Friday, March 28, 2014

Watch This: Sholay

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Sholay (1975)
Directed by Ramesh Sippy

A train pulls into a remote station in rural India and a uniformed man debarks.  He is met at the station by another man, and the two proceed on horseback through the dusty, mountainous landscape to an estate outside a small village.  Upon their arrival, they are beckoned inside by a man in a long cloak, whose carriage and appearance suggest he is a figure of some authority and distinction.  We find out that the uniformed man is a jailer, and that he has been called here by the man in the cloak, whose name is Thakur Baldev Singh, to fulfill a request.  The jailer is eager to comply.

"Just name it, whatever it be," the jailer says.

"I need two men," replies Thakur.

So begins the plot of Sholay, a sprawling, action-packed epic that masterfully blends elements from a wide range of genres.  The film is a prime example of a sub-genre known as the "curry western," a type of Indian film that borrows heavily from the spaghetti western genre.  The film is also a buddy film, a comedy, a romance, a revenge thriller, and even a musical (viewers are treated to the lively,
colorful song-and-dance sequences for which Bollywood films are known).

The two men that Thakur Singh wants are Jai and Veeru (portrayed by Indian megastars Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, respectively), two convicts that he encountered in his past work as a police officer.  In exchange for their release from prison and a hefty reward, he hires them to capture a notorious bandit named Gabbar Singh, who murdered Thakur's family and is wanted by the authorities.  Jai and Veeru travel to the village, where they thwart Gabbar's men in an extortion attempt, and later fight off a bandit attack during a religious festival.  They also find the potential for love, as Jai becomes attracted to Thakur's widowed daughter-in-law Radha, and Veeru falls for chatty horse-cart driver Basanti.  Veeru and Basanti are eventually captured by the bandits, and Jai's rescue attempt leads to a thrilling final showdown.

Much of the film's plot and visual style can be traced to Hollywood westerns and Italian spaghetti westerns.  Certainly the notion of outlaws protecting a village from bandits is reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven (1960), and the film's rural, mountainous setting presents a striking match to the American frontier seen in countless Hollywood films.  However, these familiar tropes are imbued with a number of thematic elements and other characteristics that make the film distinctly Indian.

The film is a trove of memorable scenes and great performances.  The final showdown and the train robbery shootout sequence are terrific action set pieces, and the prison scenes are incredibly funny.  The two lead actors turn in lively, affecting work, lending emotional power to Jai and Veeru's gradual humanization and embrace of community.  Sanjeev Kumar brings an air of gravitas and a quiet ferocity to the role of Thakur Baldev Singh.  The real standout, though, is Amjad Khan's charismatic turn as the sadistic, ruthless Gabbar Singh.

Sholay is, by many estimates, the most popular Indian film ever made, and its reputation as one of the best Indian films of all time is well deserved.  The film has a thematic richness that is lacking in most comparable westerns and revenge films.  Thakur's decision to use criminals against the bandits blurs the traditional moral line between right and wrong, and suggests a dissatisfaction with existing institutions of law and order.  The film's message about the worthlessness of violence as a way of life is tempered by the story of the villagers' realization that it is sometimes necessary to stand up against  terror and lawlessness.  Of course, with a running time of nearly 3 1/2 hours, Sholay has ample time to develop its themes and characterizations.

For many American audiences, the closest they have come to Indian cinema in their moviegoing experiences has been English filmmaker Danny Boyle's surprise 2008 hit Slumdog Millionaire.  For these viewers, Sholay provides a wonderfully entertaining introduction to the Bollywood style.

A note: The film's spoken dialogue and song lyrics are in Hindi, with English subtitles.  Sadly, the version of the film available on the library's DVD copy does not include subtitles for the songs.

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