From the Sholay history…
(got this off a forum… it’s very lengthy but worth its weight in gold.. a history as fabled as the film..)
Nothing in Indian popular culture has matched this magic. Critics might argue that ‘Mother India’ or ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ were better films, and trade pundits might point out that in 1994 ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ broke ‘Sholay’s box-office record. But none of these films can rival ‘Sholay’ in the scale and longevity of its success. ‘Sholay’ was a watershed event. 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.’
‘Sholay’ grew from paper into plans, and it gained weight and size and ambition.The Sippy’s wanted to make ‘Sholay’ the biggest and the best adventure film ever, and they would make no compromises. The traditional 35mm format, they felt, wouldn’t do justice to their vision. They were aiming for epic grandeur. So a decision was made: ‘Sholay’ would be India’s first 70mm film with stereophonic sound. The 70mm film format offered double the size. The major Hollywood action movies at the time, such as ‘Mckenna’s Gold’, were shot in this format because it gave the viewer, quite literally, a big movie experience. But the decision to do ‘Sholay’ in this format added another layer of compliations. Shooting in 70mm wasn’t easy. It required huge camera’s which could take 70mm film. Importing the camera’s was an expensive proposition. The most practical solution was to shoot on 35mm and then blow it up for 70mm. The format was screen-tested. Divecha suggested putting aground glass in front of the camera lens, on which Kamlakar Rao, a young but technically skilled cameraman, made markings so the margins of the 70mm frame could be identified. Ramesh’s brother Ajit, who lived in London, forwarded the test to Paris, where a 70mm print was made. The print came back with further instructions on how to perfect the technique. A 70mm film also required bigger screens, and most theatres in India weren’t equipped for it. Then Sippy’s decided to have two sets of negatives, one in 70mm and the other one in 35mm. In practical terms, this meant that every shot would have to be done twice. Each decision added to the cost.
Amjad Khan filled the doorway. He was not a particularly large man, but his lumbering gait, thickset face and curly hair gave him the appearance of one. Director Ramesh Sippy was lying on the diwan with his back to the door. From the low angle, Amjad loomed larger. Something clicked. ‘He had an interesting face,’ says Ramesh. ‘I felt very positive.’ Panic had set in after Danny’s departure. Shooting was less than a month away. And Gabbar Singh was no ordinary character. It was a pivotal role. The actor had to have both talent and charisma to hold his own against the galaxy of stars. Bad casting could destroy the film. Amjad was the younger son of character artiste Jayant. His home production, Patthar ke Sanam,which was supposed to launch him, was announced but never made. He had assisted K Asif in Love and God and also done a bit role in the film. The credentials were hardly impressive. But in theatre Amjad had a strong reputation. A few days after Danny left, Salim bumped into Amjad. Salim knew Amjad’s father, and had been visiting their home since Amjad was a little boy. A polite conversation ensued in which Salim asked Amjad about work. There wasn’t much, just bit roles and theatre.
Salim had heard about Amjad’s skills as an actor, and physically he seemed to fit the role. ‘I can’t promise you anything,’ he told Amjad, ‘but there is a role in a big film. ‘ll take you to the director. Agar aap ko yeh role mil jaaye, aap ki koshish se yea aapki kismat se (If you get this role, whether by luck or effort),I tell you, it is the finest role in this film.’ Amjad seemed to fit the part, but he was unknown. Could he carry the film? He was asked to grow a beard and come back. Meanwhile, Ramesh and Salim-Javed pondered. Salim-Javed were convinced that Amjad was the right choice.
A screen test was done. They shot pictures in the office garden. Amjad had grown a beard and blackened his teeth. His diction was right, his language was perfect. He was confirmed for the role. Amjad hurried ecstatically to hospital to break the news to wife Shaila. The date was 20 September 1973. His son Shadaab was born that afternoon. Amjad prepared for Gabbar. Normal life took a back seat; this was clearly the best role fo his career. Amjad devoured Abhishapth Chambal, a book on the Chambal dacoits written by Jaya Bhaduri’s father, Taroon Coomar. He marked out the pages on the real-life Gabbar, insisting that his wife Shaila read it too. He rehearsed his lines and fleshed out his character. He remembered a dhobi from his childhood days who used to call out to his wife: ‘Arre o Shanti.’ The lilt in Gabbar’s ‘Arre o Sambha’ came from his dhobi.
Amjad was enthusiastic but insecure, and badgered his wife constantly: ‘Do you think I’ll be able to do it?’ ‘Of course,’ she would say, ‘you’re a good actor. I’ve seen all your plays.’ ‘But this is a different ball game’ ‘So what? You’ve been part of ‘Love and God’… your father is an actor…’ ‘All that dosn’t matter. Do you think I’ll be able to do this?’
The morning Amjad was to leave for Bangalore, he put the Quran on his head and prayed. Shaila was surprised. Amjad was a spiritual person but he rarely prayed. As abruptly as he had started, he stopped. He placed the holy book back in its place, said, ‘I think I’ll be able to do it,’ and drove to the airport. The flight didn’t reach Bangalore. There was a hydraulic failure, and the pilot was forced to keep circling over Mumbai. After dumping fuel for hours, the plane landed back in Mumbai. Amjad sat at the airport but didn’t call home. After five hours, it was announced that the technical faults had been fixed and the plane was ready to take-off. Not many passengers had the stomach to get on that plane again Amjad was among the four or five who finally flew on it. He had to reach Bangalore. Through the flight, he wasn’t thinking about his wife or his one month-old son. His only terror was: ‘If this plane crashes, Danny gets Gabbar’ (the first choice for the role but lost out to date commitments).
Gabbar Singh was not having a good day. It was Amjad’s first day of shooting. They were starting with the scene in which he is introduced. His first line was, ‘Kitne aadmi the?’ All his life had led to this moment. The years of theatre rehearsals, knocking on doors for acting jobs, sweating it out as an assistant — the Gabbar role had made all that seem worthwhile. His army fatigues, picked up from Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar, had the right weathered look. His teeth were blackened. His face was appropriately grimy. He had lived the part for the last few months. But now, when it was time to deliver, he just could not get it right. Gabbar had to mince tambaku (tobacco) as he talked. The motion of one hand grinding against another added to his menace. It was supposed to be his habit. But Amjad could not make it look casual. He would grind the tobacco, speak a few lines, look around awkwardly and then return to grinding. He was nervous and it showed; his hands were stiff, his movements seemed rehearsed, and his dialogue delivery was shaky. There was nothing natural about his performances; Gabbar was a stranger to Amjad.
Ramesh kept talking to him, trying to help him get his lines right. They struggled for two days. After forty-odd takes, both Ramesh and cameraman Dwarka Divecha decided the actor needed a break. Divecha told Amjad to keep his costume on and just sit on the sets. ‘Tu apne aap ko season kar de (Season yourself).’ Amjad cried that night. His father was in hospital fighting cancer. His son was only a month old. His family’s hopes were pinned on this film. For the rest of the schedule, Amjad lived in the fatigues, trying to become Gabbar. He wrote often to his wife, but never shared with her the extent of his trauma. All he wrote was: ‘I’m very impatient… I don’t know… I hope I can do it.’ Since he didn’t drink, he would spend the evenings nursing endless cups of tea. Through the entire schedule, he didn’t do a single shot.
In the next schedule, Amjad was more prepared. He got it right in the first few takes. He was living his character, and would stay in costume even when he was not shooting. But some members of the unit, unable to forget his earlier awkwardness, didn’t seem to think this was enough. Besides, Amjad was the only new face in a sea of superstars and slowly talk started in the unit that perhaps Ramesh had made a mistake. The murmurs grew, till it became impossible even for Salim and Javed, who had been the most keen to have Amjad as Gabbar, to ignore them. Anxious, perhaps, to not be seen as people responsible for ruining the film, they spoke to Ramesh. ‘If you aren’t satisfied with Amjad, change him,’ they said. For a few days the unit was rocked by rumours that Amjad was getting the boot. But Ramesh finally put his foot down. Only Amjad would play Gabbar.
Amjad found out about the rumours much later. But the incident sowed the seeds of misunderstanding between him and Salim-Javed. He could not understand why two people, who had ardently recommended him for the role, had then tried to get him thrown out. He saw it as a move to sabotage his career. The hurt stayed with him till his death. Salim-Javed gave birth to the Amjad myth, but they never worked with him again.
The ‘Sholay’ unit had a ten – to fifteen-day schedule in Bangalore every month, from October 1973 to May 1974. Each time they managed to get some work done, but not enough. The delays were further compounded because 70mm required that each shot had to be taken twice. After seven months work, hardly one-third of the film had been shot. ‘Sholay’ had been planned as a six-month project. Nobody imagined that eventually it would take so long that Macmohan, playing Sambha, one of the smallest roles in the film, would travel twenty-seven times from Mumbai to Bangalore.
Ramesh retained his famous cool. He had a grand vision of ‘Sholay’ and wasn’t going to let delays force him to make compromises. As the budget soared beyond the original one crore, G.P Sippy did make the occasional noise. ‘What the hell is going on?’ he would ask. But he never pulled the plug. He was a gambler going for the big one. The funds kept flowing.
Yet, despite all the planning, things started to go wrong. The first schedule was ten days long, but very little work got done. Some days they managed to get ten shots right, and on others, none at all. In the November schedule, Ramesh completed only one scene. The No compromise resolve was set in stone. Ramesh and Divecha were like painters trying to perfect their canvas, with G.P. Sippy, a patron of the arts, bankrolling their dreams, budget and timetables took a backseat.
‘Sholay’s centerpiece – the massacre sequence in which Gabbar obliterates the Thakur’s family – was shot in twenty-three days over three schedules. It was a complicated scene with several parts: establishing the family, Gabbar’s arrival, the shootings, and then the Thakur’s arrival on the scene after Gabbar and his men have slaughtered his family and retreated. Half the scene had been shot when the weather changed and the bright sun was replaced by an overcast sky. For two days, the unit waited for the sun to reappear. Then Ramesh realized that the dark clouds were a celestial signal: the overcast look was perfect for the scene. It underlined the tragedy and heightened the sense of doom. It also logically led to the point where the wind starts to build up and dry leaves are blown over the dead bodies. He conferred with Divecha. ‘It won’t just look good,’ Divecha said, ‘it will look very good. But what will we do if the sun comes out tomorrow?’ Ramesh was willing to take he chance. ‘Let’s shoot,’ he said.
They shot furiously for the next two days. And then the sun popped out again. After a week of work, they had two versions of the same half scene, one against a bright sky and the other against an overcast one. But Ramesh was determined. It was going to be clouds or nothing. So they waited for the gods to do the lighting. With the sun playing hide and seek, there were days when they managed to get only one shot and some when they simply stared at the skies. Filming came to a complete halt. To speed up the process, Divecha asked Anwar to make a screen to bounce the light off. The screen had to be bigger than the house. Anwar ended up buying all the white cloth in the vicinity to create a seventy-foot-by- hundred-foot screen. He stitched it himself with strong canvas thread. With the huge screen in place, shooting was resumed, but there were shots for which the effect created by the screen wasn’t good enough. The gods had to intervene and bring back the clouds. But it wasn’t just the clouds. Nothing seemed to go right. As they neared the end of the sequence, the little boy playing Thakur’s grandson, Master Alankar, had exams. He would lose an academic year if he didn’t sit for them. Ramesh let him go. Then the propeller, which worked up an appropriate wind to blow dry leaves onto the dead bodies, decided to do its own thing. It wouldn’t start when they needed it to. And once started, it would just keep going. Finally, an aeronautics unit near Bangalore built another propeller. It worked perfectly. The wind blew yellow-brown leaves onto the bodies and the white shroud off them, Thakur mounted his horse in a raging fury, ready to look for Gabbar.
Almost as time-consuming were the sequences of Radha extinguishing the lamps while Jai played his harmonica and watched. These sequences establish the gradual, wordless bonding between the widow and the thief – the sympathy and admiration slowly turning into love. Capturing the right mood was critical. These were two sequences, only about a minute each in the final film, and it took twenty days to shoot them. Ramesh and Divecha decided to do the scenes in ‘magic hour’, a cinema term for the time between sunset and night. The light that falls during magic hour is dreamlike in its warm golden hue. The director and cinemtograher wanted specifically the velvety dusk which arrives at the tail end of the golden hue. A shadowy darkness precedes nightfall, but it is still light enough to show the surrounding silhouettes. Essentially, they had only a few minutes to capture the shot. The preparations for the shot would begin after lunch. The lights and the camera set-up would be in place well before time. At around five in the evening they would rehearse the shot and the camera movements.Then between six and six-thirty as the sun started to set, there was total pandemonium. Everyone ran around shouting, trying to get the shot before darkness. sometimes they would get one shot, sometimes two and very rarely with great difficulty, a third re-take. But there was never any time to change the set-up. Ramesh wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfection. Invariably there was always some mess-up. The sun set earlier than expected, a light man made a mistake, the trolly movement wasn’t right, some object was lying where it shouldn’t have been. There were times when Jaya lost her cool: ‘Ramesh, no one can see me,’ she would say. ‘It’s a long shot, no viewer on the planet is going to be able to see the mistakes in continuity.’ The answer always was: ‘No, no, one more take.’ Ramesh dressed each frame. The Lady-of-the-lamps shot became a kind of a joke. It took several schedules to get it right.
In fact, in terms of time taken, each sequence seemed to compete with the next. Ahmed, the blind Imam’s son (played by Sachin), for instance, took seventeen days to die. It was a long and complicated sequence, and originally it also included the actual act of killing: meat is roasting in the foreground; Gabbar points a red-hot skewer at the boy and with a gleeful look tells his gang, ‘Isko to bahut tadpa tadpa ke maroonga.’ But this never made it to the final cut. Instead, the scene cuts from Gabbar killing an ant to Ahmed’s horse carrying his dead body into the village.
THE SONG: YEH DOSTI:
The songs were as hard to execute as the scenes. They took several days over many schedules and involved hundreds of dancers, special camera devices, a tanga and even a train. As usual, Ramesh pulled out all stops. ‘Yeh Dosti was a twenty-one-day endeavor. The song establishes the friendship between Veeru and Jai. Its easy camaraderie is the foundation of the film. The cheer of the happy version perfectly offsets the dirge-like version at Jai’s death. It was decided that a motorcycle with a sidecar would capture the spirit of the male-bonding anthem. But to shoot the entire song from a moving vehicle was static and limiting. So they built a special contraption, which would enable the crew to use different kinds of camera movements. The contraption allowed for varied camera angles. Divecha could start on a tight close-up of one character, pull back, move around to include both and then turn almost 180 degrees to the other side. Shots like these would make the audience feel that they were traveling with Veeru and Jai. But they weren’t easy to get. First the bike would be fitted onto the contraption, and then the whole paraphernalia would move along with the camera and tracks and a low trolley moving up and down. Coordinating the elements – reflectors, sun-guns, speakers – needed minute organization and the patience of a priest. There were frequent mechanical faults: the towing hook would come off, or the pulling vehicle would get so heated up that it woudn’t start. None of which stopped Ramesh and choreographer P.L Raj from planning even more intricate moves. ‘Yeh Dosti’, they decided, would end with the sidecar breaking away, doing a short solo run and then coming together with the motorcycle again. It was a neat gimmick. If only they could make it work. The sidecar had to be pulled away from the motorcycle without making the pulling obvious. And then there was the toughest part: the two had to reunite after separating on the fork on the road. They attached the sidecar to the camera on a trolley and rehearsed the shot with Amitabh, who was riding the motorcycle. It all depended on his sense of timing, because he was on a moving vehicle while the camera was on a fixed trolley. Amitabh would have to time it to perfection – start at the right moment, and accelerate or slow down according to the movement of the camera. Amazingly, he brought in the motorcycle for a smooth, perfect docking on the very first take. It was a miracle. The unit broke into a spontaneous applause and even the normally reticent Ramesh jumped off the camera stand and hugged Amitabh.
The hardest part was the editing for the final cut. Ramesh spent hours sitting at the editing table with his editor, Madhav Rao Shinde, affectionately called Dada. Shinde had a gargantuan task. Salim-Javed’s script was brilliant, and so many of the cuts were suggested by the script itself, but the film was simply too long. Ramesh had exposed over 300,000 feet of negative. It had to be whittled down to less than 20,000 feet. Shinde had edited all of Ramesh’s films and by now had an instinctive feel for what Ramesh wanted. But he had never had so much material to work with.
Entire sequences ended up on the Film Center Floor. Among the best that didn’t make it was a comedy sequence that preceded the Soorma Bhopali section. Maruti, a popular comedian of the day, played a dhaba owner in it. Veeru and Jai eat at the dhaba, gargle and spit vigorously, and have a fight with Maruti when he objects to their doing quli in his premises. Mushtaq Merchant playing an eccentric Parsi gentleman had a scene in which Veeru and Jai steal his motorcycle. He was reduced to a figure ebbing into the horizon just before the ‘Yeh Dosti’ song.
Saachin’s death scene was also cut. Shinde kept the brutal lines of dialogue out, slicing from Gabbar killing an ant to the horse carrying Ahmed’s dead body into the village. The edit fit with the overall tone of the film, in which violence is more often suggested than seen. The audience never sees Thakur’s arms being hacked off. Like the cut from Gabbar raising the sword to an armless Thakur, Ahmed’s unseen death had far greater impact. ‘Sholay’ was finally ready in July 1975. Two and a half years labour lay spooled in tins. Looking at the film, Ramesh thought he had turned the curve, that the hardest part was behind him. He did not know that the battle had just begun. Gabbar dies in ‘Sholay’ Or at least does in the original ‘Sholay’ that Ramesh had shot, Salim-Javed had written. The Thakur kills Gabbar with his feet, wearing shoes that the servant Ramlal has fashioned with nails fitted in the soles. The armless Thakur first crushes Gabbar’s arms. Then they stand face to face, two armless warriors, two equals. And then the Thakur pounds Gabbar to death as if he were a venomous snake; he does not stop till the dacoit is a bloody mess under his shoes. Then he breaks down and cries. He weeps long and hard: his life’s mission is complete, but all he feels is a vast emptiness. It is a a pyrrhic victory. Revenge begets loss.
The Central Board of Film Censors hated this ending. The board objected to the suggestion that a police officer – even one who was no longer in service – would take the law into his own hands and commit a murder. They also objected to the film’s balletic violence. It wasn’t graphic, but it was so finely choreographed that it had far greater impact than actual gore. The audience wouldn’t see Thakur’s arms being chopped off, but the visual cut from Gabbar raising the sword to the Thakur standing with his empty shirt sleeves flapping in the wind was unforgettable. Ramesh had made violence aesthetic and attractive. If passed, ‘Sholay’ would open the floodgates for lesser filmmakers. There would be cuts in ‘Sholay.’ But first, the Sippy’s would have to change the end.
Ramesh was incensed. It was almost as though he was being penalized for being talented. Every nuance in the film had been carefully considered and crafted. Not a frame was superfluous. The board wasn’t just asking for cuts, it was asking for a totally different conclusion – an ending that would have the police intervening at the crucial moment to prevent the Thakur from killing Gabbar. It seemed like a parody of what had been done in a hundred other films. It had none of the bleakness or tragedy of the original. With a conclusion so feeble, ‘Sholay’ would no longer be Ramesh’s vision. It would become another film altogether.
In the resolutely repressive environment of the Emergency, fundamental rights did not exist. Neither did artistic freedom. Compromise wasn’t a choice, it was the only option. But Ramesh was adamant. He hadn’t toiled for two years to cop out now. He wasn’t going to change the end. Ramesh tried to reason with the members of the Board, pointing out to them the flaws in their own argument. But the Board would not budge. Increasingly frustrated, Ramesh did something most uncharacteristic of him – he raised his voice.
The Sippy’s called on every connection they had. G.P Sippy was a resourceful man with considerable clout. He worked the phone for hours, arranging high-powered meetings. Anyone who might have influenced the Board got a call. Father and son also had bitter rows. Ramesh argued as an artist who was watching his work being mauled, and G.P as a realist who knew that compromise was inevitable. At one point, Ramesh even considered taking his name off the film. But eventually the producer prevailed. G.P explained ground reality to Ramesh: If they were stubborn, the film woudn’t get released. Being a lawer himself, he knew better than anyone else the futility of going to court. In an Emergency they had no rights. And at the of end three years of production, they had very little money. They couldn’t afford to take the higher ground.
The release date had been fixed for 15 August 1975. As was the practice then, Ploydor had released the music two months earlier. In a extraordinary display of comfidence, they had released 30,000 records, double the usual film launch. They had also offered the dealers a special scheme. At the end of the year, dealers could traditionally return 7.5 per cent of the goods that they had not managed to sell. Polydor told the dealers: Take as many records of ‘Sholay’ as you want, but return the unsold ones before the film’s release. After the release, if the music ran and dealers wanted records they would have to pay more. Any delay in release would adversely affect Polydor’s business. There really was no option; Ramesh would have to re-shoot the end.
It was a Herculean task. It was already July 20. Within the following week the ending would have to be re-shot and re-dubbed, the background music redone and remixed in London, and the film printed for release. The cast was hastily summoned. Sanjeev Kumar was attending a film festival in the Soviet Union. He flew to India immediately. For two days, the cast and crew assenbled in Ramanagaram. It seemed like old times again. They were back amidst the giant boulders, in the harsh sunlight, all commited as before to the ambitious project that had brought them together.
With the cuts implemented and the new ending inserted, the Board of Film Censors was satisfied, and the final 70mm prints were then made in London. The negative for the 35mm was brought back to Mumbai and printed at Film Centre. And so ‘Sholay’ was ready for release-a weaker version of ‘Sholay’, with a new, lesser ending.
Somewhere in the world, rumoured to be impossible to trace now, a few prints survive of the original, untouched film, with all its final bleakness intact. Occasionally, videotapes and dvds of the original film surface, copied from copies of copies. Those who have seen these nth-generation copies say that despite the fuzziness and the bad sound, the Thakur’s hopeless weeping is chilling, and it becomes clear to the viewer that all the visceral of power and violance lead inevitably to this agony, this loss. In those long-ago days of the seventies, this was the moral vision that Ramesh Sippy and Salim-Javed tried to bring to the Indian viewer. Due to the wisdom of our censors, what we got instead was an easy pabulum about the virtues of following the law, and a film that least in part had an aesthetic clumsiness forced into it.
‘Sholay’ flopped. The critics were harsh, the performance at the box-office was mixed, and the industry, waiting for the smallest hint to knock the mega project of the brash young director, was merciless. For the first time since Salim-Javed narrated the four-line idea two and half years ago, Ramesh panicked. The weeks leading up to the release had been a blur. Ramesh was bug-eyed from lack of sleep. The climax re-shot and re-mix had increased the birth pangs ten-fold. Prints and negatives were flying between Mumbai and London. There was no time to savour the finished product. Meanwhile the hype had assumed a life of its own. The trade could talk of little else. Every day there was a new rumour: the film was being offered an ‘Adults only’ certificate; the censor board wanted further cuts; the 70mm prints were not ready, so the Sippy’s postponing the release date… and on and on. A column in ‘Trade Guide’, the industry trade magazine, wrote: ‘Wherever we went, we heard nothing but ‘Sholay’… sometimes we also thought we would get allergic to it. Everyone wanted to see nothing but ‘Sholay.’ Many people in the industry preffered to discuss ‘Sholay’ to their own film.
Minerva, on Mumbai’s Lamington Road, had been selected as ‘Sholay’s main theatre. Minerva was known by its tag line: ‘The pride of Maharashtra.’ It was the only theatre at the time with a screen big enough for 70mm and six-track sound, and with 1500 seats it was also the largest cinema in the country. The theatre was dressed up like a bride for the release. Outside stood 30-foot cutouts of the star cast: Dharmendra, Amitabh, Sanjeev, Hema, Jaya and, of course, Amjad Khan. Inside were rows of photographs from the film, and garlands of flowers.
The premiere night was a glittering affair. On 14 August, two premieres were held simultaneously, one at Minerva and one at Excelsior. For the cast and crew, it felt like life had come full circle. It was pouring outside, just as it had been on the first day of the shoot, and Jaya was glowing again – this time pregnant with Abhishek. The industry’s top names, all spiffed up and shiny, walked into Minerva to see what the fuss was about. But there was a problem – the 70mm print hadn’t arrived yet. It was still stuck at the customs.
The 70mm saga was a plot worthy of Salim-Javed. A senior bureaucrat in the finance ministry had declared war on the Sippy’s. Since a large part of the post-production work was done in London, several permissions were sought. The bureaucrat felt he hadn’t been given adequate importance and was still simmering. He decided to use every ploy to throw ‘Sholay’off track.
When the unit went to London, he wrote to the Indian High Commission there to keep close tabs on them. The Commission obliged. When the 70mm print came out, Ramesh decided to have a screening for friends and family. It was fixed for 10 one morning at the Odeon at Marble Arch. Ramesh also rang up the High Commissioner. ‘But how,’ said a senior secretary at the commission, ‘can you have a screening? You don’t have permission for that. Your contract says materials must go straight from Technicolour to India.’ Then suddenly the secretary changed track: ‘Okay, we’ll come.’ Ramesh had an intuition that all wasn’t well and at the last minute cancelled the screening. It was fortunate. Because at exactly 9:50, people from the High Commission turned up to seize the print. Orders were sent out to stall the Sippy’s at every level. When Ramesh landed in Mumbai, he was stripped searched. When even that didn’t produce anything, the bureaucrat simply told the custom officials not to clear the print. On the morning of 14 August the prints were still lying in tins at the customs.
G.P Sippy, never a man to take a beating lying down, went into action. He organized a high-level meeting. Attending on G.P’s terrace were Rajni Patel, a noted lawer and a close confidant of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and V.C Shukla, minister for Information and Broadcasting, who was also the chief guest at the premiere. Shukla simply called Delhi and blasted into the bureaucrat: ‘What are you trying to do? Tell them to release the prints now.’ The bureaucrat, taken aback by the reach of the Sippy’s, mumbled a quick ‘Yes sir.’ But he managed to delay the prints by a few more hours. By the evening they still hadn’t reached the theatre, so ‘Sholay’s premiere audience saw a 35mm print.
Through the screening; there was little reaction. The audience seemed unmoved. There was no laughter, no tears, no applause. Just silence. ‘It was very scary,’ recalls Geeta (Sippy). In the stalls sat Prakash Mehra, who had once been one of the contenders for the four-line story. ‘Maine yeh kahani kyun cchod di? he asked himself aloud. After the film, as the audience streamed out of the hall, Pancham, who had been sitting next to Mehra, whispered to him: ‘Log to gaaliyan de rahen hain.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ Prakash replied, ‘this film is a hit. No one can stop it.’
The morning-after-the premiere grapevine dripped poison. The film was dubbed ‘Chholey’, and the main cast, ‘Teen maharathi aur ek chooha (Three warriors and a mouse)’. Everything was wrong with the film. Why would women and family audiences want to see so much gore? The friendship was in such bad taste. Amjad had no presence, and no voice… ‘Hindustaniyon ko aisi picturein nahin achhi lagti hain (Indians don’t like films like this),’ pronounced a prominent industry figure. The critics agreed. Taking off on the title of the film, K.L Amladi writing in ‘India Today’ called it a ‘dead ember’. Thematically, its a gravely flawed attempt,’ he wrote. Filmfare’s Bikram Singh wrote: ‘The major trouble 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.’ The trade magazines weren’t gushing either. ‘The classes and families will find no reason for a repeat show,’ said ‘Film Information.’
‘Trade Guide’ called it a milestone but qualified the praise with a negative comparison with ‘Deewar’ Now it was upto the audience. On 15 August 1975, ‘Sholay’ was released in the Bombay territory with forty prints.
Dispite the notorious Mumbai ki barish which was coming sown in torrents, the crowds turned up; in fact, many people had started queuing up outside the theatres the night before the advance booking had opened. The demand for the tickets was so high that in some theatres the managers just put the phone off the hook. Looking at the advance, trade pundits were predicting that the film would cross a business of eleven lakh rupees in its first week.
The buoyancy was balanced by the legions of cynics. After the premiere, the critics and indusrywalas had already given their verdict, and their had been more brickbats than bouquets. Even the black marketeers- those most knowledgeable of critics – were a little apprehensive about the film. Sure, it was the Midas touch of the Sippy’s and Salim-Javed, and yes, the film had an impressive starcast, but the story sounded strange: Sanjeev was playing a handicapped man and Jaya a silent widow, and there was some new villain who wasn’t in the mould of the suave smugglers of the day like Ajit and Pran.
The Sippy’s only hope was that the audience would prove them all wrong. There was no reaction. On Friday, 15 August, the first day of ‘Sholay’s release, Ramesh drove from one theatre to another to assess the reaction of the audience. As on the premiere night, there was only silence. Over the weekend, panic set in. The theatres were full but the reports were mixed. Pundits were now predicting disaster. No one told Ramesh that, but he could see it in their faces of all those he met. Every one wore that peculiar expression of pity and awkwardness. They met him like he was a man in mourning.
The Sippys moved into damage-control mode. On the weekend, a hurried meeting was convened at Amitabh’s house. G.P Sippy, Ramesh and Amitabh put their heads together to try and come up with solutions. Since there was no fear of piracy at the time, the release of the film in the major territories was being staggered. They could make substantial alterations before ‘Sholay’ hit the rest of the country. One suggestion was re-shooting the end again. Amitabh, post’Zanjeer’ and ‘Deewar’, was too big a star to die. Jai was just a petty thief, he hadn’t done anything to deserve death. Perhaps an ending in which the two couples walk into the sunset would salvage the film. Salim-Javed were vehement that the film shouldn’t be touched. Ramesh considered the suggestion for a new ending, but not for long. His head said he should do it but his heart wouldn’t allow it. He went with his heart A happy end would compromise his film even further. It was important that the audience leave the theatre with a feeling that something had been left unfinished. That slight ache in the heart was part of the film’s appeal. Not a frame would be touched. He would swim or sink with the film.
As the week wore on the anxiety of the crew turned into depression. On Monday morning, when the second week advance booking opened, there were modest queues outside Minerva and Excelsior where the 70mm prints were showing. At other theatres, hardly two or three people stood for tickets. In most of the suburban theatres, matinee shows had less than fifty per cent collections. For Ramesh, this was confirmation that all was lost. He was devastated. That evening he walked into Film Center, where more prints were being made, and told Anwar, ‘Printing band kar do. Abhi kuchh samajh main nahin aa raha hai (Stop the printing. I don’t understand what’s going on.)’ At home the unflappable demeanour cracked. It was the first time in his remarkable career that he was facing a flop. ‘I think I’ve failed,’ he told Geeta.
At the Sippy house the tension was palpable. G.P Sippy stood rock-steady and characteristically optimistic. He was sure that the film would turn around. But at the back of his mind sat unpleasant thoughts: The film had gone way over budget and creditors had to be paid back. They might never be able to make another film again. This was one gamble that could put them back years. There were even rumours that the Sippys were packing up and leaving the country. One week later, on 22 August 1975, ‘Sholay’ was released in Bangalore in six theatres. Suresh Malhotra, the distributer, organized a grand premiere. The entire main cast and crew flew in for the night. Suresh loved ‘Sholay’. When interviewed by ‘Film Information’ in July, he had predicted that the film would do a business of one crore. But it didn’t look like the business would bear his claim. Even before the first week was over, collections took a dip in Bangalore.
But the worst affected was Amjad. As negative feedback filtered in, Amjad became more and more silent. The normally effusive and volatile man retreated into a shell. His house was enveloped in gloom. An equally disheartened Asrani visited him in the first week. Asrani had been shooting at the nearby Mehboob Studio with Aruna Irani and she had suggested dropping in at Amjad’s. ‘Maine dam laga diya, ab nahi chali. kya kar sakte hain (I gave it all I had, but it hasn’t worked. There’s nothing to be done now),’ Amjad told them mournfully. ‘Lekin aapki taareef to bhut ho rahi hai (But theres great things being said about your performance),’ Asrani countered. Praise was little consolation. ‘What’s the use, yaar?’ Amjad replied, fighting back tears. ‘Salim-Javed have told Ramesh that my voice ruined the picture. Sorry folks, I’ve missed the bus.’
In all the sound and fury, Salim-Javed stood firm. ‘Nothing doing,’ they said to re-shooting proposals. ‘This film will run.’ It was the cockiness of youth and the confidence of a job well done. The following week, the two put an advertisement in the trade papers. The ad said, ‘Salim-Javed predict that ‘Sholay’ will be a grosser of rupees one crore in each major territory of India.’ The trade predicted that going by the response, the Sippys would be lucky if ‘Sholay’ managed forty lakh per territory.
Salim-Javed were wrong. As it turned out, one crore was a conservative estimate. Mid-week, a curious thing happened: there was little advance booking, but the theatre’s were full. The proprietor at Geeta cinema in Worli told Ramesh, ‘Don’t worry, your film is a hit.’ It was the first time Ramesh had heard the word used in connection with his film. ‘How can you say that?’ he asked. ‘Because the sales of my soft drinks and ice-creams are going down,’ the man replied. ‘By the interval the audience are so stunned that they are not coming out of the theatre.’.
Finally Ramesh understood why there was no reaction. People were overawed by what they were seeing. They needed time. Now, clearly ‘Sholay’ had found its audience. Word of mouth spread like a juicy rumour. The visuals were epic and the sound was a miracle; when Veeru threw the coin in the climax, people in the 70mm theatres dove under their seats to see where it had fallen. By the third week, audiences were repeating dialogues. It meant that at least some were coming in to see the film for a second time. Polydor noticed this and was quick to act. Record sales weren’t good and the music company was in a panic. Even though people came out of the theatres with smiles on their faces, they didn’t buy the music. The music men were bewildered. What was the problem here? Some key managers were dispatched to the theatres to see the film with the audience. They realized that the reaction to the dialogue was extraordinary. Obviously ‘Sholay’s visuals and dialogue were so overpowering that the music barely registered. If Polydor wanted to sell more records, it would have to give the audience what they remembered when they left the theatre: the dialogue. The strategy succeeded. Polydor couldn’t keep up with the demand as records flew off the shelves.
The tide had turned. ‘Sholay’ was beginning to prove all doomsayers wrong. As the film caught on, tickets became priceless. The lines at Minerva stretched a few kilometres, from the theatre to the nearby Tardeo bridge. The bus stop outside was renamed ‘Sholay’ stop’. The Minerva manager, Sushil Mehra, could barely keep up with the demand. He stayed at the booking window from 8 a.m to 8 p.m and finally just moved his family into a two-room apartment at the theatre; going home seemed pointless.
The Sippys stopped listening to the trade. As the collections mounted, it became obvious that they were looking at something big. In September, Ramesh left for London to take his much-deserved holiday. But every week the collections were given to him over the phone. Ten weeks after its release the film was declared a super hit, and on 11 October 1975 ‘Sholay’ already a blockbuster, was released in the territories of Delhi, U.P, Bengal, the Central Provinces and Hyderabad to a record-breaking box office.
Several months later, Asrani ran into Amjad. Both had been invited to inaugurate a studio in Gujarat. On the flight, Asrani laughed: ‘Haan ji, did you miss the bus?’ Amjad broke into a broad grin. The studio was about forty kilometres away from the airport. While driving there, Amjad’s son felt thirsty, and they stopped at a small roadside stall. It was a ramshackle place selling cold drinks, biscuits and cigarettes. There was no other building or even a hut to be seen for miles. As they entered the shop, a voice crackled on a rickety gramophone:
‘Kitne aadmi the?’
Gabbar Singh’s dialogue boomed through the shop. The stall owner served the group drinks but did not recognize the star. For a minute, Amjad stood absolutely still. His eyes squinted in recognition of his own voice. Then, listening to his voice playing in a shanty on a dusty, deserted road in the middle of nowhere, Amjad Khan sat down and cried.
FACTS ON SHOLAY 1975
1. Released on 15 Augast 1975.
2. Real Bullets were used for the close up action scenes.
3. Amitabh was almost killed at the end of the movie when a stray bullet from dharmendra missed him by inches.
4. First scene shot for the movie was Amitabh returning the keys to the safe to Jaya.
5. There are two sets of negatives, one in 70mm and one in 35mm as every shot/scene was done twice.
6. The last shot done in the village was Jai’s death scene.
7. Basanti’s chase sequence was shot over twelve days.
8. Jim Allen,Gerry Cramton,Romo Commoro,John Gant…some of the foreign technicians who worked on the action sequences.
9. The train sequence took seven weeks to shoot.
10. The last scene shot for Sholay was the Thakur meets Veeru and Jai outside the jail and offers them the job.
11. Sholay took nearly two and half years to complete (450 shifts)
12. Amjad’s voice was nearly dubbed as there were whispers it not being strong enough for a villain.
13. The background music took a whole month to complete.
14. Sholay’s Budget was close to three crores.
15. Jaya was pregnant during the shooting of the film with Shweta Bachchan.
16. Jaya was glowing again during the premiere of Sholay…this time with Abhishek Bachchan.
17. Sholay’s premiere audience saw a 35mm print as the 70mm one was stuck at customs.
18. Sholay was released in Bombay with 40 prints.
19. Saachin was a veteran film actor with 60 films behind him from 1962…. but A.K Hangal was a newcomer to films.
20. Amjad’s first scene shot was his introduction scene …..his first lines “Kitne Aadmi The”?