My First Curry Western

Over the weekend I had the chance to watch Sholay (1975), which was my introduction to curry westerns. I enjoy 1960s-70s Bollywood films, but I’ve only seen a limited amount and the ones I have seen tend to be crime/caper films or horror movies. Since I love spaghetti westerns and have seen plenty of them over the years, I figured it was time to spread my wings a bit and experience a western done Bollywood style.

Bollywood westerns are often referred to as "curry westerns" and these Hindi language films borrow basic plot ideas from American and Italian westerns, but have the added bonus (or deterrence, depending on how you view it) of musical numbers and they give the drama, romance and comedy aspects of the film’s plot almost as much screen time as the action. This all makes for a very long movie and at 204 minutes, Sholay is indeed a very long film. I personally would have enjoyed the movie much more if it was trimmed down to about 2 hours, but it was still entertaining and an interesting introduction to curry westerns.

Sholay is directed by Ramesh Sippy and stars the charismatic Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Jai and Dharmendra as his fun-loving partner Veeru. Jai and Verru are career criminals who get hired by a retired police officer named Thakur (played by Sanjeev Kumar) to help him capture a dangerous bandit called Gabbar Sing (Amjad Khan) and his band of outlaws who are terrorizing the small village where the retired police officer lives. What follows is an epic tale about revenge that includes plenty of romantic as well as funny moments.

Sholay borrows it’s basic story-line and some of it’s best ideas from two of my favorite westerns, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with a little bit of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) tossed in for good measure. I’ve read complaints from people who like to point out how unoriginal curry westerns are since many of their plots are borrowed from other movies, but these complaints seem to come from people who don’t realize that many western directors over the years have borrowed their plots from other sources as well and have still managed to create entertaining and fresh films that offer new insight into old ideas. John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful Seven Samurai (1954) and Bernardo Bertolucci (who co-wrote the screenplay for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West) has said that he was inspired by earlier westerns like Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961).

Director Ramesh Sippy should be given credit for being able to take well-worn ideas from other westerns and giving them an entertaining Bollywood twist. He does a terrific job of filming the action packed opening train chase that should impress even long time western fans and the "festival of colors" musical number is really spectacular.

The two stars (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra) seem to be having lots of fun in this unusual buddy movie. The two lovely female leads (Jaya Bhaduri and Hema Malini) also do a great job with their roles and it was interesting to watch romance blossom between them and the lead actors, since both couples in the film actually fell in love during the production and were later married in real life. I was especially impressed by Amjad Khan who played the bandit Gabbar Sing. He does a terrific job of playing the lead villain and steals just about every scene he’s in.

One of the most impressive things about Sholay is it’s terrific score by Rahul Dev Burman (aka R. D. Burman). The musical numbers (which are often the highlight in any Bollywood film) are very catchy, but the background music is especially well done. Burman obviously found inspiration in the film scores of composers like Ennio Morricone and Elmer Bernstein, but he brings a worldly Indian flavor to the music which is especially interesting. I plan on purchasing the score in the future since it’s well worth listening to again.

Sholay isn’t without its faults and besides the obvious need of a good editor, the film has a few unintentional laughs that fans of cheaply made exploitation flicks might still enjoy. I know I did! Early big budget Bollywood films clearly had production limits when compared to major Hollywood and European films from the same period.

The Eros DVD release of Sholay is really dissapointing. The film is shown only in fullscreen and the picture quality is lacking. It comes with no extras and considering it’s price, you would expect a little more for your money.

To its credit, after 30 years Sholay is still the highest grossing movie in India and is considered one of Bollywood’s greatest achievements. The movie has definitely got me interested in seeking out more curry westerns and hopefully I’ll find them as entertaining as Sholay.

10 thoughts on “My First Curry Western

  1. Brian says:

    I saw Sholay a year and a half ago at a free Indian film festival at the Metreon of all places (introduced by, for some reason, Fiona Ma). It wasn’t terribly packed, but about half the audience seemed to be made up of families who had obviously seen this film before and considered it a classic along the lines of, I don’t know, Star Wars. But the film has scenes of violence that seem more reminiscent of the Wild Bunch than George Lucas’s seemingly more kiddie-friendly action. But now that I think about it, there’s a few rather brutal de-limbings and a scene of torture in Star Wars; I guess you lose track of the impact of such things when you grow up on them.

    Nice review! Did you know an Indian film studio announced a remake of Sholay last year? Don’t know if it’s really in the works though.

  2. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the nice comment about my review! It must have been great to see Sholay at the Metreon.

    I didn’t know about the remake in the works but that could be interesting. I’d like to see Amitabh Bachchan come back and play the role of retired police officer Thakur.

  3. girish says:

    Thanks for your nice post. It triggered a blast of nostalgia for me.

    Sholay was nothing short of an institution when I was growing up. All of us kids knew the dialogue exchanges by heart. I probably saw it no less than 5 or 6 times but haven’t seen it since I moved to the States in the 80s. I’ll have to stop by the Indian store soon to rent it.

    Nice blog, by the way!

  4. cinebeats says:

    It must have been fun to grow up watching Sholay! My parents both came from Nevada (American cowboy territory) before moving to CA to have me, so I grew up on westerns since they loved watching them.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! It’s still in it’s infancy so I appreciate the feedback a lot. I really like your own blog and have added it to my links.

  5. girish says:

    Oh, thank you. I’ve been meaning to update and overhaul my own links list and shall add you to it as well. Meanwhile, I’ve linked to you in my comments section to help spread the word about your blog.
    Good luck.

  6. Gautam says:

    Here in India, Sholay is still a much-loved film. People have seen it over a hundred times (fifty more for myself) but everytime the cable shows it, everyone still watch it like its their first time.

    I would also recommend other Bachchan classics like ‘Deewar’ (The Wall, 1975) and ‘Don’ (the 70s version, not the 2006 remake).

    Ram Gopal Verma is remaking sholay, but personally I have a feeling it won’t be able to re-create the charm of the Sippy original.

    great post- you really captured the essence of the film in it.

  7. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the comment Gautem! I haven’t seen Deewar so I should give that a look, but I really like the movie Don.

    How is the remake? I haven’t seen it but I’m curious about it. I can’t imagine t could be better than the original.

    I’ve seen some great Bollywood films recently that I really need to review soon.

  8. Gautam says:

    Kimberly the remake of Don is silly. Their sole aim was to out-do the original and that is a bad spirit to make a film in. Over-cooked special effects, costumes and lavish production design isn’t as impressive when you don’t preserve the original spirit.

  9. Raj Kaur says:

    Well, I’m studying film as an A level at college and am doing a small scale research project on Amitabh Bachchan. My focus film is Sholay. At first i was reluctant to watching it but once I started watching it I really enjoyed it. I think this review is really good. I hadnt watched the film but had read alot of reviews about it incluiding this one. It really helped overall and will be adding this into my coursework. 😀

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