Sholay was initially being propagated as a four-line snippet by legendary screenwriter duo, Salim-Javed, and was rejected by two other noted producer/Director teams, till it finally reached the office of G. P. Sippy, Ramesh Sippy’s father. The latter really liked the concept – his Italian spaghetti western influence said to have spurred him on – and hired Salim-Javed to develop the script.
Originally, the plot involved an army officer, who would hire two ex-soldiers, to avenge the brutal murder of his family at the hands of a notorious dacoit. However, on Ramesh Sippy’s suggestion, the army officer’s character was later changed to that of a cop because he felt that getting permission to shoot military strategy scenes would have been difficult. Salim-Javed finished the script in one month flat.
The film drew loosely from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai, John Sturges’ 1960 Hollywood film The Magnificent Seven, and Sergio Leone’s 1968 Italian film Once Upon a Time in the West. The scene depicting the massacre of Thakur’s family was quite heavily influenced from a similar one in Once Upon a Time in the West, but its ethos was essentially Indian, particularly in its portrayal of emotions and the family nucleus. Some plot elements were also inspired from erstwhile Indian curry westerns like 1971’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh and 1973’s Khote Sikkay. However, though Sholay’s style greatly resembled Italian spaghetti westerns, no film did more to put the staple Indian curry western on the map.
Gabbar Singh was modeled on a real-life dacoit of the same name, who had plundered and traumatized the villages around Gwalior in the 1950s. He was also notorious for slicing off the ears and nose of policemen in the area as a warning for others to stay away. In fact, that’s from where Salim-Javed got their inspiration for the scene where Gababr chops of Thakur’s arms. Soorma Bhopali played by Jagdeep, was actually based on an acquaintance of the actor’s – a forest officer from Bhopal also named Soorma. Other names and personalities of the film were borrowed from Salim-Javed’s real-life friends and acquaintances.
The real-life Soorma eventually threatened to file a lawsuit when people began referring to him as a woodcutter, but the matter was quickly sorted by timely intervention on the part of G.P. Sippy.
Original Role Choices
Danny Denzongpa was initially considered for Gabbar Singh’s character, but he couldn’t accept it as he was busy with Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma, which had also released in the same year, and was under production at the time. Amjad Khan, who then bagged the role, prepared himself for the role by reading the novel, Abhishapta Chambal, which detailed the exploits and atrocities of Chambal dacoits. It was penned by Taroon Kumar Bhaduri, who happened to be Jaya Bhaduri’s father.
Moving on to the character of Jai, the role was initially offered to Shatrugan Sinha, but Salim-Javed has suggested Amitabh’s name as they thought a lesser-known actor (Amitabh wasn’t that popular then – a fact attested by his name appearing fifth in the opening credits) would be better suited for the part before Dharmendra, who was a huge star at the time.
A relatively unknown trivia from behind the scenes tells how Amitabh wanted to play the part of Gabbar and Dharmendra had wanted to play Thakur. However, Ramesh Sippy found the ideas preposterous and would have nothing to do with them. Dharmendra, being the more adamant of the two, was convinced to the contrary when Sippy told him that Sanjeev Kumar would play Veeru if he was to play Thakur, and Dharmendra, who was wooing Hema Malini during that time, and knew all too well of Sanjeev’s feeling for his ladylove, quickly agreed to the part of Veeru.
Reel to Real Love Stories
During production, both the onscreen pairs of Dharmendra-Hema and Amitabh-Jaya took their reel love stories into real life. Bachchan married Jaya four months before filming started. In fact, the latter became pregnant with their daughter Shweta when filming had started, which prompted Sippy to make her wear those loose saris. By the time the film had released, Jaya was again pregnant, this time, with Abhishek.
Dharmendra, on the other hand, had begun wooing Malini during the shoot of their earlier film, Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), used to pay the light boys to spoil the shot, thereby ensuring multiple retakes, which enabled him to spend more time with her. However, unlike Amitabh’s, his love story took longer to manifest as Hema was skeptical since he was already married. The couple eventually married five years after the film’s release.
Sanjeev Kumar, who was also interested in Hema since their Seeta Aur Geeta days, proposed marriage to her during the shoot, but she not only rejected him, but started avoiding him, too. This hurt Sanjeev so much that he forever remained unmarried.
Sholay was largely shot in the rocky terrain of Ramanagara – a town near Bangalore, Karnataka. A road was builtfrom the Bangalore highway to Ramanagara for easier access to the sets. Art director Ram Yedekar had even erected an entire township in proximity to the shooting location, so that the cast and crew didn’t have to travel to the sets daily. This led to a part of Ramanagara being rechristened as ‘Sippy Nagar’ as a tribute to the film’s Director. The ‘Sholay Rocks’, where much the film was shot, is still a hot tourist destination.
A First for Indian Cinema
Sholay was the first Indian film to incorporate a stereophonic soundtrack and 70 mm widescreen format. However, since 70 mm cameras in those days cost way beyond what the film’s budget entitled, shooting was conducted on traditional 35 mm film and the 4:3 picture was subsequently converted to a 2.2:1 frame. The posters of the film highlighted the use of 70 mm to create greater interest, and the title was fashioned to match the CinemaScope logo. The posters also tried distinguishing the film from other multi-starrers which had come before by including taglines like ‘The greatest star cast ever assembled. The greatest story ever told’.
Ramesh Sippy had shot a different ending, where Thakur kills Gabbar by trampling his face with the spike under his shoes However, this scene, and another in which the imam’s son is killed, were unanimously rejected by the Indian Censor Board, as was the scene in which Thakur’s family is massacred. There were concerns that the violence depicted could negatively influence people to take the law into their own hands. After much deliberation, Sippy was allowed to retain the scene where Thakur’s family is massacred, but had to change the other two.
Negative Reviews and Slow Start
Upon release, Sholay received mostly negative reviews and a lukewarm response at the box-office. However, extremely positive word-of-mouth and Dharmendra’s star-power helped it change its fortunes steadily till it soon became a nationwide sensation.
The film broke ever existing box-office record of the day running for months on end in several theaters, and completed five years at Mumbai’s Minerva theatre. Many box-office experts suggest that if adjusted for inflation, Sholay is the highest-grossing Indian film of all time. A huge chuck of revenue also cane from the combined sales of the original soundtrack, scored by R. D. Burman, and a special dialogues cassette, which was released separately. Sales from both sources set new records for an Indian film. The film’s dialogues and its characters were so popular that years later, they’ve become a part of Indian culture and daily vocabulary. In January 2014, Sholay was re-released to theatres in a digitally remastered 3D format.
Image Source: Sippy Films