Friday, January 10, 2014

Re-Reading Sholay as a Possibility of People’s Revolution

(Yeh haath mujhe de de thakur...nahinn...One pivotal scene from Sholay)

In 3D, the cult film, ‘Sholay’ (1975) feel like a ‘travel through a hologram postcard’. In digital manipulation, iconic figures become a bit lesser than their demi-god status. The crowd that has come to see the movie again in 2014, exactly after forty years of its making, is comprised of the generation of people who had grown up Sholay and the youngest ones like four year olds who have seen the film’s promo in television channels and have fallen instantly in love with the characters, especially ‘Gabbar Singh’, the dacoit who has been immortalized by the legendary actor, late Amjad Khan. ‘.. ke yahan se pachas pachas kos door gaon mein jab baccha rota hai toy Maa kehti hai..beta soja ..soja nahi toh Gabbar Singh aa jayega.. ’ (When kids throw tantrums in village, their mother tell them, Gabbar would come). And kids go silent, says Gabbar in one of the scenes. Children (who have seen more menacing characters than Gabbar in various other movies) still cringe at the sight of Gabbar on screen. For the grownups sighting Gabbar is a moment of nostalgia. What is that in those dialogues mouthed by various characters in Sholay that make even the kids of today repeat them with glee? None tells them to do so. The dialogues get into their blood stream automatically, like the myths, fables and folktales that they listen during their bed time. There is something in those dialogues written by Salim-Javed duo that transcends the apparent and takes them beyond feeling and imagination. Sholay has become a part of our consciousness. Various film institutes both in India and abroad still discuss the script of Sholay as a part of their curriculum. Some say it is a rugged movie done in the western cowboy movie style. Some say it is a movie inspired by Seven Samurais by Akira Kurosawa. But westerns are eminently forgettable. Seven Samurais, though capture the anger and passion of hired soldiers, it falls into comical depths at times. Sholay grips the viewer by force and it remains.

Noted film critic, Anupama Chopra, in her book, Sholay- The Making of a Classic (2000), gives a detailed narrative of how this movie was made in a remote Karnataka village, where the director Ramesh Sippy had found an adequate location for the ravines in the imaginary Ramgarh where the story of Sholay unfolded. Ramgarh is not a South Indian village. It is a nowhere place somewhere in the North. The closest allusion could be of Chambal Ravines in Madhya Pradesh where the famous dacoits of our modern times lived. But Ramgarh is a nowhere place, like Marquez’ Macondo, a magical realist place where anybody could exercise their imagination within the limited but sufficient economics of the place. For a movie that deals with the fight between good and bad, and the ultimate victory of good over bad with some kind of sacrifices on good’s part, a nowhere place is not a new thing. Except for those Bollywood movies that revel in the idea of city, struggle and success, most of the Bollywood staples have nowhere places as the ‘locale’ of the narrative. But Ramgarh becomes exceptional because in the movie the presence of city is nearly ruled out or even its presence is almost co-opted. Seen in this perspective, we could say that Sholay’s success lies in the national imagination as a part of its reclamation of a dream; the dream of/about an autonomous nation state devoid of colonial incursions and the ensuing slavery.

How does this reclamation happen in Sholay? Or to put in other words, why does that reclamation become absolutely necessary for the Indian population that looks for solutions from a depleting socio-political and cultural situation? Talking about the collapse of the grand Nehruvian dream might not help us here much. After Nehru’s time, India had regained its national pride through some strategic wars in the east; liberating Bangladesh from Pakistan and checking China from further incursions. Indira Gandhi was on the move. With carefully planned political strategies, she became the Prime Minister of India. Her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, like an autocrat with extra constitutional powers was trying to make India/Delhi a beautiful place through industrialization and beautification. In this process, with the collapse of the agrarian economy people were moving from the villages to cities, looking for jobs and better opportunities. Gram Swaraj (autonomous village economy), as imagined and upto an extent practiced by Mahatma Gandhi was not delivering anymore. While cities were shown as the places of hope, therefore a destination, villages were shown as the places of utter abjection. The hope that ‘Mother India’ (1957) had given to people through a single woman’s struggle against the male dominated system, was already gone. Perhaps, people saw a mother in India Gandhi (elevation of her image from being a goongi gudiya, silent doll to an aggressive mother proves it) and for a few years they invested all the hope in her. Despite the five year plans and five and twenty point plans of Indira Gandhi villages were losing out to the cities. The exodus was already on and it still continues. But in late 1960s and early 70s, villages were still a possible alternative though the possibilities had been killed at every juncture. It is in this context Sholay takes place; definitely in a village called Ramgarh.

Prof.Vinaylal, who has extensively studied the cultural and socio-political nuances of ‘Deewar’ (1975) observes that pavement is an important metaphor in this transitional phase of demographic shifts (from villages to cities). Pavement is another nowhere place, between the sheltered and comfortable places of living and exercising of power, and the road that makes the movement of this power possible. The villagers who abandon their natural environs come to a city and settle in this in between zone. Unlike the romantic hopes expressed by Raj Kapoor in his movies, though his domain is road/pavement, these villagers do not get easy access to buildings where comfortable living and exercising of power is possible. Most of the time, for Raj Kapoor and the later heroes, the movement from pavement to power is through the agencies of state, women and crime. In Deewar, Shashi Kapoor moves to comfort and power through the state as he becomes a police officer. Amitabh Bacchan moves to power through crime. And both of them take a good look at the pavement from where they came to their present positions. In Raj Kapoor movies, the agency is often through women, as the hero is a permanent outcaste. His good nature is not accepted by the powerful society so he has to exercise his darker sides to survive in the pavement/road. Only through a compassionate agency could identify and understand the good sap that flows behind the troubled waves of his exterior behaviour. In a sense, the nowhereness of pavement becomes a possibility in most of the film narratives of the time. The only catch is either you have to become a part of the state which has pushed you out of your village (that is a grand compromise) or you have to move against the state through crime. In most of the cases, state co-opts the criminal as he is perennially good and accommodates him within the structure. If he cannot be accommodated in this way considering his past deeds to move from the pavement to power, he is easily killed in an encounter, either by mother (then the killing is justified as a godly intervention) or by brother (he protects larger interest as he is already a representative of the state) of by the state itself (through police). In Sholay, this familiar structure is broken.

If in other films of that time, the villagers were moving from villages to city, in Sholay, the city moves to a village. And the pivot of pavement is completely abandoned in its narrative. In one of the story establishing shots, what we see is a completely autonomous village; with its cobblers, farmers, blacksmiths, priests, temple, water tank, irrigation facilities, storages and so on. Everyone is completely happy in doing their allotted/inherited roles. There is no police station or school directly shown in Ramgarh, not even a hospital. I would say that it is a very deliberate erasure of the ideological state apparatuses (as Althusser sees these structures) therefore the erasure of the state. This nowhere place lies outside the larger economics of a nation state, and shows a possibility and extension of Gram swaraj. In this village, the presence of the state, if at all it is faintly there, is shown as a failed state in the image of Thakur Baldev Singh, the police officer, portrayed by Sanjeev Kumar. His hands have been cut off Gabbar Singh. That means the state has already been rendered useless here. To bring order one has to get some agencies that operates outside the state and its rules. So in Veeru and Jai (Dharmendra and Amitabh Bacchan respectively) we have two jail birds, who are taken out of the jail to wreck revenge upon Gabbar. Interestingly, here the roles are reversed. Gabbar becomes the state, which is ruthless, taxing and making unusual demands from its subjects. Gabbar exactly does what the state of 1960s and 70s was doing to its people. So, in Sholay, if at all there is a villain, that is state. So shall we see two guerrillas in Veeru and Jai as we had seen two revolutionary fighters in Fidel Castro and Che Guvera?

In retrospection, we have all the reasons to see a Fidel and Che in Veeru and Jai. Veeru is aggressive and playful like Fidel is. Jai is moody and romantic like Che. They come from the city as their clothes show. They wear denim jeans, shirt and jacket. Even the colour coding is very striking; Veeru wears dark blue and Jai wears light blue. They are the two sides of one and the same principle; revolution. The symbolism becomes all the more poignant and important when we see the coin that Jai uses to decide on things by flipping it in the air, has only head on either side. That means they are not Veeru and Jai as two different people; they are the two sides of the same person, who has decided to operate himself out of the state; Thakur. The song ‘Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge’ (we will not abandon this friendship) accentuates this symbolism further. Sholay’s revolutionary edge gives it the evergreen cultic status because people of all time including the four year olds cherish the ingrained idea of change, the revolution. And when a film shows that it does not operate from the limbo of the pavement but from the definitive space of anti-state or out of the state, their presence becomes all the more appealing. Because they are the breakers of all kinds of rules and regulations. While singing the song about friendship they wreck havoc on the pedestrians. Initially, when they come to become the foot soldiers of Thakur, they expect money in return as they do not feel any commitment towards Thakur; once again reiterating their status as people with no roots, no commitment but people who live freedom and change. But the moment they understand the scenario, they even return the money, a possible medium that connects them with the state. They are now absolutely free agencies of Thakur, who has pushed him out of the state. They become the friendly aliens in the village. When they are not on job, they just play fools.

For the time of its making and its release, Sholay is very much a revolutionary film. Veeru and Jai have Eros as their guiding spirit. Veeru falls in and out of love with any woman whom he comes across. Finally, he meets Basanti (Hema Malini), the tonga-wali in the village, then he is hooked up. But Jai says that this too is a passing fancy. Even if in the last scene of the movie, we see Basanti is waiting for Veeru to take her along with him, the very aspect that Veeru does not given any importance to the institutions of the state, including marriage, must have been a very fascinating therefore liberal and revolutionary idea for the audience of that time. This freakish character is counterbalanced by Jai’s silent romance with the widow enacted by Jaya Bhaduri (later Jaya Bacchan). He is calm and silent and he does not demand anything from the girl other than a few glances. Finally, Jai too decides to marry her though providence does not allow him to do so. Interestingly, marrying a widow by a heroic character was scandalous at that time and the rule of the land was kept intact by killing Jai in the encounter with the thugs, but still the possibility of widow marriage too looks quite revolutionary for the time. There is no running around trees, there is no singing of songs; what exists between Jai and the widow is a wailing note of harmonica that he plays. Like she puts down her passion for him, she every day enacts the ritual of turning off the lanterns.

Good finally wins over the evil. The anti-state agency kills the state and restores an autonomous village economy. Considering the time of its release, we can see that Sholay got a wonderful response from the people because it was the time of Political Emergency in India declared by Indira Gandhi. In one go, it decimates all the rules of the state and shows that the village economy and the idyllic life is possible. Sholay, in a way demands political decentralization but it also says that it can come only through tragedy. A revolution takes place through a series of tragedy and only those people who can see things in perspective from outside the system could alleviate it from all the woes. Anupama Chopra tells us that when it was released, Sholay was a big flop. The prints were pulled out of the theatres for a second cut in order to reduce the length of the movie. But within a week’s time, people started talking about Gabbar, Veeru and Jai. Basanti talked her way into the heart of the people. The viewers knew that something was happening to them while watching the movie but they did not know how to articulate it. It was not just cathartic. It was a thing to live on with. Sholay showed the possibilities outside the state and Sholay established the fact that freedom was possible.

Today, when I see it again, perhaps fifth or sixth time, I can feel how each frame made sense to people at that time. In the opening shots, when the dacoits follow the train and the shootout takes place, horses with no riders on their saddle madly run along with the train. It is one of the classic shots in the movie. The total annihilation of Thakur’s family is one sequence that has made its mark through freeze shots and abrupt cuts. Sequences and frames have international classical movies without copying any of the shots from them. Sholay is an eminently inspired movie. From Bustor Keaton to D.W.Griffit to Bergman to Kurosawa to John Ford to Chaplin to Clint Eastwood, every possible inspiration is taken into the making of Sholay. But they do not stick out from the movie. Sholay, pays tribute to the whole idea of ‘moving pictures’ by introducing the famous train shot as one of the first moving pictures in the history was about/of a train coming to the station. Interestingly, Sholay has become point of reference for so many Bollywood movies. In Karan Arjun made exactly after twenty years of Sholay, almost imitates the cult movie in story line and frame division. But still Sholay remains Sholay. To conclude, I would say, Sholay has become a cult film not just because it has the right ingredients but because it shows an alternative, a reversal of games and the possibility of a revolution. For the young generation, it is the fascination with a myth. Sholay is not just a movie but a culture.

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