Almost 40 years after Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay opened, a 3D version of the film is all set to hit 1000 screens in India and abroad on January 3. It was converted by Ketan Mehta’s company, Maya Digital, at a cost of Rs. 25 crore.
Sholay: a disaster that turned into a classic
Sholay was a disaster when it opened on Independence Day in 1975, also a dark chapter in India’s history with national emergency clamped and many political leaders in jail. The exploits of two petty thieves, Veeru and Jai, hardly caught the imagination of the Indian masses, troubled as they were over the nation’s political turmoil.
But after the initial run, Sholay caught the fancy of the people. About a retired police officer, Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) – whose arms are chopped off and family butchered by a dacoit who escapes from prison – the Ramesh Sippy drama had a liberal dash of the Western genre, neatly meshed into delightful Indianness. The cop, played with brilliant restraint by Sanjeev Kumar (who personifies a kind of frustrated anger that I have not seen anybody else do in Indian cinema), hires two small-time thieves Veeru (an early Amitabh Bachchan refreshingly shorn of the mannerisms we see in him today) and Jai (Dharmendra, who put his heart into the part, and also jumped at it, because he was then wooing Dream Girl Hema Malini) to capture – not kill – Gabbar Singh, the role made legendary by Amjad Khan.
Gabbar was inspired by a real dacoit
I really wonder whether Khan ever got to do another part as provocative as Gabbar’s with its unforgettable one liners. “Kitney Aadmi they” – was one that became an inseparable part of youth conversations. Indeed, it may not be an exaggeration to say that if Sholay is still remembered as a cult work after all these decades, Gabbar was a pivotal reason. Khan made the character menacingly attractive. In fact, Gabbar was inspired by a real dacoit – also named Gabbar -- who had terrified villages around Gwalior in the 1950s, and if he got hold of a policeman, his nose and ears were sliced off. Some shades of the villain in Sergio Leone’s El Indio, essayed by Gian Maria Volonte, can also be seen in Gabbar.
Danny Denzongpa was approached to play Gabbar
Danny Denzongpa was to have played Gabbar, but he was committed to a Feroz Khan production, and I personally feel that Amjad Khan brought a certain fiery evil to the role, laced with his sardonic laugh and utterly arrogant look which seemed to mock any challenger.
The movie itself had borrowed bits and pieces from other works, even some classic like Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai and Leone’s Spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Some scenes will also remind one of The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
A film that played Cupid
For all the violence in Sholay, some borrowed, some thought of by writers, the film played Cupid. The set, recreated in Karnataka’s Ramnagar, turned into a lovers’ paradise. A much married Punjabi Dharmendra chased a chaste a single, rather conservative Tamil Brahmin Hema – even causing havoc with lights so that more takes could be had – which meant more time with the girl he eventually managed to marry five years after Sholay was released. And yes, Sanjeev was also in love with Hema, but lost out to Dharmendra.
Jaya, who portrays Radha, the widow of Thakur’s son, had married Bachchan for just four months before the cameras rolled, and the couple was still in a honeymoon mood. So Ramnagar was not just about vengeance and violence, but also about love and bonding (between Veeru and Jai) that some Western writers felt appeared to take on homosexual colours.
Sholay's tryst with the Censor Board
But yes, despite the romance and even some comic interludes, some by Dharmendra himself (remember the scene where he tries blackmailing Basanti’s (Hema) mausi (aunt) into agreeing to their marriage by threatening to jump off a village tower) and some by Bachchan, Sholay was brutal all right, and it was only after a massive battle with the Censor Board and some cuts that the movie was allowed to screen. Today, the original director’s cut is also freely available.
But Sholay did blur the line between legality and criminality, between violence and social order. And in 1975, this was new. For Indian cinema had not quite got around to turning law-breakers into law-enforcers. Thakur and his two men, Veeru and Jai, are precisely that, and had Sippy not been forced into it, he would have shown the ex-cop kill Gabbar in the most gruesome manner.
Well, all said and done, Sholay went on to become a classic, and unexpectedly so.