Sholay became a legend, and by far the most successful film of its time, which ran for five consecutive years in a theatre (Minerva) in Bombay. Often described as India's best known "Curry" western, Sholay was 'patterned' on Spaghetti westerns and bears heavy influence of Raj Khosla's superb dacoit drama Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) but the addition of the usual 'masalas' - romance, comedy, and songs gave it the ambiance that one expects of a Hindi film. Ironically the film opened to a lukewarm response and distributors asked the director to trim the film because of its length but soon the word of mouth spread and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
Sholay had all the elements of a Western - rugged countryside (the film was shot in the rocky landscape of Ramnagaram, a small village about 30 miles from Bangalore), bandits on horseback, fierce gun fights etc. But unlike the Hollywood westerns which had moral issues as their core, Sholay like Sergei Leonne's 'Spaghetti Westerns' was strewn with corpses and brutality. In fact, Sholay took film violence to new heights. A key factor in this was the villain, the cold-blooded killer, Gabbar Singh. Unlike earlier villains who were content to bring about a misunderstanding between the lovers' families, Gabbar seems to pursue evil as an end in itself. Played by newcomer Amjad Khan, Gabbar Singh was by far the most popular character of the film with his dialogues remembered till today! In fact, along with the music cassettes and records of the film, cassettes and records of the film's dialogues too were released and were extremely popular. Sholay was merchandised on water bottles, belts, jackets etc.
In a brilliantly executed sequence, Gabbar in his hideout taunts three of his men on a failed mission. In a form of Russian Roulette, he randomly removes three of the six bullets from his gun and holds the barrel of the gun to a man's temple and fires. When the gun doesn't go off he exclaims almost in child-like glee 'Bach Gaya Sala.' (The Bastard is saved) Similarly this happens with the other two men. Laughing at his own cruel joke, his men too think they have got away with it and the other dacoits too join in. When the laughter reaches a feverish pitch, the entire ravine echoing with it, he turns around and shoots them. A deathly silence follows... Another sequence that makes a solid impact is when Gabbar is told that Sachin is on his way to the city. Gabbar's response is to kill a mosquito. Cut to Sachin's dead body in the village. Masterly done. Mention must also be made of the romance developed in silence between Jai and Radha with just exchange of looks, a fine counterpoint to the bositerous and more obvious Veeru - Basanti track, which one might add is enjoyable enough.
The film made use of several interesting innovations. This included its spectacular cinematography, with shots panning over rocky heights and barren canyons, often under menacing clouds. This lends the movie much of its eerie tension. One of the long opening scenes, which shows a train being defended by Baldev Singh against an attack by bandits, is quite spectacular in its effects, and is reminiscent of similar scenes in westerns, most notably John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). (Though it would be fair to mention that a stunt director came down from abroad and was responsible for the amazing action scenes of the film) Sholay, likewise, plays upon themes of nature versus culture, the encroachment of nature upon culture, and the meaning of civilization in wilderness.
The film makes superb use of the double headed coin. Veeru and Jai always toss it to decide which way to go. Each and every time, Jai calls heads and makes sure the morally correct choice (helping the wounded Thakur in the train when they could have escaped), is heads. In the end when Jai calls heads and stays back to fight Gabbar and is killed and the coin is revealed to be a double headed coin, not only do you feel a solid pang for Jai, but you admire writers Salim-Javed for the way they have used the coin to reveal Jai's character, his inner goodness with him always doing the right thing. This is something one finds rarely, if at all, in Indian cinema.
Though the film depicts the usual Indian themes of loyalty in friendship and love, what is notable is an almost total absence of family values. The two heroes have no visible family ties, neither has the heroine Hema Malini who only has a mausi as her closest relative. The Thakur who had a full fledged family sees it destroyed by Gabbar Singh. One expects this of bandits, but not of those who are 'good'.
Technicaly too, the film was a trailblazer. Shot in 70mm with stereophonic sound, Sholay was the ultimate big screen experience. (It was India's first film in 70 mm with stereophonic sound) Mention must be made of Dwarka Diwecha's stunning camerawork and RD Burman's evocative background score, particularly the title track of the film, which help elevate the film even further. Strangely, the songs did not prove to be as popular as they should have been with many critics even caling them disappointing. However, Yeh Dosti (utilized superbly in its sad version), Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Holi Ke Din, Jab Bhi Koi Haseena and Mehbooba Mehbooba all go along perfectly with their situations.
Perhaps Sholay's phenomenal success can be attributed to perhaps the way it was able to blend the various items or 'masalas' required in a Hindi film in exactly the right doses. Practically every scene, dialogue and even a small character was a highlight. Even Dhanno, the horse of the tangewali, Hema Malini is remembered till today! Every small character be it the Jailor (Asrani), Mausi (Leela Mishra) or Sambha (Mac Mohan) - they are etched in viewer's minds. And it must be said the ensemble cast is spot on. Each of the performances is faultless but as mentioned Gabbar Singh towers above all. It is Amjad Khan who makes Sholay what it is. As Alfred Hitchcock always said, "Better the villain, better the film!"
Naturally Sholay set several trends in its aftermath. Spates of Multi-starrers and Films with male bonding amongst heroes followed. The theme of Sholay was much imitated but none could match up to Sholay. Which goes on to prove that Sholay was one of a kind. In fact, films will come and films will go but Sholay goes on forever...