One Indian film has had more influence than any other. On the 40th anniversary of its release, Rahul Verma asks why it still holds so much sway over popular culture.

On 15 August, Indians celebrate Independence Day – and another anniversary that has huge cultural significance. In 2015, it will be 40 years since Indian cinemagoers first laid eyes on Sholay (Flames), the ‘masala Western’ widely regarded as Hindi cinema’s greatest ever film.

Sholay played for five years consecutively at Mumbai’s iconic 1500-capacity Minerva Cinema after its release in 1975. It consistently tops fan and critics’ polls: ‘filmi’ magazine Filmfare named it Best Film of the Last 50 Years in 2005, and it was No 1 in Time Out’s 100 Best Bollywood Movies poll in January this year.

Ramesh Sippy’s breathless 204-minute action-adventure follows former police chief Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), who hires thieves with hearts of gold, Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (Dharmendra), to capture maniacal bandit Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) alive. As Thakur puts it in one of the film’s many memorable one-liners, ‘iron cuts iron’ (‘loha lohe ko katata hai’).

Rajinder Dudrah, who teaches a course in Bollywood at the University of Manchester, believes Sholay is unsurpassed because it works on multiple levels. “Sholay is the ultimate masala film,” he says, describing a film that mixes together different genres. “Because it has all the spices – drama, melodrama, romance, action, family – and they’re blended perfectly. The stagecraft of the action scenes is incredible, especially in the opening train chase – my teenage nieces and nephews, who are used to CGI, were blown away.

“But it’s not just thrilling entertainment. The nation is writ large in themes of law and order, justice and revenge – they reflect anxiety around India’s Emergency from 1975 to 1977. There was social, political and economic turmoil, and widespread mistrust of the state,” he says. During the controversial period of India’s history – which began when prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency across the country – political opponents were suppressed and the press was censored.

“The setting in the fictitious village of Ramgarh, referencing the lawless Wild West and paying homage to American and Italian westerns, is not by accident. Nor is the situation of the law enforcer who must step outside of the law to get justice,” explains Dudrah.

The Emergency had a direct effect on Sholay when the Censor Board insisted the finale be reshot: “The state stepped in and said we’re worried about the Emergency and the message of taking the law into your own hands,” says Dudrah. The original ending was reinstated when a director’s cut was released in 1990.

From nags to riches

Leading Hindi film critic and author of Sholay: The Making of a Classic, Anupama Chopra, feels the film continues to resonate because of its great story, charismatic characters and catchy songs. “It has a timeless quality and reveals something new every time you watch it – every character gets a moment in the sun. Even the peripheral characters are memorable, like Basanti’s damn horse, Dhanno,” she says.

The film had all-star credentials, with script-writing dream team Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (fathers of contemporary Bollywood superstars Salman Khan and Farhan Akhtar) and a cast including the biggest actors of the day (Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra, Hema Malini) as well as rising star Amitabh Bhachan – aka The Big B, who in 2015 is still going strong at age 72 and the most celebrated icon in Bollywood.

Yet during its opening weeks, the big-budget blockbuster struggled so much that Sholay’s cast and crew were ready to reshoot the ending because of negative audience reactions. “It started out as a flop. The critics were brutal, as were the trade magazines. It was called a dying ember and too expensive… [they said] that a competent director could have done better with fewer funds,” says Chopra.

“To begin as a flop and become the most recognised film in the history of Indian cinema is incredible. Even today in the film industry you never meet anyone who hasn’t watched Sholay – it is the Bible for directors.”

The film’s dialogue and songs have found a life beyond the screen. “The lines of villain Gabbar Singh are the most memorable and still used today,” says Chopra. “All you have to say is ‘Kitnai aadmi thai?’ (‘How many men were there?’), or ‘Tera kya hogai, Kalya?’ (‘What will become of you, Kalya?’). When you speak a line from Sholay, you open up a whole world.”

Sholay’s biggest song, Yeh Dosti (This Friendship), is an ode to Jai and Veeru’s bond in which the outlaws serenade each other. It has taken on greater cultural meaning in the 40 years since the film’s release. Broadcaster and DJ Bobby Friction (BBC Asian Network), who grew up in West London, fondly remembers Yeh Dosti like a familiar friend.

“As a teenager I remember friends singing Yeh Dosti in the park and hearing it at family parties with my parents and their friends. In the late 1990s I was playing it when I DJed at club nights in London, and today at Indian weddings it’s the track for the groom and his friends to take over the dancefloor – it has become a symbol for Asian male bonding,” he explains.

As Dudrah points out, it’s also sung by supporters of India’s cricket team during matches, becoming a Bharat Army anthem. Why has it endured? “Yeh Dosti cemented the place of Sholay’s two lovable rogues, Jai and Veeru, in Indian cinema and South Asian popular culture,” he explains.

Here was a masculinity to aspire to, that looked good, took on the system, was all action, wasn’t afraid of opening up and you could sing along with

“Jai and Veeru are drastically stylish guys – Amitabh looks fantastic in denim and flares, both have rugged good looks and impressive physiques and they became icons of South Asian masculinity,” says Dudrah. “Don’t forget for South Asians in Britain and America in the 1970s and 1980s, images like this weren’t available in mainstream media and racism was part of daily life. Yet here was a masculinity to aspire to, that looked good, took on the system, was all action, wasn’t afraid of opening up and you could sing along with.”

Despite being a mainstream blockbuster, Sholay is strikingly progressive, perhaps even subversive. Dudrah highlights how the relationship between Veeru and his love interest Basanti (Hema Malini) is removed from family and unfolds away from community – “it’s a utopian space for young lovers”. Chopra is struck by “Thakur actively matchmaking his widowed daughter-in-law with a criminal [Jai] because he knows this is where her happiness lies”.

Friction picks out the film’s feminist undertones. Basanti, a straight-talking, earthy and independent young woman doing a man’s job – riding a horse-and-cart taxi – is as hard as nails, as she proves when she dances on broken glass to save her beau.

Sholay also has an iconic character in the villain Gabbar Singh, played by Amjad Khan. Gabbar frightened and inspired Friction in equal measure. “He’s like Darth Vader in Star Wars, pure evil, utterly terrifying and a cool baddie,” he says. “When I was DJing at club nights I based my look on him – I went to India and got a green combat suit made and grew my beard.”

Chopra’s memories of Gabbar are different. “I was a little girl when Sholay came out and I don’t remember the first time I saw it on screen but I do remember being scared of the background music when Gabbar came on the screen – even today I distinctly remember the sound and it sends shivers down my spine,” she says.

Remarkably, four decades on, it seems Sholay burns as brightly as ever. As Friction argues, “It’s cool culture that can be passed on to the next generation – like a dad passing on an original copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to his kid and saying, ‘take a look at this’.”

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