In 1999, when the BBC held an online poll to determine ‘The Superstar of the Millennium’, the winner was not Charlie Chaplin or John Wayne, or Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise, but the Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan. Though a surprise, the result was far from unjust: Bachchan – whose status in India is something between megastar and demigod – may well be the most popular movie star on the planet. This is his most famous work, and probably the most famous of all Bollywood films.
While many cinemagoers in the West may never have seen – or even heard of – Sholay it is safe to call it one of the world’s favourite movies: aside from being the highest grossing film in the history of Indian cinema, it is also perennially voted both the country’s best, and best loved, movie, and has topped polls of favourite films in countries as diverse as Britain and Iran.
Jai and Veeru (played by Bachchan and fellow Bollywood idol Dharmendra) are a sort of sub-continental Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, adorable rogues and master thieves known to every jailor in India. Summoned by a former police inspector who, having once arrested them, has first hand knowledge of their bravery and derring-do, they are hired to capture the murderous bandit chief, Gabbar Singh (a marvellously loony Amjad Khan). Precisely why the erstwhile lawman (Sanjeev Kumar, giving what must be the single most sour-faced performance in the history of the silver screen) is so keen to have Singh captured alive, but literally won’t lift a finger to help, is a tantalising mystery that runs throughout much of a film that is, at times, an Eastern Western, an action movie, a thriller, a comedy and, I suppose, a musical – but always a top-drawer entertainment.
Just as Seven Samurai is, for English-speaking audiences, the most accessible masterwork of Japanese cinema because of the vast influence Western movies (in both senses of the term) had upon it, so Sholay manages to feel at once exotic and familiar because of the obvious inspiration cowboy films provided for its creators. There are direct references to Once Upon A Time In The West and One-Eyed Jacks, and the spirit of Butch Cassidy, The Magnificent Seven and The Searchers runs throughout. (It’s unsurprising, given its colossal box office success, that the film gave birth to a genre known as ‘the curry Western’.)
There’s a great deal more to Sholay, though, than the influence of Sergio Leone and John Sturges. As almost always with a Bollywood movie, the music is as integral to the film’s appeal as the screenplay, and here R.D. Burman provides a thumping score and five fine songs. The staging of these musical numbers – particularly the Festival of Colours and the final song, ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, during which the heroine is forced by bandits to dance over broken glass to prolong her lover’s life – is unforgettable.
There are film fans, and even film critics, who love world cinema but just don’t seem to watch Bollywood movies. I’m sad for them, because they’re missing some tremendous films. There are as many great Bollywood movies as there are great Hollywood movies, and Sholay may just be the greatest of them all.