Directed by: Ramesh Sippy
Produced by: G.P. Sippy
Starring: Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Amjad Khan, Asrani
It's Kinda Like: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid meets The Seven Samurai . . . with hints of Paint Your Wagon (cowboy action heroes singing?) It's heavily influenced by Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, and apparently there are hints of Peckinpah as well. (This is in the genre of films referred to sometimes as "curry westerns." Ha ha.)
I gotta say, sometimes Bollywood film covers are really misleading. I've seen posters for Sholay often, and it looks like a crazy bloodthirsty epic blockbuster action film. I mean, look at it: Guns! Awesome dudes fighting! Grunting! Grimaces! . . . but then it had this song fairly early in it!
A partial translation of this song's lyrics is as follows, according to bollywoodlyrics.com:
We will not break this friendship
I may break my strength, but I will not leave your side.
Oh, my victory is your victory, your loss is my loss
Listen, oh my friend
Your pain is my pain, my life is your life
That is how our love is.
Sholay is a pretty famous-slash-infamous film; released in 1975, its original run lasted for five years (ten? the internet disagrees with itself; confirmation not found in brief search) -- it was the highest-grossing Indian film to date and may still be,* and it was also the longest-running.** (You can see posters for Sholay in the background of Om Shanti Om, which I recognized, even though I'd never seen Sholay at that point. Just one more reason to see it!) It helped launch the career of the uberfamous Amitabh "The Big B" Bachchan (known to western audiences as the movie star idolized by the hero in Slumdog Millionaire), and Amjad Khan, and is generally referred to as a pop culture landmark.
Jai, the serious one (Amitabh) and Veeru, the funny one (Dharmendra) are our heroes, cheerful yet brave outlaws hired by an ex-cop (who had once arrested them) to carry out an important task. Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) needs their help to capture a notorious, psychotic bandit chief, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), who commmitted a horrible crime against the Thakur and his family. (Sholay means "Embers," referring to the Thakur's slow-burning rage.)
Not knowing quite what to expect, not even the plotline -- I sincerely enjoyed it! It's truly a Western done by Bollywood, with very strong elements from both worlds. Some might argue that that makes it a weird, incongruous film -- but who cares about those people? ;o) Indeed, the film started out as a flop at the box office before its subsequent surge of audience, quite possibly because of its juxtaposed elements.
The Western stuff is really in-genre: the film's first big event is a train robbery, for example. And the film's style feels very modern and "artsy": the editing is creative and effective (and the shots aren't tooooo loooooooong, my big problem with 70s movies), and the stylistic choices of freezeframe and slow motion are taken from Leone and Peckinpah films. The score, too, is inspired by those spaghetti western scores, with non-musical sounds creating an affecting emotional soundscape (like in the flashback scene where Thakur relates what Gabbar Singh did: the creaky swing! Ouughhh, the creaky swing!).
But there's also some good old Bollywood comedy -- Bollywood films are long enough for two movies, after all -- it's a little like a spaghetti western meets a Hope/Crosby Road picture, for all the antics our heroes go through. They spend a very brief time in jail in the charge of a jailer who's doing Charlie Chaplin in The Little Dictator; they flirt with the local sassy chick; they exchange witty repartee; they flip a coin to make important decisions.
Yet the pendulum swings both ways. The comedy made me *actually* laugh, and it's sprinkled throughout the film, not sequestered in the first half. The water tower scene where a thwarted, drunken Veeru threatens to jump off is genuinely funny. (Have you ever heard someone in a movie who's threatening to commit suicide actually *yell* "Suuuuuuiiciiiiiiiiide!") And still, while remaining largely bloodless in that surreal slightly-comic classic film manner (how does one die from a gunshot that results in neither blood nor any visible wound?) the acting, the editing, and the sound design make Gabbar Singh's violent acts truly upsetting. (If you think children and animals are by definition safe, my friend, you are WRONG.) The film aims for both extremes -- and hits both targets.
Though influences from Leone's films are clear, the film felt a lot like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to me, complete with the sense of a smooth surface of comedy covering an ocean of dread. The heroes' interaction is genuinely warm and funny, and even their lazy banter is touching, especially when compared to the stark white widow and the frozen, glaring Thakur. Plus, the culture clash, like in Butch Cassidy, gives the film an extra kick of the surreal. Butch and Sundance travel from the US through New York City to a tiny village in Bolivia; it feels like two modern guys trapped in a nightmare of the past; the film is set in the early 1900s but their costumes (and that rockin' stache) definitely say sixties:
Compare with this photo of Jai and Veeru; similar, eh? Except in their case the culture clash is even more extreme: this movie is set in the PRESENT (1970s). Our heroes are dressed in a white leisure suit and jeans, respectively. They talk about driving cars. Some of the bad guys have machine guns. YET, the train robbery at the beginning is by bandits on horseback with rifles, and the Thakur's village is all dust and tribal clothing. Again, modern guys thrust into a timeless, basal, rural world.
Some Catty Film Criticism: The film looks so much like a Western that my roommate and I, both from Southern California, would have *sworn* it was filmed in the Mojave desert -- exCEPT that it was filmed near Bangalore. We can therefore no longer be cynical about movies filming in "clearly" cheap California locations -- maybe they really ARE in Tunisia! Also, wow, the buildings look so much like all those Spanish mission-style backlot towns where they stage cheesy gunfights -- sloping tiled roofs, low two-story buildings, guys getting shot and toppling off of balconies . . . talk about authentic Western. (And without giving anything away: though the *idea* of the final fight is Noble and Awesome, actually *watching* it is kinda high-larious. Good choice to have him leave the blanket on for most of the movie, I say.)
The Verdict: A classic film that's not just a historical curiosity, but also genuinely enjoyable! The genre blending is fascinating in how the different kinds of stories (revenge western vs. buddy film vs. romance) tie each other up; there's an ending for everyone.
* Apparently now there's a controversy about whether earnings from 3 Idiots have surpassed those of Sholay. Drama!
**(Sholay's record was eclipsed eventually by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which opened in 1995 and was still running continuously as of Oct. 2009.)