Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Back on the big screen”

Posted on January 17, 2014


The re-release of “Sholay” shows us, again, that this isn’t just a great action movie, but a great movie, period.

The 3D is just frippery. When the thakur, in an inspector’s uniform, shoots at the pair of handcuffs binding Jai and Veeru, bits of metal fly towards us, and when the train they’re in smashes past a pile of logs on the track, some timber lunges our way, and, later, when the thakur chases Gabbar Singh on horseback and when they splash through a shallow stream, flecks of mud splatter on our glasses. These spruced-up effects are minor, worthless, and there’s a tinny, too-sharp sound to the songs (I guess they were remastered) – but these “improvements” do serve a purpose, and that’s to put Sholay back on the big screen, where it belongs. Everything about this film is so larger than life – its cast, its reputation, its earnings, its pop-culture impact, beginning with those hideously inappropriate “Gabbar ki asli pasand” milk bikis ads – that watching it on TV or on a laptop is a little like looking at a Facebook photo of the Himalayas. 

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Sholay needs the theatre. It needs the hi-fi speakers, spewing forth RD Burman’s memorable background themes, along with the tinny sound of the tossed coin that appears to land somewhere behind us. And it needs the bigness of the screen – not just for the action sequences or the surprising revelation that Sanjeev Kumar has fused earlobes, but for the shot that introduces Gabbar Singh feet first, as he walks back and forth over rocks, and for the shot that tells us how big the thakur’s haveli really is. The latter is possibly my favourite shot from the film (I’ll come to it later), though if you ask me tomorrow, I might pick something else – the crackpot jailer’s line-up inspection with its row of memorable faces, including the man with half a moustache; or one of the Jai-Veeru interactions, say the scene where they talk about settling down in Ramgarh, and we think it’s a random, rambling conversation till we realise there’s a point to it, a sting in the tail, the realisation that Basanti is waiting for Veeru by the pond; or one of the song segues, say the lead-in to Yeh dosti, where the jailer summoned by the thakur says that Jai and Veeru can be located if they are in a jail somewhere but otherwise there’s no way to find them, and we cut to the duo in the middle of nowhere; or even the classical bookending shots that open and close the film (a train chugs into Ramgarh; a train leaves Ramgarh).

When we talk about great films, we usually talk about the dramas, the Guru Dutt films, the Benegal movies, the Ray oeuvre. We don’t talk about “commercial” action movies. And on a superficial level, that’s what Sholay is – a “curry Western” as it has come to be called. The train fight. The post-Holi celebrations fight. The bridge fight. The first-day-at-the-haveli fight. In another film made in the same era, these would be the highlights; the rest just filler. But here, these are highlights; the rest are also highlights. The way each scene leads to the next one, the way the scene endings dovetail into the songs (Gabbar says, “Holi kab hai?”; we cut to Holi ke din dil khil jaate hain), the way high drama blends seamlessly with action and low comedy and possibly unintentional comedy (Veeru, hardly the brightest of bulbs, looks at his blood-spattered friend and asks, “Jai, tu theek hai na?”) and constant flashbacks and endlessly quotable dialogue and memorable characters (big and small) and an item number and even a widow-remarriage subplot that hints at the surrounding social milieu…

The film transcends the action genre. It could have ended on a happy note, with the brutal end of Gabbar Singh – but he’s not killed, merely led away to jail (from where he could escape again). And even this minor victory of the thakur (your entire family is gone, you have nothing to look forward to, and the man responsible for all this is being sent off to be a government guest?) is diminished by the sadness upon Jai’s passing. The nominal “happy ending” (Veeru and Basanti embracing on the train) isn’t what we hold on to as we walk home. What we take away is Jai’s funeral pyre, and Radha, far away, closing that window and presumably closing herself off from the world, after being denied a second shot at happiness. And when we think back, we see that this heaviness is prefigured in the lighter scenes, when, amidst the tomfoolery in Yeh dosti, we hear the line “Jaan pe bhi khelenge…

In a regular action film, one that had nothing on the agenda but to give us an explosive good time, this song would have been the Jai-Veeru “introduction number.” After all, it tells us all we need to know about them – that they are thick friends, that they are rogues, that they settle things through a coin toss. Instead, we first see them in the thakur’s flashback, in an altogether heavier scene on a train, where we witness other qualities of theirs – their suitability for Gabbar-vanquishing, their code of honour (despite their inherent roguishness), and their dependence on the coin toss, which, now, assumes greater significance than in the Yeh dosti song, where they were just vying for a girl. What we sense here is the moral weight behind the coin toss, along with a fact that becomes clear only at the end, that Jai is the decision-maker. He makes up his mind about what should be done, and ensures, through the loaded coin toss, that Veeru gets on board. A mere action film rarely invites such reflection.

Anyway, back to my favourite shot/scene, the one that deserves the big screen, the one that tells us how big the thakur’s haveli really is. The Mehbooba number plays out in Gabbar Singh’s lair. Jai and Veeru blow up the freshly arrived stocks of ammunition. Jai is wounded, and the two of them make their way back to the thakur’s haveli on horseback. Radha, from the window in her room upstairs, the window she will shut after Jai’s death, sees the horses. She sees Jai clutching a blood-stained arm and begins to run. She runs to the end of the first floor, runs down the first flight of stairs, then the second, and runs all the way to the main entrance, which is where she sees the thakur, her father-in-law, and remembers who she is, what she is, that she is expected to behave a certain way, that she cannot give vent to emotions so easily. And as we take in the size of the haveli, through that tracking camera, we realise what it must be like for her to be in that huge space all alone, the only woman, apart from a manservant and a thakur who cannot think beyond his Gabbar Singh obsession. But when Radha stops at that entrance, he’s shaken, for an instance, out of his monomania. He’s stunned by her action, her impulsiveness, and his expression suggests that he’s suddenly realised that there are other people in the household too, living people who have unfulfilled needs while he’s going about avenging the dead. It’s a big moment, with big emotions – and it plays out better than ever on the big screen.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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