The Western and International Spectatorship

The Spaghetti Western

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 197 and 212.

“In France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Japan (where the film was distributed more or less intact), Once Upon a Time was a box-office smash. In Paris, it ran continuously for nearly six years. But in America it continued to flop.” “Preview audiences in America and those who went to see the film during the first weeks of its release, just thought the film was too long and too slow. In one of the most brutal acts of vandalism in the history of modern cinema, Paramount cut nearly half an hour out of the original three-hour film, leaving the action sequences intact, [but rendering some sequences disjointed].”

The film was so popular in France that it “started a craze [for dusters] in Paris menswear boutiques.”

The Curry Western

Anupama Chopra, Sholay: The Making of a Classic (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2000).

Sholay had many huddles in terms of reception. First of all, the Central Board of Film Censors–which enjoyed more power than ever in the wake of the declaration of state of emergency–did not like the overall narrative direction of the film, particularly, the ending. The Board objected to the film’s balletic violence and the suggestion at the end that a police office–even one who was no longer in service–would take the law in his own hands and commit a murder. The Board asked for an ending that would have the police intervening at the crucial moment to prevent the Thakur from killing Gabbar as is often the case with other films (149). Unable to reverse the Board’s decision, Ramesh had to reshoot the end (151).

The critics also were quite reproachful: “There was no mother figure; and what kind of friendship did the two men share?–Jai betrays his friend when he talks to mausi about marrying Basanti to Veeru” (160); Filmfare‘s Bikram Singh wrote: ‘The major problem with the film is the unsuccessful transplantation it attempts–grafting a western on the Indian milieu. The film remains imitation western–neither here nor there'” (161); “The 23 August Trade Guide carried a front-page article…[that reads,] ‘Sholay will teach the producer and other moviemakers [a bitter and costly lesson,] what to do and what not to do when making exceptionally ambitious films'” (168). The public too seemed unmoved: “There was no laughter, no tears, no applause. Just silence” (159).

In a few weeks, however, the silence of the audience proved to be a false impression. While distributors were still reluctant to jump on the film, theaters began to be full. According to Anupama Chopra, the proprietor at Geeta cinema in Worli told Ramesh, “Don’t worry, your film is a hit.” Asked for an account for his judgment, the proprietor replied, “Because the sales of my soft drinks and ice creams are going down…By the interval the audience are so stunned and engaged with the film that they are not coming out of the theatre [for drinks and ice creams]”…The silence of the audience was in fact a sign that they were overawed and needed time to swallow what they had seen (169).

“Obviously Sholay’s visuals and dialogue were so overpowering that the music barely registered…[hence: the release of dialogue records, what the audience remembered when they left the theatre” (170).

“As the film caught on, tickets became priceless. The lines at Minerva stretched for a few kilometers, from the theatre to the nearby Tardeo bridge. The bus stop outside was renamed ‘Sholay stop’…One week Minerva was water-looged [due to a heavy rain], there was four feet of water in the lobby, and still the audience thronged the theatre. Everyone took off their shoes, rolled up their trousers, waded through the water and got into the theatre. The board outside declared: Houseful…(172). Meanwhile the black marketeers were raking in a great deal of money; “Folklore had it that black marketeers at Minerva bought apartments and put taxis on the roads with their earnings” (179).

Sholay ran for more than five years–in regular shows for three years and then in the matinee for two years (2, 179). Its box-office record remained unbroken for nineteen years till Hum Aapke Hain Kaum was released in 1994 (180). It also changed the course of Indian cinema. “Director Shekhar Kapur puts it best: ‘There has never been a more defining film on the Indian screen. Indian film history can be divided into Sholay BC and Sholay AD’…[It is still a monumental event in Indian film history] The first Hindi film of the new millenium was Dharmesh Darshan’s Mela [2000], a multi-crore extravaganza about a girl who uses two truck drivers to avenge her brother’s death at the hands of the daku (dacoit) Gujjar. It flopped. As did director Raj Kumar Santoshi’s China Gate (1998), which featured ten retired army officers rescuing a village from the ferocious daku Jagira. Satoshi went blue in the face insisting that the inspiration was Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, but the audience didn’t care. ‘It’s not Sholay,’ was the verdict” (5-7).

One of the interesting episodes in the public reception of Sholay is the popularity the film brought to Gabbar, the villain character. “To the crew’s surprise, Gabbar Singh became a phenomenon. The Thakur, Weeru, Jai, Basanti–they were all memorable. But Gabbar loomed larger.” Fifteen dialogue EP’s were made out of the film and Gabbar’s was the biggest hit. He also soon became an excellent advertising icon. Interestingly, when Britannia, one of the most famous biscuits company, conducted a survey on how the public think of Gabbar, the research showed that there were no negatives associated with the character. The popular appeal of the Gabbar character, however, was quite stunning because few could expect it to happen. In fact, the Gobbar character had been considered one of the weakest part in the film. Unlike other major characters all played by big names, the Gabbar character went to Amjad Khan, “the only new face in a sea of superstars” (87), which caused many doubts about the choice. Besides, his voice was peculiar. It was no the rich baritone laced with threats typical of villains of those days; he rather “sounded sounded like a child with a bad cough,” which did not match his hulking appearance. Once again, crews–above all, the Salim-Javed screenwriter duo, renowned for Zanjeer (1973) and Deewar (1975), urged Ramesh to find someone else to dub for the Gabbar character. Of course, Ramesh hanged on to his original plan and ironically the voice that almost did not make it to the screen sold thousands of records (138-39). Apparently, the public taste was even beyond the imagination of talented pioneers in popular Indian cinema.

* For more about the Gabbar phenomenon, see Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, Sholay: A Cultural Reading (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Limited, 1992), 59.

[Gabbar Singh], an archvillain who destroyed the Thakur’s family in cold blood, cuts of his arms, and terrorized villagers, is expected to evoke repulsion from the audience. A detailed study of the audience reaction to the film proved that the preponderant majority of the audience liked the character to the extent that his dialogue tapes enjoyed more popularity than other characters’ and the character itself made a successful inroad to the commercial world. Quite new to Indian cinema up to the point and unexpected even by the film crews, the emergence of a villain persona as the most popular character remained an notable event in history of Indian popular cinema: not a sign of the Indian movie-goers’ lack of moral sense, it was a materialization of a peculiar moral sense in that if the element of the spectacle was privileged over the narrative in the audience receptions, it was indicative of some changes in their perceptions of the world.

“The morally ambiguous characters–the heroes were jean-clad mercenaries–captured the Zeitgeist of the seventies, when the idealism of the freedom struggle and the optimism of newly independent India were things of the past; when politicians and bureaucrats had lost the respect of the people, and the young had come to believe that while it was desirable to be good, it was more important to be effective. This, pretty much, is the mood even today” (7-8; see also 19).

Sources of Sholay

“The Hollywood western, which itself had drawn lessons from Kurosawa’s Japanese samurai epics, was an inspiration for both material and attitude. A sort of cowboy zeal permeated the Sholay unit. Ramesh and his crew were like pioneers heading out to the Wild West” (8); “The inspiration was the Hollywood western. All three of them had been influenced greatly by films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and, of course, the mother of the mercenary movie, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. They wanted to imitate the rugged feel of these films–the rough-hewn texture, the sprawling landscapes, the violence in close-up, the smell of horses and carriages” (25); “The Hollywood western was the primary inspiration, but they looked closer home as well. Raj Khosla’s 1971 hit, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, the story of a one-armed man who reforms a petty criminal and uses him to protect their village against dacoits, loomed like a ghost in the background. There was also Narendra Bedi’s successful B-grade take on the western, Khote Sikkey [1974], released the same year that Sholay was being written…[the coin toss motif] came from a Garry Cooper starrer, Garden of Evil” (28).

For the mix of western and local music, see pg. 144.

Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Raj Khosla’s reformed criminal versus dacoits story, was a great inspiration for Sholay: above all, when asked why he is searching for two petty criminals, the Thakur replies, “They’re thugs but they’re brave, and dangerous because they know how to fight; they may be crooked but they are human.” But Ramesh did not want traditional daku dress, the dhoti, and the traditional daku domain, the Chambal valley. Sholay had to look different from all the dacoit films that had gone before. To the end, Ramesh summoned Ram Yedekar, art director of Mera Gaon Mera Desh, who had little patience for the vagaries of the Hindi film industry. In search of a location that allows the Thakur’s house to overlook the village, he went to the South where no dacoit film had ever been shot before and found Ramanagaram (40-42).

Action was the raison d’etre of the film” and Ramesh “wanted epic action” with “spectacular violence with a ballet-like beauty and grace” (114; see also 148). The standard was Hollywood; Ramesh wanted the look of the Hollywood action, but action teams available in India were simply not on par (121), which led Ramesh to bring in an action team from England [stunt directors Jim Allen and Gerry Crampton, stunt coordinator Romo Commoro, and a special effects man John Grant]” (122-23).

Hollywood legacies in Sholay: “The scene of the attack on Ramgarh ended with a frame straight out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Veeru and Jai, crouched side by side, shooting the baddies” (127).

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