Film Review: Sholay

Sholay film posterThere’s something rather liberating in writing about a well-known topic.

Balanced against concerns of ‘what can I add to this that will be new’, there is the freedom that comes when you realise you can take as specific and individual a route as you want.

The recent 9th anniversary celebrations by Bollywood bloggers of Aamir Khan’s acclaimed film Lagaan were a great example of this.

Coordinated by The Bollywood Fan blog, posts covered variously: the role in the film of the underdogfaith, its white female supporting character and much more besides.

I haven’t got anything on that scale, or level of insight, about Sholay, but in terms of Bollywood’s ‘well-known topics’ the 1975 film surely tops the scale.

It’s the story of friends and petty criminals Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan). Summoned by former policeman Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), they are offered them a reward if they’ll deal with psychotic bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan), who has been terrorising Singh’s village.

Where to start with the film’s accolades? Well, it’s biggest grossing Indian film of all time, tops most Bollywood best-of polls and is regularly described as the greatest Bollywood film ever.

It was also featured in last year’s Bollywood Classics season on Channel 4, where it stood out for being a bigger, bolder and, in a run that started from the late-1940s, markedly more modern film than any other picture in the series.

So, while it’s difficult to know what to say that could be new about the 1975 picture, here are my impressions. They can be summarised as: swearing, violence, James Bond, spaghetti western and buddy movie.

The swearing – a few uses of b*****d, was not in itself much, but was a surprise given the Bollywood films I’ve seen. It particularly stood out  in the context of Channel 4’s Bollywood Classics season, the films of which have been far too clean cut to feature profanity.

Likewise the violence. In particular when Gabbar forces Basanti to dance on broken glass, threatening to shoot her lover Veeru if she stops and the shocking flashback to Gabbar cutting off Thakur’s arms in revenge for the policeman having previously apprehended him.

Despite this it’s not a ‘violent’ film, and the episodes when they come feel justified by the plot and, perhaps, add to the sense of a complete story.

Next on my list is ‘James Bond’. Not the most obvious thing to think of in connection to a Bollywood film, particularly one that is at heart a tragic buddy movie, but there’s a reference to the British secret agent character in either Veeru or Jai’s dialogue that seemed to point to the scale of the film’s, and its director’s, ambitions. (The James Bond films out around the time of Sholay’s filming were Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun.)

Finally, shot in the rocky terrain of Ramanagara, Karnataka, Sholay has the feel of a spaghetti western. The kind of Sergio Leone film that would feature men with good hearts, on the wrong side of the law, riding in and saving a village from bandits. Clearly I’m not the first person to have this thought – and on checking the film’s Wikipedia entry later on I easily found the references to Leone’s films.

Beyond that summary all that’s left to say is that there’s good reason Sholay is one of the most popular films in the world and it’s definitely on my list of Bollywood films to re-watch.

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