India's first 70 mm curry Western Sholay ran for five consecutive years at Mumbai's Minerva theatre. It has gone on to become an ineluctable part of the collective cinema consciousness of 1970s audiences and a must-see film experience for the generations thereafter.
What is particularly relevant is that this rather violent bone-cruncher not only shattered records but is also a lambent example of perceptive filmmaking.
On paper, this Salim-Javed story seems deceptively simple. A thakur-cum-policeman (Sanjeev Kumar) who takes pride in the fact that Shayad khatron se khelne ka shauk hai mujhe [Perhaps I like playing with danger], succeeds in nabbing a dreaded dacoit, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Gabbar then cold-bloodedly massacres Thakur's family and hacks off the Thakur's arms. The Thakur now lives in Ramgarh, an isolated village within Gabbar's circle of power, and hires the services of two petty thieves Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh) to execute his retribution.
| GP Sippy
|| Ramesh Sippy
|| RD Burman
||Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Amjad Khan
The pulsating drama gets most of its throb from the engaging, action-packed confrontations, verbal and otherwise, between the hunter and hunted. The tension is kept alive by Gabbar's periodic attempts to pillage the village. Two well-integrated romantic plots --- a muted romance between the Thakur's widowed daughter-in-law Radha (Jaya Bhaduri) and Jai, and a boisterous love track between chatterbox tangewali Basanti (Hema Malini) and Veeru --- ensure fair doses of songs besides humanising the two gunmen and giving us an emotional stake in their fight.
Salim-Javed's dialogues are unforgettable and the story has the in-built ingredients of a sumptuous entertainer, but it is Ramesh Sippy's vision that elevates the film to cult status.
The story may have been inspired by the Akira Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai, and the shot of the family's murder in broad daylight has shades of Sergio Leone's Western Once Upon A Time In The West. But Sippy's individualistic spin on the story is undeniable in the manner in which he marshalls his team, frames his shots and in his unhurried exposition to even seemingly peripheral scenes.
The film scores with its sharply delineated characters --- Thakur, a committed officer; Jai, a con man given to sardonic humour; Veeru, a hard-drinking smooth-talking flirt; Basanti, a tangewali whose speech competes with her tonga; Radha, a widow whose sad glances are occasionally laced with a faint glimmer of expectancy. And Gabbar, a dacoit with a homicidal temper and raucous laugh. There's rich detailing even in the cameos, whether it is Jagdeep as Soorma Bhopali, Keshto as the khabri, or Asrani spoofing a Hitler-like jailor.
No song is treated like a filler, each unfolds with an event-laden story within itself. Shinde's editing gives the film a cutting edge. He blends the scene where Gabbar raises his sword to chop Thakur's hands with the scene of an armless Thakur standing in front of the villagers. Sippy leaves some of the worst violence to our imagination --- the shot of a petrified child awaiting death at the hands of Gabbar cuts to the shot of a hooting train whistle, Gabbar squashes an ant and we are shown Ahmed's (Sachin's) dead body saddled on a horse entering the busy village square. The audience is spared the gory visuals but still feels the emotional impact like a slap.
Sippy and cinematographer Dwarka Divecha's collaboration works wonders --- the harsh sunlight on the bare chalky rocks of Gabbar's den add to the grim atmosphere; the fight sequences whether on the train or on galloping horses are captivatingly shot. The first time you see Gabbar only his legs are shown atop some boulders, in line with the faces of three of his dacoits. The power inequality strikes you instantly.
|Famous songs from Sholay|
| Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge
|| Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey
| Holi ke din dil
|| Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar
| Mehbooba mehbooba
|| RD Burman
| Koi haseena jab rooth jaati hai
|| Kishore Kumar
| Jab tak hai jaan
|| Lata Mangeshkar
The Jaya-Amitabh romance is built with the help of some imaginative visual blocks: Amitabh rides a buffalo and involuntarily brings a smile to Jaya's sad face, he nabs a gamboling lamb and hands it back to Jaya, Jaya wistfully steals a glance at Amitabh while extinguishing the lanterns at night.
Though the songs may not make it to the RD Top 20 compilation, his background score is astounding. He even has a chilling signature tune for Gabbar. But the sound that stayed in my mind, long after the film ended, was the ominous squeak of a swing after the massacre of Thakur's family.
Dharmendra is totally at home, his drunken scene where he threatens suicide from atop a tank, is his piece de resistance. Sanjeev Kumar's grey wig can only take a fraction of the credit for the credibility he brings to his role. Amitabh Bachchan speaks his pithy lines in his deep baritone with elan, a trait that became the hallmark of his performances. He ensures that you grieve for his death.
Hema Malini's rapid-fire dialogue delivery strikes an instant chord with the audience. Jaya Bhaduri's brooding silences are deafening.
Amjad Khan, aided by a gargoyle grin and whiplash dialogue delivery, makes an unforgettable Gabbar. The till-then unproven actor even blackened his teeth to suggest tobacco stains and the end result is a textbook performance that could inspire many a wannabe villain.
Sholay has been much copied but remains unsurpassed. Ironically, it has been one milestone that seems to have yoked Ramesh Sippy --- he could never come close to duplicating Sholay's success again.
Jai: Basanti, tumhara naam kya hai [Basanti, what is your name]?
Gabbar: Yeh haath mujhe de de Thakur [Give me these hands, Thakur]!
Imamsaab: Jaante ho duniya mein sabse bada bhoj kya hota hai? Baap ke kandhe par bete ka janaza [Do you know what the heaviest burden in the world is? A son's coffin on a father's shoulders].
*Kitney aadmi the [How many men were there]?
*Bahut yaarana lagta hai [Looks like you two are very close].
*Kyonki mujhe befizul baat karne ki aadat toh hain nahee [Because I don't have the habit of talking needlessly].
*Jo dar gaya samjho mar gaya [He who gets scared, is dead].
*Danny was originally pencilled for the role of Gabbar Singh. However, since he was committed to Feroz Khan's Dharmatma, relative newcomer Amjad Khan bagged the role and created history.
*Dharmendra and Hema were very much in love during the making of Sholay, their ninth success together. Jaya Bhaduri had married Amitabh soon after signing Sholay and was pregnant during the shooting of the film.
*September 20, 1973 was a red letter day for Amjad. He was officially signed for Sholay and his wife Shaila gifted him with a baby boy, Shadaab.
*Ramesh Sippy didn't work with Dharmendra, Sanjeev or Amjad thereafter; he did a string of films like Shaan, Shakti and Akayala with Amitabh.
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Design: Uday Kuckian