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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Sholay’ (1975): The Ultimate Masala Western

sholay ii

Directed by: Ramesh Sippy || Produced by: G.P. Sippy

Written by: Salim-Javed || Starring: Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Amjad Khan, Satyen Kappu, A.K. Hangal, Sachin

Music by: R.D. Burman || Cinematography: Dwarka Divecha || Editing by: M.S. Shinde || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 204 minutes

What I can say about Sholay, one of the most famous and influential Hindi films in history? Quite a bit, actually, as the Indian neo-western melodrama is notable, if for nothing else, in how it pays homage to and recombines various elements from countless other famous films, most notably Italian spaghetti-westerns a la Sergio Leone and Japanese “samurai-westerns” from Akira Kurosawa. Much like how Star Wars (1977) struck a memorable tone with its modern day homage to the adventure serials and science-fiction tales of the past, blending disparate genres to produce a bizarre yet brilliant “science-fantasy western” epic, G.P. and Ramesh Sippy’s Bollywood masterpiece’s greatest strengths lie in its ability to elaborate and build upon its imitations, using them to create an interesting adventure around a memorable cast of characters.

That is not to say that the great Sholay, one of India’s most widely recognized classic films, doesn’t have its own fair share of flaws. Mainly, problems lie in the amount of filler that clogs up this otherwise grim, captivating South Asian landscape, as well some shaky fist-fights and bad humor.

Left: Though somewhat comically staged, the limb-cutting sequence packs a punch. Right: The movie’s final shootouts are intense, gritty, and fun. Co-star Dharmendra (left) cradles a mortally wounded Amitabh Bachchan (right).

Sholay’s landscape shots, particularly its opening sequence, give the film a massive and free-flowing feel that fits the lawless theme of the story. The open backdrops and gorgeous outdoor lighting bring the story’s mood and bleak atmosphere to life right from the opening moments. The dance numbers are varied and feature impressive choreography, even by Bollywood’s standards, though none of the songs themselves are particularly unforgettable. The main duo (played by Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan), are distinct and memorable to make capable heroes worth rooting for. The supporting cast includes Sanjeev Kumar as a retired policeman who hires the buddy bandits, Hema Melini as the primary love interest of Dharmendra, and Amjad Khan as the ruthless antagonist. Without a doubt, Sholay’s quality is boosted by its strong supporting cast, but the story’s sense of adventure lives or dies with its charismatic heroes.

Both Dharmendra and Bachchan are the stereotypical western outlaws (identified as “bandits” against the South Asian backdrop) turned reluctant heroes in the face of an even more morally questionable character (Khan). It’s the perfect scenario of “bad meets evil,” and the duo of anti-heroes is a true joy to watch… at least when the story stays on course. The great thing about Sholay is that it takes its time to build its two heroes into realistic and interesting personas, and the payoff at the film’s climax is a satisfying and dramatic explosion of hot lead and bromantic violence. In many ways, Sholay is as much a buddy-cop movie as it is an Indian-western. The chemistry between Dharmendra and Bachchan is fluid and heartfelt, and the testing of their friendship amid the fire of combat is a great adventure in and of itself.

It is unfortunate there were several major aspects of Sholay I did not like: The movie has a ton of comedic filler, most of which lacks any entertainment value beyond childish slapstick and people yelling, and none of it is critical to the ultimate conclusion of the story. The entire jail sequence in particular is awkward past the point of comfort. Another problem, though far less distracting than the filler content, is the way many of the action scenes are choreographed and shot. Put simply, all of the scenes involving hand-to-hand combat are terrible. I understand that Sholay was filmed in 1975 and cinematographic options were limited, but is a film’s age a justifiable excuse for lame, fake-looking violence? I think not. In short, close-quarters-combat and fisticuffs are not this movie’s strong suite. At least the gunfights are of noticeably higher quality, probably because all the filmmakers had to do was have Bachchan point a rifle at a bad guy, add a “pow” sound effect, and then tell the bad guy to fall down. Next scene!

An adequate way to sum up the flaws of Sholay is its odd clash between brutal “Wild Wild West” realism and awkward, slapstick comedy. I know Bollywood filmmakers really, really like to mash various genres together in a sort of “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” type of filmmaking, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a difficult tightrope to walk. The more genre tones and styles you put in a movie, the harder it is to balance everything and make a coherent story in which you can become emotionally invested. It can be done, certainly — Quentin Tarantino is a master of genre-blending — but you need to be that much more skilled as a filmmaker to pull off that genre-blend. Furthermore, Tarantino’s films have never been suitable for all ages.

sholay montage

The Holi dance sequence is particularly memorable and colorful, utilizing an impressive physical backdrop of arid landscapes, extensive rural set-design, and dozens of extras.

Combining various genres into a single film is like juggling balls: The more genres you add, the more balls you have to juggle, and the better juggler you have to be, and the harder you have to work to write an effective screenplay to balance all the various elements at play. You can, in theory, write and direct a film that encompasses a vast range of styles that appeals to absolutely everyone possible, but you have keep all the elements subdued in order to make it work.

Thankfully, the good parts of Sholay, including the bromantically awesome relationship between its two leads, are written so well that the film flourishes despite its wavering tone. The film, at a mammoth 204-minutes, is still one of the better paced Hindi blockbusters I have seen, even taking into account its useless comedy, thanks to its great lead characters, lead performances, and unforgettable location-photography. In addition, Sholay’s supporting cast flesh out a vibrant community of folks you grow to care about almost as much as Dharmendra and Bachchan, including a romantic subplot that’s not a complete waste of time!

It was an interesting experience watching a Hindi “masala western,” and the high moments are definitely worth shouting about. Despite some notable flaws in pacing, combat choreography, and indecisive tone, Sholay manages to captivate with its violent western appeal and a strong cast of colorful characters, led by a charismatic team of Bachchan and Dharmendra.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Sholay is a beloved Bollywood classic for good reason, namely its ripe melodrama, exciting shootouts, and memorable characters. The musical numbers feel more like afterthoughts compared to the story, but generally speaking that should be taken as a huge compliment.

However… Sholay is filled to the brim with pointless comedic filler. The close-quarters combat sequences are fucking awful — like Kirk vs. The Lizard Guy-awful.


? Someone’s gotta work on the security in those prisons, I tell you what. They’re like the prisons described in “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

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