‘Sholay’s story, lines, action, characters, plot, direction and songs will continue to live on long after we are dead.
Before gushing about why Sholay is the greatest Bollywood movie ever made, let’s acknowledge the fact that the road to its theatrical release and eventual success wasn’t easy. Back in 1973, screenwriters Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar had come up with a four-line snippet that they were narrating to various filmmakers. The idea was actually rejected by directors like Manmohan Desai (Parvarish, Amar Akbar Anthony, Coolie) and Prakash Mehra (Zanjeer, Laawaris, Namak Halaal, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar). That’s when Salim-Javed got in touch with G.P. Sippy and his son Ramesh Sippy who liked the concept of the movie and hired them to develop it. A few changes were made here and there. References from Seven Samurai, Mother India, Gunga Jumna, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Khote Sikkay were taken. Real life people like Gabbar Singh, Adolf Hitler and Soorma from Bhopal provided inspiration. And Sholay was born.
But here’s the bummer. Sholay released on 15 August 1975 and absolutely bombed! Due to the lack of effective visual marketing tools and absolutely garbage reviews, there were little-to-none financial returns in the first two weeks. K.L. Amladi called the film a “dead ember” and “a gravely flawed attempt”. Filmfare called in an unsuccessful imitation of Western movies. Many others labelled it as “sound and fury signifying nothing” and a “second-rate take-off” of the 1971 film Mera Gaon Mera Desh. And to top it all off it was labelled as “formless, incoherent, superficial in human image and a somewhat nasty piece of violence.” However, time was kind (or let’s say intelligent) to Sholay and eventually people realised that the narrative and directorial brilliance that’s infused in it.
So, let’s talk about the script and storytelling of Salim-Javed first. That’s because we live in a time where filmmakers struggle to tell simple stories with flawed, humane emotions. Everything’s either too over-the-top or too abstract for people to even understand. And they need to (that too right now!) look towards Sholay, which is basically about a defeated police officer taking revenge, with the help of two good-hearted con-men who metaphorically and literally replace his missing arms, on the person who beat him. If you dig deeper, it depicts the resilience displayed by humans in the face of constant peril. I mean, getting one’s hands cut off by the person who killed your entire f*cking family should definitely break them. But here he is doing his best to make sure that their deaths didn’t amount to anything.
From a character-writing point-of-view, Salim-Javed’s script is an absolute masterclass. Apart from Thakur, most of them have little-to-no backstory. Yet they stand out like shining stars due to the story arcs and extremely quotable lines(“Tumhara naam kya hai, Basanti?”, “Itna sannata kyon hai bhai?”, “Bahut yarana lagta hai“, “Basanti, in kutton ke samne mat nachna“). The entire opening monologue for Gabbar is so expertly crafted that even if the character doesn’t speak anything for the rest of the movie, you’ll know what is motivations are and where his decisions are coming from. Jai and Veeru come from nothing and yet they’re still the best example of friendship because of their camraderie (duh!), but most importantly, the white lies they tell each other in order to protect them from the worst possible outcomes. Because, hey, that’s what friends do.
Now, it’s time to bring your attention to the absolute technical brilliance of the movie, especially the editing. Every single song-and-dance sequence, which make for one of the most important aspects of Sholay, is extremely long. Yes, they’re melodiously sung but they’re terribly long. But given how each cut is in sync with the beats of the song, the audience’s energy doesn’t wane. Also because every song happens only when the story needs it to, furthering the characters, their dynamics and the plot. That said, my favourite edit occurs during the moment Gabbar shoots down Thakur’s grandson. As the CBFC had ordered the filmmakers to tone down the violence, editor M.S. Shinde used a L cut (the audio from a preceding scene overlapping the picture from the following scene) to gel the kid’s death, without making it bloody, and emphasising the impact of his death by matching it with the next logical plot-point: Thakur learning about his family’s death.
Last but not the least, Ramesh Sippy’s direction is so on point, especially during the action sequences. During the iconic train chase sequence, he goes from a wide shot of the dacoits chasing the train to an extreme close up of the effect of a gun shot behind Thakur back to a mid-close up like it is nobody’s hecking business. During the hand-to-hand fight sequences, it’s true that some of the punches do not connect but there’s literally no shaky cam to hide anything. In 2019 directors and action choreographers find it hard to shoot set-pieces even though they’ve access to so much modern technology. And here’s Sholay using hand-held camera to take clean close ups of the actors’ expressions to intesify the fight scene and using various other movie-making techniques to jump back and forth between horse chases and foot chases. I am saying “various other movie-making techniques” because I literally have no idea how they made it happen in 1975 and that’s saying something.
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