Sholay is Also the Story of India in the 1970s

Still thrilling after all these years

Still thrilling after all these years

When the Ramesh Sippy directed film, Sholay released on August 15, 1975, it was greeted with very lukewarm reviews. Most publications dismissed it as another humdrum dacoit drama, a genre that was already fading away by then. True, the film was technically polished and had some exciting stunt scenes, but for the rest, it was just another potboiler, with a good mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action. If anything, it closely resembled another dacoit film, Mera Gaon Mera Desh that was released in 1971. The name Gabbar Singh bore a close resemblance to Jabbar Singh, the villain of Mera Gaon.

Industry gossip also had it that producer G P Sippy, a powerful presence in the industry, had used his considerable influence to get the film passed with minimum cuts. Those were the early days of the Emergency, which began on June 26, and the babus were particularly strict about enforcing it; film producers had been told that excessive violence would not be allowed. The original ending of the film, in which Sanjeev Kumar hacks off Gabbar’s arms before killing him, had to be changed, but a lot of other violent scenes escaped the censor’s eye.

Yet, 40 years later, we are all celebrating Sholay as not just an iconic film but also as the greatest Indian film ever made. Audiences across generations know of it. We remember its songs, its dialogues, its scenes; we reference it in our daily conversations – “kitney aadmi they” is immediately recognised by everyone and we parody it, like “Gabbar ki Asli Pasand.” It is no longer a film—it is a cultural marker, and a milestone in the century-long journey of Hindi cinema.

How did that happen?

There is no one answer to this question. It’s not as if it has a refreshingly original story. Dacoit films were routine, even if dying by the time it came along; revenge stories, too, were dime a dozen—Yaadon ki Baarat is a good example. On-screen buddies – bromance, as it would be called today – were not all that unusual either. 

Ideas inspired and lifted

In fact, Sholay can be said to be a film that included all the clichés of Hindi cinema plus many “inspired” moments from foreign films, including some direct lifts, such as Dharmendra’s drunken scene on top of the water tower, which was neatly picked up from Secret of Santa Vittoria, starring Anthony Quinn. The horses running parallel to a train sequence was a staple of Cowboy films.

Yet, Sholay has to be seen not as a coming together of clichés but in its entirety; its sum is greater than its parts. It is the packaging that makes all the difference. Young Ramesh Sippy weaved it all together in a very entertaining way, backed by a solid script and dialogue by Salim Javed and helped by some strong actors.

Watched today, Sholay is not just a film that entertains but a cultural artifact that tells us a lot about the 1970s and how the country – even if via commercial cinema – saw itself at the time. The characters, their respective positions in the film and their interplay tell us of an India that was vastly different from, and perhaps more innocent than, what it is today.

The village that is India

The village of Ramgarh is a microcosm of the ideal, imagined India—an idyllic village where people get along well but where everyone has a designated role and status. Thus, the retired cop (Sanjeev Kumar) is an upper caste Thakur, a distant figure nursing his anger and served by his loyal staff. His daughter-in-law, a widow, lives in his house but does not communicate with anyone. She is always in a white sari. She is more or less invisible to the villagers but not to Jai, the petty criminal brought from elsewhere as a mercenary to fight the dacoit who is terrorising the village. In the village scheme of things, a widow would remain in her weeds all of her life. If Jai didn’t die, would he and Radha have married? How would society have reacted?

On the other hand, the same village also has a working woman, Basanti. By the 1970s women were very visible in the workforce, so an outspoken, independent minded chatterbox was a perfectly legitimate character to create—Salim Javed’s films were full of women like this, from Jaya Bhaduri in Zanjeer to Geeta in Seeta aur Geeta. Basanti is the family’s wage earner, which she does with aplomb, and loses her heart to the macho but fun loving Veeru who is an outsider to her village.

In most of the 1950s and ‘60s, the newcomer in a village, usually a city slicker, was seen to be an exploiter of some sort, more often than not a seducer of innocent women who would eventually depart, leaving a broken heart and occasionally an unwanted pregnancy behind. That trope was fading away by the 1970s, as India – and its films – became more and more urban centric.

An interesting character in Sholay – and very much a 1970s stereotype – was Imam Saheb, the blind Muslim cleric whose son is killed. Played by the incomparable A K Hangal, Iaam Saheb was the prototype of the kindly Rahim chachas who proliferated in Bollywood – token Muslim characters who were almost always benevolent and harmless. To make sure the audiences got the message, the character was made to wear “Muslim” garb, which for men meant a sherwani and skull cap and for the women a sharara with a dupatta covering the head; they were made to spout “Muslim” sounding lines, such as “Ya Allah” or “La hawla wa la quvvat”. The presence of the gentle Muslim buttressed the secular credentials of the film but was reflective of how not just filmmakers but the rest of the country largely viewed Muslims; prejudices existed, but these did not extend to thinking of them as threats. It was still Nehruvian India.

The portrayal of Muslims in Hindi cinema is more nuanced in recent times, but this has opened the field for showing the “sinister” Muslim as posited against the “patriotic” one. Simple items of clothing have turned into shorthand for signalling the Muslim character’s menacing intentions. The Rahim chachas of yore now look like cardboard cutouts and caricatures, except that they cannot even be made fun of. In the 1970s, it was much simpler, even if it was all too filmy and a bit artificial.

Gabbar dominates

Arguably the most interesting character in Sholay is Gabbar Singh. Not only is the part well written, Amjad Khan took it beyond what the script writers intended. He was a new comer on the screen (barring a few roles as a kid), but he refused to be fazed by the presence of big stars; if anything, he towered above them, drawing all the attention to himself. Today we remember Gabbar more than the others.

As essayed by Khan, Gabbar Singh emerges less as pure evil and more as a man whose profession happens to be dacoity. No clues are provided to help us guess how and why he became an outlaw. Was he kidnapped as a child by dacoits? Did he commit a crime against the evil zamindars who burnt down his house and turned into a wanted man? Or, as is likely, he is just a de-mobbed soldier who found this a lucrative option; certainly his military fatigues suggest some kind of services background. Maybe he could not get gainful employment and drifted into this business. He certainly has leadership and organizational skills and keeps a tight control over his troops. Amjad Khan could have turned him into a caricature-he didn’t.

It is also tempting to wonder what his social background could be. Is he from a minor agricultural family who lost all its land? Perhaps he is an OBC, which would impart an added dimension to the famous dialogue, “Yeh haath mujhe de de Thakur”, indicating the aspirations of the backward castes who now want access to jobs and areas that the upper castes dominated. Caste in Hindi films was mentioned only in the reformist films made by the likes of Bombay Talkies, V Shantaram and Bimal Roy and later, in art films; for the rest, it was assumed that the characters belonged to the upper castes—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Khatris and Kayasthas. The OBCs did not exist as a concept yet; was Gabbar Singh a portent of times to come?

Of course these ideas were farthest from the minds of the writers and more so the audiences. For them, Sholay was a ripping good yarn, told racily. Great acting by all, from the big stars to the character actors, whether it was Asrani as the jailer, Jagdeep as Soorma Bhopali and even MacMohan, who became famous for just one line.

An important aspect of Sholay’s remarkable success and durability has rarely been discussed—its marketing. The film was sold as the Greatest Story Ever Told and its posters were evocatively designed.

sholay (1)

The Sippys did not spare any expense in promoting the film. The dialogues of the film were included in the LPs and were played from loudspeakers during festivals. There was no escaping “Kitney Aadmi They” or “Pure Pachas Hazaar”. These innovative ways to push not just the film but also the idea of the film – as something unique – really paid off. A legend began building around it as a larger than life work of art that has endured till today.

Weak songs

The film has many weaknesses, of course. The music is the most prominent one of them. R D Burman was a composer of hits at the time, but Sholay’s songs are positively lacklustre and would never be counted among his best. “Koi haseena jab rooth jaati hai to” is just a dull song, and “Yeh Dosti” lacks verve and zing. The mandatory Holi song can be cut with no ill effects on the film. Mehbooba is of course a direct lift from a song by the Cypriot singer Demis Roussos. This was a film that really did not really need songs.

What is the secret of the film’s longevity? To begin with, legend feeds upon legend. Once we accept the idea that it is a great film, then it becomes difficult to distance oneself from it. This is not to say the film is not good, but it has acquired a halo over the years. But even today, it holds the viewer. Many old classics look boring now—Sholay does not. And it will not even 50 years from today.