Sholay, a cult classic about revenge and redemption, was initially set to have its key characters of Jai-Veeru and Thakur from Army background and a different ending, says director Ramesh Sippy, who never imagined the phenomenon his film would become upon its release 45 years ago. After making “Andaz” and “Seeta Aur Geeta”, Sippy wanted to switch to action genre and make a film similar to Hollywood Westerns.
And as luck would have it, celebrated writer duo Salim Khan- Javed Akhtar narrated him “Sholay”, which had been with Manmohan Desai and “probably Prakash Mehra” but could not take off.
Sippy said when the story came to him he stayed true to its original idea of two guys on the run and their involvement in helping Thakur to avenge the murder of his family by a dreaded dacoit terrorising his village.
“The colour and characters came into existence later but the basic storyline was in place. Except that the two guys (Jai and Veeru) were from the Army and Sanjeev Kumar’s role of Thakur was of an Army officer, who was changed to a cop,” Sippy told PTI.
"The basic idea was about two young guys (Jai and Veeru) on the run, their love for adventure and how they get involved in this emotional story of Thakur.
All the character came into place one-by-one. It took a life of its own as we discussed and moved further in the script," he added.
The journey of creating "Sholay", including scripting and casting, took a little over two years. The shoot started from October 3, 1973 and the film hit the theatres on August 15, 1975.
The director said they knew that they had a good film in their hands.
"We felt that we were making a damn good film but certainly not that 45 years later we would be talking about it. Everyone put their best foot forward. But we didn't expect this much (love and following). It has become a phenomenon,” he said.
“Sholay” was also one of those rare stories, where the character of the villain Gabbar Singh was one of the biggest highlights, even during the casting process.
Sippy said lead stars of the film Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and Kumar all were vying to play the role and were willing to give up on their hero image, but he had found his Gabbar in Amjad Khan, who was roped in after Danny Denzongpa had quit due to his commitment to Feroz Khan’s film “Dharmatma”.
It was Salim-Javed who suggested Khan’s name for the role.
"I remember seeing a play of him (Khan), in which my sister was there, he was very impressive on stage,” Sippy recalled.
“His face, built, personality, voice everything felt right. We told him to grow beard, got him in the costume, took pictures and he just felt right as a rough-and-tough guy," he added, revealing that Khan prepared for the part by reading “Abhishapth Chambal”, a book on Chambal dacoits.
Making “Sholay” was a long and arduous journey but it was worth it for the director.
"It was a difficult and trying (shoot). Almost 500 days of shoot and we didn't have the convenience of VFX and all the technology that has developed today. We did whatever best we could do. It was a struggle," he said.
Casting of other characters is an equally interesting tale. Sippy said after working with stars like Dharamendra, Kumar and Hema Malini in "Seeta Aur Geeta”, he was keen on working with the trio in "Sholay".
While, Dharmendra was interested in playing the role of Thakur (played by Kumar) when Sippy informed he would have to then give up the role of Veeru, who is paired opposite Basanti (Malini), Dharmendra decided to not miss the chance as he was wooing her at that time.
"I wouldn't go into their private lives. Dharam ji was fascinated by the villain's role but then he said maybe (he would like to play) Thakur as the whole story is of Thakur but then I told him he won't get Hema Malini. He laughed and said ok (to play Veeru)," Sippy revealed.
Bachchan’s name was also recommended by Salim-Javed and Sippy, who had seen the then rising actor’s work in "Anand" and "Bombay to Goa", thought he had a good screen presence.
"I was worried about taking another star as we had Dharam ji, Hema ji, Sanjeev Kumar ji and Jaya Bhaduri. We needed a good actor. There were suggestions about Shatrughan Sinha. I was skeptical of having so many stars and handling so many egos.
“It is another thing that when we started shooting Mr Bachchan became a star. His popularity grew with release of 'Zanjeer' and 'Deewar'," he added.
Sippy is proud that even after 45 years the "litte characters" from "Sholay" including the jailor (Asrani), Kaalia (Viju Khote), Sambha (Mac Mohan), Soorma Bhopali (Jagdeep), Rahim Chacha (A K Hangal) and Mausi (Leela Mishra) are loved.
"All these characters are important to the film…They were all outstanding characters, which were so well received because of the actors who played the parts so effortlessly,” he added.
Sippy said the film took time to be made primarily because he wanted each shot to be “perfect”.
"The the train sequence in the beginning of the film with Jai, Veeru and Thakur, took seven weeks to shoot.
Today, a whole film is complete in seven weeks.
“We wanted the best. And to get each shot, to organise it and shoot with train, horses, people, guns and ammunition going off, getting actors ready and everyone else, it was a very difficult shot," he said.
According to the director, every sequence took about 20 days or more to shoot, the visuals on motor bike with a sidecar in the song – “Yeh dosti” took 21 days to film, but he thoroughly loved the process.
The 73-year-old filmmaker said he was inspired by Japenese director Akira Kurosawa’s "Seven Samurai" (1954) and American film director John Sturges’ "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) - both revolving around saving a village from bandits besides Hindi movies "Khote Sikkay" (1974), "Mera Gaon Mera Desh" (1971) and "Ganga Jamuna" (1961).
When Sippy’s "Sholay" hit theatres on 15 August 1975, it received poor press, with some branding it "dead embers" others "a greatly flawed attempt".
The commercial success, however, is another story.
Sippy said the film had good advance booking, but it was heart breaking to read negative reviews, which the team thought would damage the film’s commercial possibilities.
“But the audience never reacted like that, they liked the film.We saw there was repeat audience as they were repeating the dialogues. I was told (by theatre guys) that people would not leave their seats to buy cold drinks and popcorn," the director added.
Sippy considers “Sholay” his "greatest achievement".
"I always try to do good work but this has been appreciated the most. You can never plan all this. I am humbled by the cult status of the film,” he said.
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