Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sholay

SholayI'm hesitant to write about Sholay (1975) because it has such a revered place in Bollywood history. Sholay often makes it onto lists of the best Bollywood films, and indeed received Best Film of 50 Years at the 50th Filmfare awards ceremony. While it's hard to compare eras, it is listed by BoxOfficeIndia.com as the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time after adjusting for inflation. It's the movie that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar, and many of its scenes are now considered classics.

So in the face of all this acclaim, why is my reaction to Sholay so lukewarm? Why would I rather watch Rani Mukherjee and Sonali Bendre cavorting in Shimla (see my review of Chori Chori) than Amjad Khan frothing his way through his role as Sholay's psychotic villain Gabbar Singh? Before you slap your forehead in disbelief and stop reading, let me explain why, for me, Sholay doesn't live up to its legendary status.

It's been described as a "curry Western," and the parallel to Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns is deliberate. Like Leone's films, Sholay is a self-conscious pastiche of elements from other movies. In the case of Sholay, elements are lifted from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), High Noon (1952), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and its Japanese original Seven Samurai (1954), and Leone's own films.

Sholay's borrowings from Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) are especially blatant. Much of the plot is lifted directly from the Leone movie: two petty thieves, Jai and Veeru (a young Amitabh Bachchan and a slightly gone-to-seed Dharmendra) are recruited by a former cop (in Leone's film, it's a widow) to take revenge on the gang that terrorizes his village and that has massacred his family.

Warning: multiple spoilers follow.

Sholay's director Ramesh Sippy restages many scenes from Once Upon a Time in the West--only less effectively. In the opening moments of Once Upon a Time In the West, a young boy emerges from a house, crying, and wanders among the bodies of his murdered family. Then (if I'm remembering correctly; I haven't seen the film in 20 years) a shadow falls over him. He looks up--into the blue eyes of Henry Fonda. Your first impulse is to think that he's saved, that the sheriff has come to rescue him; Fonda has to be a good guy, of course. Then a shot rings out, the boy crumples into the dust, and we're staring into Fonda's blue eyes again. Only this time we see in them the cold stare of a brutal killer.

In Sholay's massacre scene, which comes in a flashback halfway through the film, Gabbar Singh's gang slaughters the family of the Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar). A young boy runs out of the house--and is immediately blasted by Gabbar Singh. There's no similar moment of (delusional) hope, or any ambiguity in the casting (Amjad Khan plays Gabbar Singh as a demented sadist from his first moments onscreen).

The action of the final gun battle in which Jai single-handedly holds off the bad guys trying to cross a bridge is also badly managed. I'm not complaining about the unerring aim of the good guys or the seemingly limitless manpower and ammunition that the gang can bring to bear--those are pretty standard features in "Westerns" of all nationalities. But at one point the gang rolls a bundle of dynamite onto the bridge. If it goes off, of course, it will destroy the bridge (making it impossible for the gang to get across), but apparently they didn't think of that. When the dynamite doesn't go off and Jai's gun falls silent, the bad guys decide to advance en masse across the bridge. You can probably guess what happens next, although the bad guys evidently couldn't. Ramesh Sippy needed to rewatch Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966) or even Buster Keaton's The General (1927) to see how the bridge/dynamite thing should be handled.

There are other direct borrowings from Once Upon A Time in the West in Sholay; for example, Jai periodically plays a lonesome harmonica, just like Charles Bronson's character (named Harmonica) in the earlier film. But if the idea was to suggest a parallel between their characters, it's misguided. As Jai, Bachchan lacks Bronson's sense of inarticulate menace, and the tension between the two hired guns in Once Upon A Time In the West (Bronson's face is an impassive mask--his limited acting abilities become an essential part of what makes his character so unsettling) is replaced by Bachchan and Dharmendra's Butch Cassidy-Sundance Kid buddy act.

That act is indeed a pleasure to watch, and it's easy to understand why this film made Amitabh Bachchan the epitome of cool. Hema Malini is also terrific as the flirtatious love-interest Basanti. There are other effective moments: a Russian roulette scene which holds several surprises; and the end of the film, where the good guys don't entirely triumph and the closing off of possibilities is beautifully symbolized (I'm trying not to spoil these moments for anyone planning to see the film).

I realize that as someone who doesn't speak Hindi and who must read the dialogue in subtitles, I'm missing out on a key dimension of the movie. Most people who praise Sholay talk about its endlessly quotable dialogue (Javed Akhtar and Salim Khan are credited as the writers). But for me it's impossible to escape the feeling while watching Sholay that the movies on which it's based surpass their Bollywood reincarnation. Of course, several generations of Indian filmgoers couldn't disagree more.

P.S. For a thoughtful introduction to Sholay (and to Bollywood in general) aimed at western viewers, see the Sholay page of Philip Lutgendorf's Philip's fil-ums: Notes on Indian Popular Cinema.

7 comments:

  1. I haven't seen any of the films you mention as source material for Sholay but now I'm jonesing for a day of films and panel discussion. Sholay does not hold particular magic for me; as much as I like stories about friendship, I'm not much interested in revenge. I saw it pretty early on in my Bollywood-watching and need to revisit; even if I don't love it, I feel ignorant in not having a firm grasp of it.

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  2. Sholay clearly has a special place in the hearts of millions of Indian filmgoers. But my response to the film was colored by my familiarity with some of its sources. I'm not bothered by Sholay's borrowings, homages or pastiche; as I wrote, though, I felt that director Ramesh Sippy often didn't stage his scenes very effectively. Still, there's no denying that what works in Sholay (mainly, for me, the Amitabh-Dharmendra chemistry) works well on its own terms. It's indeed the revenge plot that's the weakest part of the movie.

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  3. I have seen all the movies that you have mentioned as 'inspiration' for Sholay and of course resemblance with One upon a time in the west is striking. But, Bollywood never had a proper parallel genre to the western genre from Holywood and Sholay is one of the very rare few movie in this genre I can remember being appreciated by the Indian viewers. All I can say about Sholay is that it is a masala version of Sergio Leone's movies.

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  4. AJ, thanks for your comment. Yes, this is another area where a non-Indian viewer of Sholay is at a disadvantage. Clearly, the film had such a huge impact in India because it was seen as something new and different (I doubt that Leone's Westerns had a mass audience in India before Sholay). Indian viewers weren't making comparisons to Leone's films, and so the various parallels to and departures from, say, Once Upon a Time in the West weren't bothersome. Unfortunately, since I saw Leone's films first, my experience of Sholay will always be influenced by those comparisons.

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  5. Gabbar Singh's character resembled that of el Indio in For A Few Dollars More.I felt like that upon watching the latter in first instance itself!
    And,I'm not the only one who thinks so!:DEven,a Hindu newspaper columnist mentioned it once.

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  6. When I read your comment, I had an immediate "Aha!" moment. I think you're absolutely right. The connection with El Indio (played by Gian Maria Volontè) in Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965) is one I hadn't made before, but Gabbar Singh (seen above in the Sholay poster) even looks like El Indio.

    I do think, though, that El Indio (who also has no qualms about killing his own men) has more dimensions to his character than does Gabbar Singh. In addition to violent sadism he can also be coldly calculating, there are (faint) suggestions that some of his actions continue to disturb him (his drug use may be one way of dealing with his memories), and when he kills his own men he actually has a motive (to keep the loot for himself).

    But many thanks for making this suggestion, and helping me to see Gabbar Singh and Sholay in a new way.

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  7. Things have not changed in 2013. we are still copying Hollywood. It is a shame.

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