Essay: Viewing Sholay as a road movie on its 45th anniversary
Looking afresh at one of mainstream Hindi cinema’s iconic films as it approaches a milestone anniversary on August 15Updated: Aug 13, 2020 17:49 IST
Ramesh Sippy’s all-time hit Sholay (1975) is perhaps the most reviewed film in the history of Hindi mainstream cinema. But few critics have read it as a road movie. This is probably because the storyline has different layers with revenge, love, hate, male bonding, pride, solidarity, integrity, courage, greed, fun and happiness all woven in. The film covers such a range of human emotions that it is easy to miss the rootlessness, sense of casual adventure, and the essential loneliness of the central characters, the two small-time thieves, Veeru and Jai. Until Veeru and Jai reach Ramgarh to take on the Thakur’s assignment, they are constantly on the move. When their pockets are empty, they get themselves caught by the police and take respite in prison. They are thieves but they are good-natured, simple, bold, strong and extremely likeable.
The duo has no home, family, or roots to hold on to. They are not given a social history. Nor do they demonstrate any desire to settle down in one place. They appear to be quite content with their lives being in a constant state of flux, geographically and financially.
The film opens with the friends singing Yeh dosti hum nahin todengey on a motor bike with a sidecar that comically detaches itself and rejoins the main vehicle during the course of the song. As the film moves in flashback, we find Veeru and Jai in a moving train where they meet Baldev Singh Thakur for the first time when he is still a police officer.
Not just a road movie, Sholay is also a journey film. The difference between the road movie and the journey film lies in the strong and concrete physicality of the former and the abstract, conceptual and sometimes ideological themes that dot the latter. The destination is uncertain, undefined, and infinite reminding viewers of their larger ambivalent destiny.
When they meet Baldev Singh Thakur again years later at Ramgarh, his hair has turned white but the two protagonists remain as young as they were when the film began. The shock of having his entire family except his younger bahu gunned down in cold blood by Gabbar Singh has grayed Thakur prematurely. Veeru and Jai’s rootlessness and living away from the mainstream appears to have stopped the ageing process for them.
The metaphors of wanting to belong and wanting to be loved are expressed when Veeru says he wants to get out of thieving, marry, and have kids. Jai’s mouth organ, a small musical instrument that can travel with its owner everywhere, is a symbol of his desire to be loved and to belong. Every night, he sits outside his quarter in the Thakur’s mansion playing the mouth organ, waiting for Radha, the widowed daughter-in-law to step out onto the balcony. The tune he plays is always the same possibly because that is the only tune he knows to play. It is melancholic reflecting the sadness of his life and that of the young widow. It is also a silent pointer to the tragic end of this love story. The film concludes inside a train with Basanti, the tongewalli, waiting to go away and begin a new life with Veeru. Will they settle down to domesticity? Or will they embark on a different journey with a different destination? The film keeps the question hanging in the air.
Modes of transport also describe the characters’ different journeys. The funny motor cycle Veeru and Jai ride indicates their bond and also hints at their eventual separation. Then, there is the train that Gabbar Singh’s dacoits want to loot; they are thwarted by the young police officer Thakur Baldev Singh. Gabbar Singh’s gang is on horseback. For Basanti, her horse Dhanno is not only her friend, guide and helper but the tonga he pulls is her way of life. Ahmed rides a yearling.
Gabbar alone does not move much from his den, the centre of his operations and also perhaps, his home. This isn’t a cave but an open hillock that he presides over, swinging his leather belt this way and that, chewing tobacco from his small pouch and spitting it out. He makes his men do all the riding and looting as he is confident that he holds even distant villages in a constant thrall of fear. He is bothered neither about a journey nor about a destination. He has a one-track mind and is focused solely on terrorizing and looting people.
The subtexts are also interwoven with journeys. Young Ahmed takes his journey on the back of a young horse, making his way to a job in the city. It turns out to be a journey of no return when the yearling slowly trots back to Ramgarh minus its rider. Basanti speeding away in her tonga pleading with Dhanno to take care of her izzat as Gabbar’s men are in hot pursuit is another action-filled journey. The flashbacks into Thakur’s past and that of the two good-hearted thieves are meshed together with journeys across time and space with the train and the railway track as a repeated metaphor. One beautiful scene has men on horseback running parallel to the moving train with the dacoits and the police pitted against each other.
Basanti’s tonga is a motif of her unusual characterization. The sound of Dhanno trotting as he pulls the tonga with Basanti wielding the whip interspersed with the jingle of the bells around the horse’s neck establishes her as a strong woman, courageous enough to carry male passengers from the nearest station to the village and back. Radha, Thakur Baldev Singh’s widowed daughter-in-law moves from being a bubbly girl fond of Holi to a shy bride to a young widow swathed not only in a white sari but also in silence. Here, the journey is also from speech to silence.
Though, in parts, the road per se, may be absent, Sholay, which also features the journey, the destination and the characters undertaking the journey, really is the textbook model for road movies, and perhaps that is what makes it a favourite across the highways of Time.
Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.