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Sholay: Singing to the tune of Indian ruling classes, making people hero worship


By Harsh Thakor*
Without doubt Sholay was the most impactful film ever made in the history of Bollywood.No film ever influenced or penetrated the Indian psyche as much as ‘Sholay’ .Few scenes of films ever flash memories, with such degree of intensity like ‘Sholay.’It literally created the impact of an inferno in your heart. I do not have an adjective of the effect it had on me each time I saw it in the theatre as a child and later on video, literally searching my soul.The characters of the film became icons or role models of the Indian people and dialogue a part of the everyday Indian vocabulary. Sholay virtually defined a new era after it was released in August of 1975, running in Minerva theatre for over five years. The movie had the effect of a spell cast on me in childhood and its characters greatly shaped my way of thinking.
Sholay simply took entertainment to an unmatched crescendo with immaculate construction of plot with brilliant blending of violence with romance and comedy with tragedy. The cinematography or screen effects were heart capturing, almost making the audience feel a part of the film. The Scenes were most proportionately dissected, preventing any trend of dragging and most symmetrically woven together. The ebb and flow kept the spectators on their seats or audience guessing. Directorially it was an outstanding venture or masterpiece.
The cinematography of the movie is a work of masterpiece be it the dacoits attack on the train, the dacoits offensive in the village of Ramgarh, the dacoits and horses ravaging the huge landscapes or the Thakur’s village in Ramgarh. The introductory part has classical overtones blending the horse riders with the landscape playing the background music. With ingenuity of direction Gabbar is introduced into the film, worth only his feet walking are shown before he bursts out scolding his men. With precision the scene of torturing the village boy Ahmed to death is cut, the killing of the Thakur’s grandson or the amputation of the hands of the Thakur. There is also subtle poignancy when the Thakur reveals his true story to Veeru and Jai about the trauma he faced at the hands of Gabbar.
Amjad Kan enacting role of dacoit Gabbar Singh took acting skills to regions of the sublime, comparable even with the best Hollywood villains. I don’t have an adjective to describe the intensity with which he got into the very skin of the character, giving the role it’s absolute juice. Whether laughing in sarcasm or humiliating his fellow men, tormenting Basanti, expressing vengeance against the Thakur after being arrested, or seeking an apology from the villagers none could have done as much justice to the character of ‘Gabbar.’ His mannerisms and gestures were like a dacoit leader in real life. Never seen an actor give sheer brutality it’s true meaning. with magnitude of intensity reminiscent of a tidal wave.
It is to my regret that the censor board forced the last part to be re-made when originally the Thakur gets rid of Gabbar, with the nails of his shoes splicing through his flesh. In that scene the Thakur takes acting intensity to regions of an inferno and after annihilating is enemy breaks out into agony, sobbing away in deep regret and feeling great sense of emptiness in spite of a mission accomplished. In the final adaptation under the persuasion of an inspector the Thakur hands Gabbar over to the police.
In spite of being an entertainer the film had three moral overtones. One was when Imam Saab even after his son Ahmed being murdered by dacoits pleads for Veeru and Jai to remain and that more martys are created. He states that it is better to die with respect than live with cowardice when the villagers want Thakur’s to henchmen to surrender to Gabbar.It is also morally significant that a Muslim is portrayed as a victim in Imam Sahib and son Ahmed, which reflects a secular overtone. The third is when Veeru and Jai are so touched with the grievances at the hands of Gabbar narrated by the thakur that they return the money they stole but pledge to fight on behalf of the Thakur to capture Gabbar Singh.

Criticism of Sholay

However was Sholay an all-time classic or great film? Did it not have flaws? I feel the film critiques of India have hardly adressed this point.Sholay wished to incorporate or adapt a ‘Western’ in an Indian form. In my view considering the conditions prevailing in India, a Western film model cannot be grafted or transplanted in an Indian form.In important ways the plot of Sholay was not original and scenes were copied from Westerns like ‘Once Upon a time in the West.,’For a fistful of dollars,’ and the ‘Good, bad and the Ugly.’ Gabbar’s wiping out the Thakur’s family is a copy of ‘One Upon a Time in the West’. Imitating the duo in Western movie ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid’to integrate it with a Dacoit movie was like putting a square peg in a round hole.
The movie glorified a Thakur, who in social realty is an oppressor of the peasant community. It does not all reflect the social turmoil of the villagers or any collective role. No projection of the notorious attitude or merciless behaviour of Thakurs towards the common villagers, with Thakur Sahab made to champion the interests of the villagers.
It is unrealistic for two urban gangsters to turn into crusaders for justice. Never would urban gangsters wish to settle in a village as Jai and Veeru. The film also gives a heroic portrayal of Jai and Veeru with no linking with the rebellion of the villagers, who are virtually treated antagonistically.
Violence is also arguably taken out of proportion if one assess the magnitude of catharsis in the film. Alternatively catharsis could have revealed the pain in day to day lives inflicted on Thakurs on peasants or the circumstances that turn people into dacoits. The film also had too much continuous hit and run parts with continuous scenes of dacoit chases. The script lacks element of originality or grace so potent in a classic film and reveals crudeness and becomes mechanical at junctures.
Morally such a movie sings to the tune and fits into the pattern of the Indian ruling classes, making people hero worship individualism, and give powerful escapist overtones to the masses.. Significant that it was made at time of emergency and became a superhit. It hardly enabled the Indian masses to grasp the very circumstances that led to turmoil. and sinks into the morass of escapism. .There is no reflection on the corruption or poverty prevailing in India at that time or rebellions predominant in that period. Good overpowering evil is not about a Thakur overpowering a dacoit.
The film capitalized on the weakness of the Indian mind to slavishly glorify heroes and seek escapism. Arguably it was reflection of the deep penetration of reactionary values in the Indian sub-conscious. Even the concept of two men fighting for liberating a village is very incoherent. In ‘The Magnificient seven’ movie modelled on the ‘Seven Samurai’ is based on theme of liberation of farmers and portrays extricating of cowardice by villagers or farmers whose hearts are lit with courage. The theme of the movie is linked with the plight and integration of the famers in the crusade against injustice The seven samurai reflects the lives of hunger stricken or impoverished farmers. Movie ‘Butch Cassidy and Sundance kid’ made in 1969 in spite of not having such a high moral, reflects the social reality of America at a time. in history.
In India in 1970’s spirit of idealism was greatly lost but poverty and injustice was accentuated leading to crystallization of movements. Never in Sholay is the oppression of women, corruption, or subjugation of farmers at the hands of landlords portrayed .Sholay lacked a progressive message or moral aspect like ‘Pyaasa’ ,’Guide’, ‘Garam Hava’, ‘Shree 420′ ,’Satyakam’ or ‘Mother India’. It did not connect to social reality like ‘Do Bigha Zameen ‘ or even ‘Awara’. In some ways it is symbolic that the film was made in the time of emergency. The magnitude of the success of ‘Sholay’ had lot to do with the repressive Indian socio-political system which suppressed genuine revolutionary democratic culture and endorsed reactionary art. Being a super hit does not necessarily make a movie great.
I feel glorifying films like ‘Sholay’ is part and parcel of the patronage of the ruling classes to divert people from their burning issues or promote escapist culture. Anupam Chopra’s book on ‘Sholay-Making of a Classic ‘talks about how it gave a new life to the people of village Ramgarh. Still today in India what is the plight of people in villages after forty years of making Sholay? In important ways it paved the path for a genre of films with greater violence in the subsequent decade, even if of far lesser quality. I somewhat endorse Actor Naseerudin Shah’s view on Sholay that it is an entertainer but not amongst the most artistic of films.
However, we must understand the elements that of Sholay that won over the Indian masses and how certain of it’s film forms could be imbibed to create progressive films. We must understand the roots of escapist culture, however diversionary. The production and direction of ‘Sholay’ was masterly and skilful to the core. . The Movie brilliantly grasped the idioms of the common man.
I do not deny that Sholay was a landmark film and had its virtues. with the plot and scenes woven with untold mastery. Sholay would without doubt rated ahead of ninety percent of superhit films that were great from entertainment point of view but not classical, virtuous or artistic. Sholay has power classical overtones of shades but is not a classic movie in itself.
However I would ask why was it not made in a form that would be a metaphor or symbol of the opression existing in that time in India. Today critics still eulogize Sholay. No doubt it was better or more artistically made than later super hit films like ‘Qurbani’, ‘Dilwale Dulhan le Jayegee,’ ‘Hum Aapke Hai Kaun’, ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’. ‘Bazigar’ or even ‘Lagaan’. However critics should touch upon how films like ‘Sholay’ have no progressive overtones. To me even film ‘Deewar’ conveyed a more progressive .message. It is pertinent that most of the super hits of the modern era have been reactionary films, patronising imperialist culture.
I would categorise ‘Sholay’ as a great entertainment film in the category of the James Bond films or Western like ‘A Few Dollars More’ or ‘Good, Bad and the Ugly”. However I would never class Sholay with classics like’The Magnificient Sven’ or ‘Once Upon a time in The West” or Hindi films like ‘Guide’,’’Pyaasa’, ‘Kaagaz Ki Phool’, ‘Madhumati’ or ‘Mughal E Azam.’ From respect of pure plot I rate even ‘Mother India ‘ and ‘Ganga Jamuna’ ahead of Sholay.
Nevertheless I must end by asserting that ‘Sholay’ was the first film made of its kind or a pioneeering venture, taking imagination in portraying characters and film direction art beyond regions known in Indian cinema.. The acting or character of Gabbar Singh has not been equalled till this day in Indian cinema.

*Freelance journalist who has written on mass movements

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