Canon Entry - Sholay (1975)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
It’s intimidating to tackle a movie as monumental as Sholay. At this point in my life, I have seen so few Bollywood films that there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I could speak about Sholay as any kind of expert, especially as a Westerner. It has permeated Indian culture for over forty years and everything, from individual lines and scenes to songs, are as ingrained in Indian culture as something like Star Wars is in American culture. So I can only speak, as I do with nearly every film, as an avid amateur who seeks to understand all types of cinema, no matter how foreign it may be to experience.
Sholay, produced by G.P. Sippy and directed by his son Ramesh Sippy, is a masala Western about two rogues, Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jaidev (Amitabh Bachchan), who are recruited by a former police officer Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) to capture a notorious dacoit or bandit Gabbar Singh. A lot else happens in this three hour plus movie, but that is the basic conceit of the movie, though it hardly does justice to what a cornucopia this movie is.
Consider just the first twenty minutes. The movie starts with Thakur’s flashback in which he remembers that he had captured Veeru and Jai and was going to transport them by train to jail. The train, in true Western style, gets ambushed by bandits and Thakur must rely on the two thieves to help fend them off. The scene is classic Western action, beautifully and clearly shot, with an actual arc within the movie, like all the best actions. We are convincingly introduced to the characters’ fighting prowess, and the relationship between Thakur and the two men is clearly established.
Cut to the present when Thakur asks how quickly the two thieves can be apprehended. When the guard he is talking to responds that it will be difficult if they are not in jail and are just roaming free, we cut to...a musical number. This is just one of the many whiplash-inducing turns that this movie will subject its audience to. Apparently, it was also one of the first Bollywood movies to be such a mix or masala (a mixture of spices). As I understand it, the basic philosophy of making a movie that ranges from action to comedy to tragedy to musical to melodrama is that there should be a little bit of everything for all members of an audience, no matter how old or young or conservative or free-spirited they are.
The scene in which the two men are singing R.D. Burman “Yeh Dosti” is glorious, as they coast down a long country road on a motorcycle. As jarring as it might be to someone not familiar with this movie, it is clear that this song and scene establishes their friendship, nay, bromance better than twenty pages of dialogue could (although there’s plenty of that too). In fact, their bromance is the reason this movie works so well and is frankly much more compelling and convincing than the romances that they have with the two female characters in this movie. Their friendship is characterized by a great equality, symbolized the coin that Jai flips when they can’t decide what to do, at least on the surface. Much later in the film, that coin takes on a whole new significance that is truly moving and casts a whole different shade of meaning on this movie when I rewatched it.
I find the democratic nature of this friendship permeating this entire film as well, especially as it borrows freely from so many influences. It was definitely my misconception that Bollywood films are mostly self-contained and really only borrow from each other, though many of them are. But in this film, I see Sergio Leone in the intense close-ups and the bigness of the heroes and villains. I see Kurosawa in the use of slow-motion and the basic plot of the two men protecting a village from bandits, a la Seven Samurai. There is a whole subplot that could have easily been taken out of the movie, in which the two thieves plot to get themselves in jail, and the jailer is a spitting image of Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel. He’s even standing next to a damn globe in one scene. I half expected him to bounce the globe on his ass like Chaplin does in The Great Dictator, but I guess the ripoff would have been too blatant then.
Sholay is a film that does not stand up to intense critical and narrative analysis. It’s not meant to. It is a film of grandeur and sweeping vistas and gestures. There are moments of quiet as well, in which some of the biggest characters, especially Sanjeev Kumar, get more to do in a traditional acting sense. It is a testament to this film that even when it dips into objectively silly story conceits or even images, we go along with it. The big revelation about why Kumar’s Thakur wouldn’t (or couldn’t) pick up a gun when Gabbar Singh attacked the village during Holi should have been a laugh out loud moment, but I was caught up in that moment. I could see that scene being parodied by generations of Indian comedians and satirists. It is an honor to that scene and the rest of the movie. Perhaps there are also contrarians who discount this movie because of its overexposure in Indian culture. They’re wrong to do so.