Friday, January 3, 2014


Release date:
January 3, 2014
Ramesh Sippy


Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, A.K. Hangal, Satyen Kappu, Viju Khote, Sachin, Asrani, Jagdeep, Mac Mohan, Iftekhar, Leela Mishra, Keshto Mukherjee, Helen, Jalal Agha

“When I’m at parties, people ask me, “‘Kitney aadmi thhey?’ jaisa line aapne kaise likha?” How do I answer that?” a bemused Javed Akhtar once asked in an interview I did for Headlines Today. “I mean, you tell me, what’s so great about that line? ‘Kitney aadmi thhey?’ Yet people loved it!”

Akhtar, along with fellow writer Salim Khan, and director Ramesh Sippy packed Sholay with similarly memorable yet brilliantly simple dialogues, characters, scenes and situations from its very first shot to the last. Having had several conversations over the years with many players in the film – Sippy, Akhtar, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Sachin and others – I can tell you that none of them can quite explain how and why every single element in Sholay ended up becoming so iconic, deified, spoofed and adored

As you might have guessed, this is not so much a review as me sharing with you my experience of watching a much-loved film on its re-release in 3D. As it happens, the experience was special because I’ve not seen Sholay on the big screen before.

This is one of those films that its admirers know pretty much by heart
. I was a kid when I first watched it many years after it was released, and I remember being completely awe-struck by the grandeur of the film back then. Every moment, every shot, every scene, seemed like a complete entity, a standalone achievement in itself.

I remember the adrenaline high of watching that masterful goods-train chase right at the start involving Jai, Veeru, Thakursaab and those terrifying daakus on horseback, and the other spectacularly shot chases that followed. Dwarka Divecha’s cinematography and Sippy’s direction of these scenes are so splendid that they stand the test of time even on repeat viewing almost four decades later, decades which have seen technology advance in leaps and bounds.

From that first viewing of the film as a child, I remember Bachchan’s brooding handsomeness, Dharam-Hema’s electric equation, his good looks and comic timing, her immense beauty and charm, the Jai-Veeru bond – heartbreaking in retrospect – that’s never been matched by any Hindi film dostis that came before or after, the motorbike and the side car. I remember the air of poignancy around Jaya Bhaduri, those lanterns that she’d turn off every night, the harmonica that was sprightly and tragic by turns, Hema’s pretty feet kicking up mounds of Holi ke rang, those same feet bleeding as she danced to save her lover’s life; the stumbling, bumbling, fumbling “angrez ke zamaane ka jailor”, the cheating Soorma Bhopali, Keshto Mukherjee’s slimy naai, Helen’s sensual dance moves around that campfire, Jalal Agha’s strumming, Sanjeev Kumar’s regal air, Iftekhar’s dignity, Ramlaal’s loyalty, a trembling little boy gazing at death; the temple scene, the tank scene, the image I conjured up in my mind of Mausi in jail “chakki peesing and peesing and peesing”; Sambha, Kaaliya, the coin tosses, Dhanno’s desperate run to save Basanti from daakus; Imamsaab’s confidence that someone would always be there to help him down the steps of the mosque; a limp body sent back home on a horse, an old man asking, “Itna sannaata kyun hai bhai?”; the first sight of Gabbar Singh’s boots, the skewered meats roasting above Gabbar’s head as he lay on a charpoy, and everything, but everything about that evil dacoit to top all Hindi film dacoits. It’s a mark of the director’s and writers’ genius that every single cameo, every situation, has been branded on to the mind’s eye.

What’s so great about it all? Javedsaab’s words echo in my mind. The answer is that Sholay is one of those rare films where everything clicked; everything just fell into place. If “Kitney aadmi thhey?” had been uttered by Danny Denzongpa – the original choice for Gabbar’s role – or for that matter any actor other than Amjad Khan with precisely that vocal intonation and satanic facial expression, would it have been as effective? I suspect not. Basanti’s introductory scene is an excellent piece of comedic writing, but if anyone other than that Bachchan baritone had drawled “Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti?” to be met with the anger of any other actress’ sparkling eyes, would the impact have been as great? I think not. 

Sholay’s technical finesse and attention to detail are what makes it a masterpiece. In later years, when I watched the film as an adult, I noticed things that no doubt would have registered in the sub-conscious mind the first time round. If you do see Sholay after reading this review, pay careful attention to the audio design. The quality is so dazzling that it’s hard to imagine this film was made 38 years back. It doesn’t take a discerning critic’s ear to notice the clarity of the sound of Gabbar’s boots stomping across those rocks or of Jai’s coin falling on the ground or that tiny click of something going off with the flame of each of Radha’s lamps.

The other unforgettable aspect of this film is R.D. Burman’s music. I’m not very fond of the Holi song or Koi haseena jab rootth jaati hai, but Yeh dosti still gives me a lump in my throat and Mehbooba matches up to the sexiness of the most polished of today’s item numbers. The standout element in the music though is the goosebump-inducing background score, snatches of which Jai also plays on his harmonica.

Of course there was some over-acting in the film, but noticing that also helped the adult me appreciate the importance of context and genre while examining a work of art. Sanjeev Kumar’s eyes bulging in anger might seem over-the-top today, in an age when we’re leaning towards a more naturalistic style of acting, but back then he was the natural actor, a stark contrast to the stagey, studied, mannered style that was the hallmark of many actors of previous decades, with each generation mellowing down a tad bit in that regard in comparison with the previous one. Compare Sanjeevsaab to K.L. Saigal, Raj Kapoor, Suraiyya or Nargis and you will know what I mean. Besides, a bit of overdone-ness (if there is such a word) is an intrinsic part of the mainstream Bollywood masala genre – yes, I did say genre. To ask, “Why can’t mainstream Bollywood actors tone it down a bit?” is like asking, “Why on earth did a lawyer break into a song ‘n’ tap dance during a courtroom scene in (the Hollywood musical) Chicago?” Hey, that’s the nature of the beast.

Similarly, the jailer and Soorma Bhopali would seem like exaggerated, over-stated characters over-acted by Asrani and Jagdeep in a film today; while Imamsaab in a film in 2014 would deserve to be dismissed as a Bollywood Muslim cliché from a time thankfully past, when a character from a minority community was never featured in a story unless to make a particular point (in this case, a well-meaning point about secularism). Context here becomes all-important for a holistic appreciation of the film.

Some elements in Sholay that I would not brook today: the unquestioning acceptance of the feudal and patriarchal order in Ramgarh; Veeru’s courtship of Basanti which has a when-a-woman-says-no-she-means-yes-or-maybe tone and which comedifies molestation in that disturbing scene in which he feels her up in the guise of teaching her to shoot; and the inclusion of the campy prisoner who informs Jai and Veeru about the naai’s sneaky ways. I’m not saying they were acceptable back then. No they were not. Keep in mind though that most other writers and directors did far far worse in those days. That is no excuse though. After all, true greatness lies in rising above your upbringing and the times you live in; if no one did that, we would be stuck in the Stone Age.

Sholay itself is a fine example of evolved social values in another aspect of its storyline: Salim-Javed and director Ramesh Sippy’s remarkably progressive endorsement of widow remarriage. Remember, this was the 1970s, not 2014. In a recent interview I did with Sippy for the August 2013 issue of Maxim magazine, he discusses this: Sholay was a front-runner since it took cinema to a different level. It broke certain earlier barriers with its treatment of friendship, the suggestion of widow remarriage. It’s not like such things didn’t exist in movies before, but this one went as far as Sanjeev Kumar taking his widowed daughter-in-law to discuss marriage for her. So it’s not like it was just an action adventure or a revenge saga, but it was also touching upon several social issues very nicely which made it a wholesome film that had something important to say.”

No doubt some feminists would condemn Radha’s unquestioning acceptance of her fate and the story’s insinuation that salvation for a widow could come only in the form of marriage. Allow me to insist that in that respect the film was merely a portrayal of a particular social reality, not a glorification of it.

Over the years, I must admit to being slightly exasperated by critiques that have read homosexual undertones and overtones into the Jai-Veeru friendship. When did we get to a stage where we couldn’t see an intimate friendship and platonic physical contact between two men or two women without assuming that they were gay?

Now to the big question everyone is asking this week: Has 3D ruined Sholay? No, not at all! Has it enhanced the film? Well, yes in a few action scenes (especially that first great train robbery attempt), but for the most part, apart from adding some depth to the frames, I’m afraid it has not made much of a difference. In any case, 3D tends to be less effective when a film is converted from the 2D format in post-production; not just for technological reasons, but also because the original cinematography, choreography and stunt direction would have been conceived and executed without the third dimension in mind.

Still, I see nothing lost here. A friend on Twitter wondered if the 3D-fication of Sholay was the “butchering” of a classic. This would be hyperbole at its best, I assured him. If – like inoffensive remixes and remakes – the release of the 3D version at the very least opens up a lovely old film to a whole new audience, excuse me for asking: what’s the problem?

A bit of India’s cinematic history rode back into theatres this week with Jai and Veeru. History rarely repeats itself. When it does, it’s definitely worth a revisit.

Rating (out of five): ****1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
207 minutes

1 comment:

  1. Aisi movies evergreen hai...Life mai ek baar hi banti hai...Those people are lucky who saw this movie at first time on first day:)