Released on 15 August 1975, Sholay ran in theatres for over five years, and altered the course of Indian cinema. Even today, it remains the box office gold standard, a reference point for both the Indian film-going audience and the film industry. For Sholay is not merely a film, it is the ultimate classic; it is myth. The characters - Veeru, Jai, Gabbar, the Thakur, Basanti, Radha, Soorma Bhopali and Sambha - are the stuff of folklore. Even the starring animal Dhanno the mare, has been immortalized.
In this book, film journalist Anupama Chopra tells the fascinating story of how a four-line idea grew to become the greatest blockbuster of Indian cinema. Starting with the tricky process of casting, moving on to the actual filming over years in a barren, rocky landscape, and finally the first few weeks after the film's release when the audience stayed away and the trade declared it a flop, this is a story as dramatic and entertaining as Sholay itself. With the skill of a consummate storyteller, Anupama Chopra describes Amitabha Bachchan's struggle to convince the Sippys to chose him, an actor with ten flops behind him, over the flamboyant Shatrughan Sinha; the last-minute confusion over dates that led to Danny Dengzongpa's exit from the film, handing the role of Gabbar Singh to Amjad Khan; and the budding romance between Hema Malini and Dharmendra during the shooting that made the spot boys some extra money and almost killed Amitabha.
Illustrated with over sixty colour and black-and-white photographs, this is a must-buy for every lover of cinema.
Introduction Kitne Aadmi The?
Dolores Pereira was dabbing on more powder when the doorbell rang. She gave herself a once-over in the mirror: salt-and-pepper hair framed a dark, fine-boned face made grey by the film of talcum powder. Orange lipstick filled out her thin lips. A string of pearl lent a quiet dignity to her knee-length dress and closed shoes with little heels. She looked like a respectable Anglo-Indian woman going to mass somewhere in Bangalore. Actually, she was a fortune-teller getting ready for work.
Dolores was frail but feisty. In her mid-fifties, she loved to gossip. She loved to bitch. And she loved to look at male derrieres. But what made the fabulous Dolores quite exceptional was her skill with tarot cards. She would lay down the cards and foretell the future, and she had hit the bulls-eye enough times to build a widespread reputation. Dolores didn't need to advertise. Word-of-mouth along ensured streams of Bangaloreans from every walk of life at her doorstep.
That balmy evening in 1974, she opened the door to three people. One, a short man in a funny-looking floppy hat, was a film director. The second, a tall man with a beard who looked like he needed a bath, was an actor. And the third, attractive women with fair skin, was the actor's wife. They were making a film somewhere on the outskirts of Bangalore. They had heard a lot about Dolores. The shooting had wrapped up early that day, so they had decided to come and meet her. It was the actor's first film. He was playing a villain against a league of big stars. For him, everything hinged on this film's success. Could she please peep into their future?
Dolores spread her cards out and started to talk. The wife leaned forward, all ears. The director and actor, both a little skeptical and amused, listened too, more curious than credulous. 'This man,' Dolores said, pointing to the actor, 'is going to be right on top.' She paused dramatically, and then declared: 'And this film is going to run for many years.' The actor and the director smiled, tempted to believe but wary of doing so.
Sholay ran for five years, and changed the course of Indian cinema. And Amjad Khan became a legend-Hindi cinema's first advertising icon: Gabbar Singh, the gravelly-voiced, unwashed villain who sold both records and biscuits equally well.
Even Dolores could not have imagined the spectacular degree of Sholay's success. The film changed lives, transformed careers, and even twenty-five years after its release it remains the box office gold standard, a reference point for both the Indian film-going audience and the film industry.
Over the years, Sholay has transcended its hit-movie status. It is not merely a film, it is the ultimate classic; it is myth. It is, as director Dharmesh Darshan says, 'part of our heritage as Indians'. The characters-Veeru, Jai, Gabbar, the Thakur, Basanti and Radha-are familiar in something of the way that Ram and Sita are. The peripheral players-Soorma Bhopali, the Jailer, Kaalia' and Sambha-are the stuff of folklore. Even the starring animal, Dhanno the mare, has been immortalized.
The film, still as compellingly watchable as it was when first released (in 1999 BBC-India and assorted internet polls declared it the Film of the Millennium), arouses intense passions. Its appeal cuts across barriers of geography, language, ideology and class: an advertising guru in Mumbai will speak as enthusiastically and eloquently about the film as a rickshaw driver in Hyderabad. And the devotion is often fanatical. Sholay connoisseurs-to call them 'fans' would be insulting their ardour-speak casually of seeing the film fifty, sixty, even seventy times. Dialogue has been memorized. Also the unique background music: the true Sholay buff can pre-empt all he sound effects. He can also name Gabbar's arms dealer who is on screen for less than thirty seconds (Hira), and Gabbar's father who is mentioned only once as Gabbar's sentence is read out in court ('Gabbar Singh, vald Hari Singh
Bollywood buzzes with Sholay stories: how a Jaipur housewife obsessed with Veeru convinced her husband to assume the name of her beloved screen hero; how Prakash bhai, a black marketer at Delhi's Plaza Cinema, sold tickets for the film at Rs 150 for five months and eventually bought himself a small house in Seelampur, which he decorated with Sholay posters; how a tough-looking immigration officer in New York waved actor Macmohan through because he had seen Sholay and recognized Sambha, 'The man on the rock with a gun.' There are autorickshaws in Patna named Dhanno, and potent drinks in five-star bars called Gabbar.
Sholay's dialogue has now become colloquial language, part of the way a nation speaks to itself. Single lines, even phrases, taken out of context, can communicate a whole range of meaning and emotion. In canteens across the country, collegians still echo Gabbar when they notice a budding romance: 'Bahut yaarana hai.' The lines come easily to the lips of Indians: 'Jo dar gaya, samjho mar gaya', 'Ai Chhammia', 'Arre o Sambha', 'Kitne aadmi the?', 'Hum Angrezon ke zamaane ke jailer hain'.
Predictably, Sholay has been used to sell everything from glucose biscuits to grip water. And copywriters are still milking it dry. An Aiwa print advertisement, circa March 2000, ties prices for its electronic products with the run rate of the Indian cricket team, exhorting: 'Bhaag, Saurav, mere paise ka sawaal hai,' which echoes Basanti's command to her mare: 'Bhaag, Dhanno, Bsanti ki izzat ka sawaal hai.' A Channel V filler spoofs the song 'Yeh Dosti'. And pop star Bali Bhrambhatt makes a remix album called Sholay 2000 and subtitled 'The Hathoda Mix', which alludes to the Thakur's lines to Veeru and Jai: 'Loha garam hai, maar do hathoda.'
Nothing in Indian popular culture ahs matched this magic. Critics might argue that Mother India or Mughal-e-Azam were better films, and the trade pundits might point out that in 1994 Hum Aapke Hain Kaun broke Sholay's box office record. But none of these films can rival Sholay in the scale and longevity of its success. Sholay was a watershed event. Director Shekhar Kapur puts it best: 'There has never been a more defining film on the Indian screen. Indian film history can be divided into Sholay BC and Sholay AD.'
There is more to Kapur's statement than just the passion of a hopeless admirer. Sholay is, in fact, the Indian film industry's textbook. The film married a potentially B-grade genre narrative to the big budget of a mainstream extravaganza, and taught the industry how formula can beget a classic. It changed the way Indian films looked and sounded. 'It is,' says adman and scriptwriter Piyush Pandey, 'undoubtedly the best film made in this country.' Sholay transformed action into high art. Stylized mayhem replaced the sissy dhishum-dhishum fist fights of the past. Violence became a Hind-movie staple for nineteen years, until Hum Aapke Hain Kaun flagged off the feel-good era. Sholay also set standards for technical excellence. Other films of the seventies seem shoddy and dated, but Sholay is a masterpiece of craft. To this day, directors quote Sholay in their films, allude to it in their frames.
The big-budget multi-starrer, where the filmmaker plays for broke, is also a legacy of Sholay. In its wake came endless imitations, spoofs and barely disguised remakes. The first Hindi film of the new millennium was Dharmesh Darshan's Mela, a multi-crore extravaganza about a girl who uses two truck drivers to avenge her brother's death at the hands of the daku (dacoit) Gujjar. It flopped. As did director Raj Kumar Santoshi's China Gate (1998), which featured ten retired army officers rescuing a village from the ferocious daku Jagira. Santoshi went blue in the face insisting that the inspiration was Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, but the audience didn't care. 'It's not Sholay,' was the verdict.
What is it about Sholay that works on us still? When people watch Sholay today, certain aspects of the film seduce them all over again: the soaring imagination of the story and the way it is today; the vitality of the scorching rocky landscape, charging horses and falling men; the gritty directorial conviction that allows an unhurried tale to be developed, full of texture and rhythm. The elements fall into place perfectly a marvelous chemistry between the actors; a fable-like story detailed into a superb script; unforgettable dialogue and fine performances. The film skillfully blends traditional and modern elements. It has, as author Nasreen Munni Kabir says, 'Differences in lifestyles which co-exist without appearing illogical.' The steam engines, the horses, the guns and the denim give the film as ageless quality, a feeling of several centuries existing next to each other.
The morally ambiguous characters-the heroes were jean-clad mercenaries-captured the Zeitgeist of the seventies, when the idealism of the freedom struggle and the optimism of newly independent India were things of the past; when politicians and bureaucrats had lost the respect of the people, and the young had come to believe that while it was desirable to be good, it was more important to be effective. This, pretty much, is the mood even today. What appealed to audiences a quarter century ago, does so even now.
Sholay was also a film made with grand passion for a madly passionate audience. The seventies were the tail end of Hindi cinema's golden era: the film industry had the audience's undivided attention for the last time, before widespread television, videotapes, and satellites changed the entertainment landscape for ever. Producer G.P. Sippy and director Ramesh Sippy dreamed big, and they had the courage to follow their instincts. Money, market, box office-all of these commercial considerations became, in the final analysis, secondary. The prime motive was to make a mega-movie, the like of which had never been seen before on the Indian screen.
The Hollywood western, which itself had drawn lessons from Kurosawa's Japanese samurai epics, was an inspiration for both material and attitude. A sort of cowboy zeal permeated the Sholay unit. Ramesh and his crew were like pioneers heading out to the Wild West; warriors fighting for a just cause. They selected a barren landscape in South India, inhabited it, transformed it against mind-numbing odds to suit their vision, and created a compelling work of art. Sholay's magic comes from the sweat and courage and ardour of every member of that unit. This is their story.
About the Author
Anupama Chopra is a special correspondent with India Today magazine and writes extensively about film. She has done a Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.
Anupama currently lives in Mumbai with her husband, filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and son, Agni.
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