Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Sholay - The Making of a Classic

Sholay – The Making of a Classic

By Anupama Chopra

When Sholay was released in 1975 it initially looked like it was going to die a tragic painful death. The critics dumped on it with apparent glee as a big bloated disaster and audience numbers began to dwindle almost immediately as they sat through showings in total silence. The director and actors were shocked and dismayed at its reception as they thought they had made a classic film. Well, they had in fact and soon the tide began to turn like a tidal wave in the public’s reaction to the film as houses began to fill and everybody began talking about this new film that set new standards for Bollywood movies on so many levels. Within weeks people were quoting lines from the film (a record with the dialogue was a huge seller) and even the actors in small roles who barely register the first time through became cult icons and were swarmed by fans of the film everywhere. The film was to run for five years and it set a box office record that held up for almost twenty years until Hum Aapke Hain Kaun came out.

By any measurement it is the most popular and enduring film in Indian history and one that has fanatical adherents that will come close to violence if you disagree with the merits of the film. There is no comparable film in Hollywood in terms of its place in the hearts and minds of Indian film fans – maybe if you combined Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and Citizen Kane – but even that would likely fall short. To understand the impact of the film now one has to set themselves back in the 1970’s when most Indian films were romances with languid leading men and the few action scenes tended to be poorly shot and cheaply made. Sholay changed all of that – an enormous amount of money was poured into the project and action choreographers were hired from the U.S.A. to shoot and plan the fights – and most importantly the film didn’t really revolve around romance at all (though it still has its place in the film) but instead around two roguish crooks, an honorable Thakur and a villain who was to become the most despised (and thus loved) bad guy in Indian film. It is the relationships between these four that drive the film and made it feel so fresh and exciting to fans.

Personally, I had avoided the film until I finally bought this book and thought it would be silly to read it without having seen the film. I felt that there were just too many expectations placed on the film that it couldn’t possibly live up to and a few non-Indian friends who had seen it had shrugged it off with a basic “it’s ok but it’s all been done before” – and so this made me reluctant to take on this film as I suspected that I would feel the same. After seeing it, I would to some degree say that both camps are right – it had been done before and made no new strides in cinema if you take Hollywood into account – and yet it is very effective in what it does and is a terrific film in many ways. The writers, Salim-Javed, would be the first to admit that they were tremendously influenced by other films – in particular the Hollywood western (Sholay is often termed a “Curry Western”) where it is easy to spot the impact of films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Magnificent Seven” on their thinking. They wanted to make a western, but within the Indian context and in the modern age. And it works.

There are certainly sections that just don’t play well any more (at least to me) – a couple comic bits that feel horribly stale (in particular a Charley Chaplinesque Hitler jailer that was painful to get through), but even these parts were very popular at the time. Another weakness is the pacing of the film that allows the tension to dissipate at times as our two heroes seem to forget what they were hired to do and lackadaisically wander about the small village totally unprepared for an attack. Even the action scenes are basically forgettable now – solidly made for sure but in truth nothing we hadn’t seen in dozens of westerns. What makes the film still work today are two relationships that are timeless in their power and sentiment. The wonderful chemistry and friendship of Veeru and Jai is one of the best portrayals of male bonding that I have seen on film – and this from a veteran of loads of Hong Kong male bonding films! Early in the film this is picturized and the mood set for their amiable and loyal friendship in the wonderful song “Yeh Dosti” as they travel along on a two-car motorcycle. The other relationship that takes a hold of you is a nearly unspoken one between Jai and the widow Radha that is practically nothing but a series of far away looks but they burn.

In case you haven’t seen the film, here is a very short summary. A Thakur, (Sanjeev Kumar) who was once a police officer, hires two small time crooks to capture a vicious dacoit (Amjed Khan) and his gang. The police have been unsuccessful in doing so and the Thakur feels these two men (who he knows to be tough and somewhat honorable from past experience) can do the job. They flip a coin and when heads comes up they accept. The gang has a terrifying hold on a small town in a barren desolate area – and Jai (Amitabh) and Veeru (Dharmendra) begin to put up some resistance to them. They also find time to fall in love – Jai with Radha (Jaya Bhaduri) and Veeru with the village chatterbox Basanti (Hema Malini). Mixed in are of course some great songs from R.D. Burman and a dance from Helen. If you haven’t seen the film you should – and then read this book from Anupama Chopra.

Anupama is the wife of filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and she takes a very uncritical but highly enjoyable look at what took place behind the scenes to make Sholay work. It is a terrific read as she first explores the gestation period – two young not very well known writers named Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar came to Ramesh Sippy with an idea for a movie in four sentences. He liked the idea enough to ask them to write a script around it and soon he decided to take this film and make it a landmark in Indian film with enormous resources around it and the best talent in the industry.

Once the script was complete, they had to find the right actors to play the parts. Though he was much younger than his character everyone thought Sanjeev was perfect as the righteous Thakur looking for revenge and justice. Dharmendra was on a film roll at the time and was easily picked as the outgoing and jovial Veeru, but the choice to play Jai was a tough one. Ramesh was tempted by this tall brooding actor named Amitabh Bachchan, but most people in the industry warned him not to as Bachchan was considered box office poison after numerous flops – but Ramesh went with his instinct and took him on. Of course, by the time Sholay even began filming Amitabh had become a huge star with the release of Zanjeer. The two female roles were comparatively small, but Ramesh still wanted stars in them – and he persuaded both Hema and Jaya to accept them. The final major piece was the dacoit Gabbar Singh, who many felt was the most interesting character in the film with the best dialogue. Ramesh didn’t want to fall back on the usual actors who played villains and took on Danny Dengzongpa who had become a villain star in the recent Dhund. But the film took so long to get started that it began to conflict with another film Danny had accepted and he had to drop out – and with filming about to begin they looked around in panic for someone to step in – and finally chose a totally untested actor who was known on the stage but hardly at all in film – Amjad Khan – and his portrayal of Gabbar made him both a star and the bogeyman that mothers used to scare their children to sleep at night.

The filming ran into enormous logistic problems and expenses went way beyond budget and the film took a few years to shoot with numerous interruptions as stars went off to shoot other films – but Ramesh had a vision that he refused to budge from. The author writes of personal things as well – the married Dharmendra began to fall in love with Hema who reciprocated - but the pressure made him begin to drink and he would often show up at his shootings more than a little tipsy (later on in fact Dharmendra took her as his second wife). Right before shooting began Amitabh married Jaya and not long after she was pregnant - and shooting had to be delayed as she was looking too plump for her widow’s role. The most pressure was on Amjad to make this a role of a lifetime work and at first he could not make a go of it – and some such as Salim-Javed pushed for him to be replaced and then later for him to be dubbed with an actor with a stronger voice – but Ramesh stuck with him. In the end Ramesh made the film he wanted – though he was crushed when the Censors forced him to change and re-shoot the ending to a much less powerful one. He continued to make films of course but nothing ever came close to the success of Sholay.

The book is a breezy and affectionate read and one highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Foxy Ladies and three more

Over the past couple of days I have been nursing a strained knee ligament by lying about like an over ripe mango taking naps and watching movies and old Perry Mason episodes. It was finally time I thought to get to some of the racier Shaw Brothers films that I had picked up ages ago for days like this in which my brain was on official hold. It certainly helped with the naps.

It always feels more than a bit incongruous when the majestic Shaw Brother’s logo appears on the screen accompanied by the heralding trumpet blare only to be followed by scenes of frolicking women in the nude, but that was often the case beginning in the early 1970’s. Rules regarding on screen female nudity were eased considerably soon after the turn of the decade and the Shaw Brother’s happily jumped into the melee with a number of productions that were marketed as “mature content”. Interestingly, in Japan a similar trend was taking place with the growing popularity of the “pinku” genre, but the adult genre in Hong Kong never approached that of Japan’s in either imagination or excess and for the most part was very mild in comparison (even though full frontal nudity was allowed while in Japan it was not).

Many of Hong Kong’s films that fell into this category were puerile comedies or bland moral lessons and only a few had the hard edged gritty realism (i.e. “Kiss of Death”, “The Sexy Killer”) or simple audacity (i.e. “Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan”, “The Bamboo House of Dolls”) that has allowed them to withstand the test of time. Thirty years later most of these films seem hopelessly out of date with a shock and titillation value that is negligible. At the time though they were very popular and helped keep the Shaw Brothers afloat for a number of years. The films were not underground fare by any means and many of the actresses who dared to bare their assets became very popular starlets and the films sometimes had top directors such as Chor Yuen and Li Han Hsiang at the helm, but unfortunately most often it seems that Lu Chi was running the show. A popular actor in the 1960’s who was often teamed up with Connie Chan, he switched over to directing and made a boatload of adult films during the 1970’s into the early 80’s. Obviously, these must have made money but I can’t for the life of me understand why. He is in love with odd camera angles, has no sense of narrative and perhaps most damning makes sex and nudity seem boring, silly and claustrophobic.

Below are short reviews of four so called “adult” films that in truth range from ones with oodles of nudity to others that may have been intentionally titled to make one think so but are extremely sparing in this regards. As bad as one expects these to be, it’s still hard to resist films with idiotic titles like “Sexy Playgirls”, Sexy Career Girls”, “Sugar Daddies” and “The Foxy Ladies”! Sadly, three of the four turned out to be directed by Lu Chi and I believe all of these are available only on VCD which indicates that they aren’t selling too well – for good reasons.

Sugar Daddies

Sexy Playboys

The Foxy Ladies

Sexy Career Girls

Friday, August 04, 2006

Link to Review on Korean Films at NYAFF

Here is a nice write-up on four of the Korean films we showed at the New York Asian Film Festival.