Sholay Reunion : Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay, the baap of reunions

January 15, 2022
Ramesh Sippy's Sholay is bigger than anything Indians can think of. What if Ramesh Sippy could make his OTT debut with Sholay Reunion Series!

Reunions are the times to travel down memory lane, become nostalgic, drop your hair down and let the child inside you come out. Even the content is brimming with formats that talk about reunions and the tone has been set, the ball is rolling with Friends: The Reunion, Harry Potter Reunion and many more of the ilk which are waiting behind the marks to unleash the nostalgia with the firing of the gun.

It may sound cliché to a few but our own Bollywood has in its annals a reel which is awaiting unspooling- the ‘baap’ of all reunions so-to-say and this can be said with sense of conviction and an aha moment for the Indian population in its entirety and that would include the diaspora who would just like to soak into the ambience and re-travel their own anecdotes associated with SHOLAY not only from quotient of just entertainment but with a lot of nostalgia and much more.

Apparently everyone in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and also in the 80s would have their own share of SHOLAY story, an anecdote or their take on Ramesh Sippy’s SHOLAY, just itching to unspool and share it through the social media platforms which has diffused the osmotic membrane between the world of entertainment and the fans. Hidden in the annals of time is a plethora of clubbed information swamping the net, but that is probably not ‘from the horse’s mouth’ i.e. the key role players who executed their assigned roles with panache either in front of the camera or from behind, in the making of this cult classic ‘SHOLAY’. SHOLAY is a cult classic as it transcended all the boundaries of hierarchies in the society and moments of the cinematic oeuvre found resonance one way or the other with each of the fans who watched it for the first time and continues to watch it whenever and wherever it is screened. To buttress the point- when Gorakhpur still was not identified with Yogi, during Dussehra times SHOLAY was the movie that would have a repeated telecast on screen and people would vie for space on both sides of the cloth screen to view it.

This is an attempt initiated on our part to share this sourced information with our readers to induce an element of nostalgic feeling and stimulate the Sippys and everyone else related to the project to come together on one common platform, like a reunion and share their experiences and shed light on the unknown. This itself could be Ramesh Sippy’s debut web series of sorts and the gut feeling says that the audience would lap it and there would hardly be a corner of the eye that would not be watery glistening with the copious trigger of tears.

Thank you Mr. Ramesh Sippy!

Imagine the nostalgia when the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri (Bachchan), Sachin Pilgaonkar, Asrani, Helen, Salim Khan, Javed Akhtar, would come on one stage and share their side of story associated with making of SHOLAY. The testing of the same was a fabulous success when Ramesh Sippy along with Hema Malini were contestants on KAUN BANEGA CROREPATI with BIG B and the eyeballs kept on rising in proportions as the episode unspooled. Such is the hold of the movie on the psyche of the movie viewers across generations.

For context, Sholay is a 1975 action adventure film written by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, directed by Ramesh Sippy and produced by his father G P Sippy. The film is about two thieves/criminals, Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), hired by a retired police officer (Sanjeev Kumar) to capture the ruthless dacoit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Hema Malini and Jaya Bhaduri also feature, as Veeru and Jai’s love interests, Basanti and Radha, respectively. Sholay is considered a classic and one of the best Indian films. It was ranked first in the British Film Institute’s 2002 poll of ‘Top 10 Indian Films’ of all times. In 2005, the judges of the 50th Filmfare Awards named it the Best Film of 50 Years.

The film was shot in the rocky terrains of Ramanagara, in Karnataka, over a span of two and a half years. After the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) mandated the removal of several violent scenes, Sholay was released with a length of 198 minutes. In 1990, the original director’s cut of 204 minutes became available on home video. When first released, Sholay received negative critical reviews and a tepid commercial response, but favourable word-of-mouth publicity helped it to become a box office success. It broke records for continuous showings in many theatres across India and ran for more than five years at Mumbai’s Minerva theatre. The film was also an overseas success in the Soviet Union. It was the highest-grossing Indian film ever at the time and was the highest-grossing film in India too. By numerous accounts, Sholay remains one of the highest-grossing Indian films of all time, adjusted for inflation.

The film is a Dacoit Western (sometimes called a ‘Curry Western’), combining the conventions of Indian dacoit films with that of Spaghetti Westerns along with elements of Samurai cinema. Sholay is also a defining example of the ‘masala’ film, which mixes several genres in one work. Scholars have noted several themes in the film, such as glorification of violence, conformation to feudal ethos, debate about its subtle undertones to challenge the established canons of social order- in particular the widow remarriage and mobilized usurpers, homosocial bonding and the film’s role as a National allegory.

The combined sales of the original soundtrack, scored by Rahul Dev Burman (R D Burman) and the dialogues (released separately), set new sales records. As a matter of fact it was for the first time that a vertical of dialogue selling as a commercial outreach became a successful template and it had inspired such initiatives for other films including PAKEEZAH. The film’s dialogues and quite a few characters are quintessentially effervescent , contributing to numerous cultural memes and becoming part of India’s daily vocabulary.

Production / Development
The screenwriter pair of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, had narrated the idea for Sholay as a four-line snippet to filmmakers in 1973. The idea was rejected by two prominent producer/director teams, including directors Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra. About six months later, after the release of Zanjeer (1973), the screenwriter duo of Salim-Javed got in touch with G P Sippy and his son Ramesh Sippy and narrated the four-line snippet to them. Ramesh Sippy liked the concept of Sholay and hired them to develop it.

The original idea of the film involved an army officer who decided to hire two ex-soldiers to avenge the murder of his family. The army officer was later changed to a policeman because Sippy felt that it would be difficult to get permission to shoot scenes depicting army activities. Salim-Javed completed the script in a month’s time, incorporating names and personality traits of their friends and acquaintances. The film’s script and dialogues are in Hindustani. Salim-Javed wrote the dialogues in Urdu script, which was then transcribed by an assistant into Devanagari script so that Hindi readers could read the Urdu dialogues.

The film’s plot was loosely styled after Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 samurai cinema film, Seven Samurai. Sholay is a defining example of the Dacoit Western film, combining the conventions of Indian dacoit films, especially Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) Nitin Bose’s Gunga Jumna (1961), with that of Westerns, especially Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns such as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as well as The Magnificent Seven (1960). It also has some plot elements borrowed from the Indian films Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Khote Sikkay (1973). A scene depicting an attempted train robbery was inspired by a similar scene in Gunga Jumna and has also been compared to a similar scene in North West Frontier (1959). A scene showing the massacre of Thakur’s family has been compared with the massacre of the McBain family in Once Upon a Time in the West. Sholay may also have been influenced by Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns, such as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Gabbar Singh’s character was modelled on a real-life dacoit of the same name who had menaced the villages around Gwalior in the 1950s. Lore was that any policeman captured by the real Gabbar Singh had his ears and nose severed and was released as a warning to other policemen. Gabbar Singh was also influenced by larger-than-life characters in Pakistani author Ibn-e-Safi’s Urdu novels, Dilip Kumar’s dacoit character Gunga from the film Gunga Jumna speaks with a similar mixed Khariboli and Awadhi dialect and villains from Sergio Leone’s films echo the same style of rendition.

Sippy wanted to do away with the clichéd idea of a man becoming a dacoit due to societal issues, as was the case in other films and focused on Gabbar being an emblem of ‘pure evil’. To emphasize the point of Gabbar being a new type of villain, Sippy avoided the cliché of dacoits wearing dhotis and pagris and sporting a Tika and worshipping ‘Ma Bhavani’; instead Gabbar would be wearing army fatigues. The character of the jailer, played by Asrani, was influenced by Hitler. Javed Akhtar bought a book on World War II which had several pictures of Adolf Hitler posing to set the typical posture of the character in the film. Asrani spiced up his character with some ideas about Hitler’s speech delivery he had heard from a teacher in FTII. The trademark ‘Ha Ha’ at the end of his monologues was inspired by a similar performance by Jack Lemmon in The Great Race. Soorma Bhopali, a comic relief character, was based on an acquaintance of actor Jagdeep, a forest officer from Bhopal named Soorma. Apparently, the real-life Soorma eventually threatened to press charges when people who had viewed the film began referring to him as a woodcutter.

The producers had apparently considered Danny Denzongpa for the role of bandit chief Gabbar Singh, but he could not accept it as he was committed to act in Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma (1975), under production at the same time. Amjad Khan, who was the second choice, prepared himself for the part by reading the book ‘Abhishapta Chambal’, which told of the exploits of Chambal dacoits. The book was written by Taroon Kumar Bhaduri, father of fellow cast member Jaya Bhaduri. Sanjeev Kumar also wanted to play the role of Gabbar Singh, but Salim-Javed felt “he had the audience’s sympathy through the roles he’d done before; Gabbar had to be completely hateful.”

Sippy wanted Shatrughan Sinha to play the part of Jai, but there were already several big stars signed and Amitabh Bachchan, who was not very popular yet, lobbied hard to get the part for himself. He was cast after Salim-Javed recommended him for Sholay in 1973; Amitabh’s performance in their first collaboration, Zanjeer, convinced Salim-Javed that Amitabh was the right actor for the film. Salim-Javed were also impressed with Bachchan’s performance in Raaste Kaa Patthar (1972) and at Bachchan’s request, Dharmendra had personally put in a word for him. All these factors ensured that the role was Bachchan’s.

As cast members had read the script ahead of time, many were interested in playing different parts. Pran was considered for the role of Thakur Baldev Singh, but Sippy thought Sanjeev Kumar was a better choice. Initially, Salim-Javed approached Dilip Kumar to play Thakur’s role, but he turned down the offer; Dilip Kumar later said it was one of the few films he regretted turning down. Dharmendra was also interested to play Thakur. Hema Malini was reluctant to play a tangewali, more so after Sippy told her that the film belongs to Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan, but she trusted Sippy to give her a meaty role, given that he had played a phenomenal role in essaying her stardom through Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) which incidentally had both Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar in lead roles.

During the film’s production, four of the leads became romantically involved. Bachchan married Bhaduri four months before filming started. This led to shooting delays when Bhaduri became pregnant with their daughter Shweta. By the time of the film’s release, she was pregnant with their son Abhishek. Dharmendra had begun wooing Hema Malini during their earlier film Seeta Aur Geeta (1972). The couple married five years after the film’s release.

Much of Sholay was shot in the rocky terrain of Ramanagara, a town near Bangalore, Karnataka. The filmmakers had to build a road from the Bangalore highway to Ramanagara for convenient access to the sets. Art director Ram Yedekar had an entire township built on the site. A prison set was constructed near Rajkamal Studio in Bombay, also outdoors, to match the natural lighting of the on-location sets. One part of Ramanagara was for a time called ‘Sippy Nagar’ as a tribute to the director of the film. As of 2010, a visit to the ‘Sholay rocks’ (where much of the film was shot) was still being offered to tourists traveling through Ramanagara for posterity!

Filming began on location on October 3, 1973, with a scene featuring Bachchan and Jaya Bhaduri. The film had a lavish production for its time, took two and a half years to make and went over budget. One reason for its high cost was that Sippy re-filmed scenes many times to get his desired effect. ‘Yeh Dosti’, a 5-minute song sequence, took 21 days to shoot, two short scenes in which Radha lights lamps took 20 days to film because of lighting problems and the shooting of the scene in which Gabbar kills the Imam’s son lasted 19 days. The train robbery sequence, shot on the Bombay-Poona railway route near Panvel, took more than 7 weeks to complete.

Alternate version
The director’s original cut of Sholay has a different ending in which Thakur kills Gabbar, along with some additional violent scenes. Gabbar’s death scene and the scene, in which the Imam’s son is killed, were cut from the film by the Censor Board, as was the scene in which Thakur’s family is massacred. The Censor Board was concerned about the violence and that viewers may be influenced to violate the law by punishing people severely. Although Sippy fought to keep the scenes, eventually he had to reshoot the ending of the film and as directed by the Censor Board, have the police arrive just before Thakur could kill Gabbar. The censored theatrical version was the only one seen by audiences for fifteen years. The original, unedited cut of the film finally came out in a British release on VHS in 1990.

Koushik Banerjea, a sociologist in the London School of Economics, notes that Sholay exhibits a “sympathetic construction of ‘rogue’ masculinity” exemplified by the likeable outlaws Jai and Veeru. Banerjea argues that during the film, the moral boundary between legality and criminality gradually erodes. Film scholar Wimal Dissanayake agrees that the film brought “a new stage in the evolving dialectic between violence and social order” to Indian cinema. Film scholar M Madhava Prasad states that Jai and Veeru represent a marginalized population that is introduced into conventional society. Prasad says that, through the elements of revenge included in the plot and the application of Jai and Veeru’s criminality for the greater good, the narrative reflects reactionary politics and the audience is compelled to accept feudal order. Banerjea explains that though Jai and Veeru are mercenaries, they are humanized by their emotional needs. Such dualism makes them vulnerable, in contrast to the pure evil of Gabbar Singh.

Gabbar Singh, the film’s antagonist, was well received by the audience, despite his pervasive sadistic cruelty. Dissanayake explains that the audience was fascinated by the dialogues and mannerisms of the character and this element of spectacle outweighed his actions, a first for Indian melodrama. He notes that the picturisation of violence in the film was glamorized and uninhibited. He further notes that, unlike earlier melodramas in which the female body occupies the audience’s attention as an object of male fetish, in Sholay, the male body becomes the centerpiece. It becomes the battleground where good and evil compete for supremacy. Dissanayake argues that Sholay can be viewed as a National allegory: it lacks a comforting logical narrative, it shows social stability being repeatedly challenged and it shows the devaluation of human life resulting from a lack of emotions. Taken together, these elements comprise the allegorical representation of India.

Dissanayeke and Sahai note that, although the film borrowed heavily from the Hollywood Western genre, particularly in its visuals, it was successfully ‘Indianised’. As an example, William van der Heide has compared a massacre scene in Sholay with a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. Although both films were similar in technical style, Sholay emphasized Indian family values and melodramatic tradition, while the Western was more materialistic and restrained in its approach. Maithili Rao, in Encyclopedia of Hindi Cinema, notes that Sholay infuses the style of the Western genre into a “feudalistic ethos”. Ted Shen of the Chicago Reader notes Sholay’s “hysterical visual style” and intermittent “populist message”. The sole function of one female character (Radha) is to suffer her fate in silence, while the other female lead (Basanti) is just a garrulous village belle.

Some scholars have indicated that Sholay contains homosocial themes. Ted Shen describes the male bonding shown in the film as bordering on camp style. Dina Holtzman, in her book Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation and Diaspora, states that the death of Jai and resultant break of bonding between the two male leads, is necessary for the sake of establishing a normative heterosexual relationship (that of Veeru and Basanti).

Rahul Dev Burman (R D Burman) composed the film’s music and the lyrics were written by Anand Bakshi. The song ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ was sung by its composer R D Burman, who received his sole Filmfare Award nomination for playback singing for his effort. The song, which is often featured on Bollywood hit song compilations, is based on ‘Say You Love Me’ by Greek singer Demis Roussos. ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ has been extensively anthologised, remixed and recreated. A version was created in 2005 by the Kronos Quartet for their Grammy-nominated album You’ve Stolen My Heart, featuring Asha Bhosle. While ‘Yeh Dosti’ has been called the ultimate friendship anthem.

Despite the soundtrack’s success, at the time, the songs from Sholay attracted less attention than the film’s dialogue – a rarity for Hindi language films. The producers were thus prompted to release records with only dialogue. Taken together, the album sales reached an unprecedented 500,000 units. By 1979, the soundtrack went Platinum (equivalent to 1 million sales at the time), becoming one of the top-selling Bollywood soundtracks of the 1970s.

Music critic Oli Marlow reviewed the soundtrack in 2013, calling it a unique fusion of religious, folk and classical music, with influences from around the world. He also commented on the sound design of the film, calling it psychedelic and saying that there was “a lot of incredible incidental music” in the film that was not included in the soundtrack releases. In a 1999 paper submitted to London’s Symposium on Sound in Cinema, film critic Shoma A Chatterji said, “Sholay offers a model lesson on how sound can be used to signify the terror a character evokes. Sholay is also exemplary in its use of sound matching to jump cut to a different scene and time, without breaking the continuity of the narrative, yet, intensifying the drama.”

Sholay was released on 15 August 1975, Indian Independence Day, in Bombay. Due to lackluster reviews and a lack of effective visual marketing tools, it saw poor financial returns in its first two weeks. From the third week, however, viewership picked up owing to positive word-of-mouth. During the initial slow period, the director and writer considered re-shooting some scenes so that Amitabh Bachchan’s character would not die. When business picked up, they abandoned this idea. After being helped additionally by a soundtrack release containing dialogue snippets, Sholay soon became an ‘overnight sensation’. The film was then released in other distribution zones such as Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Hyderabad on 11 October 1975. It became the highest-grossing Hindi language film of 1975.

Sholay went on to earn a still-standing record of 60 golden jubilees across India and was the first film in India to celebrate a silver jubilee at over 100 theatres. It was shown continuously at Bombay’s Minerva theatre for over five years.

Critical response
Initial critical reviews of Sholay were negative. Among contemporary critics, K L Amladi of India Today called the film a “dead ember” and “a gravely flawed attempt”. Filmfare said that the film was an unsuccessful mincing of Western style with Indian milieu, making it an “imitation western – neither here nor there.” Others labelled it as “sound and fury signifying nothing” and a “second-rate take-off” of the 1971 film Mera Gaon Mera Desh. Trade journals and columnists initially called the film a flop. In a 1976 article in the journal Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, author Michael Gallagher praised the technical achievement of the film, but otherwise criticised it stating, “As a spectacle it breaks new ground, but on every other level it is intolerable: formless, incoherent, superficial in human image and a somewhat nasty piece of violence.”

Over time, the critical reception to Sholay greatly improved; it is now considered a classic and among the greatest Hindi-language films. In a 2005 BBC review, the well-rounded characters and simple narrative of the film were commended, but the comical cameos of Asrani and Jagdeep were considered unnecessary. On the film’s 35th anniversary, the Hindustan Times wrote that it was a “trailblazer in terms of camera work as well as music,” and that “practically every scene, dialogue or even a small character was a highlight.” In 2006, The Film Society of Lincoln Center described Sholay as “an extraordinary and utterly seamless blend of adventure, comedy, music and dance”, labelling it an “indisputable classic”. Chicago Review critic Ted Shen criticised the film in 2002 for its formulaic plot and “slapdash” cinematography and noted that the film “alternates between slapstick and melodrama”. In their obituary of the producer G P Sippy, the New York Times said that Sholay “revolutionized Hindi filmmaking and brought true professionalism to Indian script writing.”

Certain scenes and dialogues from the film earned iconic status in India, such as “Kitne aadmi the?” (How many men were there?), “Jo dar gaya, samjho mar gaya” (One who is scared is dead) and “Bahut yaarana laagta hai” (Looks like you two are very close) – all dialogues of Gabbar Singh. These and other popular dialogues entered the people’s daily vocabulary. Characters and dialogues from the film continue to be referred to and parodied in popular culture. Gabbar Singh, the sadistic villain, ushered in an era in Hindi films characterized by ‘seemingly omnipotent oppressors as villains’, who play the pivotal role in setting up the context of the story.

The film is often credited with making Amitabh Bachchan a ‘superstar’, two years after he became a ‘star’ with Zanjeer (1973).

So the Reunion indeed is required to be planned and unspooled for the present generation as also from the past to underline what SHOLAY means for the average Indian movie goer and how the name whenever it is uttered creates goosebumps.

–With inputs from Nalin Rai

n.b.: Almost the entire information is courtesy its source and we are grateful for their contribution

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