I’m on the record as not liking Westerns, and yet I keep writing about them. Johnny Guitar. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Cat Ballou. I did choose these films partially because having to write about them would force me to expand my horizons, but I chose to write about this film because it’s a classic of Indian cinema. Imagine my surprise when from the very first shot of a train rolling into a station followed by men getting on horseback to traverse widescreen landscapes to a jaunty tune, I could tell that Sholay was a motherfucking Western. A Dacoit (“bandit”) Western to be exact, a Curry Western to be less exact but more fun. And by the time the credits rolled — hell, by the time the Intermission card dropped — I could not understand why the hell this film doesn’t come up all the time in discussions of Westerns as much as the traditional American and Spaghetti Westerns. Well, sure, racism, but also…it’s 3 hours and 24 minutes long. Even Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t hit the three-hour mark. And neither would Sholay if it weren’t a musical with 25 minutes of song-and-dance. I can understand why the daunting runtime might put people off, but Sholay fucking rules, and one of the ways it rules is how expertly it uses its five major musical sequences.
Sholay introduces its (anti)heroes, Veeru and Jai, through a thrilling train robbery, but it’s “Yeh Dosti” that cements their relationship. Ex-cop Thakur Baldev Singh explains that he needs these two to protect his village from a fearsome bandit because they may be bad, but there’s a good side to them, and, lo, the musical sequence opens with them stealing a motorcycle to get to where they need to for the plot (bad) but then immediately revealing themselves as goofy, fun-loving bros (good). Watching these two transition from petty crime to physical comedy reminded me of the opening of West Side Story, portraying the Jets as tough guys before smoothly transitioning into those same tough guys dancing ballet. “Yeh Dosti” is the ultimate bromance song with all the emotion of a love song; hell, they sang about how people think of them as two but they are really one decades before the Spice Girls did. As a nod to heteronormativity, though, the sequence also features Veeru and Jai hitting on the same woman, setting the stage for their romance plots later in the film. While the song establishes the bond between them, it also functions as foreshadowing: I heard them sing about being friends for life and immediately realized one of them was going to die because I have seen movies before. Then again, they also sing, “We live together, we die together,” so that was on the table too. Either way, Westerns tend to involve death, so I had a bad feeling about the good feeling this song was giving me.
The next musical sequence waits almost an hour: this movie does not feel the need for regular musical interludes because songs are deployed with purpose. The song begins right after the introduction of the villain, Gabbar Singh, in a dark, horrifying scene that shows just how ruthless this man is. After coldly executing three henchmen and maniacally laughing, this man who’s been terrorizing the village casually asks, “When is Holi?” And we smash-cut to this holiday celebration already in progress, as “Holi Ke Din” bursts onto the screen with dazzling color. This joyous celebration is a welcome respite after the previous scene, a chance to come down and revel. It’s also a chance for Veeru to romance Basanti as they sing about how hearts are in full bloom and even enemies embrace on Holi. That’s the whole theme of the song, with colors blending with other colors as a symbol of togetherness. This, right after we meet the embodiment of evil! Is this perhaps foreshadowing a reconciliation between the villagers and the bandits halfway through the film? Nope! Because the way this revelry ends is BOOM, the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire, and here’s Gabbar Singh himself come to attack the village. In an American Western, the villain would ask about a holiday and then attack, or maybe it would cut to a celebration for a few minutes before the attack to achieve the same effect, but using a song creates a bounded space that more effectively lulls the audience into a false sense of security. Sandwiching this good-vibes song between two of the tensest sequences in the film makes them both pop even more.
So after one of the greatest character-related reveals I’ve ever seen, we head into INTERMISSION, and not long after we come back, we’re treated to “Mehbooba Mehbooba,” which, let’s face it, is the most gratuitous song in the film. Hell, it’s just a guest singer and a guest dancer performing a generic love song for Gabbar Singh, and after Sholay used the first two songs so well, you might think, what the hell, movie, you are better than this. But give Ramesh Sippy more credit than that because he knows this song is meaningless. That’s not the point of the scene. The point of the scene is Veeru and Jai infiltrating Singh’s camp, and we see a few cuts of them sneakily planting explosives, but only a few. Sippy focuses on the singer and dancer’s performance and, more importantly, the fact that Singh is utterly transfixed, unaware of what’s going on in the periphery. Were this scene in a traditional Western, the sequence would place the focus on the main characters, and thus we wouldn’t get the wonderful ending where composer R.D. Burman brilliantly increases the tempo of the song as the singer sings more and more passionately about his love, but the crescendo he builds to is an explosion — yes, again, look, it worked the first time, okay — followed by a brief shootout. Sippy prepares the audience for this song-to-violence sequence, but the abrupt transition still comes as a shock.
A big chunk of the second half focuses on Veeru and Basanti’s romance, and it’s not long after the generic love song before they get “Koi Haseena,” a specific love song, and naturally, it’s about how much he annoys her and how she’s playing hard to get. It’s standard rom-com dynamics, but what’s especially clever here is the staging, with her riding away from him in her horse-cart and him pursuing her on a bicycle, and although she playfully rebuffs him during this, their official courtship, she allows him into the coach by the end. When was the last time we saw two people singing while riding in the same vehicle? As if it weren’t clear enough that “Yeh Dosti” was a love song in disguise, using the same vehicular metaphor brings the meaning home.
So really, they’re all love songs, aren’t they? And as we near the climax of the film, we get the final love song, and, folks, it’s a fucking astounding scene, so incredible I considered making this entire post about just this song, but to properly describe it involves some spoilers, so I didn’t want to risk alienating and/or spoiling my potential readership. Instead, just a single paragraph I will struggle to write without crying because this is the most sadistically tense musical sequence I have ever seen. Remember how I said while watching “Yeh Dosti,” I was positive one of them was going to die? Well, Gabbar Singh, a remorseless killer if there ever was one — motherfucker kills children and doesn’t give a shit — captures Veeru and Basanti, ties him to a pole, and commands one of his men to train his rifle on him. Then he tells Basanti that as long as she dances, he will live, but the instant her feet stop moving, he dies. Honestly, it feels like the entire reason this movie is a musical is to make this scene work because what a fucking premise, right? Basanti sings “Haa Jab Tak Hai Jaan” even though singing wasn’t part of the agreement because she needs Veeru to hear her words, that as long as she lives, she will dance for him. She will speak, she will suffer, she will bear the pain! It’s an incredible expression of the depth of her love for him, and that love keeps being tested as we can see her struggle under the hot sun, the camera pointing upward to induce multiple lens flares. At one point, the bandits throw glass bottles at her feet, and she hesitates. Singh waits to see what she does, as does Veeru, whose life hangs in the balance, but she dances on the fucking glass because Basanti, like this movie, rules. At another point, the heat from the sun becomes too much and she can’t go on, but then she hears the rifle cock and finds the will to keep going. The song’s only six minutes but feels like an eternity in the best way possible. Finally, however, she collapses at Veeru’s feet, as all songs must come to an end. We know Singh is not a man who shows mercy, and we know what will happen next. Two songs in this movie end with a BOOM, but this one ends with a BANG.
Bollywood films have a reputation for all being long-ass musicals, and indeed, many do have song-and-dance numbers that basically bring the narrative to a halt, but Sholay shows how you can use the musical tradition in a serious Western. Songs can be bangers on a soundtrack, listened to completely out of context, but they can also be used incredibly effectively in the film itself to advance the plot, deepen our understanding of the characters, and generate tension. Could you make Sholay without songs? Possibly. Just give Veeru and Jai some bro dialogue about how they’ll be together forever, just show a Holi celebration, just focus on Veeru and Jai as they plant some explosives, just follow Veeru and Basanti on a silly date, just let Basanti dance without singing. Sure. You could do it. But why would you want to?