The Greatest Story Ever Retold

by Biswadeep Ghosh - Jun 5, 2015 08:47 PM +05:30 IST
The Greatest Story Ever Retold

It’s 40 years since Sholay released. The one Hindi film that doesn’t have a predecessor, peer or follower.

August 14 1975. producer G.P. Sippy premiered Sholay in Bombay’s Minerva and Excelsior cinemas. This film was the biggest gamble of his life. Directed by his son Ramesh, Sholay had cost a stupendous Rs 3 crore at a time when a one-rupee note could buy a movie ticket in a rundown suburban theatre. It had taken two and a half years to make. Not surprisingly, the film’s poster hyped it as the “greatest story ever told” with the “greatest star cast ever assembled”. The stakes could not have been higher.


The poster carried the faces of the six main actors. Dharmendra, the undisputed “tough guy” of Hindi films, and Sanjeev Kumar, the talented actor, led the cast. Hema Malini, the “Dream Girl”, was the third. Then there was Amitabh Bachchan, who, post Zanjeer and Deewaar, was the latest sensation. Jaya Bachchan (billed as Jaya Bhaduri, because when she had signed up for the film, she had not yet married Bachchan), the fine star-actor was the next. Finally, there was Amjad Khan. Son of actor Jayant, his character was wrapped in mystery (Trivia It was not his debut film, as is generally assumed. He had acted in several movies as a child, and as an adult, had had a small role in Hindustan Ki Kasam, a film that sank without a trace).

Sholay hit the screens on August 15 (Trivia Independence day and a Thursday; the Sippys had chosen a very special day and avoided the usual Friday release to make the movie seem unique), and the critics were, well, very critical. The film was slammed for being a poor imitation of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. Glorification of violence became a huge talking point (Today, the violence level of Sholay would hardly raise any eyebrows, but in 1975, it shocked many people). Amjad Khan as the bandit Gabbar Singh was written off completely, partly because of his unusual husky voice (Hindi film villains,  according to conventional wisdom, were supposed to speak in a gravelly timbre). Bachchan’s character Jai, a rogue with a caustic tongue and a strong moral core, had been killed in the pre-climax sequence. Why would you kill off the hottest star of the moment? asked the trade pundits

But then, after a painfully sluggish start, Sholay’s fortunes made a sudden and spectacular turnaround (Trivia Even though box office collections were not good, the Sippys paid all Bombay theatres where the film had been released to carry over Sholay into the second week, something that had never been done before). The rest is more than history. It is epical. Today Sholay is the benchmark of how the perfect blockbuster must be made. Recently, on April 18, the film hit the marquee in Pakistan, both in the 2D and 3D format. If nothing else, this is an indication that the film’s charm hasn’t withered away. It stands the tallest among Hindi commercial films. It doesn’t have a predecessor, peer or follower.

A destiny’s child in many ways, Sholay had taken its first baby steps after two young writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar discussed the faint outline of an idea for a film with the Sippy father-son duo (Trivia They had actually met them to sell a story that finally became the Bachchan-starrer Majboor, but the Sippys were not interested; so Salim and Javed said: “OK, there was this other idea that we had…” It was literally just one sheet of paper). Once green-signalled, the two turned this germ into a gem.

Amjad Khan got an opportunity only after Danny Denzongpa, who had already committed dates for Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma (based on The Godfather), declined. In 1973, Amitabh Bachchan, a struggler with Zanjeer and Deewaar yet to happen, is said to have been in competition with Shatrughan Sinha for Jai’s role. He eventually pocketed the assignment, whose phenomenal success consolidated his position as a superstar. (Trivia Ramesh Sippy decided Bachchan was the right man for the role after watching a sequence in the film Bombay to Goa, where Bachchan is hit by—coincidentally—Sinha, and gets up from the ground nonchalantly, still chewing his gum.)

The basic plot came from Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which had been remade by Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven. The visual style came from Sergio Leone. Many of the sequences came from classic/cult Westerns (Trivia Among the films Sholay heavily borrowed from are Once Upon A Time In The West, The Professionals, One-Eyed Jack and The Garden of Evil. However, in every instance, Ramesh Sippy filmed these sequences much better than the originals. There is only one shot that is a direct copy from the ur-source, The Seven Samurai—of dacoits on horseback silhouetted against a huge rising sun).

There are two levels on which a film succeeds when it attains uber-blockbuster hood. The story it tells achieves mythical status, and some of its sequences become iconic and stay permanently embedded in public memory.
Sholay. Salim-Javed had written the story of Thakur Baldev Singh, a former police officer whose entire family has been killed by Gabbar Singh, who had also chopped off his arms. His widowed daughter in-law Radha (Jaya Bachchan) lives with him. Thakur wants revenge, and he hires two ruffians, Veeru and Jai, as his weapons.

There are two lines of dialogue that Salim-Javed wrote for Thakur Baldev Singh, that reveal the essence of the story. (Trivia The “dialogues” of Sholay became so extraordinarily popular that HMV (now Saregama) released a double-LP set—no music, just actors’ voices, another first in Hindi film history). The first is: “Loha lohay ko katta hai.” You need iron to cut iron. This is what Thakur Baldev Singh says to justify why he was hiring two criminals to fight Gabbar Singh. The second comes when a minor character tells Thakur that Veeru and Jai are counterfeit coins, and counterfeits are false on both sides. Thakur replies that perhaps, that is the difference between coins and men. (Trivia The first Hindi film plagiarised from The Seven Samurai was Khotay Sikkay (Counterfeit Coins), released in 1974).

The counterfeit nature of a coin—while serving its philosophical purpose in what Thakur says—comes back and becomes the key to the film’s denouement. About three hours later.

Mythic? The film presented a terrain in 70 mm as never seen before, at that time. In that terrain, there were two men who would be the most vicious enemies, till one of them dies at the other’s hand. Thakur Baldev Singh and Gabbar Singh.

Sholay, quite simply, is the most successful and loved Indian film ever made. It does not matter that it ran for only five years at Minerva theatre, while Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge ran for 10 at Maratha Mandir. Even Shah Rukh Khan, star of DDLJ, will surely admit that Sholay stamped itself far deeper in the Indian psyche. DDLJ spawned the—highly successful—NRI love story formula. Sholay spawned nothing. It has remained in majestic isolation for four decades.

The reasons for its mythic status? One, the characters. Gabbar took evil to a new height and Amjad Khan’s performance turned the bandit into  a bogeyman of folklore, and bogeymen are loved as well as feared (Trivia Such was Gabbar’s “charm” that he was used, against all conventional logic, to sell Britannia biscuits: “Gabbar ki asli pasand (What Gabbar really loves)”) Veeru (Dharmendra) flirts, drinks and tries various shenanigans to make the garrulous Basanti (Hema Malini) fall in love with him, and that is business as usual for Hindi films, except that these sequences—which are trivial and subsidiary to the goal of the story—remain unforgettable, just because they are written and directed so well.

Veeru’s comrade Jai is the writers’ masterstroke. A criminal with a strong code of honour and a moral centre, he speaks little, and falls in love with the widow Radha.

To come to the iconic, there has perhaps never been anything in Indian mainstream cinema to match the poignancy of the sequences where Jai plays the mouth organ (actually played by music director R.D. Burman) as night falls and Radha goes around extinguishing the lanterns, one by one. (Trivia A short sequence which had Jai and Radha with a lamb, was edited out from the originally released version of Sholay. More about the many versions of Sholay, later.)

More of the iconic. Nothing can beat Gabbar’s entry in the film, striding up and down, swinging a belt. (Trivia So overpowering was Amjad Khan’s performance that it is astonishing to note that he appeared only 74 minutes into the film) Jai dancing for a few seconds during during Holi before he looks up and sees Radha on the temple steps and abruptly stops. Jai presenting Veeru’s case as a groom for Basanti to her aunt. Veeru on the water tank, threatening suicide, if Basanti does not consent to marry him. The heavenly Helen dancing around a fire to Mehbooba Mehbooba (Trivia The tune is stolen from Greek singer Demis Roussos’ Say You Love Me, but Mehbooba sounds better). Basanti, pursued by Gabbar’s men, telling her horse Dhanno to gallop faster because “Aaj teri izzat ki sawaal hai!” It is Dhanno’s honour which is at stake, and a challenge she must win (Trivia When Sholay was released, this chase sequence lasted almost 10 minutes. Ramesh Sippy later cut it down to a minute or so).

Thakur, Gabbar and Jai are the three characters that became mythic. Resilience and determination, total evil, and a rogue’s Samurai credo. The trade pundits who were aghast that Jai was killed off could not have been more off the mark. Jai sacrificing his own life to save Veeru and Basanti made audiences cry, and when it was later revealed that Jai had, throughout the film, used a two-heads coin to toss whenever a major decision was to be taken, viewers suddenly realized that it was he who had controlled the course of events from the very beginning, unknown to Veeru, his senior partner.

An obvious question arises: Is Sholay a completely “man’s film”? A cursory viewing would certainly suggest so. If you asked a viewer for three words that popped up in her mind when asked about Sholay, they would most likely be “men”, “guns”, and “horses”. Yet Salim-Javed’s two female leads have standout qualities. Restless and garrulous, Basanti is a truly liberated woman—she drives a tonga in dacoit-infested territory to support her aunt and herself, and will only marry a man whom she chooses.

Radha has less screen time, but she is presented as a woman with rare inner strength. The original version of the film had a dexterously edited sequence which captures her transition from her lively pre-marriage self to the life of a quiet widow. (Trivia In at least one version of the film floating around, Radha’s pre-wedding boisterous Holi sequence has been edited out.) It is also important to note that both Thakur Baldev Singh, her father-in-law, and Radha’s father agree to her remarriage, with Jai; a very bold statement indeed for the times.

Of course, in the end, Salim-Javed and Ramesh Sippy baulked. Jai dies and Radha remains a widow. Portraying widow remarriage in a 70s mainstream Hindi film would have been a huge risk. But then, the tragedy of Radha and Jai also is crucial—indeed, fundamental—to Sholay’s appeal. No epic ever ended with everyone living happily ever after. Sholay would be just another film without leaving the audiences with a deep sadness for these star-crossed lovers. When the film ends, you realize that Jai has been the fulcrum of the story, and his sacrifice and Radha’s fate makes Sholay a Greek tragedy (Trivia The death of the Toshiro Mifune character does the same for The Seven Samurai. When Hollywood remade it as The Magnificent Seven, the studio did not have the guts to kill off the equivalent character).

It would be extremely unfair to Sholay and Salim-Javed to ignore the minor characters who have become part of our cultural mindhive. Asrani’s jailor, copied from Chaplin’s parody of Hitler in The Great Dictator, became so popular that the actor got fed up of getting offers to play characters “like the jailor”. The success of Jagdeep’s Soorma Bhopali, a crafty wood seller who boasts about capturing Veeru and Jai without realising they are standing right behind him, was another instance of how a superfluous comic presence could be remembered for ever.

Perhaps the most interesting case is that of MacMohan in the role of Sambha, a sidekick of Gabbar Singh, who just had three words in the film. When Gabbar asks him how much the government has offered as a reward for capturing him, Sambha replies, “Pooray pachaas hazaar”’ (A full Rs 50,000). Throughout his career, until his death in 2010—though he appeared in countless films, few bothered to find out what the actor’s real name was. He simply remained Sambha, and those three words the measure of his achievements.

Forty years after its release, when most other films of that period have faded from memory, why has Sholay retained its status?

There are stories that are timeless. From the Mahabharata to Cinderella. But it is the telling of the story that makes the difference. Technically, Sholay was a million miles ahead of its time. Veteran cinematographer Dwarka Divecha (who, unfortunately, passed away before the film was released) captured the terrain with consistent brilliance—the landscape by itself conveyed the epic nature of the film. Editor M.S. Shinde’s work showed his mastery over the medium. Remember the scene in which Gabbar is about to chop the inspector’s arms? Shinde’s quick cut at the right moment suggests the imminence of the brutal act without actually showing it, and makes it more shocking. Then he cuts immediately back to the present Thakur, a man without arms who hopes to make Ramgarh a safe place to live in.

None of the Sholay songs rank among R.D. Burman’s best; yet the music he created for the opening sequence when the credits roll, as two men ride horseback over a rough terrain is a beautiful and original tribute to Ennio Morricone’s work on spaghetti Westerns. Young, gifted and hungry to prove themselves, the writers Salim-Javed veered away from the standard 70s stereotype. Their subsequent triumphs (Trishul, Kaala Paththar, Shaan, Shakti, Mr India) would prove that Sholay was not a fluke (Trivia When Salim-Javed started writing Sholay, Yaadon Ki Baraat, which they had written and which would be an enormous hit, had not yet released. Neither had Zanjeer, which would be the foundation of Amitabh Bachchan’s filmstarhood. A few months before Sholay, Deewaar was released and became a monster hit, sealing Bachchan’s place as superstar and Salim-Javed’s as the writers who had a magical touch)

When so many talented individuals work together for two-and-a-half years, the director has to be in complete control. This, Ramesh Sippy was. He defined the character of each and every sequence. He removed those, which, in retrospect, slowed down the pace of the film. Every dialogue the actors delivered and every moment that was visualised was controlled by Sippy. In fact, Sippy continued to edit the film even after it was released, and there are various versions available. Dhanno’s chase has already been mentioned. There are versions without the fight that Veeru and Jai have when they enter the living quarters Thakur has assigned for them. There is a version which does not have Jaya Bachchan’s pre-wedding Holi sequence.

And of course, if you search hard, you will find the original “original” Sholay, the film that was presented to the censors. It has much more graphic violence, and an extra song! Interestingly enough, by objecting to some scenes of violence, and forcing Ramesh Sippy to reshoot and only hint at the brutal killings in some scenes, the censors made Sholay a better film. A rare occurrence, truly.

The 3D version of Sholay, made by Ketan Mehta’s Maya Digital, was released in January 2014. It was poorly publicized, and was a sad miss for those who would have loved to see Gabbar’s hideout or the train chase sequence in 3D.


But repeat viewings of Sholay continue. Those who watch the film in their homes anticipate dialogues, remember scenes, cheer when they know that a confrontation is about to come, and feel terribly low when Thakur’s family is butchered or Jai is killed. We watch it again and again, and feel comforted that Sholay won’t change. We relive our past, revisit our thrills, and hold on to it as a defining milestone. Because that is what Sholay is.

Having started out as a journalist at 18, Biswadeep Ghosh let go of a promising future as a singer not much later. He hardly steps out of his rented Pune flat where he alternates between writing or pursuing his other interests and and looks after his pet sons Burp and Jack.
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