Oh boy...Sholay is something all its own and absolutely stunning in every sense of the word. While admittedly this seventies Bollywood film was initially nowhere near my list of western viewing for the month, it was also completely out of my consciousness completely. Yet, as I move my way through the enlightening and disparaging (in that I realize how many movies I have yet to see) Story of Film: An Odyssey, I am confronted with global works that I was completely unaware of, a fact that is baffling considering that I find myself to be rather attuned to the world of film. Sholay is primarily an action-adventure film, but within that framework it leaves very much open the possibility to define it as a western, even being referred to as a "curry" western given its regional local. As a Bollywood classic, often defined as the "Star Wars of India" Sholay incorporates wide character arcs, a perfectly executed heroes quest and a whole lot of song and dance, all of which pops off the screen in colorful excitement and with stellar cinematic exuberance rarely captured in American, or really any Westernized, filmmaking. Of course the available copies of this somewhat under-appreciated film are not of the greatest quality, so my engagement with it was similar to that of Pather Panchali, where the available copies are clearly ripped from video recordings and have less than perfect subtitling. Sholay's biggest lack, strictly speaking in terms of this DVD release, comes in the way of the musical numbers not having any subtitling, but considering that the situations involved in each moment is rather obvious the words are not necessary. Again it is visually spectacular, therefore, some of the lesser transfer qualities are not so great as to ruin the watchability and, indeed, the film still pops with all the wonder and draw necessary to make a successful action film. The acting is stellar and properly executed, moving between comedy and drama, even spiraling into tragedy at one point, without losing a beat. Hell, it is not everyday that a film manages to include lengthy sub-narratives and still manage to be watchable in all of its three and a half hour spectacular envisioning. How it has taken me this long to see, let alone hear about Sholay is beyond me, but I am certainly glad to have discovered it because it is very much a new favorite of mine and only hope that it can be rediscovered and, subsequently, rereleased in a proper format.
Sholay centers on the epic adventures of two bandits out to make money any way that they know how, the duo consists of the suave and somewhat secluded Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) as well as the brutish and somewhat clumsy Veeru (Dharmendra). Together the two move through the rocky hills of rural India in some undesignated era finding riches, only to come under the fastidious watch of a officer named Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar). Finally catching the duo, Thakur hopes to permanently place them in jail, yet when the train they are riding is attacked they are freed to help fight off the attackers, an event that leads to Thakur being shot, only to have Jai and Veeru deliver him to safety. This gesture, and the realization that the two are rather great with firearms and shootouts, leads Thakur to not arrest them upon their next meeting, but to hire them as aides in taking on the infamous and Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). This task does not, however, happen immediately as Gabbar has taken to the mountains and comes to the village irregularly to pillage for his posse, who has taken to living in the mountains. As such Veeru and Jai find themselves settling within the village, each taking a liking to a particular woman within the village, Veeru finds himself interested in the garrulous, but sultry horse-cart driver Basanti (Hema Malini), while Jai is drawn to the silent widow Radha (Jaya Bhaduri). There passions emerge, just as Gabbar's men invade the town, leading to an epic shootout, one in which both Veeru and Jai realize that Thakur was completely nonexistent during. When berated about his failure to engage in the battle Thakur recounts a tale about how Gabbar's maniacal behaviors led to the loss of his family, and, subsequently, both of his arms after the bandit sought personal revenge on the officer. This realization of both emotional and physical loss leads to Jai and Veeru both refusing to take money for their job, instead, deciding to do so out of a clear sense of justice. Eventually, Gabbar captures Veeru and forces Basanti to dance on broken glass to keep him alive, only to be saved by Jai at the last moment an endeavor that leads the duo to a shootout, where Jai stays behind while Veeru returns to town for supplies. While Veeru speeds back it is too late and Jai dies at the hands of attacking bandits, leading to a new drive for vengeance on the part of Veeru who along with Thakur take to beating down Gabbar, Thakur even donning special shoes that double as a weapon. The police eventually arrive and finally arrest Gabbar, while Veeru and Basanti leave to take up their new life together, keeping Jai in their memories.
Sholay is a magnificent film that borrows from all the possible elements of action films, even borrowing heavily from the comedic tradition, mostly slapstick, although there is an entire section that is an obvious and loving tip of the hat to Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. What tropes it does borrow from the western a quite impressive, using the cop chasing robbers narrative and even doubling it with a train robbery scenario simultaneously, is something that can only be seen to be realized in its grand vision. Yet it is not a film that is fully set in the western tradition, because their are indeed vehicles used throughout, specifically a motorcycle with sidecar, a item that has emerged in other westerns this month, but again out of an American context. I would contest that some of this revisionism is tied to it being a non-westernized western (which is a great concept if I might add) so much so that it does not have to borrow from American tropes, because the west is not necessarily a historical location for the Eastern world. The colonized body is also on display here, but they are in positions of authority, therefore, allowing them to openly reject the idea that white figures of power have any degree of authority, even mocking the language during Veeru's faux-suicide scene. Of course, some of the more ethical elements of the western genre do still emerge, particularly a seemingly universal sense of justice, or what would become known as the golden rule globally, perhaps more in line with the idea of karma as it pertains to this film. Both Veeru and Jai during their respective hero quests must come to odds with their wrong behaviors and embrace the life of minimalism and sacrifice that occurs within Thakur's village, which affords them the ability to settle down and think about marriage, as well as reject the earning of money that comes at the cost of exploiting others. It is here where the film takes its own unique "curry" western turn, in that the film becomes a romantic comedy of sorts, where preoccupations with attaining marriage approval outweigh fighting Gabbar, a fact that holds true even for Thakur who serves as an advisor on the endeavors. In a westernized western, this would not be the case and male lone wolf behavior would be the way of acting, leaving a woman to woefully suffer until his return. It could be the heavy genre hybridity at work here, but it seems to be a decided difference within this film, but even that has its tenuousness considering the rather clear and openly acknowledged homoerotic bond between Jai and Veeru throughout, making his death that much more heightened and poetically grand.
Key Scene: The festival of colors followed immediately by the village raid may be some of the greatest ten minutes in the history of film. I cannot even fathom how it looks in high definition, not to mention the alleged 3D version in the works.
This is a magnificent work one of a uniquely epic scale. I would suggest buying a copy, but considering that the transfer is a bit rough, it might be ideal to rent it until a new transfer comes into existence.