“Think of a one-line description of Sholay,” filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee said a few years ago. I was sitting in on a script session for a film Banerjee was producing; the others in the room were Kanu Behl, who was helming this film (eventually made as Titli), and Sharat Katariya, who recently directed the delightful Dum Laga Ke Haisha. We looked at each other, made mumbling noises about a policeman-thakur seeking revenge on a bandit, hiring two mercenaries and so on. But Banerjee had a more lateral take, based on the character graphs of the two hired guns, Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan). “Anaath bachchon ko family milee [orphaned children got a family],” he said, enunciating each word slowly. Two orphans find a home, a family and a community. That’s what the film is about.
I mention this description because it highlights two opposing things about this legendary film, which turns 40 this year. To put it in simplistic terms: Sholay isn’t a very ‘Indian’ movie; and Sholay is a very ‘Indian’ movie.
First, the “anaath bachchon”. Think about it for a moment and you’ll see how unusual it is for a mainstream Hindi movie of that vintage, made on the cusp of the Amitabh Bachchan era, to have for its two leads men whose families or backgrounds we know zilch about. There is not even a mention of a mother—the emotional anchor for generations of Hindi-movie leading men—either real or adoptive. (“Mere paas maa hai”, an iconic line from another key Bachchan film—Deewar—released the same year, would sound ludicrous in the Sholay universe.) The one character who might fit the mould—Basanti’s fretting mausi—features most prominently as a foil in a comic scene.
It is also well-recorded that Sholay’s visual sense (so much grander than other Hindi movies of the time) and its archetypes come not from the theatre traditions that sustained Hindi cinema for decades but from foreign sources. The words ‘curry western’ tell the tale, pointing to how this film has its provenance in Sergio Leone’s ‘spaghetti westerns’ (an important scene is directly inspired by—the less charitable would say “copied from”—Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and the more traditional American Westerns of an earlier time, such as the work of John Ford, not to mention the Japanese classic Seven Samurai). Director Ramesh Sippy brought in American technicians for the action sequences, and there is an attention to detail—in the use of sound design, for instance—that was rarely found in the Hindi movies of the time.
But the second, conflicting point is that the rootless heroes are not allowed to stay “anaath”: They are admitted into a society, made part of a self-contained little village bound by a temple and a mosque. And they go from being money-minded (albeit good-hearted) to wanting to end Gabbar Singh’s reign of terror for philanthropic reasons; they have come to feel that they are part of the world threatened by the dacoits.
When one of the heroes dies in the end (and note how his death allows this traditional society to retain its preferred position that widows must not remarry), he is mourned by the whole community. His heartbroken friend leaves the village, in the manner of the drifter from the conventional Western, but Veeru’s departure can hardly be equated with Clint Eastwood riding away into the sunset, or John Wayne at the end of The Searchers realising that ‘home’ has no meaning for him; Veeru is joined by Basanti, they will presumably have a family of their own, perhaps even return to Ramgarh.
And, of course, the film has the episodic structures—and the generous mixing of tragedy, action, comedy, romance and music—that come from a homegrown Indian tradition. (No songs in Once Upon a Time in the West or Seven Samurai!)
This schizophrenia inherent in the film can be summed up in an uncharitable Filmfare review of 1975: “An imitation Western—neither here nor there,” it said. You can grasp the point being made without agreeing with that assessment of the film’s quality.
So what is Sholay’s legacy? The answer that immediately comes to mind is that there isn’t one, that the film existed in its own special void and didn’t affect anything in mainstream Hindi cinema: A huge boulder in a stream, watching impassively as the stream, and its smaller pebbles, continued to flow around it.
Consider some of the notable things it did, which following films couldn’t replicate with any conviction. Such as the culture-reshaping popularity of the dialogue: Catchphrases continue to be widely used today, in parodies and tributes. Growing up, one of my favourite audio-cassette sets was the Sholay ‘dialogue album’, which, in a neat inversion of most cassette releases, contained most of the film’s spoken lines while the songs were condensed to just 10 to 15 seconds each! Salim-Javed’s script, packed with memorable one-liners and monologues, facilitated this.
And yet, the concept remained a one-off. (Feroz Khan’s Qurbani had a dialogue album too, but there was no comparison in terms of popularity.) Sholay’s lines are ubiquitous. Even someone like Naseeruddin Shah, who has often derided the film as an over-praised pastiche of other movie moments, couldn’t escape them. In the low-key ‘parallel movie’ Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho, Shah’s character growls, “Kitney aadmi thay?” meaningfully. The “aadmi” he is referring to are goons sent by the film’s villain-in-chief… played by Amjad Khan.
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(This story appears in the 04 September, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)