I’ve seen a lot of recent Hindi movies, but I knew my Bollywood education was incomplete until I saw Sholay. After watching the nearly three-and-a-half hour behemoth, I understand why it’s a classic. But that doesn’t mean it’s a movie without flaws.
Sholay (“Embers”) is the preeminent example of the “curry western,” the Indian version of the “spaghetti western” popular in the United States in the mid-1960s. Its story and style borrow liberally from films like The Magnificent Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West.
Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan play thieves recruited by one of their former jailers, Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar), to capture a bandit leader. This bandit murdered the jailer’s family and has spent the subsequent years robbing the jailer’s poor village. Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Bachchan) initially agree to the job for the reward money but fall in love with two women from the village, giving them added incentive to succeed.
At its best, Sholay is an exciting action film. An early chase scene in which a coal-fired train is pursued by bandits on horseback contains some amazing cinematography. The camera cuts from static long shots of bad guys falling from their horses to a dynamic shot from Jai’s point of view as he rolls onto his back to fire at an assailant approaching from above.
Another highlight is the romance between Jai and Radha (Jaya Bhaduri), Thakur’s widowed daughter-in-law. Unlike the heroine in Once Upon a Time in the West, who tries to fulfill her deceased husband’s dream of building a railroad depot, Radha’s widowhood renders her a virtual ghost. She seems expected to exist in perpetual mourning, executing her household chores in silence. The longing looks between Radha and Jai defy social convention, adding poignancy.
But Sholay has one undeniable flaw: it’s too long. To justify a runtime of approximately 200 minutes, every shot needs to feel essential. Sholay doesn’t meet that standard.
There’s a lengthy sequence early in the movie that involves Jai and Veeru getting intentionally thrown in jail, only to break out and split the reward money with the pal who turned them in. The sequence is supposed to be funny as the thieves trick their high-stepping jailer with a Hitler mustache, but the jokes feel forced and the Hitler references a bit too casual.
Another failed comic device is plucky horse-cart driver Basanti (Hema Malini), Veeru’s love interest. She has a few touching moments, but she’s written to be annoying. The problem with deliberately annoying movie characters is that they annoy the audience as well as their fellow characters.
While many of the songs in Sholay are memorable — “Yeh Dosti” and “Mehbooba Mehbooba” in particular — their accompanying dance numbers bring the action to a halt.
The movie’s final battle is completely preposterous but is executed in a way that elevates it to campy art. For that reason alone, it’s hard to dislike Sholay. It’s certainly a classic, but it’s not a film for Bollywood newcomers.