True Review



by Utpal Datta February 28 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 13 secs

The film failed to receive the expected response from the audience at the time of release. But slowly audiences and critics began to appreciate its beauty. And today, it has become a cult film, writes Utpal Datta.

'Pather Panchali' had a similar experience. At the beginning, the audience response was lukewarm. With time passing, critics realized the uniqueness of the film and started to discuss its potential. The fate of the film 'Sholay', which is still discussed four decades later, was not written the same way.

Sholay was released on August 15th 1975, and failed to attract audiences in the first week. All the discussion around the three-hour-long film was negative. Later, as people flocked to the cinemas, they started to repeat the dialogues, not singing the songs as is normally the case. Curious film journalists wanted to find out the secret behind the film's success.

The initial audience stepped out of the theatre speechless. They neither spoke negatively, nor did they praise the film. Ramesh Sippy was worried about the response. He had directed two films prior to Sholay and many more after, but none came close to the success of Sholay. In addition to box office records, the cinematography, editing, and other technical aspects are significant.

A few researchers attempted to unravel the mystery of the stupendous success of the film, which is a commendable discussion to have, but after it became unimaginably huge Sholay was called ‘a magnificent film’.

The film is similar to the thematic spirit of Akira Kurosawa's iconic creation ‘Seven Samurai’. The plot of ‘Seven Samurai’ was based on the deployment of professional warriors against robbers. With that framework, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar prepared a summary - the story of a police officer who hires two convicts to take revenge from the enemies of his family. After two producers rejected the story, GP Sippy showed interest and the writer-duo started writing the screenplay. Salim and Javed have said in several interviews that there is no such thing as an original idea, and also admitted that they borrowed from various films to write the screenplay of Sholay.

A Hollywood film, The Magnificent Seven, was made on the theme of Seven Samurai, and Salim and Javed were influenced by it. They were also inspired by Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Sholay was thematically similar to two Hindi films as well, Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Kachche Dhaage.

In an interview, Nazreen Munni Kabir asked Javed Akhtar: Is 'Sholay' inspired by any film? Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, for example?

Javed Akhtar replied: Somewhat films like The Magnificent Seven and The Five Man Army…I don't remember if Five Man Army was released first or Sholay before it, but The Magnificent Seven was released. The film's martial arts context came to us from western films. That’s true…but the main story - that’s not taken from anyone.

And, Javed Akhtar reiterated: We were impressed by Sergio Leon. When Thakur arrives home, he finds that all his family members have been killed. There is a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. We were deeply moved by the scene and wrote it for Sholay. But most of the characters and scenes in Sholay are original. I cannot think of another Hindi film that has characters like Gabbar, Surma Bhupali, Basanti, Jai, Veeru and the jailer. The characters in the film, which was released in 1975, are still popular today.

There was no electricity in the village of Ramgarh, where the story of Sholay belongs, and director Ramesh Sippy filmed the aesthetically appealing scene of Thakur's widowed daughter-in-law turning on the lamps as the evening sets in. Even the sound of the Azaan through the public address system.

Many villagers are worried about how to draw water from the water tank in the village without electricity. There is a scene where Veeru (Dharmendra) pretends to commit suicide, which was taken from The Secret of Victoria, directed by Stanley Carmer, in which Steve McQueen pretends to commit suicide by climbing on a tank. Similarly, the inspiration behind the train robbery scene was North West Frontier.

However, the depth of Ramesh Sippy's cinematic knowledge and introspection is visible throughout the film. Let's take the scene of the murder of the Thakur family. The child stood in front of Gabbar's gun. The audience waited for the gunshot. There was dead silence. The only sound was the crack of the swing moving between Gabbar and the child. Then the train suddenly stops at the station with a loud roar. Its sound fills the air and overwhelms the sound of the gunshot. The killing isn’t shown, but it is clear that the child was dead.

In another scene, Thakur's widowed daughter-in-law, played by Jaya Bhaduri, turns on the lamps one by one. Jai (Amitabh Bachchan), sitting at a distance in the dark, watches her. The inner light shines through the darkness, much like the lamp filling dusk with light. The director gave life to the scene with shadows, camera perspective and superlative performances of the actors. This applies to all the scenes, not just one. A scene without dialogue is more challenging for a director to communicate with his audiences. There were many such scenes in the film, which Ramesh Sippy, the director, was astonishingly good with.

It is true that the dialogues of the film became famous soon after its release. In the past, memorable film dialogues were usually poetic. Sholay broke the trend. Before Salim-Javed, it was Vijay Anand who had captivated audiences with the sharp dialogues of his film 'Johny Mera Naam'.

Ramesh Sippy owes a lot to Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand in terms of the technique he adopted for Sholay. Guru Dutt was the first Indian film director to use cinemascope to widen the visual feel of the shots in Kaagaz Ke Phool. Ramesh Sippy's shots are influenced by the dimension. Vijay Anand’s exceptional camera angles and fat-free shots of his film 'Guide', also drive Ramesh Sippy’s approach. These examples, however, do not take away from Sippy’s merit, because he is representative of such Bollywood filmmakers who attempted to make artistically rich and respectable films within the prevailing framework.

After Sholay, Ramesh Sippy's films Shaan, Shakti, Sagar, Bhrashtachar, Jawani Diwani and Akela failed to showcase the same – both in business and art. Slowly, he withdrew from the industry. Shaan was a highly anticipated film, both for the audience and the actors, but it didn't work for anybody. After Shakti many declared that Sippy had lost his 'magic'.

Several Hindi films have followed the ‘Sholay’ model over the years. The first was 'Ramgarh Ke Sholay', which featured 'duplicates’. Shekhar Kapoor made 'Joshile' in which actor Rajesh Vivek was hired for a role similar to Gabbar Singh. The film was never completed. Subhash Ghai made Karma, and Rajkumar Santoshi made China Gate. Contemporary Bollywood director Ram Gopal Varma tried a remake and after legal battles was forced to name his film 'Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag'. The film starred actors Mohanlal, as Thakur, and Amitabh Bachchan, as Gabbar Singh. It failed miserably.

Forty years after, 'Sholay' has not diminished. It was fortunate to get a wide audience, and praise for unmatched technical work, but it never won any significant awards except at Filmfare for Best Editing.

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