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.