Many years ago I got myself coerced into watching a number of Bollywood films by some Asian work friends who, as far as I could tell, thought it was funny that I’d actually watch them. To them Bollywood films was entirely a product of their culture and, by proxy, should make no sense to a silly Englishman such as myself. Over some time I sat and watched Baazigar, Daag: The Fire and Gharwali Baharwali. All of which are damn enjoyable films and quite a good crash course in modern Bollywood movies. None of those movie hold a candle to the film I’m reviewing today though. Sholay goes beyond being a big deal in India. It played solidly in cinemas for 5 years and it still wouldn’t be too hard to find a cinema showing it today some 38 years later. When adjusted for inflation it is the highest grossing Indian film of all time. It also proves that Bollywood films aren’t just for the people of their homeland. I say this because Sholay is one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Click the link for my review.
Sholay tells the story of a former police officer named Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) who, after losing his family to a bandit called Gabbar Singh (Ahmjad Khan) calls upon the help of two criminals he had met years earlier who had displayed an uncharacteristic level of bravery and honour when they helped him stop a train hijacking. The two criminals Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra) are at first only concerned with ripping off the Thakur (A word which means Lord, he runs a small village community) and plan on stealing the money from his safe. But things get personal and the duo soon find themselves learning how to become better, less crime obsessed, people along the way. The film plays with themes of revenge, social status and appearances as well as being on violent piece of action.
So the story sounds Western enough right? Sounds like it’s ripped straight from a Sergio Leone movie. That is not as far as the influence of the Spaghetti Western and the films of Sam Peckinpah go though. The film is set mostly within a small rocky area of India called Ramanagara. One google search of that place and you’ll see that it looks exactly like the wild west. That and the location of a number of fights involving Captain Kirk and a Gorn. To add to that the film uses many camera techniques and incorporates many elements of the violent Westerns of the late 60s and 70s. The snap zooms, the deep focus range, the more artistic camera work and editing to sell the drama at key moments. The film literally oozes with the feel and style of the Italian and American Westerns. But that doesn’t mean Sholay is a facsimile of those films. It is very much a Bollywood film and very very proud of it. Hell, you can refer to Bollywood films and being Sholay BC and Sholay AD, as in it defined the genre so much that it shaped all that came after.
So what makes Sholay the ultimate Bollywood film despite it being very heavily influence by Westerns? It’s 3 hours and 25 minutes long. It features a number of heavily choreographed dance sequences, as many as it’s action sequences in fact. It deals with Indian social structure and the pursuit of fitting into a particular role that will help others. It deals with our heroes finding the loves of their lives. It features specific elements of Indian culture. It manages to switch from being a stunt heavy action movie, to a farcical comedy, to a musical and to a romantic comedy with little to no effort. The festival of colours sequence where Hema Malini’s Basanti stops talking and starts singing is pure Indian musical cinema. The film combines every element you could consider to be an intrinsic part of the Bollywood film experience and still manages to show that it isn’t a film created in a bubble free of external influence. It is entirely Indian but also Western too. The fact it mixes so many varieties of story tropes, influences and genres without ever feeling incoherent is a marvel.
The film isn’t without depth either. Character’s are developed smoothly over the 205 minute run time. Some characters became legends in India because of how iconic and powerfully they portrayed, particularly Ahmjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh. Each character has their own arc, some heroic, some tragic. The film is also not afraid to get really dark. 2 children are murdered, one via torture. That second child being the only son of a blind man who had spent the film trying to convince his son to leave the village for better things. The character of Radha (Jaya Bahduri) has been rendered mute after witnessing the deaths of the Thakur’s family, her husband included. How can a film feature such depressing elements and yet still manage to reference Chaplin’s The Great Dictator early on? Because it can, that’s why. Director Ramesh Sippy clearly gave no shits about what he should and shouldn’t do and in many ways his ability to pull together conflicting styles so well kinda makes him a precursor to directors such as Tarantino.
Sholay is a superb film that requires viewing if you are to appreciate the Bollywood part of Indian cinema. It’s brash, colourful, bold yet dark, melodramatic and violent. It can be all things to all people and if you fail to love it you don’t love cinema. True fact that. My only gripes are technical, the odd dodgy edit and such. Also there is still not a version of the film available that has been restored in both audio and visual to match the quality of the work itself. There’s been talk of a 3D version being released in India which will, hopefully, bring with it a remastering. I won’t hold my breath though. If there’s one thing the Indian film community fail at it’s restoring old works. Someone needs to buy up the rights to Sholay and master the definitive quality version on Blu-ray. Something that would fall in line with the restorations done by Eureka and the BFI would be perfect. As it is you can buy the film on DVD but you won’t know from the box if you’re getting the fullframe, as filmed, 205 minute version of the matted widescreen 198 minute version. You want the former. Regardless, you should watch Sholay.