Millennials Review Classics: ‘Sholay’? More Like ‘Snore-lay’!
A revered classic it may be, an entertaining plotline it may have, but ohmygod, get there faster ‘Sholay’!
(Khemta, 27, watched Sholay (1975) for the first time this year. Read her review.)
Note: No spoiler alerts because this movie is a million years old.
Variously described to me as “an amazing movie”, “longest movie ever” and “OMG so long”, let's say I was on the fence regarding my expectations from Sholay. It's one of those films you keep hearing is a classic (like Citizen Kane or Breakfast at Tiffany's) but never get around to watching. Given that my first Amitabh Bachchan movie was actually Pink last year, you could say I was watching the young Big B’s performance with fresh eyes.
A true masala movie, Sholay mixed slapstick comedy with gory action and melodramatic romance, such that I found myself laughing (in a ‘why-am-I-laughing’ sort of way) and biting my nails within two minutes of each other.
It begins with a sombre Thakur (ex-police inspector played by Sanjeev Kumar) seeking the help of two criminals – portrayed as happy-go-lucky louts – he had once arrested, to help him defend his village of Ramgarh from bandits led by the notorious Gabbar Singh.
Casual Hitler Reference, Check
There follows long sequences delving into the criminals’ lives – Veeru and Jai, played by Dharmendra and Big B – establishing their never-say-die bromance as a central theme of the film. Thick as thieves, those two are (aside from being actual thieves), getting themselves arrested in a plot to cash in on the police rewards on their heads. There's a hilarious scene here involving an extremely overdone and slapstick Hitler-esque ‘khadoos’ jailer. He is first hit on by an overtly effeminate and eager inmate as he does his rounds...
...and then given the subtle finger by Jai in the traditional I-happen-to-be-scratching-my-face-with-this-finger method often used on one's best friends in class.
Some things transcend generations, I guess?
Also Read: Vinod Khanna’s Hit-and-Miss ‘Achanak’
Escaping khadoos jailer and making their way to ill-begotten freedom, the dynamic duo – after much singing and dancing – wind up near Thakur's Ramgarh, whereupon they meet a spunky chatterbox of a woman, Basanti (Hema Malini).
I'm no fan of the high-pitched, childlike persona women in film have been made to adopt for aeons, but Basanti turned out to be refreshingly no-nonsense and courageous despite it. She rides right into a fight scene with bullets flying thick and fast to save Veeru and Jai's asses when they were about to be shot full of holes. I wasn't expecting that from such an old film, especially since many Bollywood (and Hollywood!) flicks even today choose to depict women as mere ornamentation.
During this action-packed fight scene, we're treated to a gory twist in the tale. It turns out Thakur has an axe to grind with Gabbar, who had not only murdered his entire family, but also chopped off both his arms! That was a dramatic moment, a gasp may or may not have escaped my lips... a point worth mentioning because throughout the 3-hour-18-minute viewing, I found myself fidgeting. Each scene lasted much too long, each funny moment lingered much too slow. This could be my millennial attention span talking, but I did wish the movie would hurry up and get to the point (much like this review, I hear you say...).
Veeru the Lech
There's a scene in which Veeru is supposedly teaching Basanti how to shoot a pistol – a long scene that includes pointless chit-chat and beating around the bush to end at a predictable point. During the scene he takes advantage of her good faith to rub up against her and sleazily attempt molestation instead. The scene is jarring in today’s world – one that is (I hope) more aware of how hideous these unwanted advances from strange men are.
Having moved swiftly from action, to comedy, to romance, we're witness to Veeru's drunken, flailing courtship of Basanti, stymied along the way by a resigned and exasperated Jai who has seen his friend fall victim to love several times a year. There's a charming scene where Jai is bullied into making Veeru's case for marrying Basanti, to her aunt. He sneakily sabotages the attempt by revealing that Veeru is not just an alcoholic and a gambler, but also a frequenter of brothels. The aunt's increasingly wide-eyed apoplexy at the suggestion that she would ever marry off her Basanti to such a cretin is sweet in its sincerity.
Veeru, in melodramatic fashion, climbs a water tower and loudly proclaims his intent to commit suicide to the entire village in a slapstick scene, which gets Basanti panicky. She agrees to marry him if only he'll climb down – clearly a case of emotional blackmail! This guy is the worst.
All You Need Is... A Pretty Face and Lowered Eyes
Meanwhile, Jai is falling in love with the disturbingly subdued widow, Radha, Thakur's daughter-in-law who had lost most of her family to Gabbar Singh's murderous hand. Radha now roams morosely around, shrouded in white, looking at and speaking to no one – the total opposite of Basanti. For some inexplicable reason, Jai is totally taken with her, and seeks Thakur's permission to marry her.
Thakur approaches Radha's father about the union, upon which her father tells Thakur that she is 'his' now. Because of course, she has no say in the matter. But the very fact that they are discussing her options against what society will think, and then decide the marriage should go ahead, is undoubtedly progressive for the time, so I can't get too prickly about it.
Gabbar Singh, by the way, is a singularly malevolent villain. Perfectly sadistic and nonchalant while causing distress, and disproportionately vengeful, he is absolutely detestable – fine acting by Amjad Khan.
Gabbar, Yeh Haath Mujhe De De
The film ends tragically with Jai sacrificing himself for his homie Veeru in a gunfight with Gabbar and his men. Veeru, blinded by rage, fights off all the bandits (if he had done this in the first place maybe Jai wouldn’t have died... just sayin’) and makes his way to Gabbar – but is stopped by Thakur so that he can settle his old score himself.
Thakur thrashes Gabbar – using only his feet, by the way (totally unrealistic but whatever) – and maims his hands in sweet revenge. He is about to kill him, when he’s persuaded to hand him over to police, to uphold his reputation as a principled and legendary ex-Inspector.
After Jai's funeral, a distraught Veeru takes a train out of town – only to find Basanti waiting for him. An expected ending... of course the couple gets together.
The movie did address some thorny ethical issues.
What is the price of freedom?
Is it better to live in terror of a Gabbar Singh, or fight, even if you risk death? Argued passionately by the imam of Ramgarh who had just lost his son to bandits, the village decides to fight, even though they knew it would be bloody.
Is the thirst for revenge worth the dent in your own humanity?
Thakur has the final say, and despite all that he has lost, he chooses to hand Gabbar over peacefully to the authorities (but only after having delivered grievous injuries with his feet). He chooses justice over revenge, indicating that the two are not always the same.
NOT SO FAST!
Okay so apparently, the original ending had Thakur murdering Gabbar himself, but since the film was released during Emergency, it was changed to a more ‘ethical’ ending to avoid sending a message advocating vigilante justice. Good call (though director Ramesh Sippy didn’t think so). See for yourself, which would've made you happier?
I had expected a slow-moving movie, horrible sexism, fatally implausible action scenes and cringe-worthy special effects.
Reality: Only 1 out of 4 initial expectations turned out to be true. The special effects weren't noticeably bad even by today's standards (with the exception of the armless Thakur’s arms being clearly visible under his kurta).
The action scenes weren't implausible enough to be distracting, the sexism wasn't anything out of the ordinary for Bollywood (and perhaps actually progressive for its time)... but it was terribly slow. Interminably slow. I had to watch it in two installments, with a half-day break in between.
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