‘Kitne aadmi thhe?’ ricocheted the shrill, very un-Gabbar voice along the menacing boulders all around. ‘Sardar… do,’ replied the same voice. For a Martian unfamiliar with iconic pop culture references, the question being answered by the same person would undoubtedly sound strange. But for those who know their Sholay, this was the momentous exchange between Gabbar Singh and his ill-fortuned henchman Kaaliya. Right now, at Ramadevera Betta (literally ‘Hill dedicated to Lord Ram’) village, in Ramanagaram district, Karnataka, the immortal dialogue was being reenacted by a little girl with a shrill voice.
Ramadevera Betta is 45 kms — and hour’s drive — from Bengaluru. For nearly two years in 1973-74, this spot in rural Karnataka was turned into ‘Ramgarh’, a north Indian village terrorised by the dreaded Gabbar Singh and his fellow dacoits. Thirty-five years after the release of Ramesh Sippy’s blockbuster, the village is again in the news — for yet another makeover.
Construction work on an upcoming spa resort is already underway, even as environmental groups and the Karnataka government are opposing the go-ahead given by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. But even as the wrangle continues, it’s clear once you’re here, that Ramadevera Betta is still — and forever will be — Sholay country.
It was art director Ram Yedekar who had first discovered Ramadevera Betta in which he had shot an English film a few years before. Sippy and his cinematographer Dwarka Divecha saw the place and loved it. “Ramanagaram was a vast emptiness, a blank canvas waiting to be fashioned into fantasy,” Sippy had said. A crew of nearly a hundred would work round the clock to turn Ramadevera Betta into Ramgarh.
As we enter the village with the rocky terrain exploding all around us today, a group of half-naked children rushes out of their hutments on the foothills. Pointing to the overhanging rocks, they scream, “Sholay! Sholay!” As for the Gabbar-Kaaliya lines-spouting little girl, after reciting the Salim (Khan)-Javed (Akhtar)-written dialogue, she thrusts her palm out asking for ‘kashu’ (money). Like it or not, ‘Sholay ka Ramgarh’ still lives off its reputation as the spot of Earth where a troupe of filmmakers, technicians and actors from Bombay descended to cook up one of the biggest cinematic spectacle.
Around 300 families live here at Konkani Doddy (the official name of the inhabited part of Ramadevera Betta). One local resident is the 22-year-old Muttu, who for Rs. 300 offers visitors a two-and-half-hour guided trek along a tricky terrain around the ‘Sholay rocks’, a hotspot for itinerant rock climbers. “You will see where the entire village was constructed, the place where Thakur’s arms were chopped, where Basanti danced on shards of glass, and the mango plantation where Veeru flirted with Basanti,” he says, promising to recite dialogues along the tour.
A guided tour, anyone?
The land alongside a dirt road is neatly marked at some places — ready for sale. Freshly painted compound walls at some plots indicated recent purchases. An inclined route takes the visitor to the first of 1,000 steps that leads to a hilltop Ram temple. Along the route, graffiti gives credence to the presence of many more lovers who came after Veeru and Basanti. The temple priests insist that this is the spot where Ram, Sita and Lakshman were greeted by Bharat on the former’s way back to Ayodhya from Lanka. Local lore maintains that because Lord Ram drank the water from a small waterhole at the foothill, this spot is never dry.
Next to the waterhole, a wall is being constructed. This turns out to be the cordoned-off land earmarked for the contentious Ramgarh Resort and Spa being built by the Anantara Hotels and Resorts chain. Later, managing director of Anantara, Ravi Shankar, explains that the 24-cottage resort will “embody the spirit of Sholay” — down to the artwork, uniforms, food, and cutlery seen in the film. Horse-carts will carry guests, Gabbars will greet them while Basantis will serve food. Paint-ball guns have already been stocked to allow visitors enact the maar-peet between dacoits and modern-day Jais and Veerus.
So why are environmentalists trying to spoil the fun — for both visitors and locals? They insist that the nests of rare eagles and vultures, which are visible through the wide crevices along the rock faces that will overlook the future resort, will be destroyed. We clamber up to these endangered nests. Below a batch of vultures’ nests, we find four neatly cut huge holes — 7 feet high and 6 feet deep square ‘caves’ that had been blasted with a vacuum cutter for some English movie. “Over 15 movies are shot in this area every year. Most of them used explosives. Why didn’t the environmentalists ever oppose this?” says Shankar.
Getting down from the rocks, we meet 64-year-old Shivalingaiah. “It is only Sholay that has helped us. We got Rs. 50 every day during its shooting,” he says. The movie and its lore still gets Shivalingaiah a livelihood — he is a construction worker for the Sholay-themed resort-to-be. More local employment is supposed to follow once the resort is up and running. As a 29-year-old, Shivalingaiah served food and drinks to the Sholay stars. He remembers moments with Dharmendra, Amitabh and Hema. He recalls Amjad Khan being a “delightful person”.
He’s not the only one who’s nostalgic — 42-year-old Boramma insists that she was ‘Basanti’s pet’. “[Hema Malini] will still recognise me,” says the farm labourer.
With our stomachs rumbling, we got some tea and traditional ‘mirchi bhajia’ from a roadside shack. It turns out that the shop stocks packets of foreign cigarettes. “These are in demand among foreigners,” says the old lady who owns the shop. “Business will go up once the resort comes up,” she adds.
As night falls, Shivalingaiah points to a small stretch of land next to the ‘Sholay rocks’. “Jaya Bhaduri had lit lanterns at Thakur’s house at this hour of the day 37 years ago,” he says. Small bulbs from distant huts illuminate the area.