When we think of the best films Hollywood has to offer, what comes to mind? Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Gone With The Wind, and so on. Timeless films that transcend their era and are easily re-watchable…over and over again.
Bollywood has a short list of such films, and Sholay is one of them. Released 40 years ago in 1975, it’s a whimsical yet violent tale of two rogues – and pals for life – who are sent on a mission by a former cop to take down the biggest, baddest bandit in town, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Along the way, they meet girls, get themselves into some harrowing situations, and slowly transform from men of the jail to men of the law.
Sholay is what’s known as a “curry Western”…a film with elements of American Western culture in it, but still identifiably Indian. (Sort of like the “spaghetti Western” films of Italy, scored by Ennio Morricone.) It’s also known as a “masala film,” a movie with elements of action, adventure, humor, romance, drama, and, of course, song and dance. (Masala is a blend of spices.)
Gabbar Singh puts ice in the veins as a villain, and Thakur’s search for revenge leads you to root for him against all odds. But it’s the bromance between Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) that is my favorite element of the movie. If I were to sum up their relationship in one sentence, it would be Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge (This friendship can never be broken), the title of the first song in the movie.
Spoilers ahead, for those of you who haven’t seen the movie already.
Jai and Veeru, best buds for life. In and out of jails, they pursue a life of crime; their only loyalty is to each other. Despite this, they help out police officer Thakur Baldev Singh when the train taking them to jail is hijacked by bandits. Thakur recalls their bravery when the need arises, and hires them to take down super-villain Gabbar Singh, asking them to bring the baddie back to him, on one condition…he must be alive.
The two hang around the village of Ramgarh, mingling with the locals, even celebrating Holi with them. Veeru falls for chatterbox Basanti (Hema Malini, whom Dharmendra was wooing at the time. They later married!) and Jai slowly starts to love Radha (Jaya Badhuri, Bachchan’s real-life wife pregnant with their first child during shooting), the widowed daughter-in-law of Thakur.
After several brushes with the wicked Gabbar – there are no words for how terrible of a human being he is – Jai and Veeru start to lose faith in Thakur. Then he tells his story…the reason for revenge. Because Thakur landed Gabbar in jail, the villain hates him. He escapes from prison and murders his entire family at home. Only Thakur, away on business, and Radha, at the temple, escape the slaughter. Thakur is also captured by Gabbar, and his arms are cut off. This armless fact is not yet known to the audience, and it’s a brutal shock when his cloak falls off, revealing his lack of appendages.
Jai and Veeru are once again on Gabbar’s trail, realizing they need to bring him to Thakur for the sake of the retired cop’s revenge. Things take a turn for the worse when Gabbar’s men capture Basanti and hold her hostage. Veeru pursues, and is captured as well, held at gunpoint. Gabbar orders Basanti to dance; if she stops, Veeru will be shot. Jai rescues them both, and they escape, but not for long. A wounded Jai stays behind while Veeru takes Basanti back to the village and retrieves more ammunition. In a bold, selfless move, Jai takes out most of Gabbar’s men with dynamite, but is mortally wounded in the process.
Jai dies in heartbroken Veeru’s arms. Enraged, Veeru sets out to kill Gabbar Singh, and nearly does so, but Thakur orders him to stop. Gabbar is left to Thakur’s mercy. A showdown ensues. As Thakur is about to crush Gabbar’s skull with his head, he is stopped by police just arriving, who urge him to hold the law above revenge. He does so, and the picture ends with the cremation of Jai and the departure of the two lovers in Veeru and Basanti.
The biggest strength of the film lays in the deep friendship between Jai and Veeru. Their adventures together are the stuff of the greatest legends. Despite some silliness between the two, they know when to get serious when it counts and they make a formidable fighting team. When Jai dies, the audience feels Veeru’s pain, and a sadder rendition of Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge plays in the background. Veeru without Jai feels hollow and incomplete. One can only imagine that Basanti is a great comfort to Veeru, but cannot fill the hole in his heart left by Jai’s death.
The cinematography is raw and effective. The slow motion deaths add to the drama of the picture. Close camera angles in critical scenes help to get the heart racing. There’s blood, and a lot of it, adding to the horrid brutality of Gabbar Singh. When Basanti is forced to dance for Gabbar, one of his men shatters a bottle by her feet. She forces herself to dance barefoot on the broken glass, just so Veeru is not shot. Now THAT is pure love. Glass hurts.
Speaking of Gabbar Singh, he’s one of the most cruel villains I’ve ever encountered…in any film. He is straight up nasty. At one point, he spares three of his men by pulling the trigger with blanks in the pistol, laughs, then turns and shoots them all dead. Utterly heartless.
The music is good; my second favorite is the item number Mehbooba Mehbooba, sung by R.D. Burman and danced to by beautiful Helen. (Yes, I know it’s basically stolen from some Greek song.) The Holi number is quite good as well.
Sholay is one of those films that I expected to like, but not love. I had the same feeling about The Godfather before I watched it. I came out loving them both immensely. I’m not one for violence, but Sholay was much more than violence and brutality. It is the epic tale of two best friends, a wicked villain, and a man bent on revenge. It is Shakespearean in scope, yet accessible to a mass audience. It will always be a Bollywood masterpiece.