Two petty crooks – the scruffy, fun-loving Veeru (Dharmendra) and the tall, brooding Jaidev (Amitabh Bachchan) – are back in jail for the umpteenth time after an extended run from the police. One day, they are unexpectedly released on orders from retired police chief 'Takhur' Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), who remembers the twosome from an encounter years ago on a goods train when they saved his life in assisting him thwart a siege by bandits. Baldev Singh offers Veeru and Jai a hefty reward of 50,000 rupees for the capture of a wanted outlaw – the maniacal Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), a man they later learn murdered the Takhur's family before mutilating him by chopping both his arms off. Arriving at the Takhur's rural village, the remote settlement of Ramgarh which Gabbar Singh is terrorising, Veeru and Jai soon fall in love with two village belles. Veeru with feisty chatterbox Basanti (Hema Malini) and Jai with the Takur's daughter-in-law Radha (Jaya Bhaduri) – a once-carefree girl, now a dispirited widow after the death of her husband under Gabbar Singh's tyranny. As Gabbar and his bandits continue to wreak havoc on the village, Veeru and Jai vow to put an end to him and his loathsome followers.
Sholay ('Flames') is unquestionably the most beloved and famous Bollywood film ever made. It is perhaps Indian cinema's ultimate masala movie – a glorious mixture of action, drama, comedy and romance that forms a strangely cohesive whole being as it is part extravagant musical with its many colourful song-and-dance numbers and part spaghetti western with its Magnificent Seven-inspired plot. The film is no masterpiece – in fact, director Ramesh Sippy has (in my opinion) made superior films before and since, notably 1972's daft comedy Seeta Aur Geeta and 1985's romantic drama Saagar. But nonetheless, Sholay remains an exhilarating slice of entertainment and is one of the few motion pictures from Bollywood's crazy 1970s era to look almost as impressive today as it did thirty years ago.
With its triple backward summersaults and punches that miss by a mile, Hindi action films have never exactly given the likes of Sammo Hung or Yuen Woo Ping much to worry about. Even today, many Bolly beat-em-ups such as 2004's Dhoom are well below the standard of either Chinese or Hollywood actioners. Sholay however, produced all the way back in 1975, holds up superbly with its gritty, realistic fight scenes that blew away everything being made at the time in India. Ramesh Sippy's direction was innovative in that violence had never looked better on Indian silver screens, yet its deglamourisation meant that it also looked anything but pretty. No superhuman leaps, no razzmatazz: just rough, down 'n' dirty brawls. The film's highlight is its slickly-edited opening action sequence aboard a train that rivals anything Hollywood westerns have offered in terms of sheer adrenaline-pumping excitement.
Amitabh Bachchan (left) as Jaidev and Dharmendra as Veeru
in the famous 'Yeh Dosti' song sequence
Among Sholay's cast, it is difficult to decide upon who steals the show more as almost everyone involved has given career-defining performances. The late Sanjeev Kumar was still in his 30s when he donned his grey wig and moustache to play the ageing Takhur Baldev Singh. One of Indian cinema's few performers to shun a screen persona in favour of immersing himself in completely different characters, Kumar is almost unrecognisable in Sholay with his cherubic babyface hidden under his make-up. The movie's final battle between Gabbar Singh and an armless Takhur could easily descend into farce, but Kumar's confident performance ensures the scene retains its suspense.
Dharmendra had been a huge star in both romantic and action movies for over a decade by the time Sholay rolled around, but it was in his role as Veeru that his flair for comedy was fully exploited. Indeed, Dharmendra is hilarious as the drunken Veeru vying for the uninterested Basanti's affections. Life also imitated art on the set as Dharmdenra fell in love with Hema Malini during the film's shooting and is said to have bribed the camera crew to purposely botch takes so he could cuddle his future wife a few more times.
As evidenced by his fourth credit billing, Amitabh Bachchan in 1975 had not yet quite achieved the unmatched level of megastardom he would soon attain, but his role of Jai is regarded as one of Bachchan's early defining star appearances alongside 1973's Zanjeer and 75's Deewaar. In Sholay, it isn't hard to comprehend why 'The Big B' has earned such iconic status over the years as he simply exudes cool with an understated charisma, a smooth command of action and even a knack for deadpan comedy.
Hema Malini as Basanti dancing to 'Holi Ke Din' ('Day of Holi'),
India's festival of colours
Sholay was both the making and, one might say, the ruination of Amjad Khan's acting profession. So convincing and accomplished was Khan at portraying the utterly detestable villain Gabbar Singh that it became almost always impossible for audiences to accept the actor as anything but the baddie for the rest of his career. Khan never complained, however, as he remained grateful for the success he achieved. The character of Gabbar Singh was also one of Hindi cinema's most unique creations as Bollywood bad guys had previously usually been played with some degree of suave and sophistication by the likes of Pran, but there was zero civility to be found in the demeanour of nasty Gabbar. Here was a greasy, grubby, gross beast with no redeeming qualities whatsoever – he was and still is Indian cinema's all-time biggest and best bastard.
The heroines of Sholay, Hema Malini and Jaya Bhaduri, receive less screen time than their male counterparts. Jaya has barely any dialogue at all in the movie in fact, while Hema receives a better chance to shine, although it would always be hard for her to top her award-winning turn in her tailor-made vehicle Seeta Aur Geeta. Providing the film's music is R.D. Burman, Bollywood's most popular composer throughout the sixties and seventies. Burman's filmy songs, frequently consisting of a heavy dose of Western (not the spaghetti kind) beats and melodies, were known for their irresistible catchiness and while Sholay is far from his best work, the soundtrack does feature two bona fide instant classics. The first, 'Yeh Dosti' ('This Friendship'), is a foot-tapping road anthem picturized memorably on Amitabh Bachchan and, with harmonica in hand, Dharmendra driving wildly down a highway on their stolen motorcycle in a well-choreographed sequence. And also, 'Mehbooba' ('Beloved') – a thumping psychedelic number filled with Arabian riffs and sung by Burman himself that sees sex siren Helen make a cameo appearance as a gyrating belly dancer in a gypsy camp.
The one-and-only seductive Helen as a gypsy dancer in 'Mehbooba'
Today, those who are viewing Sholay for the first time may not initially realise the kind of impact the picture has had over the years. It has earned a cult status the likes of which have never been seen before or since. The film was amazingly set to be declared a flop upon its release due to the early receptions it was receiving from shocked audiences who were in awe at what they were witnessing on screen. Critics deemed its narrative as too alien to Indian culture for the film to succeed, but word-of-mouth had already spread and Sholay soon ended up breaking box office records, going on to run non-stop in theatres for five years straight – a feat not bettered until 1995's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge 15 years later.
For India's disillusioned population, the movie's rebellious tone was a potent antidote to the country's depressing political climate in 1975, at which time corruption was rife and constitutional rights had been suspended. In addition, many Bollywood clichés are notably absent in the film, particularly with a lack of overstated 'family values'. Social stigmas were dealt a blow with the character of Radha being encouraged to re-marry instead of living a life of solitude, as society would have her do. Jokes are even made by Jai at Veeru's propensity for gambling, boozing and visiting whorehouses – all traits that were usually associated with Bollywood villains brainwashed by the 'evil' ways of the West. Clean-cut heroes were definitely out and anti-heroes were very much in.
Even now, Sholay continues to be a phenomenon like no other. Much like The Wizard Of Oz, every scene has become a classic and each line of dialogue can be quoted by its fans. For those who've already watched and loved it, no amount of subsequent viewings will diminish the enjoyment and for those who haven't seen it, it will be an excellent example of Bollywood masala at its best. Either way, for newcomers or long-time fans, Sholay is essential viewing.
Amjad Khan as the depraved Gabbar Singh
Before this bare-bones release from Eros Entertainment goes under the microscope, a little more information on Sholay's history must be discussed…
Sholay was India's first 70mm widescreen film and also boasted stereophonic sound. However, since actual 70mm cameras were deemed too expensive to be used to shoot the epic actioner, the movie instead was shot on traditional 35mm film and the 4:3 picture was subsequently blown up, cropped and matted to a 2.20:1 frame. This also proved cost-effective in that separate 35mm prints would be needed anyway since few theatres in India were equipped to show widescreen films. Now, here's where the complications set in. In the weeks leading up to Sholay's premiere, India's censor board revealed that they were refusing to clear the film for release as they objected to its violent final scene and ordered director Ramesh Sippy to shoot a more 'sanitised' climax if he wanted his hard work to make it to the cinema halls. Left with no choice but to comply, Sippy scrambled to re-shoot Sholay's finale. Revealing the details of the changes made will significantly spoil the ending for newcomers to the movie, so if you'd like to remain unaware, steer clear of the spoilers in the box below...
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|In the original, full-length director's cut, Sholay's closing minutes see a dramatic showdown between a groggy Gabbar Singh and a vengeful Thakur Baldev Singh. Managing to overcome his handicap, the Takhur lays out Gabbar with a vicious assault before killing him in cold blood. Satisfied with his long-overdue revenge, but also disturbed at the hollowness of his victory, Baldev slumps into the arms of Veeru and weeps. It was a powerful conclusion, but the censors weren't impressed. They believed the portrayal of a police officer (albeit a retired one) taking the law into his own hands and committing murder would be setting a poor example to India's citizens and so instead the version of Sholay that made it to the theatres saw the police arrive just as the battle is about to finish and convince the Takhur to let Gabbar go. No comeuppance for Gabbar, no touching moment between Veeru and Baldev.|
Suffice it to say the new, watered-down climax of the film was and is infinitely less satisfying than what was originally intended to be shown, but nonetheless it was what audiences watched for fifteen years after 1975. The original, unedited cut of the film finally saw the light of day in 1990 on a British VHS release taken from a 35mm open matte print (the 70mm negatives for the director's version are no longer in usable condition) and, unfortunately, it is from this same video source that Eros have brought Sholay in its uncensored form to DVD.
Dressed in white, the attire of a widow,
is the lonely Radha (Jaya Bhaduri)
A plethora of problems plague this NTSC-encoded disc. A bad interlacing job has led to ghosting in many frames – even a progressive TV/DVD set-up won't be of much help here. Picture sharpness is poor with edge enhancement noticeable in nearly every scene. Colour rendition ranges from decent on some occasions to mostly washed-out and murky. Contrast and gamma levels fair worst of all with most dark scenes lacking any kind of black tones – at best, you'll only find dark greys. Image shimmering is also a factor. Thankfully, there are some positives to be found with the picture quality. There are few instances of dirt, grain or tears on the print making this actually one of the cleanest-looking golden oldie Bollywood DVDs on the market. One still wishes, though, that Eros could have obtained the actual 35mm print of Sholay and given it a spring clean instead of using a Betacam source.
Things only get worse on the sound front. As mentioned earlier, a stereophonic soundtrack was recorded for Sholay, but sadly the audio for this DVD is taken from a mono source and has been disguised as 5.1 Dolby Digital. The mono track has actually merely been spread out over the five channels with each speaker emitting the same sound at the same volume. When played through two-channel equipment, the dodgy mix also somehow leads to most of the audio coming out of the right speaker. Whichever way, this is far from an enjoyable listening experience. The mono track itself is also in below-average condition with plenty of hissing, pops, crackles and distortions to be heard.
No extras are included on the disc aside from optional English subtitles which are bereft of spelling or grammar errors and feature good translations, albeit a little needlessly 'sexed-up' at times. Criminally, none of the movie's five songs are subtitled.
Veeru tends to a wounded Jai in Sholay's dramatic finale
Sholay, like other evergreen Hindi films such as 1957's Pyaasa and Mother India, is a legendary film crying out for a special edition and in desperate need of a thorough restoration job – ideally from a label like Criterion or Premier Asia. For now though, this lacking release from Eros will have to do and yet, despite the mediocre picture and shoddy sound, Sholay's greatness still manages to shine through.