Ramesh Sippy Week Friday Classics: Sholay, The Perfect Movie

This movie has been written about and written about and written about. Usually with Indian film, it’s super easy to write about it because it is so under-studied anything I say will be original. Not the case here! This is like trying to write something new on Citizen Kane, there’s just nothing left. But I pulled up my old post, and added a bit on to it, and let’s see how I do.

If you have somehow never heard of the movie before, the best way to understand Sholay, I think, is to start not with how it was made, but how it was received. According to Anupama Chopra’s excellent book, which you should all rush out and buy, at the Bombay premier, the filmmakers and industry leading lights sat in the exclusive seats while the general public filled out the rest of the theater.  At the end of the show, instead of the expected cheers and applause, there was silence.  After a moment, the audience quietly stood and filed out without a word spoken.  No one knew what to make of this, such a thing had never been seen in Indian film before, audiences always made their pleasure or displeasure known.

The general consensus was that the film had flopped.  The next show had decreased attendance, clearly word of mouth was bad.  The filmmakers considered stopping production of prints, maybe re-shooting the ending.  In the meantime, the theaters kept playing it.  By the middle of the first week, the people started to come.  Slowly, the word spread.  Every show was sold out.  By the second week, the theater owners knew it was a hit.  Their concession sales were down because, even during intermission, the audience didn’t dare leave their seats for fear of missing a moment.  At one point, during the early weeks, a monsoon flooded the only theater in town showing Sholay.  The people arrived for their show, rolled up their trousers and took off their shoes, and waded through knee-deep water to watch a film they had already seen five, six, a dozen times.  By the third week, watching Sholay was accompanied by a hum as the entire audience joined in and recited the dialogues, sang the songs, even imitated the sound-effects in time with the film.

That first audience had been in shock, unable to deal with what they had experienced.  It wasn’t until days later that they began to speak of it, to share their emotions with their family and friends, and slowly the word spread that Sholay was a once in a lifetime experience.  People came, and came back, and came back again.  The film played non-stop for 5 years.  Over the years, Sholay became a part of people’s lives.  I had a friend whose parents’ Wedding anniversary was referred to as “the year Sholay came out”, the same why you would say “The same year as Indian Independence”.  The Sholay style writing, the iconic 3D and fire-rimmed title on the poster, became as common as Times New Roman, found on taxi cabs and storefronts.  I first started getting an idea of this in 2010, when Mac Mohan died and I was confused because all the headlines said “Sambha dies”.  Didn’t Sambha die in 1975?  Didn’t Jai and Veeru shoot him off his horse?  But by 2012 when AK Hangal died, I was used to it and ready for all the obits to be headed “Itna sunnata kyun hai bhai?” (“why so much silence, brothers?” his most famous line from the film). And “Rahim Chacha dies”!  Although I guess in this case it really was the first time Rahim Chacha died, right?  He was still alive at the end of the film, right?  But for both actors, their entire marriage, children, career, even their own name, are less important in summing up their life than those few months they spent working on  Sholay.

MacMohan, one line of dialogue in the whole movie, and 35 years later it’s the headline of his obituary.

More than just being the most important part of the actor’s lives, Sholay became a part of the fabric of India.  The characters of Jai and Veeru, Basanti, Thakur Sahib, Radha, and Gabbar have become familiar archetypes along with Ram and Sita, Radha and Krishna.  The dialogue is quoted along with Nehru’s speeches and Ghalib’s poetry.

According, again, to Chopra’s book, the magic of Sholay started during the making of it.  Over the months, as filming continued, it changed the lives of all involved.  Sholay was made by Ramesh Sippy, son of producer G.P. Sippy, before he was 30.  It starred Amitabh at the beginning of his stardom, his new wife Jaya Bachchan at the height of her stardom, Hema Malini, India’s Dream Girl, shortly after her debut, and action hero Dharmendra, star for over a decade with a reliable and resilient fan base.  The leader of their band was played by Sanjeev Kumar, the actors’ actor, while the villain was stage actor Amjad Khan, in his first film role ever.  The writers were the young team Salim-Javed, just beginning their creative dominance of the industry, Salim was approaching 40 while Javed was not yet out of his twenties.  The tone of the production was the confidence of youth supported by the authority of age.

Behind the scenes, G.P. had promised his director son whatever he wanted to create his vision of the “perfect” film.  They brought in stunt directors from London, built a whole village from scratch, used Dolby sound for the first time in Indian film.  The only compromise G.P. insisted on was the use of standard as well as widescreen ratios.  Ramesh was determined to make his vision in widescreen, but bowed to his father’s wisdom that the majority of the theaters in India would be unable to project it.  So every scene was shot by two cameras, one with the top and bottom of the lens blacked out to simulate a widescreen ratio, the other standard.  These two cameras, G.P.’s pragmatic profit seeking vision and Ramesh’s artistic futuristic dream, both captured the same images.  Sholay was both a grand ambitious vision of India in the future, and at the same time a populist action movie that could be enjoyed in the now.

As filming began, slowly, the characters began to overtake the actors.  In the same sequence in which Dharmendra’s character “Veeru” tricks Hema’s “Basanti” in order to put his arms around her, Dharmendra himself was falling in love with his co-star, and tricking Hema by paying off the cameraman to make errors and force multiple re-shoots.  As Amitabh’s character Jai stares at Jaya’s Radha with increasing love and care, Amitabh himself was watching his new bride glow as she carried his first child.  As Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur Sahib slowly falls apart as he watches his dreams die, Sanjeev Kumar’s heart was breaking as he watched the woman he loved, Hema Malini, falling in love with another man.  Meanwhile, Amjad Khan, playing the villainous outcaste Gabbar Singh, hated by all, was feeling increasingly isolated on set as he realized none of his co-stars had confidence in his ability to pull off this difficult role in this, his first film.  Somehow, the filming managed to capture a brief bubble of time in which the life of the character and the life of the actors over-lapped and, slowly, merged.   

This was true even in the early stages.  The script-writing team of Salim-Javed was made up of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, best friends and partners, who wrote the greatest onscreen relationship of Indian film between Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai and Dharmendra’s Veeru, best friends and partners.  They choose to show not the early years of their friendship, that is taken as a given, but rather the end.  Even before the tragic climax of the film, Jai and Veeru are already pulling apart as Veeru becomes closer to Basanti, a woman Jai does not appreciate.  Salim Khan wrote a scene in the film in which Jai goes and speaks to Basanti’s family, managing to passive aggressively insult Veeru in an attempt to sabotage the romance.  This scene was based on Salim’s own attempts to break Javed’s growing relationship with the actress Honey Irani.  Eventually, Javed did marry Honey, and while the partnership managed to whether that storm, other factors (Salim’s own second marriage, Javed’s growing alcoholism, the slowly growing gap in their artistic styles) managed to break the relationship.

The theme song of Sholay is “Yeh Dosti” (This Friendship).  It promises that, come what may, this friendship will never break.  Salim and Javed’s friendship did break and then, years later, was restored by the film they made to honor it.  When the director Ram Gopal Verma attempted to remake Sholay (a common practice in India, where copyright laws are loose), they came together again to fight him in court to protect their creation, and as a result, rediscovered the friendship that inspired it.

The greatest change Sholay wrought was on the young filmmakers and future filmmakers who watched it.  Every film since has included some moment of homage, of influence shown, of respect given, to Sholay.  It has become the single factor that ties together every citizen of India, every film of India, every element of Indian culture, into one unified whole.  Watch Sholay, and you will understand Indian film, India, the people of India, the people everywhere, all of humanity.

Now, a new section for this review, discussion of the plot! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN!!!!! The film is structured so carefully to reveal things in just the right order. But if you have seen it a while ago and can’t remember all the details, this will refresh your memory and lead into interesting discussion.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

The broad strokes of the film are the same as The Seven Samurai, Shane, and so on and so forth. There is a village that is terrorized by an evil bandit. The villagers are worn down, scared, unable to save themselves. Then strangers arrive from outside the village, they sacrifice themselves to save the villagers, and the village returns to normal life after they leave.

These broad strokes are universal for a reason, the village represents the average person, regular life, the way the world should be. The bandit is unexpected evil, outside the normal turn of the wheel of life. And so these two outsiders must rise to the occasion and defeat the evil. But the tragedy is, they can’t enjoy the peace, once the village returns to how it should be, they do not belong.

When writing Sholay, Salim-Javed build more and more onto that basic structure. For example, there are three “outsiders” in the village, and the tragedy of two of them is that they can’t stay and one that he can’t leave. “Thakur Sahib”, Sanjeev Kumar is smart and brave and a successful policeman. But he is tied back to his ancestral village. At the end of the film, he is left there alone, with only sad Jaya and his faithful servant Ramlal to keep him company. Forever alone. Amitabh’s Jai tries to bring too many changes to the world of the village, and dies for it. And Dharmendra’s Veeru, who dreamed of a happy peaceful village life, leaves voluntarily as he realizes he just doesn’t belong there. Which of these endings is saddest? Which man is punished most for being different from the rest of the world?

Well, we know who’s saddest! Jaya! The widow, who we see in her wild youth in the flashback, and then in her silent brokenness in the present. Amitabh brings her back to life and light (literally, lovely visual metaphor of her leaving a lamp burning in her bedroom after turning out all the other lights), and then dies as well. Jaya is left to sob on Sanjeev’s shoulder and he can’t even raise his arms to comfort her. The shot of her closing the shutters of her room and shutting out the world after Amitabh’s funeral is achingly sad.

Salim-Javed set out to not just talk about villagers and bandits, but about everything. Jaya the widow and her socially forced isolation, which she can never seem to escape. Sanjeev and his role as a leader that ties him to people who are ungrateful for his help. Amitabh and Dharmendra, the feckless fearless youth left to clear up the tragedies of their elders. Even Hema, the fearless rule breaking woman who gets the happy ending that obedient Jaya is denied. You can literally pick up any theme of Indian society and BOOM, there it is in Sholay. Feminism, social status, generation gap, village versus city, everything. No easy answers either, Sanjeev finally gets his vengeance, “right” wins over “wrong”, and what is he left with? Empty sobs of misery, a sad ending for his daughter-in-law, and saying good-bye to the only man who might be able to understand what he is feeling. Sholay even leaves open the question of it Thakur was in the right, should he have fought Gabbar or should he have let him go and left Amitabh alive to marry Jaya? Which was his greater responsibility to his family?

Image result for sholay jai jaya

Scratch that, you can pick any ethical question and there is an answer in Sholay. It’s not so much a film as a philosophical treatise. And also a film. There’s Sanjeev as the ancestral landlord who is literally armless and must hire men from the city to enforce his rule, which can give you days of discussion of the meaning of power and so on and so forth. But there’s also Sanjeev flipping around doing his kickfight at the end, or in the awesomely entertaining train shoot out that opens the film. It’s just plain fun!

It’s fun, it’s romantic, it’s even funny (not always the case for Hindi films). It’s very long and yet it feels short. The last time I watched it straight through, I didn’t intend to watch it straight through, I was just going to watch until there was a good stopping point. There are no good stopping points! The whole movie is perfect.

It’s every little decision. The choice not to show the body of the little boy on camera, the choice to keep the coin reveal until the very end, the moment when Amitabh looks at Jaya and smiles as he dies, everything is the best possible option out of all possible options. Such a wonderful movie. And I’m not the only one who thinks it, there is a reference to Sholay in almost every Hindi film made since then. It’s a little party game I like to play with myself, to spot it.

Just for fun, here are an assortment of Sholay moments in recent films that a spotted as part of my personal “Find the Sholay reference!” game:

Chennai Express: when arriving in the village immediately prior to the final confrontation, the background music drops away and only the sounds of the village are present, including the distinctive sound of a blacksmith hammering a sickle and a traditional working of cotton using a stringed carder making a plucking sound.  The same effect is used prior to the first arrival of the bandits in Sholay.

Dil Bole Hadippa: At the end of the “Discowale Kisko” song, there is a brief shot showing the aftermath from the top of a ferris wheel, imitating a similar shot following the Holi fight scene in Sholay.

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai: During the “Pee Loon” song, the character played by Emraan Hashmi wears the same all denim outfit that is Jai’s uniform throughout Sholay.

Main Hoon Na: In the flashback sequence, the sound of a creaking swing is used to evoke sadness.

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai: The comic character played by Jonny Lever references his father, an “Anglaise ki Tailor”, a pun on the comic character in Sholay who repeatedly refers to himself as an “Anglaise ki Jailor”.

Khoobsurat: The hero teaches the heroine “how to shoot”

Hum Aapke Hain Koun: during a family talent competition, a character recites Veeru’s entire “sooeecide!” speech

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: Has the same ending, a train pulling away from a village station with the hero and heroine inside.

Dostana: the two main characters argue about whether or not Gabbar is gay

Student of the Year: the music of “Yeh Dosti” plays as the two best friend main characters reunite.

Baazigar: the heroine, played by Kajol, is introduced with a spoof of the introduction of Gabbar Singh’s character.

Jab Tak Hain Jaan: the title is taken from the Sholay song, “Jab Tak Hain Jaan.”

Assorted other minor ways the film is alluded to in innumerable other films: pronouncing suicide as “sooeecide”; playing a harmonica; striped prison uniforms with shorts; characters riding in a motorcycle with side-car; flipping a coin; appearing to fall before a villain when actually throwing dust in their eyes; ferris wheels; merry-go-rounds; any time a woman is forced to “dance for her love”; shooting off handcuffs; prisoners traveling in a freight car; a lengthy stand-off at a wooden bridge (often including a shot looking up from beneath the bridge); the names Basanti, Thakur, Veeru, Jai, Dhano (for a horse or vehicle), Ramlaal, Gabbar, Sambha, Bhopali, and Kaalia.

2 thoughts on “Ramesh Sippy Week Friday Classics: Sholay, The Perfect Movie

  1. OK you’ve made me want to track down the real version. I don’t think the Prime version has the train farewell either. The video you posted of the end of Thakur and Gabbar’s fight is very much better than the dumb police ending, reinforces the tragedy. I didn’t expect this movie to make me so sad! I had it pegged in my head as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was prepared for Jai and Veeru to meet a dramatic end, but Jaya’s story is heartbreaking. And poor armless Thakur. It’s amazing how the same group of actors and director can elicit such completely different emotions from Seeta Aur Geeta to this.

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    • Einthusan.com! They are a hassle to use, but they’ve got real versions of everything. They also have ads, but if you just skip to the end of Sholay you should be good.

      And thank you for commenting! Yes, it is a sad movie. In a very specific way I really admire, the tragedy feels both inevitable and also still sad. That’s hard to do, making us feel how it is coming towards us but we also really really wish it wouldn’t.

      It’s soooo much sadder to let Veeru live, isn’t it? Jai dies, and Veeru gets the happy ending he and Jaya deserved to get. And Veeru knows he is only getting his ending because of Jai’s death and that’s going to be there behind everything good that happens for the rest of his life.

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