One of the most analyzed movies in Indian cinema has to be "Sholay". What can one say about this film that has not already been said by thousands of others? Yet, "Sholay" is the type of film that no matter how many times is talked about or frequently played at cinemas, movie buffs never tire of it. A sign of an evergreen classic. For everyone has their own different favorite moment or scene that they recall fondly from the movie. Be it Basanti (Hema Malini) chatting away nines to the dozen but at the end claiming breathlessly, "Kyunke mujhe befuzool baat karne ki aadat to hai nahin (I am not one to engage in idle talk)". Or Gabbar Singh ‘s (Amjad Khan) booming voice philosophizing, "Jo darr gaya samjho margaya (Who ever is scared is dead)". Or the sound of the swing squeaking after the dacoits have inflicted their reign of terror on the household of Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar).
The plot sounds very simple on paper. Notorious dacoit Gabbar escapes jail but he is enraged at the man who put him there in the first place- Thakur. As an act of malicious revenge, Gabbar and his henchmen kill Thakur´s entire family (except for his daughter-in-law). Now Thakur wants to bring Gabbar to justice. He is helpless because he lost his arms and he is out of the police force. Therefore, he employs the help of two brave but badmaash layabouts, Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra), to bring Gabbar to him. ALIVE. Not Dead. “Tum Gabbar Singh ko nahin maaroge! Tum yahan Gabbar ko pakarke mere hawaale karne aaye ho. Zinda! (You will not kill Gabbar! You are here to capture Gabbar and hand him over to me. Alive!)” Thakur reiterates when Jai promises that they will bring Gabbar’s corpse. For Thakur, not killing Gabbar is an important matter. He wants to mete out the desired punishment to his nemesis himself. He wants a helpless Gabbar lying at his feet, a man who would be shocked that an armless man still has the power to render him helpless.
Gabbar Singh is firmly entrenched in Indian cinema history as being a very popular villain. This is mainly due to Amjad’s tour-de-force performance but also partly due to the way Ramesh Sippy introduces his character into the film. He allows suspense to build-up through several characters’ hushed mentions of the notorious bandit. Gabbar does not make his screen appearance until after one song and a lot of scenes have gone past. Even then his face is not shown immediately at first. The sound of shoes clashing onto the rock signifies Gabbar’s entrance. The camera shows his henchmen’s terrified faces from the angle of Gabbar’s shoes. This is a comment on the power that he wields over his yes-men. He is above them and can control whomever he wants. He believes that he is as powerful as God. He has a very maniacal laugh that would not sound out of place in a mental asylum. The role was originally signed to Danny Denzongpa but fate meant that it landed in Amjad’s lap. And how he lapped it up! His dedication to his role (blacking his teeth, vigorous rehearsing, menacing eyes) is mainly the reason why his character is remembered so much today.
“Sholay” is a benchmark in the careers of the rest of the performers involved. The screen chemistry between Hema and Dharmendra sizzles. Their camaraderie and exchanges are a delight to watch. There is also brilliant chemistry between Dharmendra and Amitabh meaning that we do not need to be persuaded that these men are close friends. Sanjeev and Jaya Bhaduri (who plays Radha, Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law) give powerfully understated performances. But one of the reasons why all the actors shine in their roles is that their characters can easily be distinguished from one another. Each of the characters possess individual traits and nuances that we can identify them with. There is the silent sarcasm inherent in Jai’s character. Veeru’s childish sense of humor. Basanti’s habit of talking too much. Thakur’s sincerity and determination. The quiet brooding of Radha. Whereas Veeru and Basanti’s relationship is steeped in a sense of loud fun and humour, Radha and Jai are united together through silence. When they meet they cannot find many words to say but they are not bothered about that, they connect just by gazing at each other. Every evening, Jai sits outside the house playing his harmonica while watching Radha walk around the building turning off every lamp. Just that rare moment of connection fills them with content. After turning off every lamp, Radha goes into her room to listen to the sound of Jai’s harmonica. Every light in the house is off but she does not turn the light off in her room. The light in her room indicates a new form of hope, a new beginning.
Silence is something that the director uses very well. It serves as a way of understating the violence in scenes where slaughter occurs. Like when the dacoits spot a boy from Ramgarh riding on his horse. They intend to capture him and bring him to Gabbar. They creep up to the boy silently. The next scene shows Gabbar squashing a fly on his arm- an act that represents the death of the boy. Very little bloodshed is actually shown. Even today, Bollywood cinema is rarely this imaginative when it comes to depicting murder or death. If there is silence in some scenes, then there is also the masterful background score by R.D. Burman. The background music is a character in itself. It is tremendous to listen to especially during the train sequence when Jai and Veeru help Thakur fend off a group of highjackers. Here, the sound is a thrilling concoction of operatic music, the thumping rhythm of the train moving and the galloping of the horses. To a certain extent, the musical numbers tend to be overshadowed by the famous dialogues and action scenes but, nevertheless, everyone has their own particular favorite. Each song has become an anthem for a certain theme. Ask someone to name a friendship song and it is more than likely that “Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge” will be mentioned. Likewise, “Holi Ke Din” is also a perennial favorite as a song to listen to on the occasion of Holi.
Basanti complains to Jai and Veeru, “Tum shaherwale samajhte ho ke hum gaonwale ka akal hai nahin (You city people think that we have no brains)”. Her thought nails the argument of city versus village that lies in the subtext of “Sholay”. Jai and Veeru are outsiders to the locals of Ramgarh. To the villagers, they represent change and the symbol for a happier and progressive future. However, they are also an antithesis to traditionalism. Basanti’s aunt refuses to allow her marriage to Veeru go ahead because he lacks any redeeming qualities from an educationary or financial perspective. Elders are respected tremendously in Ramgarh but Veeru’s refusal to accept Basanti’s guardian’s final decision shows a rebellious streak inside him against tradition. The only way he finally wins her hand in marriage is by getting drunk and making a hilarious attempt to commit suicide in Basanti’s name. In rural parts of India, widows are still stigmatized and treated as society outcastes. Jai dares to break this rule by asking for Thakur’s permission to let Radha marry again. The narrative does not let Jai see happiness by breaking this tradition. Nature intervenes and takes Jai’s life away leaving Radha broken-hearted once more. At this point, fate and nature concurs with traditionalism. Life in Indian society has its rules and it is not prepared to let Jai break those rules. He cannot be left happy through this act of rebellion. Ramgarh is happy to accept the good side of change (ie getting rid of the menace of Gabbar Singh) but it cannot bear the tampering of general society rules. Clearly, modernism does not exist in the outback of Ramgarh. This proves too much for Basanti (who shows a rebellious streak by working as a tangewali, which she herself admits is unusual for a girl) and Veeru, both who eventually leave the village so that they can live their lives as they wish in a more tolerant place.
Salim-Javed hit a creative high with their sterling work on dialogues and story in “Sholay”. To cap off this review, let’s have a look at some of the most memorable lines in this classic:
“Arre o Saambha, kitne aadmi tay? (Oye Saambha, how many men were there?)”
“Bahut yaaraana lagta hai, eh? (He means a lot to you, eh?)”
“Khota sikka to dono taraf se khota hota hai (A bad coin is bad on both sides)”
“Wohi kar raha hoon bhaiya jo Majnu ne Laila ke liye kiya tha, Ranjha ne Heer ke liye tha, Romeo ne Juliet ke liye tha… SOOSIDE (I am only doing what Majnu did for Laila, Ranjha did for Heer, Romeo for Juliet… SOOSIDE)”
“Tumhara naam kya hai Basanti? (What is your name, Basanti?)”
“Saala nautanki, ghadi ghadi drama karta hai (You’d make a fine dramatic actor)”