If it’s a cineaste it would be blasphemous to ask if they’ve watched ‘Sholay’. The right question would be how many times they’ve watched ‘Sholay’.
The year 1975 was one of the golden years of Kannada cinema. ‘Chomana Dhudi’ and ‘Hamsageethe’ rubbed shoulders successfully with ‘Mayura’ and ‘Shubamangala’. Vishnuvardhan, basking in the glory of ‘Nagarahavu’ had seven releases to Raj Kumar’s two. There were audiences for every genre. Nobody complained or threatened a stir when ‘Sholay’ was first screened at Kapali and later shifted to Santosh. They remain two of the coveted screens for Kannada film producers. Filmmakers believed in congenial co-existence purely because of the confidence in their own craft. Cinema was about quality not language.
Times were different. On the threshold of teenage, social networking was a clump of chums discussing cinema over a cuppa. Films and food were the only distractions and the subjects of friendly debate. The window to the outside world was the newspaper. ‘Sholay’ cropped up as a topic even during it’s making in Bangalore purely because it was being shot around Ramdevara Betta in the vicinity of Ramanagar. A friend remembers cycling from Channapatna with 20 of his friends just to see Dharmendra in person. Yes, he was more popular than Amitabh then. Amitabh had just tasted success with ‘Zanjeer’ and consolidated it with ‘Deewar’. Dharmendra had a huge, loyal fan base in Banglaore long after Amitabh ascended the throne. I remember fans of both fighting over the number of blows they exchanged in ‘Ram Balram’! The buzz around ‘Sholay’ was not because it was a multi-starrer which was common in Hindi cinema. It was because the film was shot in 70mm with stereophonic sound. The ritual was to gather on Friday evenings and get a feedback from anyone who has watched the new releases. I remember there was initial disappointment because only the 35mm print was being played. The frenzy started with the film encompassing the huge screen at Santosh. There was awe and amazement at the sheer size of the canvas, sound that surrounded you and the fact that the film used both to maximum advantage. Crowds thronged as fans returned for multiple viewings. Cassettes containing the film’s dialogues sold more than the music.
Few films have stood the test of time and with our own changing, churning sensibilities. ‘Sholay’ is one of the very few. Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’ and Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ have inspired generations of filmmakers and their works. Feroz Khan had already made a version of the former, ‘Khote Sikkay’, about a caped mercenary saving a village from plunderers. Ironically, Danny Denzongpa could not do the role of Gabbar Singh because he was committed to ‘Dharmatma’, Feroz’s take on ‘Godfather’. ‘Sholay’ had the substance of ‘Seven Samurai’ and the style of Sergio Leone’s classic, ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’. The massacre of Thakur’s kin is lifted, shot by shot from Leone’s western right down to the background score. This does not take away anything from ‘Sholay’ as a cinematic experience par excellence. It’s a terrific example of teamwork resulting in an excellent product.
It’s the tale of a maimed former police inspector hiring two petty criminals to wreak vengeance on a dacoit who annihilated his kin. The two heroes Amitabh and Dharm are shown casually when the camera pans to them from Sanjeev Kumar. Amjad Khan as the dreaded Gabber Singh is introduced like a hero, the camera lingering on his feet first. Sometimes, everything falls in place for a film and that was destined for ‘Sholay’. The writing was inspired, not only the story and screenplay but the dialogues that are still repeated. Every character was thoughtfully written, brilliantly cast and impeccably performed. Dwarka Divecha’s cinematography is a master-class in unobtrusiveness, be it the brilliantly executed train sequence or the Helen dance piece. There was no unnecessary close-ups. R.D. Burman’s background score still rings, especially his theme for Gabbar, akin to a howling hyena. The film proved that Hemamalini could act, but it was Amjad Khan who stood out. His dialogue delivery and the gleam in his eyes, be it lust or hatred, was remarkable for a newcomer. You just can’t imagine anyone else in that role. Satyajit Ray was impressed enough to cast him.
‘Sholay’ embodies the true cinematic experience in a packed theatre. You didn’t mind fans reciting the dialogues in advance because you yourself were tempted. ‘Sholay’s running time was three hours 24 minutes. Nobody talked about the daunting length because every minute was packed with drama, action and excitement. If you want to pick holes, yes the Asrani portion is a tad silly and overdone. I watched a downloaded version again and not for a second was I tempted to depress the fast forward button. Will it work for the present generation? I think they’re yet to watch anything like ‘Sholay’ in Indian cinema. To mark the fortieth anniversary a ‘director’s cut’ DVD with anecdotes and interviews would have been grabbed by fans. The re-release of a digitised print would have had fans queuing up with their family. I can confidently say very few films in all these years of devouring movies have matched up to the excitement of watching ‘Sholay’ on a large screen with a packed hall. I wouldn’t even mention Ramgopal Verma’s attempted remake. I’d like to believe it was an unintended spoof!