The Timelessness and Historical Specificity of Sholay

This is an academic paper on the way in which Ramesh Sippy’s iconic Indian Western –  Sholay – borrows from the historical context of 1970s India, and from the Western genre to create the quintessential Bollywood “masala” film, whose appeal has endured ever since its release in 1975. Major spoilers ahead.

The image of men in commercially successful Bollywood films from the 1950s to the 1970s has been incredibly malleable as it has always been both a product and representation of the diverse historical contexts of India. In the 1950s, filmmaker-actors like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt created male characters who, similar to the post-independence struggle of India, were caught in a distinctly ideological cross-fire between tradition and modernity, externalizing their internal conflicts through melodramatic stories. Films like Awaara (1951) and Pyaasa (1957) even showed their male antagonists struggling with this dilemma, always planning to take revenge on the (usually lower-middle class) conflicted protagonists not through explicit violence, but by scheming an ideological attack on them. The 1960s films starring Shammi Kapoor, however, brought about a complete change in the representation of both male protagonists, and antagonists. The maleness in mainstream Hindi cinema saw a new face and body language, one devoid of any sense of portent, and seriousness that defined Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt’s characters. Borrowing some of Charlie Chaplin’s fluidity in physical movements that had inspired his elder brother’s work in the 50s, (Sahai, 63) Shammi Kapoor opened up the male character’s body in the 60s, implying a sense of freedom that both the nation and Bollywood films of 60s achieved from the central conflict between modernity and tradition. Emphasizing comedy, spectacle, and romance at the cost of character development, and narrative coherency, these 60s films replaced the 50s melodramas laden with social commentary with masala films that sought first and foremost, to entertain the masses, and then, if they wished, to provide a serious message. (Mishra, 820)

The arrival of the 1970s, however, reinvigorated the need to create socio-politically charged narratives, and grave male protagonists to replicate and reflect on the tumultuous political circumstances that surrounded India during that time. The rise to power of Congress party leader Indira Gandhi in the 1971 election in India marked the beginning of this political unrest that dominated India for the entirety of the 70s. Becoming the Prime Minister of the country, Gandhi, along with her son, Sanjay, gradually increased the role and power of the government in several sectors, including overturning critical decisions made by the all-important judiciary (The Supreme Court), in India. This increase in dominance of government caused great unrest, and uncertainty amongst the youth in India, who continuously questioned, and protested Gandhi’s decision to provide the government with ultimate power. The Prime Minister, with the sanction of then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, however, retaliated by proclaiming a state of Emergency in 1975. This decree allowed the government to obtain hegemonic power, allowing them to force hundreds of arrests, manipulate several federal laws, enforce sterilization to limit population growth, and fortify censorship to promote government propaganda. Unsurprisingly, the commercial Bollywood films of the 70s used this political instability, and youth rebellion to create protagonists who were vigilantes and could achieve justice only by taking the law into their hands.

The release and success of these anti-establishment action-dramas, like Zanjeer (1973), Deewar (1975), Trishul (1978), and Kaala Patthar (1979), throughout the 70s propelled writers Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, and actor Amitabh Bachchan to fame, all three of whom were credited for creating the iconic image of the “Angry Young Man,” which represented the face of the frustrated young men in the 1970s. These films extensively reinvented the male protagonists of the 50s by replacing the internal conflicts of those characters with certain external conflicts that informed the seriousness of these 70s youngsters. To overcome these societal problems, these “Angry Young Men” replaced the pensive reflection that the male characters in the 50s did with overt violence and protests that aptly mirrored the nature of many men during the on-going Emergency period in India. This dark, brooding, and violent tone to both narratives and characters dominated these films, effectively erasing the frothiness of the 60s hero and replacing it with the anger that pervaded most men in the 70s.

Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975), however, presents itself as an unusually satisfying amalgamation of the 60s template masala film and the 70s “Angry Young Man” film, built on the base of the Western genre. In this “Curry Western,” (Mukherjee, 1) the image of the “Angry Men” is born out of the turbulent historical context of 70s India but also remains timeless in its appeal to audiences around the world. Sippy and writers Salim-Javed achieve this universal significance by using the conventions of the Western genre to establish the simple conceit of archetypically good male characters – Jai, Veeru, and Thakur Baldev Singh – fighting the archetypically bad character – Gabbar Singh – in a familiarly wild, and rugged landscape. But then the writers and director complicate the morality and motivations of their traditionally good male characters, particularly that of Thakur in the protracted violent climax of the film, to demonstrate how the thirst for violence and revenge exists within the seemingly noblest of men, highlighting the historical specificity of the image of this “Angry Man.”

The conception of Sippy’s film suggests that Sholay was intended to be a product of a potpourri of influences, both from East and the West, unlikely to achieve a singular identity that defined the other 70s “Angry Young Man” films written by Salim-Javed. Sippy, and the two writers, in particular “had been influenced greatly by films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and of course, the mother of the mercenary movie, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).” (Shankar, 162) These Western influences, however, did not exist in isolation. Combining them with some of the more eclectic influences from the dacoit films made in India, like Ganga Jamuna (1961), and Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), Sippy and Salim-Javed attempted to create what some Western and Indian critics, at the time, criticized for being an Indian Western that belonged neither to East nor the West. It is precisely this seemingly generic template and landscape of the Western genre, however, that allows Sholay to establish its straightforward narrative, and archetypical male characters that have a timeless appeal, detached from the political context of 70s India.

The opening credits sequence of the film, especially, helps establish the fictional village of Ramgarh in Sholay as lacking in any form of distinct identity, highlighting its influences from other Western movies to suggest its misplacement in the context of the seriousness and realism of the 70s “Angry Young Man” films. Sippy, with the aid of cinematographer Dwarka Divecha, uses wide establishing shots to introduce the audience to Ramgarh during its opening credits, emphasizing the simplicity of the landscape’s terrains, as opposed to its specificities. Tracking a jailer going on a horse with Thakur’s house-help from the train station in Ramgarh to Thakur’s house through several static long shots, and slow pans, Sippy shows the aridness and expanse of the landscape comprised of some patches of green, but dominated largely by browns, similar to many settings seen in other Western films. This setting allows for “viewer identification” (Shankar, 162) of both Indian and Western audiences, who relate not only to this landscape because of these noticeably contrasting visuals, but also due to the theme music by R.D. Burman, which combines the strumming guitar and drum beats with the taar shehnai (wind instrument) and tabla beats to further heighten this sense of familiarity with the Western Genre. (Shankar, 164)

The archetypical nature of the good and bad male characters, and the apparent symmetry between the character traits of the two young protagonists – Jai, and Veeru – reinforce audiences’ identification with the conventional tropes of the Western genre, allowing Sippy and Salim-Javed to establish the timelessness of their characters. Following the opening credits of the film itself, the writers indicate the goodness of its two young protagonists in an interaction between a despondent looking Thakur Baldev Singh and a jailer (who acts as a stand-in for the audience). Thakur tells the viewer that he requires two useless crooks for a job he only thinks they can do because he feels that despite their reputation, they possess integrity and honesty that elevates their social status in society. The film, then proceeds, to use a flashback to show an action scene in which the two thieves saved Thakur’s life. In the continuation of this flashback, Salim-Javed repeatedly reinforcement both Jai and Veeru’s niceness, and camaraderie by spotlighting the budding friendship between the silent, and serious Jai (Amitabh Bachchan playing a role akin to his “Angry Young Man” persona in the 70s), and the boisterous and rowdy Veeru (Dharmendra channeling some of the energy of Shammi Kapoor). The friendship between these two opposites and their adherence to Thakur’s word throughout the film clearly define these characters as the morally correct people in this Indian Western, who exist in stark contrast to the menacing evil of Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan, elevating the badness of his dacoit character to an entirely different level). Gabbar, like Jai and Veeru, is also an outlaw in the society but is introduced in an extended sequence in the film torturing his men for not being able to capture the two outcasts, immediately demonstrating a noticeable difference in the personality and moral character of its protagonist and its antagonist.

Contrary to these well-established roles and motivations of both the good and bad criminals, the dubious character of the supposedly dutiful male law-enforcer – Thakur – complicates the image of men in Sholay, making them resemble closer to the prevalent image of the “Angry Young Man,” who was historically bound to 70s India. Sanjeev Kumar’s Thakur, an ex-police officer, harbors secrets from Jai and Veeru for a significant part of the movie, not revealing his intentions to them, and the audience behind capturing the feared dacoit in Ramgarh. At the intermission point in Sholay, however, Thakur reveals the brutal tragedy that Gabbar caused him by killing off his entire bloodline. Moreover, the solemn Thakur extensively details Gabbar’s act of cutting off both his arms to metaphorically invert the common phrase, “Kanoon ke haath lambe hote hain” (literally translates to the law’s arms are long), reflecting the tumultuous state of the law in Emergency-period India. This defeated image of an ex-police officer, who relies on the help of two outlaws, as opposed to the law, to obtain justice itself offers a clear reflection of the helpless man from the 70s, who had to blur the lines between good and evil to achieve a sense of satisfaction.

This catharsis from injustice also only comes in the form of vengeful revenge, which Sippy details incredibly in the film’s original version of the climax in which Thakur, in a manner symmetrical to Gabbar’s cutting off of his arms, tortures the dacoit, achieving a sense of satisfaction only by killing him. The significantly censored ending that graced movie theatres in 1975 differed substantially from this alternate violent ending, with the police interfering with Thakur’s decision to kill Gabbar, suggesting the triumph of law and order in the film. (Madhuja, 5) However, this originally-planned ending revels in extending the details of Gabbar’s murder, demonstrating the relief that Thakur receives by killing the man who murdered his family.

Using the dynamism of hand-held cameras, Sippy captures this over-the-top action scene between Thakur and Gabbar mainly in close-ups to exaggerate the pain felt by Gabbar each time Thakur hits him with his spike-soled shoes. The director, especially emphasizes the moments when Thakur steps on Gabbar’s hands with his shoes, quickly cutting between close-up reaction shots of actors Amjad Khan yelling in pain, and Sanjeev Kumar grinding his teeth in anger, to demonstrate the violence needed to satisfy even the most law-abiding citizens in the 70s. Sippy continues to dramatize the action scene with low-angle shots of Thakur and close-ups of a ragged looking Gabbar, scored to an equally dramatic score that further accentuates the thrill, excitement, and gratification that the “Angry Man” should feel when the inevitable murder does take place.  The director ends this elongated revenge scene by making Thakur finally push Gabbar to his death by impaling him onto a nail, whereby Sippy provides a close-up of that nail with Gabbar’s blood on it. The following crowd-pleasing iconic low-angle camera shot of Gabbar falling in slow motion to his death, as Thakur stands tall in the frame, also cements the complicated allegorical nature of Thakur’s role in Sholay as the “Angry Man,” who recognizes that the only way to resolve conflict in a lawless landscape is by taking the law in his own hands, through any possible means.

Bibliography

  1. Mishra, Sudesh. “Yahoo! Shammi Kapoor and the corporeal stylistics of popular Hindi cinema.” Continuum, 26:6, 2012, 815-832.
  2. Mukherjee, Madhuja. “The Singing Cowboys: Sholay and the Significance of (Indian) Curry Westerns within Post-Colonial Narratives.” Transformations, Issue 24, The Other Western, 2014, 1-19.
  3. Sahai, Malti. “Raj Kapoor and the Indianization of Charlie Chaplin.” East-West Film Journal 20, Issue 1, 1987, 62-75.
  4. Shankar, Priyadarshini. “Sholay (Flames).” The Cinema of India, 24 Frames, 2009, 161-169.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s