By Harsh Thakor
‘Sholay’ was a landmark film, directorial masterpiece, and greatly entertaining movie but not a classic with a social theme.
Undoubtedly, Sholay was the most impactful film ever made in the history of Bollywood.No film ever influenced or penetrated the Indian psyche as much as ‘Sholay’.Few scenes of films ever flash memories, with such a degree of intensity like ‘Sholay.’ It literally created the impact of an inferno in your heart. I do not have an adjective of the effect it had on me each time I saw it in the theatre as a child and later on video, literally searching my soul. The characters of the film became icons or role models of the Indian people and dialogue a part of the everyday Indian vocabulary. Sholay virtually defined a new era after it was released in August of 1975, running in Minerva theatre for over five years. The movie had the effect of a spell cast on me in childhood and its characters greatly shaped my way of thinking.
Sholay simply took entertainment to an unmatched crescendo with immaculate construction of plot with a brilliant blending of violence with romance and comedy with tragedy. The cinematography or screen effects were heart-capturing, almost making the audience feel a part of the film. The Scenes were most proportionately dissected, preventing any trend of dragging and most symmetrically woven together. The ebb and flow kept the spectators on their seats or the audience guessing. Directorially it was an outstanding venture or masterpiece.
The cinematography of the movie is a work of masterpiece be it the dacoits’ attack on the train, the dacoits offensive in the village of Ramgarh, the dacoits, and horses ravaging the huge landscapes, or the Thakur’s village in Ramgarh. The introductory part has classical overtones blending the horse riders with the landscape playing the background music. With the ingenuity of direction, Gabbar is introduced into the film, worth only his feet walking are shown before he bursts out scolding his men. With precision the scene of torturing the village boy Ahmed to death is cut, the killing of the Thakur’s grandson or the amputation of the hands of the Thakur. There is also subtle poignancy when the Thakur reveals his true story to Veeru and Jai about the trauma he faced at the hands of Gabbar.
Amjad Khan enacting the role of dacoit Gabbar Singh took acting skills to regions of the sublime, comparable even with the best Hollywood villains. I don’t have an adjective to describe the intensity with which he got into the very skin of the character, giving the role it’s absolute juice. Whether laughing in sarcasm or humiliating his fellow men, tormenting Basanti, expressing vengeance against the Thakur after being arrested or seeking an apology from the villagers none could have done as much justice to the character of ‘Gabbar.’ His mannerisms and gestures were like a dacoit leader in real life. Never seen an actor give sheer brutality it’s true meaning .with a magnitude of intensity reminiscent of a tidal wave.
Sanjeev Kumar as the Thakur blazed with the intensity of thunder and lightning. His eyes often told the story, whether expressing anger on Gabbar, confronting dacoits in the village, dressing the villagers, conversing with Jai and Veeru, consoling Radha, and taking revenge on Gabbar. What is remarkable is that he never lost his composure or balance. The conviction was expressed in sublime proportions.
Amitabh Bachhan was underplayed as Jai but took his death acting scene to heart touching depth rarely penetrated. It is hard to describe the intensity of anguish on his face in his final moments before he fires the bullet at the dynamite to set the bridge ablaze. The expressions were reminiscent of coal on the verge of being transformed into iron in a furnace.
Dharmendra was brilliant as Veeru in incorporating humour with blazing rage. When seeking revenge for Jai’s death Dharmendra as Viru takes anger to magnitude of a water pot simmering at a boiling point. Reveals playfulness of a child in drunken scene and when romancing with Hema Malini as Basanti.
Jaya Bhaduri as a widow Radha revealed sensitivity in classical style. Basanti enacted by Hema Malini kept the audience amused. or in full spirits with her unstoppable chattering. The supporting roles of Asrani as the Jailer, Jagdeep as Soorma Bhopali, and A K Hangal as Imam Sahib brilliantly integrated the frame of the movie. Asrani simply made the audience go into peels of laughter, Soorma Bhopali played by Jagdeep gave a comical element to the film while Hangal as Imam Saab gave a moral or ethical turn. A K Hangal pleads for Jai and Veeru to stay in the village and for more martyrs to be born in the village,in spite of the loss of his son at the hands of the dacoits.
With deep depth reaching the very core of his soul the Thakur asserts that he wishes that Gabbar Singh is personally handed over to him alive and not killed. This is after Veeru and Jai come to return the money and Jai states they will collect money after killing Gabbar. The Thakur also raises the torch of justice at a crescendo when refusing to bow down to the dictates of the villagers.
There is a brilliant contrast between the dynamic or buoyant romance between Veeru and Basanti and the most subtle, touching romance between Jai and Radha, with movements simply telling the story. Jai playing the moth organ with Radha turning off the lamps is one of the best portrayed silent love scenes in Indian films.
When Gabbar sarcastically laughs at his men after they are unsuccessful in looting the villagers, he traverses regions in acting rarely traversed. When launching the attack in Ramgarh village he spells dacoit’s cruelty and dictatorial trait to perfection.
It is to my regret that the censor board forced the last part to be re-made when originally the Thakur gets rid of Gabbar., with the nails of his shoes splicing through his flesh. In that scene, the Thakur takes acting intensity to regions of an inferno and after annihilating his enemy breaks out into agony, sobbing away in deep regret and feeling a great sense of emptiness despite a mission accomplished. In the final adaptation under the persuasion of an inspector, the Thakur hands Gabbar over to the police.
Despite being an entertainer the film had three moral overtones. One was when Imam Saab even after his son Ahmed being murdered by dacoits pleads for Veeru and Jai to remain and that more martyrs are created. He states that it is better to die with respect than live with cowardice when the villagers want Thakur’s henchmen to surrender to Gabbar. It is also morally significant that a Muslim is portrayed as a victim in Imam Sahib and son Ahmed, which reflects a secular overtone. The third is when Veeru and Jai are so touched with the grievances at the hands of Gabbar narrated by the Thakur that they return the money they stole but pledged to fight on behalf of the Thakur to capture Gabbar Singh.
CRITICISM OF SHOLAY
However was Sholay an all-time classic or great film? Did it not have flaws? I feel the film critiques of India have hardly addressed this point. Sholay wished to incorporate or adapt a ‘Western’ in an Indian form. In my view considering the conditions prevailing in India, a Western film model cannot be grafted or transplanted in an Indian form. In important ways, the plot of Sholay was not original and scenes were copied from Westerns like ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.,’ For a fistful of dollars,’ and the ‘Good, Bad and the Ugly.’ Gabbar’s wiping out the Thakur’s family is a copy of ‘Once Upon a Time in the West. Imitating the duo in the Western movie ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid to integrate it with a Dacoit movie was like putting a square peg in a round hole.
The movie glorified a Thakur, who in social reality is an oppressor of the peasant community. It does not all reflect the social turmoil of the villagers or any collective role. No projection of the notorious attitude or merciless behavior of Thakurs towards the common villagers, with Thakur Sahab, made to champion the interests of the villagers.
It is unrealistic for two urban gangsters to turn into crusaders for justice. Never would urban gangsters wish to settle in a village as Jai and Veeru. The film also gives a heroic portrayal of Jai and Veeru with no linking with the rebellion of the villagers, who are virtually treated antagonistically.
Violence is also arguably taken out of proportion if one assesses the magnitude of catharsis in the film. Alternatively, catharsis could have revealed the pain in day-to-day lives inflicted on Thakurs on peasants or the circumstances that turn people into dacoits. The film also had too many continuous hit and run parts with continuous scenes of dacoit chases. The script lacks the element of originality or grace so potent in a classic film and reveals crudeness and becomes mechanical at junctures.
Morally such a movie sings to the tune and fits into the pattern of the Indian ruling classes, making people hero-worship individualism. and give powerful escapist overtones to the masses. Significant that it was made at the time of emergency and became a superhit. It hardly enabled the Indian masses to grasp the very circumstances that led to turmoil. and sinks into the morass of escapism. .There is no reflection on the corruption or poverty prevailing in India at that time or rebellions predominant in that period. Good overpowering evil is not about a Thakur overpowering a Dacoit.
The film capitalized on the weakness of the Indian mind to slavishly glorify heroes and seek escapism. Arguably it was a reflection of the deep penetration of reactionary values in the Indian sub-conscious. Even the concept of two men fighting for liberating a village is very incoherent. In ‘The Magnificient seven’ movie modeled on the ‘Seven Samurai’ is based on the theme of the liberation of farmers and portrays the extrication of cowardice by villagers or farmers whose hearts are lit with courage. The theme of the movie is linked with the plight and integration of the farmers in the crusade against injustice The seven samurai reflect the lives of hunger strikes or impoverished farmers. The movie ‘Butch Cassidy and Sundance kid’ made in 1969 despite not having such a high moral, reflects the social reality of America at a time. in history.
In India, in the 1970s spirit of idealism was greatly lost but poverty and injustice were accentuated leading to the crystallization of movements like Naxalbari, movement Navnirman movement, the Dalit Panther movement, Railway workers strike, etc. Never in Sholay is the oppression of women, corruption, or subjugation of farmers at the hands of landlords portrayed. Sholay lacked a progressive message or moral aspect like ‘Pyaasa’,’ Guide’, ‘Garam Hava’, ‘Shree 420′,’ Satyakam’ or ‘Mother India’. It did not connect to social reality like ‘Do Bigha Zameen ‘ or even ‘Awara’.In some ways, it is symbolic that the film was made in a time of emergency. The magnitude of the success of ‘Sholay’ had a lot to do with the repressive Indian socio-political system which suppressed genuine revolutionary-democratic culture and endorsed reactionary art. Being a super hit does not necessarily make a movie great.
I feel glorifying films like ‘Sholay’ is part and parcel of the patronage of the ruling classes to divert people from their burning issues or promote escapist culture. Anupam Chopra’s book on ‘Sholay-Making of a Classic ‘talks about how it gave a new life to the people of village Ramgarh. Still today in India what is the plight of people in villages after forty years of making Sholay? In important ways, it paved the path for a genre of films with greater violence in the subsequent decade, even if of far lesser quality. I somewhat endorse Actor Naseeruddin Shah’s view on Sholay that it is an entertainer but not amongst the most artistic of films.
Making a classic with the theme of Thakur and Gabbar Singh as the central characters or theme literally robs the role of the villagers or gunfighters like in the great Western films. This type of film should have woven the role of the villagers substantially more in confronting the dacoits and integrated them with Veeru and Jai.
Such a film could give a vent to the day-to-day frustrations of the people and sublimate their desires. It revived the deep-rooted Indian or Hindu tradition of good winning over evil and making people repose faith in heroes and glorifying violence
However, entertaining it is contradictory to portraying Asrani as the jailer donning a Hitler mustache and calling Himself a jailer of the British era. To me, it does not fit into the scheme of things.
However, we must understand the elements of Sholay that won over the Indian masses and how certain of its film forms could be imbibed to create progressive films. We must understand the roots of escapist culture, however diversionary. The production and direction of ‘Sholay’ were masterly and skillful to the core. . The Movie brilliantly grasped the idioms of the common man.
I do not deny that Sholay was a landmark film and had its virtues. with the plot and scenes are woven with untold mastery. Sholay would without doubt rated ahead of ninety percent of superhit films that were great from an entertainment point of view but not classical, virtuous, or artistic. Sholay has power over classical overtones of shades but is not a classic movie in itself.
However, I would ask why was it not made in a form that would be a metaphor or symbol of the oppression existing in that time in India. Today critics still eulogize Sholay.No doubt it was better or more artistically made than later super hit films like ‘Qurbani’, ‘Dilwale Dulhan le Jayegee,’ ‘Hum Aapke Hai Kaun’, ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’. ‘Bazzigar’ or even ‘Lagaan’. However, critics should touch upon how films like ‘Sholay’ have no progressive overtones. To me, even the film ‘Deewar’ conveyed a more progressive .message. It is pertinent that most of the super hits of the modern era have been reactionary films, patronizing imperialist culture.
I would categorize ‘Sholay’ as a great entertainment film in the category of the James Bond films or Western-like ‘A Few Dollars More’ or ‘Good, Bad and the Ugly”.However I would never class Sholay with classics like the Magnificient Sven’ or ‘Once Upon a Time in The West” or Hindi films like ‘Guide’,’’ Pyaasa’, ‘Kaagaz Ki Phool’, ‘Madhumati’ or ‘Mughal E Azam.’ From the respect of pure plot, I rate even ‘Mother India ‘ and ‘Ganga Jamuna’ ahead of Sholay.
Nevertheless, I must end by asserting that ‘Sholay’ was the first film made of its kind or a pioneering venture, taking imagination in portraying characters and film direction art beyond regions known in Indian cinema. The acting or character of Gabbar Singh has not been equaled till this day in Indian cinema.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist. Toured India, particularly Punjab. Written on Mass movements, Mass line, Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontier weekly. An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com