The Narratives that Made Sholay, the Narratives that Sholay Made

Anurag Chauhan
Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya, Bilaspur, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


It has been forty years since Sholay appeared. In the meantime, several socio-cultural changes have taken place; cinema has also undergone change. There have been many criticisms and polemical debates about Sholay and there has been an attempt to clear some things. The article considers the various borrowings, various narrative conventions that Sholay followed. It borrows from the west but adapts them to create a visually satisfying movie. Apart from the borrowings from the western movies, it also follows several epic conventions and the article analyzes them too. The elements that constitute the appeal of the movie are analyzed with reference to several timeless and topical issues which can be seen directly or obliquely in Sholay. At the same time, there are many new things that Sholay brought in terms of homogenizing and amplifying things. The article also argues that any critique of the movie should be with reference to the oeuvre of popular cinema.

Keywords: Sholay; popular cinema; epic; appeal; collective unconscious; narratives; myth; timeless; topical; violence

Sholay brought a change to the Indian cinema and this change is like that which T.S. Eliot talks about in his seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

“what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new” (538).

After 40 years of release of Sholay, it has managed to outlive many other ‘superhits’ in terms of enduring fame. The movie has become a source of unexhausting research for students of Indian cinema and no study of Indian cinema is deemed complete without Sholay. Even today, the movie is very much present in the minds of Indians and one can easily find references to it in many cultural artefacts. Recently, Goli, the vada pav food joint chain used a famous dialogue “Ab goli kha” from Sholay for its promotions.

What emerged through Sholay was not simply a face-lift of a ‘spaghetti western’ into a ‘curry western’. No doubt, movies like Seven Samurai, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Billy the Kid), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, North West Frontier, Stagecoach, How the West Was Won and For a Few Dollars More had influenced the scriptwriters, Salim Khan and Javed Akhter directly or indirectly. However, a lot of it, if seen in a broader and holistic way can be called intertextuality or even pastiche but not blatant copying. Certainly, the Indian audience of 1975, or even later, was not deterred from watching and liking the movie by this history of borrowing. This also confirms that the borrowing was well done, well assimilated to suit the sensibility, the culture, and the times.

Given that masses enlightened to the level of a critic have never been there, and given further that the popularity of Sholay had something to do with the contemporary conditions such as the 1971 war, urbanization, economic disparity, growing crimes, lower literacy rate in 1975, etc and their hangover which made people connect to such issues as would be called outdated by a student of social pathology, the popularity of Sholay continues even today.

Popular penetration aside, there has been, even recently, quite some polemical dispute about the worth of the movie. While there are many die-hard fans of it, including film critics, there are many others—critics, acclaimed actors, etc—who have denounced it. In an article “Sholay: Revisiting an Epic”in Times of India, Santosh Desai maintains that 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 clearly 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.” He goes on to complain about the lack of “psychic underpinnings”, “issues of the time, as well as with timeless unresolved psychological ruptures”, character motivations that “rest at the level of the individual rather than the collective”, emotional intricacy etc (10). Nevertheless, these objections, taking the oeuvre of popular cinema in general and of Sholay in particular, seem to be sloppily or partially applied, misapplied, missing the point, and therefore, unjustified. Let us see how a well-founded case can be made for Sholay.

The earlier movies before Sholay featuring bandits such as Mother India, Ganga Jamuna, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Mujhe Jeene Do, Pathar aur Payal, and Mera Gaon Mera Desh mostly featured bandits as a mixture of force that carried an individual and persona-based significance in the diegesis of the movie and another significance that exploited the viewer’s perceived ideas about bandits. Whether benevolent or otherwise, bandits were projected as alternative power centres. Sholay continues with this projection but the chemistry of things into which the bandit issue goes is differently created.

What makes Sholay so appealing is that it arouses several impulses using the objective correlative of several well-crafted situations in which the emotion is worked out so well that the satisfaction obtained by the audience is immense. This is achieved by theatricality, unexpectedness, surprises, exhibitionism and spectacle, etc. In Sholay, the art, spectacle, and drama of cinema combine with that of the epic. What happens in the audience’s mind is the arousal of very different responses. For example, while the killing of Thakur’s family by Gabbar produces revulsion and anger, the scene showing the killing of his own men by Gabbar produces a certain satisfaction mixed with awe. The larger-than-life nature of the movie takes the wish-fulfillment of the audience at another level and elicits the audience response in the correct, and intense manner whether the emotion produced is vengeance, humor, pity, anger, fear, etc. The emotional intricacy of the movie, like that of an epic, revolves around some central emotions.

On the other hand, the build-up to the larger response involves the arousal of many minor feelings which add up to lead to the larger effect. Again, this is where Sholay excels, building the situation carefully, dialogue, gestures, camerawork, and action all contributing to it. This is where Sholay is able to harness the tools of cinema. For example, in the scene ending with Gabbar, the villain, killing three of his men, the scene starts with the camera moving to and fro showing just the feet of Gabbar, and his voice quietly asking questions. It is only when he screams at his men that the camera, as if jerking up, shows his face. Medium and close shots focusing on faces, and long shots at various angles with the ominous music, and the oratorical power of the dialogues of a 70 mm movie with stereophonic soundtrack –something very new in 1975—add to the effect…Full Text PDF

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