I’m often asked about which Hindi film people who’ve never seen one should begin with. Sholay remains a good choice as its clear story, quirky characters, humour and catchy songs work well. Its plot is familiar from the western, and many scenes are inspired by famous ‘spaghetti westerns’, but it blends this with elements of the Hindi film, including the songs and melodrama. The film shows that Hindi film doesn’t have to be a diffuse, melodramatic form, nor a celebration of kitsch and excess but can be a unique style which is both the same as and different from other kinds of film making. If the ‘formula’ of the Hindi film were to exist, Sholay would have it, but no one has ever managed to mix the masala in the same way again the way Ramesh Sippy did.
The story is familiar from the western. A lone and heroic man brings law to a place that was formerly lawless. Here Sanjeev Kumar plays a retired police officer, the Thakur, who cannot literally take the law into his own hands, as they have been cut off by the evil bandit, Gabbar Singh, who has massacred Thakur’s family in a scene which is almost a direct copy of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ . The Thakur’s storyline sits comfortably in the Hindi melodrama where the hero is focused on revenge for a wrong done to his family, as many of the other Salim-Javed films of the 1970s.
Yet this story is by no means a single hero film. The Thakur hires two men who are to act as each of his missing arms, and they are played by two of the great stars of Hindi cinema, Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan. Although they act in part according to their star images, Veeru and Jai are also real characters who develop from feckless petty criminals to real heroes when challenged with evil. They fall in love and dream of marriage and settling down in the town where they find new family relationships. They also begin to identify with principles of honour and sacrifice. Dharmendra (Veeru) is in an exuberant romance with the feisty Basanti, his off-screen partner, Hema Malini, while Amitabh plays Jai, the brooding hero, whose love is for the widow Radha, his off-screen wife, Jaya Bachchan.
While no hero, Gabbar Singh, the villain is another star in the film. He is a villain like no other whose character combines aspects of a pantomime villain with psychopathic tendencies — his feud with Thakur has little genuine motivation and he is evil simply because he is evil. Gabbar regards himself as some kind of paramilitary leader, as manifested in his fatigues and forceful leadership of his band of rural thugs. His unpredictable behaviour is underlined by some of the best lines in Hindi cinema which he deploys for his delusional sense of self-worth and his own morality – Jo dar gaya, samjho mar gaya; kitne admi the? These dialogues by Salim-Javed have become known outside the film for their wit and play with language, and within the film they establish character in a unique way.
Sambha/Macmohan is immortalised with just one line of dialogue (Poore pachaas hajaar, the bounty on Gabbar’s head), while Gabbar becomes a central character without a song because he has the best lines.
Great songs too
Sholay has an outstanding musical score by RD Burman with each song developing character, drama and entertainment. One of the most famous is Yeh dosti, a duet by two men with crazy sound effects and dramatic music. Veeru and Jai are two sides of a (fake) coin and they are in perfect harmony just as Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, and will stick together as the motorbike and its sidecar. Much celebrated as homoerotic, the song sets the friendship of the inseparable duo in a way that any seasoned filmgoer would know will end in a death.
Although the men get to wear the stylish clothes and have the cool motorbike, Basanti the tonga-driver has her horse, the animal Dhanno (immortalised in the dialogue: Chal Dhanno, aaj teri Basanti ki izzat ka sawaal hai),. Jaya, the widow is static, moving only in the famous lamp lighting scene, but is a tragic character mired in her fate with no future.
Helen and Jalal Agha dance in circles for Gabbar’s delight in ‘Mehbooba’, sung by RD Burman himself, a huge hit song taken from a Cypriot folksong popularised by the massive star Demis Roussos. The deleted song ‘Ke chaand sa koi chehra’ sounds like a promising qawwali while the backing music also establishes character, notably the man with the harmonica.
Sholay’s most famous scenes are part of Indian film history, my own favourites being ‘Kitne admi the?’ where Gabbar’s performance echoes around the rocky den and the proposal to Mausi, as well Veeru’s speech from the water tower.
The film released in August 1975, soon after the Emergency was declared and has been linked to wider political and social issues although the only censorship of the film at the time was of Thakur’s killing of Gabbar.
Sholay, as Anupama Chopra says in her fascinating book on the making of the film, is the ‘ultimate classic’, not the biggest grossing, a poor opener, but one of longest running, and which has developed its own history over the forty years. A modern myth, characters as archetypes, life beyond the film itself from Gabbar’s biscuit advertisements to the endlessly quoted dialogues.
I can’t remember when I first saw Sholay but certainly not at the time it came out as the only Indian filmmaker I knew then was Satyajit Ray. However, it must have been before 1989 as my husband and I recognised Amjad Khan who sat across the aisle from us on a flight in Rajasthan that year. I wasn’t overly impressed but as I have seen it many more times, I’ve come to love it and still think it is among the greatest Hindi films of all time.
The writer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema, SOAS, University of London