Ian Kennedy writes: In this series of articles, I’m exploring some reasons we should take Bollywood cinema more seriously – it’s definitely not for everyone, but I for one find it a refreshing way to enjoy movies on different terms to the normal Hollywood mindset. Here, I’ll be looking at the biggest classic of the Bollywood system, SHOLAY (1975), to show why it’s got something distinctive to offer English-speaking audiences.
SHOLAY’s scriptwriting works differently to Hollywood classics and as a script analyst and producer I find that refreshing. On my editors’ suggestions, the film and its songs also found a place in several episodes of the drama series I used to write for, so I had a personal connection to it long before I saw the movie, which made it even more enjoyable to finally see it years later.
This is the overriding classic of Bollywood cinema – the name translates to ‘Flames’. This is actually a Western, set in India in the early 20th Century. That idea might feel off to you – but it works and it’s a refreshing, satisfying experience. The film is three and a half hours long – huge running times are typical with Bollywood, so (REASON FIVE to take Bollywood more seriously – if you missed our first article click here!) you never leave short-changed and at the cinema you can often expect an interval at the midpoint scene after an important turning point. Taking Hollywood Western tropes (during the Spaghetti Western era) but adding a charming Indian twist, SHOLAY follows two lovable rogues who agree to defend a village from a notorious bandit, and has a strong mix of action, comedy, musical, and romance.
To me – and probably the modern Hollywood audience – the pacing feels a bit slow at times, but the story is both warm and gritty, and the action and interactions hit the mark, and the clever ending does carry a satisfying emotional punch as well as an enjoyable take on the obligatory Western shoot-out. If I’m honest, the action sequences in Bollywood movies aren’t as convincing as Hollywood ones usually pretend to be – but compare those in SHOLAY against Hollywood’s classics from the previous era and you’ll find parity.
So reason SIX: Bollywood takes the genres and tropes you’re familiar with, and always adds a loveable Indian twist to them. If you – or your parents – love ‘the way movies used to be’ and moan that modern Hollywood movies have gone off the rails – you’ll find the styles and genres of eras gone can come to life again in Bollywood hands. There’s a happy nostalgia to be found in the way that Bollywood tells stories and refreshes the genres we used to love. Maybe there’s a Bollywood movie that your mother will REALLY love! On which note…
REASON SEVEN: Bollywood films aren’t afraid to tug at your heartstrings, or show their soft side. They don’t mind doing it guilelessly and even shamelessly. But you know what? There is a genuine warm heart behind these movies – one that believes in the warmth and goodness of human beings.
So REASON EIGHT – Bollywood movies are genuinely life-affirming. Life in India can be tough enough: people there can live vicariously through big movie characters and the lives of the stars playing them. The cult of celebrity is, if anything, even bigger in India than the US.
So REASON NINE – Bollywood films are still great escapism, in a way that Hollywood films – because of taking themselves more seriously – sometimes struggle to be nowadays.
Case in point: BHAJRANGI BAIJAN (2015). There is something extraordinary about this beautifully-shot, sweet-natured story – the first Bollywood film I actually saw. It turned out to be a remarkable true story – by accident, AFTER it had already broken previous box-office records. The film – and screenwriting in Bollywood more generally – both owe a lot to SHOLAY.
Not only did the success of SHOLAY enable its screenwriters to get credited and better paid, for the first time – setting a key precedent – but one of its co-writers, Salim Khan, is also the father of BHAJRANGI BHAIJAN star Salman Khan, whose evergreen career spans more than 30 years already. Salman Khan is also a lifelong workout buddy of Sanjay Dutt who we talked about in Part One of this series. Everything’s interconnected in Bollywood!
Next time: Ian explores BHAJRANGI BAIJAN, and the career of Bollywood star Salman Khan, and how Bollywood even helps keep the world from war!
In case you missed it check out: Reasons to take Bollywood more seriously – Part One!