Sholay was a tidal wave that engulfed us a little after it was released in 1975. Never before and never after, has a film had that kind of impact as did Sholay. Even today, forty years, after having seen the film only twice (once when it came out and then on television a few years ago), I can recall virtually every scene and do a fair job of reciting the dialogues that accompany them. And I am by no means alone — a whole generation is similarly enabled.
Everywhere one went, it seemed that some fragment from the film was being replayed. Hindi films have always been, in Lalitha Gopalan’s words, ‘a sequence of attractions’, little ‘items’ held together loosely in an emotional khichdi, but no film has been consumed in as atomized a manner as has Sholay. We remember so many little sequences from it, whether it be the many comedic interludes (the water tank ‘soocide”, the mausi conversation, the Asrani Jailor shtick, the chatter of Basanti, the Soorma Bhopali dialogue), the action set-pieces (the attack on the train, the Holi celebration fightback, the final confrontation) or the dramatic high moments (the revenge killings of the Thakur family, the Amitabh coin toss sacrifice, the flashback narration by Thakur) — all of these have an individual existence apart from being a part of the film.
What makes Sholay so special? This is a question many have asked and newspapers have been full of answers. It is not that easy a question to answer, beyond the obvious truth that it was a very well made film, with some great performances. Very often a popular film speaks to a particular societal need of the time or it connects at an implicit level with the collective psyche and often it does both. Films in India are typically marked by, in Sudhir Kakar’s words , ‘their focus on the unconsciously perceived fantasy rather than the consciously perceived story’. As one would expect, there is no dearth of scholarly analyses of Sholay. According to critic Bishnupriya Ghosh, the film’s romance with popular sovereignty over state power had tapped a vein. Others have noted the legitimization of feudal power that the film seems to suggest as well as the relationship between violence and the maintenance of social order.
In the case of Sholay, while such descriptions might provide us with a way of reading the film more closely, they do not answer the essential question — what makes Sholay so popular and influential? For there is no grand theme running underneath the narrative, no archetypal conflict that satisfies deeper psychological needs, and little by way of any re-assertion of dearly held cultural truths that might be under attack. As compared to typical Hindi films, there are no family values that are sought to be upheld, no way of life to be defended, no societal order that needs to be restored. There is no ‘ma’ in the film- there is a ‘mausi’, of course, but she is used to contrive humour rather than pathos. At an unconscious level too, unlike the psychic underpinnings of the ‘lost-and-found’ films of the time or the embroiled emotional complexity of the ‘mother-son’ sagas, not very much happens. Unlike Sholay, a film like Deewar for instance, resonates at so many different levels with the issues of the time, as well as with timeless unresolved psychological ruptures.
In Sholay, there is a lot of powerful emotion but it is not tethered to deeper or larger ideas of the kind that cinema in India has tended to display allegiance to. In essential structure, it is not a Hindi film, in that the motivations of the character rest at the level of the individual rather than the collective. Izzat, aabru, wafa, sanskar, mamta — are the kind of concepts that are absent in Sholay. There is dosti, dushmani, badla — ideas that exist between individuals. In the impressive body of work put out by Salim-Javed, Sholay is the among the least emotionally intricate screenplays that they have created. It is at its heart a B-grade cowboy potboiler, adapted with great finesse and emotional restraint for an Indian audience. The villain against whom the film is arrayed, does not reside in any recognizable moral framework; when the ‘heroes’, who are also mercenaries without presumptive moral positions, fight against Gabbar, it is merely one against an individual, whose motivations are also of no consequence.
But if there is one thing that sets the film apart, it is its emphasis on creating characters with personality and texture, brought alive with a fair bit of detailing and nuance. There is no other Hindi film where virtually every character gives us something to remember them by. Apart from the main characters of Jai, Veeru, Thakur, Gabbar, Basanti and Radha, there are so many others that stand out as individuals. Typically, Hindi films uses stock characters that exemplify moral attributes rather than personality — Sholay adds a layer of individuality to many of these, and expresses this individuality through gesture and particularly with language.
It is the absence of deep social context that helps underline the power of the script and makes Sholay such a timeless classic. Set ‘somewhere between Mexico and UP’, to use Javed Akhtar’s words, and featuring two city slickers in a rural setting, Sholay uses the feudal backdrop, without committing itself to the codes that usually govern rural representations. There are many things that Sholay does spectacularly well, but it is in the things that it chooses not to do and steps lightly over, that the key to the timelessness and universality of its appeal lies. It is a powerful story about people who are familiar but whose way of life or whose dilemmas do not strike a note of great collective resonance. In that sense, it is in the ways that Sholay is not a Hindi film that might help explain why it is the most successful Hindi film of all time.