Retro Review: Sholay (1975).
If you’ve enjoyed a Bollywood blockbuster, you can thank Sholay, the father of the modern Bollywood extravaganza.
As the last film in our month-long look at the Cinema of India, we chose the granddaddy of modern Bollywood action flicks: Sholay. While the first “Masala” film out of Bollywood was made in 1973, no film cemented the genre’s tropes and appeal like 1975’s Sholay. A “Curry Western,” it blended the feel of Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone with elements of India’s own cops and bandits flicks (Dacoit films, as they’re known). The hallmark of Masala films is to mash together as many popular genres as possible, so Sholay welds musical elements, romance, and comedy onto that framework. Unlike many of the recent Masala films we’ve reviewed, Sholay takes this hodgepodge and soars with it. Each element is effective, and while they don’t always transition smoothly between styles, the end result is a wildly engaging mix of a production.
Former top lawman, Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), sends a younger official to find two criminals – Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan). When he was young, Thakur was impressed by the fighting prowess and mostly honorable principles of the two career criminals. He hopes that he can count on their love of money and justice to protect his village from a vicious bandit named Gabbar (Amjad Khan). While protecting the village, Veeru and Jai fall in love with two locals, and learn why Thakur and Gabbar are such mortal enemies.
One Upon a Time in the West…of India.
From the first shot you can see how much Sergio Leone’s work has informed Director Ramesh Sippy’s project. The opening credits roll over two horsemen riding through seer and beautiful vistas. Except for goats replacing the cattle, you’d easily mistake this for the wild west.
The cinematography matches the settings. We get the tight close-ups that distinguish so much of Leone’s work. The whipsaw cuts that create the flow of the action (and hide less-than-spectacular effects) are also evident.
The story has plenty of sequences that would be at home in a Western. There’s a train robbery. A rugged lawman chasing down a group of bandits and apprehending the desperadoes single-handedly. There’s a massacre at a village. A lopsided gunfight with our heroes fighting from every bit of cover in the town. Fans of the Western are going to be right at home with Sholay.
Each of Western trappings could easily be the plot to just one movie. Here, they’re all strung together in one film. On top of that, you get all of the other elements that have since become obligatory to the Masala film. Veeru and Jai have a great musical number as they drive down the road on a stolen motorcycle. When they get pinched later on, there’s a prison break story that leans heavily on broad comedic elements. The love stories for both Veeru and Jai feel natural, and are distinct – Jai has a stately, doomed love for a grieving widow while Veeru has a roguish courtship with the local spitfire.
While many Masala films feel ungainly in their need to cover every single base, Sholay gets its parts to mesh. The action sequences establish major character elements. The musical numbers show the relationships between characters. The only bit that feels tacked-on is the comedic prison sequence, but it helps to burnish the reputation of our two heroes as quick witted, mischievous, and possessed of a peculiar sense of justice.
Hitting All of the Notes.
I enjoyed every minute of this sprawling, 3 hour epic. Jai and Veeru are engaging and dynamic characters; great together, but also capable of carrying their own subplots. The overarching story of the fight against the bandits feels like the inspiration for the Three Amigos, where every comedic bit in that movie is instead played deadly serious. Gabbar is no El Guapo, but who is?
The inclusion of so many subplots and genres may sound unwieldy on paper, but Sholay makes it work. Moderation is a key part of this, one that modern Masala flicks could well learn from. Each element arrives when called for and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Very little feels grafted on just for crass mass appeal. Sholay works on the micro and macro level as an entertaining film. There’s a reason it is the gold standard (and was the highest grossing film out of India for decades). Sholay should be required viewing for anyone who loves, or wants to love, Bollywood films.