Sholay, 1975

Directed by: Ramesh Sippy

Induct me into the Legion of Fillum Watchers because I’ve finally put on my legitimacy pants and watched Sholay.

Sick of all the endless taunting and eye boggling that would ensue when I admitting to never having seen it, I popped down to my DVDwallah and picked it up with Nagin. Together the films will be a gift for my coworker, but not before I’ve watched them first.

Please hold all judgements you might have on my using a gift before I’ve given it. It’s just easier this way.

Simply speaking, this is the look I would get.
Also, I never intended on the absolute luck of watching and writing this on Dharmendra’s birthday. So happy 75th to one hell of a smoking hot grandpa.

As usual, I cannot promise an absence of spoilers but since I was probably the only person left on planet earth who had not seen this film I am sure it’s safe if I give away some secrets.

Sholay can be summed up in one hyperbolic word: seamless.

Compared to its contemporaries there is a evenness and level of cleanliness that shines throughout Sholay and that you fail to find in other films. Is it my beloved Masala? Yes, but it is Masala done so well that it comes off as effortless, plausible and all together worthy of its standing as a Classic of Indian cinema.

Mainly I respect Sholay for utilizing two of my favorite concepts:
1. Use of essential personnel only
2. Faith enough in the story and the vehicle of story telling to kill characters.

I have waxed poetic and relentlessly on so many films about the mistake of giving screen time to characters and side-plots that do not need to be there. It pulls attention away from what the audience is supposed to focus on and it drags the pace. In Sholay the story is trimmed back only to the handful of characters who matter; namely Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), Veeru (Dharmendra), Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) and Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan).  The film has a large supporting cast, toting the names of Hema Malini*, Jaya Badhuri*and Helen, but they come and go as needed. Speaking their peace, interjecting backstory and giving a 3D nature to the main characters when needed but they fade well enough into the background when they’re not needed and provide a clear and uncluttered stage upon which the drama may be played.

My second point, while considerably morbid, is no less important. As I was watching the ending I kept thinking “please do not cheapen this by keeping them all alive just for appearances’ sake!” It did not feel right to me that all of them should make it to the end, having the evil nature of Gabbar Singh been showcased as it was. There is a smack of Realism about Sholay that transcends the film and seems to tell you straight out that the story is going to give you something truthful. The decision to kill off a character is a bold move, and whether done in film, TV or literature is the sign of a writer who has faith enough that the story can stand on its own without the support of an actor or specific voice. As I watched a wounded and abandoned Jai try to fight off four ruthless henchmen I hoped that he had wits enough about him to fight back but that the odds would be realistic. Sholay will not provide a deus ex machina, and for that I’m so thankful.

At the end of the film there was another piece of action that totally won me over: Thakur is faced with the chance to kill his enemy and enact his revenge OR to turn over Gabbar Singh over to the cops. There is a moment of hesitation as he decides and I cannot honestly say I knew which path I wanted him to choose. There was the choice I knew I wanted him to make but also the one I thought would be right given the circumstances. It was like the decision for Jai to die; either direction would have worked but ultimately the writer and director made the correct choice and added to the credibility of the film.

Gabbar Singh. How do I even go about explaining Gabbar Singh?

I’ll start by saying that it is good to be finally clued in to all the jokes that have ever been made about him in any of the films I’ve ever seen. I feel like I belong to the worlds biggest inside joke. It feels amazing.
Quite frankly, Gabbar Singh scares the living daylights out of me. He’s heartless, ruthless and so devoid of any sense of right and wrong that it makes my blood run cold. However, credit must be given to the yummy** Amjad Khan for giving the character more than just a hateful shell, but for giving him the gem  of comedic relief. His expression, posture and outer absurdity masks the moral depravity that resides within our Mr. Singh. This humor is seen most freely when Gabbar Singh is lounging around in his out-of-doors hiding place in the middle of a mountainside. Actually, now that I am writing this the humor seems wrong. Very wrong. It is more of a look amusement at the pain he is causing, and the abandonment of decency that he has achieved. Nonetheless, and this probably says something horrible about my character, I found him rather amusing at times… Now I am all sorts of conflicted.

Our heros, Dharmendra’s Veeru and Amitabh’s Jai, were as expertly defined as they could have been. Throughout you see Veeru being fun loving and up to all sorts of antics while Jai languishes on the side looking, at turns, bored or apathetic. The latter of which is rather interesting to see. A disinterested hero is a fun deviation from the Hero with a Cause or the Wounded Man. This is when I wish I was back on set (and back in time) so I could ask if this was a conscious decision; and whether it was made by the director or the actor.

And you know I’ll never say “no” to a greased-up, sweating, dirty Amitabh. No sir. It goes against my basic biology.

OR Amitabh’s legs…
OR Amitabh in white bell bottoms and slinging a rifle on to his shoulders with a cool, Devil may care attitude…
But I digress…

I know that we have the lovely Shashitabh, but I am thinking there needs to be another such name for the Dharmendra-Amitabh paring. They are too adorable for words. I want to be their best friend. I have it: Dharmytabh. Adopt this, people.

While I adore both Jaya and Hema I feel as if they were cheated in this film. They were both given such stock characters and they adhered to them so rigidly it is hard to commend or disapprove of their performances. While both are endearing, they are not wildly memorable and were used just to give our heros someone to woo. It is fun that each character ended up with the personality that mostly resembled their own… and the women did provide reason for Veeru and Jai to give up their criminal ways and desire to settle down, but for me that just is not enough. On a side note, I did enjoy Jaya’s “before” personality immensely. She was such a bubbly thing!

Holi love song? 
Perfect.

For having a Burman score, it is interesting to me that I can’t remember any of the songs, except for the consideration that the songs are not the focus of the film. They are used to add flavor to the film but they do not drive the film, nor interrupt it.

Sholay is a total winner in my book. I can understand why it is revered and admired across decades and opinions. Before, when I was skeptical and unaware I would bitterly say “It better f’ing be like the Indian Godfather.” It is. Pure and simple.

All in all, I consider a substantial part of my Filmi education complete. I just have to polish off a few of the other Classics and I’ll be a giant among… something.

Oh dear. I am so going to have to buy another copy of this film. I don’t think my coworker can have this one.

*Hema Malini and Jaya Badhuri are listed as “main” characters, but for the purpose of explanation and the parts that they played in development of the plot I am referring to them as “supporting”.
**Don’t even think about judging me for that one. He’s handsome.

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Veer-Zaara, 2004

Directed by: Yash Chopra

I watched this last night with my two pupils (i.e. B’wood novices) K and L.  K in particular is an amazing success story, a year ago she couldn’t understand my obsession with Indian Cinema and especially couldn’t stand the music (she had an issue with the voice registration; we’re all Opera singers, just ignore it) So what did I do to persuade my two pals that “east or west” Bollywood was “the best”? I sat them down and made them watch Dard-e-Disco. Conversion complete. I am, when necessary, an excellent sales-woman and champion for the Indian film industry. Since then they have been hounding me for daily installments in their educations. It’s wonderful.

Anyway, back to VZ…

It took me years for me to finally see this. One of my best friends growing up was from Pakistan and she always told me “you HAVE to watch it. You just HAVE to!” So I did…

I don’t want to discuss the plot, you can find that anywhere. There are so many wonderful moments in this film, and I want to talk about those.

-The music, oh! The music in this movie (weird jazzy-saxophone included) is just phenomenal. You can actually buy the soundtrack for this movie, a rarity in Indian films that I wish was practiced more often. It’s poignant, dramatic and touching. Sure, a little romanticized and overtly emotional, but that’s just Bollywood, and that’s what you get. The filmi songs are just so so good too. The first one you see is so camp and so typical YRF that you want to gag, but you can’t because it’s just that good and precious to see SRK hoping around and being happy. And if you’ve never seen “Main Yahaan Hoon” then you’ve never seen something so inclined to induce me into a fever and heavy breathing. K and L made use re-watch that particular song at least 3 times.

…if only…

-The cinematography is breathtaking. There are so many shots that just make you think “Yash knew what he was doing”. The settings, scenery, colors and little details scattered throughout provide lush surroundings for this “love legend”. The post-production details are impressive too. So many times there are awkward “cut offs” in either music or feeling as the film moves from scene to scene, and it’s one of my only peeves; but in VZ, there is only one of those moments, and you’re so caught up in the story when it happens, that you don’t even notice it (unless you’ve seen it a million times).

-Amitabh Bachchan! In this movie he’s so fun and happy and smiling and funny. It’s refreshing to see him like that, compared to his frowning, stern parenting roles. If I had to pick a grandfather, Chaudhary Sumer Singh would be my top choice. (Kirron Kher also gives a great Maa performance, if I could pick a filmi Maa, she’d be mine!)

-Preity and Shahrukh and Rani!!!… it took me a long time to get used to Preity Zinta and like her, and what finally hooked me was this movie. She gives a great performance and her character is simply lovable. How I like my Shahrukh is the way he appears in this movie. His face isn’t the hard, chiseled thing he’s sported since Om Shanti Om, nor is it the cutesy, baby face of DDLJ. In this movie he sizzles. His eyes, his hair, his eyebrows, his Adam’s apple… yum! Rani also gives a good performance as Veer’s lawyer who has heart, hope and compassion.

The short and short of it (and this movie and its review are neither short) is that I love Veer-Zaara, it’s a good one to take down when you haven’t seen it for a few years and just get caught in the “legend” of Veer and Zaara’s love, and all of the sweet, short little moments in between the moments of grandeur that  are what make this movie touching and all around good.

*I wrote this during my ethnomusicology lecture so if it’s disjunct or just plain poorly written it’s because I was trying to look “engaged” in the lecture and my teacher would periodically call on me to pronounce the Indian names of musicians, instruments and songs…