40 Years of SHOLAY

The great Indian musical.

A few days ago, Sholay celebrated its 40th anniversary. The film was released on August 15th, 1975, India’s 28th Independence Day, and opened to a lackluster response, to put it mildly. Initial reviews were largely negative, and its poor marketing failed to attract crowds even in Mumbai, the heart and home of Indian cinema. Director Ramesh Sippy and screenwriting duo Salim-Javed even considered re-shooting the ending so that the character of Jai (a then unknown Amitabh Bachchan) would survive, in a desperate attempt to try and break even on what would be $15 million today. But it never came to that, because a few weeks in, something strange and miraculous happened. Word of mouth on the movie was so strong that people started filling theatres in its third week. And its fourth. And its fifth. In order to ride the wave of its sudden success, the producers released a second soundtrack to the film which contained neither its songs nor its instrumental score, but snippets of dialogue. The film eventually received a nationwide release the following October, and went on to become the highest grossing Indian film of 1975, but it wasn’t quite done there. Sholay would go on to make more than five times its original budget, and its theatrical run in Mumbai – the same run deemed a disaster after just two weeks – lasted until the February of 1981.

If you ask people what the greatest American film is, the answers will vary from The Godfather to Citizen Kane to Casablanca, among a handful of others, but when it comes to Indian cinema, there’s usually only one that comes to mind. Not only that, Sholay is also by far India’s most ubiquitous pop-culture phenomenon. For those of us who hadn’t been born yet, stories of its explosive impact on cinema and culture were akin to legends of Hindu mythology, passed down to us by our parents and grandparents, only they were there to actually witness the events. Even my own household would come to a standstill whenever it played on television, and by the time I actually got around to watching it (thanks to a 3D re-release, no less), I was already familiar with every other line of dialogue, parodied year after year during award shows and comedy bits, and every song and dance number, played ad nauseam on classic radio stations. For the Indian and South Asian diaspora, it is quite simply, unavoidable. It’s also the definitive encapsulation of ‘Bollywood’ as we understand it today, its existence having been intertwined with the very fabric of both the medium and the industry.

Like many Indian films since, including plenty that have done it with far less finesse, Sholay drew heavily from American and global cinema. The ‘masala film,’ or what is broadly defined as the Bollywood movie, is a mixture of genres, taking its name from a combination of various ground seasonings. The one quality inherent to masala however, is that’s usually spicy, as is Indian cinema’s twist on whatever forms it’s aping. Sholay is Western, Musical, Comedy, Melodrama and social commentary all rolled into one, with each element turned up to eleven. It borrows its plot from other Indian westerns like Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Khote Sikkay, even sharing its lead actor with the former, and like both films, it has both stylistic and thematic similarities to the works of Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Sam Peckinpah and George Roy Hill. The Magnificent Seven is in and of itself a Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and by the time that plot and story structure travelled back to its hemisphere of origin, remixed and remade for an entirely different Asian culture, it took the form of something both new and familiar, existing simultaneously as the very best of art and entertainment.

In Sholay, a mysterious Thakur, or village leader, Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) enlists the help of two small-time outlaws he once put away, best friends Veeru and Jai (Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan), in order to bring down a local bandit, the ruthless Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), with whom the Thakur also has a personal history. The broad strokes of the plot are as Western as they come, as are the film’s horse chases, shoot-outs and train robberies, but the two things that separate the film from the ones it draws inspiration from are the songs (a staple of Indian cinema), and more importantly, the characters.

Veru and Jai’s friendship forms the crux of the story. Their bike ride through the farmlands is accompanied by the song Yeh Dosti (this friendship), in which they sing about never leaving each other’s side. Their romantic interests even reflect their respective ethos, with the theatrical Veeru falling for the feisty and talkative horse-cart driver Basanti (Hema Malini), a character who becomes an integral part of the plot, with the reserved Jai entering in a much more subtle relationship with the equally reclusive Radha (Jaya Bahaduri), the Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law. Each character represented a specific aspect of Indian men and women at the time, from Veeru’s smarmy cheek, to Basanti’s headstrong independence, to Jai’s withheld nature, to Radha’s adherence to tradition, not to mention their various subtleties.

The film launched Amitabh Bachchan’s career, and he would go on to marry Jaya Bahaduri in real life before becoming one of Indian cinema’s most celebrated and accomplished actors, after which his son Abhishek would also rise to stardom. Abhishek went on to marry actress and former Miss Universe Aishwarya Rai, and the Bachchan family, like a handful of other Indian families, is a powerhouse within Indian cinema today. Dharmedra and Hema Mailini? Ditto their story, as their sons and their daughter went on to become stars themselves. As the story goes, Dharmendra was offered any role he wanted, and would’ve picked Thakur, but that would mean Sanjeev Kumar playing Veeru, and both men were interested in Malini at the time. And so, thanks to one man being attracted to his co-star, each actor played the role that would go on to define their careers, and two of the most iconic roles in Indian cinema were born. Bollywood is as much a style of film as it is an industry, but it’s also a dynasty its own right. Nepotism is certainly the furthest thing from ideal, especially where the creation of art is concerned, but the royal quality that these stars have (or rather, that we place upon them) is part of mainstream Indian cinema’s escapist allure.

Like any other industry, Bollywood has its own set of awards and its own celebrations, but perhaps one of the strangest departures from the ceremonies of the rest of the world was how Filmfare (the Indian equivalent of the Academy Awards) once categorized its statues for acting. The lead and supporting actor/actress categories go without saying, but in addition, the category of Best Performance in a Negative Role were deemed necessary because of how many great actors would end up playing nothing but villains, which would often lessen their chances against those playing the typically Bollywood ‘hero.’ The losing performances that led to this decision? Amrish Puri in Mr. India (who American viewers might know from Indiana Jones Temple of Doom) and Amjad Khan in Sholay.

Gabbar Singh was based on the real life 1950s bandit of the same name, who would warn police not to interfere with his affairs by sending their fellow officers back after cutting off their noses and ears. In the film, Gabbar cuts off the arms of any officer who tries to take him down. He’s as sinister and over-the-top as they come, and even his introduction in the film ended up achieving iconic status, despite the fact that it was from the waist down:

If you don’t speak Hindi, it’s hard to understand just how incredible this ridiculous-looking scene really is. The subtitles are bland and literal, but the actual words are almost poetic, and every other line in those six minutes is instantly recognizable. For example, the exchange between Gabbar and Kaliya, the third man in the lineup, has been boiled down to what would best service the plot, but a more accurate summation would be Kaliya reminding Gabbar that he’s loyal to him because he’s the hand that feeds. In response, Gabbar tells him he’s going to feed him a bullet. The bizarre, forced laughter cuts to silence with the sound of Gabbar’s gun going off, and his final line in the scene (transcribed as “Death to cowards!”) is a couplet that loosely translates to “Anyone who feels fear is dead.” But even the lines that don’t read like they were written by lyricists (Salim-Javed’s specialty was their poetic dialogue) ended up being received just like the rest. Gabbar’s opening line is simply “How many men were there?” but when delivered with the kind of gravitas that only Amjad Khan could bring to the table, it ended up cementing itself in the collective consciousness of Indian culture.

Just as the dialogue was used for poetic effect, the songs themselves largely existed to drive the narrative, something of a rarity in Indian musicals today. They were used to either establish relationships (Yeh Dosti), tone and setting (Mehbooba Mehbhooba) or, in the case of Haan Jab Tak Hai Jaan, advance the plot while subverting the expectations of the Indian musical itself, turning the male-gaze element of the ‘item number’ into something leeringly sinister. Gabbar tells Basanti that she has to keep dancing for him and his men if she wants to keep Veeru alive, to which Veeru, bound by rope, responds with yet another classic line, roughly meaning “Don’t dance for these animals,” but for once, Basanti decides to play the hero. The chorus of her song means “I will dance as long as I have life in me, my love,” and she dances even after the bandits have thrown broken bottles in her path.

Like any work of art or entertainment that connects with its culture, Sholay was a film that both drew from the sensibilities and socio-political climate of the era, while also demanding better from them. A minor subplot features a blind villager who, despite losing his son to the bandits, fights to keep Veeru and Jai around even though everyone else wants to banish them for attracting trouble. His speech is sentimental, and talk of the burden of having to lose a child, but there’s one other thing that separates him from all the other villagers: he’s a Muslim living in a Hindu community. Communal tensions never quite settled after the religion-based partition of Indian and Pakistan in 1947, and in 1971, the two countries went to war, leading to the creation of Bangladesh out of what was then East Pakistan. This was just two years after the first major Hindu-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, and religious tensions have been on the fritz ever since. While it’s unfortunate that the character of Rahim Chacha (Uncle Rahim) is still considered an appeal for progress today, it speaks to both the contemporary and prescient nature of the film back in 1975.

In addition to its latent commentary, a large portion of the third act is explicitly dedicated to a debate between justice and violence, externalized in the form of a fight scene between Gabbar, a bandit, and Thakur, a former police officer. The original ending saw Gabbar being killed, but after concerns from the Indian Censor Board, it was re-shot to have him taken away by the police – a bold statement in a nation where vigilante justice is sometimes considered a viable alternative to a corrupt legal system. The film’s violent nature and almost pro-feudalistic messaging are believed by some to be a reflection of the political unrest of the era, and whether or not it holds entirely true, there’s something to be said about its release coinciding with a 21-month State of Emergency. Ultimately, it’s a film that comes down on the side of order.

Today, the original Sholay is virtually lost. It’s hard to say whether or not a 35 or 70mm print of the film will ever be screened again, or if it’ll ever get a Blu-ray release. Its current circulation is in the form of an old, cropped DVD and various television re-runs, not to mention the odd illegal YouTube copy, but the film lives on in the hearts and minds of Indian cinema fans across the globe, many of whom can recall even the most intimate details of its 188 minute runtime. More than any other in the history of Indian cinema, or perhaps cinema in general, it’s a film that endures – so it’s quite fitting that the title means ‘embers.’

Sholay is a flame that can’t be put out.