Monday, September 02, 2013

The Sholay opening scene, revisited

As part of a class on film criticism recently, I showed the Sholay opening-credits scene (which I have written about before in this post) and was reminded again of what a fine establishing sequence it is. Very rewarding to show in a class too, being a relatively under-analysed segment of an otherwise hugely familiar and well-loved film. I enjoyed the way the students responded, pointing out little things that hadn't occurred to me. There was even a short discussion of the use of lengthy takes – in the early shots of the two riders moving across the screen from left to right – and the compression of time and space. And naturally there was much appreciation of R D Burman’s superb score, which moves from a guitar-dominated motif to a more recognisably Indian one when the village of Ramgarh appears on screen.

Some talking points, further to what is in the earlier post:

– Aspects of the sound design, such as the clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves being incorporated into the musical theme just as it begins. The hoof-sound is vivid and percussive and has a clear echo; you wouldn’t call it an authentic aural representation of galloping horses, but it is very effective, and reminded me of the sound designer Resul Pookutty’s notes about "manufactured reality" in his memoir Sounding Off. Here is an example of sound design that makes a scene more poetic and emotionally resonant – for a few seconds – without being “realistic” in the narrowly defined sense.

- The striking visual contrast between the harsh outdoors and the warm, communal setting of the village can be said to parallel the divide between primitive and civilised ways of life in the classic American Western. At its core, the Western as a genre is heavily allegorical as it deals with the good-evil confrontation, often setting the barbaric Old West against the coming of a more genteel, more “civilised” world, represented by the railroad, the cattle farms and lawmakers. (It’s another matter that some of the best works in the genre allow us to question these distinctions.) The symbolic nature of Sholay’s mise-en-scene is made obvious in this opening scene, with its contrast between the swathes of rough, barren landscape (where the dakus presumably run rampant) and the village of Ramgarh, where people live together in a community, leading ordered lives, but constantly in danger from the evil that lies beyond. 

Into this setting come two men who have no roots, who have never had a family or a community, and who will, over the course of the story, learn about taking on responsibility and becoming part of this larger world - when they might so easily have slipped into Gabbar's world instead. (Dibakar Banerjee’s one-line summary of Sholay, from my conversations with him last year, had nothing to do with what we usually think of as the film’s plot, or the Thakur-Gabbar face-off. It was simply: “Anaath bacchon ko family mili.” Two orphans find a home.)

- The huge boulders here are just as arresting as the vistas of John Ford’s Monument Valley (and in fact part of the sequence reminds me of the opening-credits scene of Fort Apache), but they are also reminders that Gabbar and his men live in the nooks and cracks of these natural structures, in places where the law, literally and otherwise, has no hands.

– During the class, when I made the point about the artful use of music in the scene, one of the students, well-versed in classical music, corrected me: “That’s the mridangam, not the tabla,” he said.

I was fairly certain there was a shehnai in there somewhere too, but I didn’t want to put my own hoof in my mouth – later, I turned to this passage from Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s excellent book on R D Burman:
Vibrant guitar chords, the French horn and percussion, including a tabla tarang, accentuate the two horsemen’s ride from the railway station towards Ramgarh in the opening scene. As they canter past open fields and villages [...] the chords and the beat of the music alter to a very folksy and rustic tone, ending with Dakshina Mohan Tagore’s taar shehnai before it cuts back to the initial chords on the acoustic guitar and the French horn in the final lap as the horsemen reach their destination at Thakur Baldev Singh’s bungalow.

There is a certain twang in the acoustic notes that is reminiscent of the Wild West. The hollow sound of the horn is ominous - a sense of the impending war in the gorges of central India. The French horn, nicknamed 'jalebi' by sound recordist B N Sharma because of its unique shape, has been used sparingly in Hindi movies, and never really to this effect.
(That book is a must-read for any serious fan of Hindi-movie music, by the way, and an honest and extremely well-researched addition to our film literature. Meanwhile, I'm stopping the Sholay talk here for now, though I'm sure I'll remember something new immediately after clicking the "Publish" button.)


  1. The current Bollywood films do not focus as much on opening credits, I think. Reading this, I was suddenly reminded of Bhumika's opening credits. I was stumped when I was watching the film. Smita Patil's face is painted white and she is dancing in a very filmi way and then suddenly Benegal shows us that it was actually a shooting. Just sets the mood right!

  2. The huge boulders here are just as arresting as the vistas of John Ford’s Monument Valley (and in fact part of the sequence reminds me of the opening-credits scene of Fort Apache)

    Also the train sabotage scene right at the beginning when the two heroes salvage Sanjeev Kumar's life, to my mind, is clearly inspired by one of the early scenes in Mann's Man of the West - arguably the greatest western ever made.

    I like Sholay. But I find it too neat and tightly constructed film to be a truly great masterpiece. It lacks a meditative quality. Not sufficient insight into the human condition. Unlike a few other messier AB films like Deewar or Manzil. The movie is more in the Leone tradition than in the Fordian tradition.

    Another interesting tidbit I discovered recently - Amjad Khan's dad was a man named Jayanth, a great villain from the 60s. He has acted in some very interesting films. Especially Sangharsh - a most interesting film.

  3. The striking visual contrast between the harsh outdoors and the warm, communal setting of the village can be said to parallel the divide between primitive and civilised ways of life

    Yes. And the interesting thing is that this contrast between barbarism and civilization has existed throughout history! I find that fascinating. In the early Aryan epics, we find this being played out in the jungles of North India. The civilized Aryan settlement of Ekachakra being threatened by the barbarian Rakshasa Bakasura who lives on the periphery of the village.

    You see it being played out again in the fictionalized old West of mid-19th century where men like Liberty Valance (a westerner himself) threaten a resilient peace loving western civilization that is being nurtured by newly arrived immigrant settlers in Shinbone.

    And ofcourse we see this clash played out day in and day out in the Orient. Even in the 21st cen. It wasn't that long ago that Veerappan held Indian govts to ransom.

    To my mind it is the permanence of barbaric tendencies that one learns about while watching films like Sholay. We may live in an age of i-phones, space-jets and live-in relationships. But we're never too far away from being destroyed by barbarians. The great civilization we live in can decline as precipitously as Rome did if we're not vigilant.

  4. Shrikanth: Jayant was a wonderful actor, and not just in villain roles. He is delightful as a gruff, slightly slow-witted Pathan in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Mem Didi.

    On a related note, I think Anupama Chopra got Amjad Khan's age wrong in her Sholay book. He was born in 1940, and in his early 30s when he got the Gabbar role.

  5. Pessimist Fool: that scene was Benegal being droll and nudge-winkey, I think - creating an apparently mainstream song sequence but then superimposing the credits of his film on top of it. Good fun.

  6. He is delightful as a gruff, slightly slow-witted Pathan in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Mem Didi.

    You seem to have watched practically every Hrisikesh Mukherjee film!

    By the way I saw Mili the other day post your recommendation. Brilliant performances.

  7. I find it curious that Sholay has a Kurosawa like atmosphere building opening sequence while its inspiration Seven Samurai cuts to the chase almost immediately establishing the story. I think you did write about the connections in several other posts.

  8. @ Jai: Did you notice in Bhumika's credits. Smita Patil's name remains while names of actors who are playing men in her life come and go pretty much mirroring movie's story. I think this must be one joke Benegal must be still laughing today

  9. Brilliant observation, about Jai and Veeru finding a family. Pendantic bit - that should be "anaath", not "anaarth" for orphan.

  10. Sudha: made the correction, thanks.

    Gradwolf: well, the atmosphere-building sequences aren't just from Kurosawa but also Ford (whom Kurosawa himself was influenced by) and Leone. I think I may have written about the Yojimbo opening-credit sequence somewhere. That also is worth using in a class.

    And I really need to see Seven Samurai again sometime, it's been ages.

  11. Jayant's characterization of a loving and caring father, who has inherent fear of the urban youths, in Madhumati or a 'classic' thug in Sanghursh more than pay eloquent testimony to his histrionic skills.

  12. Was watching Sholay again. Another old Hollywood influence that I noticed - the khota sikka used by AB! That is straight out of Only Angels have Wings - possibly the earliest use of khota sikka in films!

    It's amazing how much movies the world over owe to the great Hollywood films of the 30s/40s. Truly the wellspring of movie culture.

    On a more serious note, I think Sholay marks the first film in India to consciously abdicate the progressive western premise and openly embrace traditional Indian tribalism and the righteousness of retributive justice!

    Back in 50s/60s, India was still very much a former British colony at heart. Most films embraced western culture in some way or the other and emphasized the need to reform traditional Indian mores. In a film like Gunga Jumna, we have Dilip Kumar's tribalist morality being vanquished by his brother's western morality.

    Starting with Sholay, Indians seem to be no longer apologetic about their culture. The police doesn't feature in the film at all. Nor do courts or judges. It's an open embrace of the retributive justice. I am not sure if this was a good thing!

  13. i have been an avid follower of your blog for long, but lately, havent you been overanalyzing Indian films?

  14. Delhibelle: no. Under-analysing if anything.

  15. One query, Jai-was Sholay the debut film of Amzad Khan?

  16. @Shrikanth: Haven't watched Sholay for a long time so this is a placeholder comment until I re-look up scenes. a)I remember the reform message as being quite strong in Sholay and not as you say redolent of "traditional Indian tribalism and the righteousness of retributive justice!". In the context of a traditional village culture it was quite radical not only to raise the question of widow remarriage but also have the father-in-law take the initiative (can't quite do away with the patriarchy in that the woman can't take up the issue herself but it did at least introduce the possibility of a new lease on life). I still remember Sanjeev Kumar saying something like "samaj biraadari to logon ko akelepan se bachaney ke liye banaye gaye hain, akelepan mein dhakeleney ke liye nahin." A rebuttal of the caste restrictions and done in a way to which the average rural Indian could relate.
    The other point about retribution in Sholay is a bit blurred in my memory. In one version I recall the Keystone cops arriving and telling Sanjeev Kumar that he needs to stop kicking Gabbar to death as ultimately the right to inflict penalty belongs to "Kanoon" (i.e. the law, the state, organized in the courts). But I seem to also remember a version (yes, I watched Sholay a lot years ago) where Sanjeev Kumar basically kicked Gabbar to death with his spiked "juttis".


  17. Sharmishtha: that Keystone cops ending was the one that was imposed on the film by the censors, who didn't want them showing a former cop taking the law into his own hands - Sippy was very unhappy about it. The original ending was the one where Gabbar was killed. It is available on some DVDs now, and is also on YouTube - I linked to it in my earlier post on Sholay.

  18. Oh, that spiked "juttis" was very funny. Sanjeev Kumar at 100 kgs jumping to hit Gabbar, who is standing just so that he can get killed! Funny part.

  19. . a)I remember the reform message as being quite strong in Sholay and not as you say redolent of "traditional Indian tribalism and the righteousness of retributive justice!". In the context of a traditional village culture it was quite radical not only to raise the question of widow remarriage but also have the father-in-law take the initiative

    Sharmishta : I just watched the version on the internet where the Thakur basically kicks Amjad Khan around like a football and kills him. And doesn't get punished for it!

    Regarding widow re-marriage : To me that's not such a dominant theme in the film. It's more about AB romancing his real-life wife Jaya Bhaduri on the screen than about widow remarriage!

    Even when the police does feature in the film, they get lampooned what with Asrani and his "angrezon ke zamaane ka jailor".

    Such an attitude would've been unthinkable in most 50s/60s films in my view. In most of those films I see a very strong progressive message. Which has been missing in Indian cinema since the mid 70s. It's almost as though by the time the mid 70s arrived, India had shed the colonial hangover. And the new generation with fainter memories of the Raj was asserting - "Hey. We have done enough introspection. We are comfortable with ourselves and our culture. There is nothing we need to learn from the rest of the world. Hum to waise hi hain". And this attitude hasn't left Bollywood since the mid-70s.

    Also in the 40s-50s-60s, the assertion of Punjabiyat is very muted in Hindi cinema despite Punjabis dominating Bollywood. You find Punjabi heroes like Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar and even Raj Kapoor playing constipated western gentlemen in one film after another speaking chaste Hindustani with a bit of broken English reminiscent of Eton and Harrow thrown in. They behave the way Cary Grant or Fred McMurray would behave.

    Things changed drastically in the 70s. The heroes grew more Indian in their manners and moral outlook.

  20. And this attitude hasn't left Bollywood since the mid-70s.

    Just a clarification. When I made this comment I was referring to the most mainstream strain of Hindi cinema. Not off-beat films.

  21. Pessimist Fool: minus the arms, it would be more like 90 kg - but then Hari-bhai always had so much "ham" on him, if you know what I mean. Poor Gabbar.

  22. @ Jai - I think you meant "meat" by "ham". Or, did you mean "overacting"? :). Both work well in the sentence :)

  23. No, I meant ham - both meanings.

  24. @ Jai - Yeah, I could guess. I remember reading one long discussion in comment section of one of your blogs, where you were saying Sanjeev Kumar used to overact but gets so much credit for being a "natural" actor.

  25. Yes, I actually try to avoid saying anything about him because I'm so clearly prejudiced, why should anyone take me seriously? Not that I'm saying he was always bad or mediocre - I've certainly liked him in some films (including Sholay, and Angoor, and Koshish). But I think his reputation as the Serious Actor (and a counterpoint to the "big stars") is greatly inflated.

  26. @ Jai - The other day I read an old interview of Rakhi. She mentioned the same thing that Hari-Bhai had theatre training and had an over the top way of acting. Good directors could get him to act in a bit understated way.

    I think if a number of dialogues of a certain actor get caricaturised over the years, it shows that he/she was hamming, in a way. That certainly is true in case of Sanjeev Kumar. Interestingly, Amitabh Bachchan's performances of 70s are still not caricaturised. Certainly, that's not true of his performances in 80s. This perhaps shows that AB's performances have aged well.

  27. I think if a number of dialogues of a certain actor get caricaturised over the years, it shows that he/she was hamming, in a way

    Probably not the right way to look at it. You get caricaturized and imitated/mimicked if it is easy to do so. That's all.

    In Hollywood I see that people like Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney get mimicked a lot because of their very distinctive style. That doesn't mean they were hamming. They're among the greatest actors to have ever lived.

    In contrast it is very hard to mimic or caricaturize an Ashok Kumar or a Gary Cooper. One cannot use this to rate actors. No correlation.

  28. One cannot use this to rate actors. No correlation.

    True. There are actors who use certain trademark mannerisms very well, and with discernment, within the broader framework of exploring a character - and there are other actors who use familiar mannerisms and tics as lazy substitution for acting, or as shortcuts.

    Cagney is a super example of a great actor with very distinctive mannerisms. Here is something Orson Welles said about Cagney (and about hamming generally) in his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich. Had been intending to use this in another write-up, but may as well put it here for now:

    "Hamming is faking. It’s opening a bag of tricks instead of turning on the juice. The right actor – the true movie actor – can never be too strong. What he must not be is too broad. What you’re after isn’t spread. You don’t want to smear it all over the screen like pancake batter. Big acting isn’t wide. It’s sharp, pointed, vertical. Power, real explosive power, but never the explosion [...]

    Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters, theatrical vocalizers – a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts. Cagney was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen. Force, style, truth, and control – he had everything. He pulled no punches; God, how he projected! And yet nobody could call Cagney a ham. He didn’t bother about reducing himself to fit the scale of the camera; he was much too busy doing his job. Toshiro Mifune: his movie performances would register in the back row of the Kabuki."

    (There's more where that came from, by the way - will share sometime. Welles said something about how Cagney was bigger than life but not "bigger than truth".)

  29. Yeah, I agree, there seems to be no correlation. Liked Orson Welles's comments

  30. As an aside I was watching Vinay Pathak in Bheja Fry yesterday for the umpteenth time.

    A performance that is very much stylized and likely to be caricaturized and mimicked. Yet in my book one of the great Indian performances on the silver screen EVER. And the film itself is one of the greatest Indian movies of the past 30 years in my book. A masterpiece. A work of art.

    There you go. One cannot rate an actor based on how difficult he is to mimic.