jab captures the flirtatious mood of Veeru as he tries to woo Basanti, whereas Holi Ke Din exemplifies the festive mood of the colourful Holi festival. Mehbooba Mehbooba can be seen the fore-runner of modern day ‘item numbers’ in Hindi films. R.D. Burman, the son of music director S.D. Burman (also a great music director) would inspire a revolution in the Hindi film industry by infusing music influences from across the world into traditional forms of Indian music to create some Hindi cinema’s most memorable tunes.
Even the smaller characters such as the bragging Soorma Bhopali (played by the comedian Jagdeep) capture the small details of regionalism and behaviour so well that they’ve stayed in the public consciousness to this day. And of course, how can I forget Asrani’s jailor character, a weird spoof of both Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Peter Sellers’ Inspector Jacques Clouseau.
Watching Sholay again has made me finally realise why it’s so dear to me. Beyond all the fanaticism and childhood fantasy, it’s a film that brought about a level of commercial success and professionalism that the Hindi film industry had never seen before. It gave scriptwriters yet to come the platform and recognition that they wouldn’t have got otherwise and as a writer myself, that does touch my heart. It would be a pity to reduce it to just a ‘curry western’. It’s a lot more than that – a time capsule of India’s socio-political context and narrative that has made the Hindi film industry what it is today!
Conor Bateman: My knowledge of Hindi cinema is, unfortunately, quite limited, so it’s interesting to see what Virat has called one of the most important Bollywood films ever. I was always going to see a 3+ hour Hindi film that primarily plays off of Western genres through the prism of Gangs of Wasseypur, the 2012 gangster epic by Anurag Kashyap, and Sholay, Ramesh Sippy’s ‘Curry Western’ goes for farce where Wasseypur went for tension. This shift was a pleasant surprise, the first half of Sippy’s film is thrilling, funny and manages to balance tone quite effectively, what with the intersection of clumsy romantic subplots and the main narrative thread of revenge to be enacted against the despotic Gabbar. It’s a shame, then, that the second half of Sippy’s film loses so much of the charm of the first, swapping out the fantastic 70s buddy-cop esque duet on a motorbike for an uncomfortable scene of fake suicide in which a woman is pressured to give her blessing with regards to a marriage. In fact, a whole lot of the Basanti/Veeru romance doesn’t quite clear itself of uncomfortable male advances as a result of its conclusion and whimsy throughout.
Virat writes about how Gabbar was a rare villain on Bollywood screens, and he definitely is a whole lot more brutal than I had anticipated. Though, as much as he is embelmatic of corruption and a force that lives off of cowardice, it seems strange that Thakur demands Gabbar be brought to him alive, a decree that ends up costing many lives within the village. It’s a niggling plot element, but the decision to not allow Jai and Veeru to just kill Gabbar earlier in the film tends to wholly undercut Thakur’s speech about cowards late in the film.
With that put to one side, though, much of Sholay is delightful and zany. Of particular note is the first hour, wherein we have a spectacular first horse v train chase scene and shootout, the aforementioned song on motorbike and, the most unexpected and amusing section of the film, the homage to The Great Dictator in the slapstick filled jail sequence.
Jeremy Elphick: This is one of the first pieces of Hindi cinema I’ve watched and I feel that really limits my ability to respond to it within the broader context within which it emerged. The way this film came together, however, left me really determined to properly expand my knowledge of this part of the cinematic world throughout the year. The idea of the Masala film and Sholay adhering to the form gives it a much broader scope than many of its Western equivalents. At times, the film is ridiculous in its levels of ambition – at others, poignant in its sadness. The diversity in genres within the film alongside the way in which Sippy weaves these seemingly conflicting moods and atmospheres into one another is incredible; as is the fact that this is one of the highest selling blockbuster Hindi films, yet doesn’t sacrifice or compromise its quality throughout.
The most fascinating part of watching Sholay for me, however, was simply being in a position where I was being pushed to engage with a film without the background or context or placement in the environment it emerged. I feel there’s a distinct difference from watching an arthouse film from the same era in that Sholay holds a much broader appeal and stands as a much more common reference point in an era of Indian popular culture. Watching the film and reading alot about it online after revealed how much has become referenced and thrown around in a lot of popular culture within both India, and its cinematic sphere. Sholay has offered a really enduring and enticing entry point into a section of cinema that I haven’t paid anywhere near enough attention to due to the pathetic way in which foreign cinema outside of Europe is often treated in the West. Being forced to watch this film has genuinely led me to understand how important it is to engage with every aspect of world cinema and to avoid falling into the easier habit of ignoring environments as large, diverse and awe-inspiring as those that Ramesh Sippy inhabit.