Friday, January 1, 2010


(Blame the holidays for getting in the way of movie-postings these past two weeks! I know I do!)


TITLE: Sholay
DESCRIPTION: The desire for revenge can provide a powerful motive, and in SHOLAY (a mega-hit from the 1970s), a retired police officer has more than enough incentive to pursue and punish an evil bandit. Unable to succeed on his own, he convinces two small-time crooks to nab his quarry, not anticipating the complications that inevitably ensue [RottenTomatoes]
DIRECTOR: Ramesh Sippy
YEAR: 1975
RUNTIME: 188 min

If you've never seen a Bollywood film before, make Sholay your second. I say this because Sholay is a monumental work that very much deserves the word-of-mouth interest that shot it from initial disaster status to highest grossing Indian film of all time -- but if you haven't seen a Bollywood film before, you might be too busy getting used to the very different tropes by which characterization is formed in such pieces, and miss a hell of a lot of fantastic nuance in the process.

(I say this knowing how close I myself came to watching this film ill-prepared: If it weren't for my earlier exposure to China Gate, a "curry Western" film inspired by Sholay, I tremble to think how much I too would have missed out on when viewing the latter.)

Now, I know you might be thinking: "Nuance? What nuance? This is Bollywood! Everything is go-big-or-go-home!" And to an extent, you'd be absolutely right. After all, inspired by Seven Samurai, Sholay is necessarily a story about good versus evil, redemption, and sacrifice; and being Bollywood, it spans most every conceivable genre -- comedy, drama, Curry Western, romance, musical, epic thriller -- to achieve those ends.

Specifically, the story of Sholay follows an ex-policeman, Thakur Baldev Singh, who lives in a remote rural village plagued by the dacoit (bandit) Gabbar. This guy is seriously dark and twisted, so Thakur Singh arranges to have two petty thieves of notorious distinction, Veeru and Jai, released from prison (where they are comically toying with an incompetent warden) to help him in his cause. When they do, protecting the villagers from one of the bandit's raids, Gabbar enacts his sadism upon the gang members foiled by Veeru and Jai, then catches the celebrating city off-guard in a stand-off that almost sees Veeru and Jai dead when Thakur Singh refuses to throw them a gun. After barely surviving with their lives, the petty criminals are ready to cut and run, but a story of utter tragedy, their own, blooming romances with women in the village, and the tragic death of an innocent eventually fortify their resolve, and they send Gabbar a clear message of war that leads to the final, climactic stand-off.

Yes, all pretty dramatic stuff, and yes, there's a heck of a lot of singing and dancing -- everything from a road trip song to a festival of colours, to a few requisite love numbers -- interspersing the epic chase and fight sequences. Yes, there's a suicide attempt atop a water-tower to convince a strict aunt to give her niece away in marriage. Yes, all the characters inhabit very distinct, hyper-dramatic roles.

... But at some point in the film's three-hour run-time, it dawns on you that all these loud, broad strokes of character and plot embody a staggering wealth of depth for further analysis. And that's just about when you start cashing in all that you know about good cinema for better, more universal currency.

Take, for instance, the scatter-brained tonga (horsecart) driver Basanti, a girl with a tongue that never stops wagging, keeping her forever behind in her chores and availing her both to a world of teasing and few options for matrimony in her modest little village. The shrill female being a common, token sidekick in many western films -- inevitably needing to be saved -- I expected little different from a film rooted in a very traditional rural community.

Boy, was I wrong. The first clue emerges when we see how often Basanti's distraction leads her to help others in her community, albeit to the detriment of her own mother's needs. The second emerges when we realize how important assertiveness is to any female tonga driver, so often isolated from all external aid in the company of male passengers. The third then emerges in the most thrilling chase scene in the film, where Basanti's cool head and expert cart-handling holds off Gabbar's men for as long as the cart itself stays together -- and even then, she holds out long after one of the wheels is gone.

But the fourth clue is more striking even than this last, for when Gabbar captures Veeru, he shatters glass on the sand around Basanti and orders her to dance. As long as she keeps moving, her betrothed will live. So Basanti dances, and in this dance it becomes exceptionally clear that the singing and dancing so central to all Bollywood is by no means deemed a lesser pursuit, but one with a call to inner strength as great as any gunfight. In the course of the movie, then, we see less of Basanti's growth than of our own, in witnessing the fullness of her character flourish from a seemingly simple archetype.

Nor is Basanti the sole exploded archetype in this film; and the other leaves such a lingering question in the mouths of viewers without ever cramming One Clear Message for the film down our throats. The name of this other is Radha, the Thakur's widowed daughter-in-law. As anyone who's seen Water will recall, older customs often held that a widowed Indian woman should not remarry, but instead spend the rest of her life in mourning. Such is Radha's plight, and one which might lead viewers to believe she is powerless. Yet it is Radha who, upon catching Veeru and Jai first trying to steal Thakur Singh's money and leave town, shames them into staying. It is perhaps this inner strength of hers that then draws Jai's interest, for he later seeks the town's blessing for her remarriage to him. This opens the film to unexpectedly relevant cultural issues amid Sholay's dominating, hyper-real narrative between good and evil -- a balancing act that director Ramesh Sippy carries off with great skill.

And yet it is this narrative of good and evil that inevitably determines the villagers' (and Veeru and Jai's) capacity to play out these subtler narratives in their lives to come: For where good prevails in the film, so too may the many nuances of individual life also flourish; but where evil prevails... well, the nuance of individual life is then put away, if not lost forever.

This might even be the lesson of all good Bollywood films, being as they are epic works with broad ranges of genre, character, and plot: That all aspects of human life are equally relevant and important, but that our ability or inability to explore them in full is invariably decided by those more epic and far-reaching conflicts that surround us all.

On the other hand, maybe it's too soon to say for sure: Arthur Bloch once notably wrote "A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking," and Sholay is, after all, only my second Bollywood film to date. But boy, is it a good film, period. And that's more than I can say about most.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING AIDS: At least one other Bollywood film already under your belt, and a hankering for something truly epic.

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