Sholay can be said to have inaugurated the modern period of commercial Hindi cinema. Often described as India’s best-known “curry” western, Sholay was ‘patterned’ on American spaghetti westerns, though as with any other good Hindi film, the presumed ‘copy’ is at least as interesting as the ‘original’. The addition of romance, comedy, and songs gave it the ambiance that one expects of a Hindi film. The film narrates the story of an ex-cop Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) who hires two jail birds (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) to eradicate a town and neighbouring villages of the menace of Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) and his band of dreaded dacoits. The story is told in two flashbacks and the climax shows the final encounter between Thakur and Gabbar Singh, where Thakur, whose arms have been cut off, kicks the bandit into submission.
The film made use of several interesting innovations. This included its spectacular cinematography, with shots panning over rocky heights and barren canyons, often under menacing clouds. This lends the movie much of its eerie tension. One of the long opening scenes, which shows a train being defended by Baldev Singh against an attack by bandits, is quite spectacular in its effects, and is reminiscent of similar scenes in westerns, most notably John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939). Sholay, likewise, plays upon themes of nature versus culture, the encroachment of nature upon culture, and the meaning of civilization in wilderness.
But Sholay will also be remembered for the heights it took villainy to in Indian films. Unlike earlier villains who were content to bring about a misunderstanding between the lovers’ families, Amjad Khan’s Gabbar seems to pursue evil as an end in itself. Yet the theme of banditry is old to Hindi films, and Gabbar is still very much unlike the villains of the contemporary cinema: he has no visible interest in wealth, though he appropriates the produce of the villagers, nor does he particualarly lust after women. Though the film depicts the usual Indian themes of loyalty in friendship and love, what is notable is an almost total absence of family values. The two heroes have no visible family ties, neither has the heroine Hema Malini. One expects this of bandits, but not of those who are ‘good’. Indeed, it is arguable that the “family”, though it is presumed to be the quintessential unit of Indian society, is almost always splintered, broken, or non-existent in the modern Hindi film, though no one has ever analyzed the phenomenon.
Sholay went on to become the most successful film in Indian film history. The large cast of super-stars contributed to that, as did the memorable dialogues between Gabbar and Baldev Singh, and between Gabbar and his henchmen. Amjad Khan played the role with perfection, and not without sardonic humor. His lines became so popular that cassettes of Gabbar’s dialogues were being sold separately, to be learnt by rote by millions of movie goers. The flirting between Hema Malini, who plays a buxom bucolic woman, and the heroes also provides its own brand of dialogue.
Rajadhyaksha, Ashish; Willemen, Paul. Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. London: British Film Institute; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994
Dissanayake, Wimal. Sholay.
Kishore, Valicha. The Moving Image. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1988