Mumbai: Think “Sholay” and you are thinking Jai-Veeru, Thakur or Gabbar Singh. The fact we often tend to gloss over is that a major reason why Ramesh Sippy’s all-time blockbuster has continued to grow in the collective consciousness of Indian movie buffs over the decades is also the assortment of minor characters in the story.
When Salim-Javed wrote Viju Khote’s Kaalia, Macmohan’s Sambha, Jagdeep’s Soorma Bhopali, Asrani’s Angrezon ke zamaane ke jailer, Keshto Mukherjee’s Hariram nai, AK Hangal’s Rahim chacha or Leela Mishra’s Basanti ki mausi, these would have been essential props essential to carry the story forward, and to create relief in the plot through humour, drama or sorrow. Yet, over time, each of these characters have not only become as endearing as the film’s protagonists, they have also virtually come to be the calling cards of the actors that portrayed them.
Take Kaalia, for instance, essayed by Viju Khote — the affable Marathi veteran who passed away owing to multiple organ failure on Monday at the age of 77. Khote’s profile as an actor would seem accomplished enough even without ‘Sholay”. He was a scion of an accomplished family of artistes — his elder sister Shubha Khote is an actress, their father Nandu Khote was a star of the stage and the silent movie era. Nandu Khote’s sister-in-law was the acclaimed actress Durga Khote. Over a career spanning half a century, Khote had made his mark in Hindi films, as well as the worlds of Marathi stage and screen. In Bollywood, his popular line “Galti se mistake ho gaya” as the scheming butler Robert in the 1993 cult slapstick “Andaaz Apna Apna” continues to be popular even today, as does his role in the popular nineties sitcom, “Zabaan Sambhalke”.
Yet, every talk of Viju Khote will primarily always begin and end with mention of Kaalia, one of Gabbar Singh’s chief cronies whose total footage in “Sholay” an extended sequence that comprises raiding the village with two other dacoits, being bashed up driven away by Jai and Veeru, and then being mocked and finally killed as punishment by Gabbar.
In between, before he is shot with panache by Amjad Khan as Gabbar, Khote as Kaalia gets to mouth the one line that would become his signature for life: “Sardaar, humne aapka namak khaya hai.” To which, before firing from his gun, Gabbar quips: “Ab goli kha!”
Essentially, you realise a basic fact looking at characters as Kaalia, Saambha or Soorma Bhopali: Long before it would become a trend anywhere in the world, Salim-Javed were cashing in on the idea of comicbook cinema. And to create a comicbook impact, you need a lot of characters that lend to animated action and drama.
Ramesh Sippy’s film was positioned as a curry western, a genre that did not have any notable precedence in Bollywood till before August 15, 1975, when ‘Sholay” released. Like the Hollywood westerns of Sergio Leone before its time or Clint Eastwood, who was carrying on strongly with the genre around the time, Sippy had crafted a foolproof drama package primarily driven by the machismo of gunslinguing men on horses. The violence, high by Bollywood standards back then, had to be balanced out with lighter moments of love and humour.
The heroes would take care of the love factor himself — since romance has traditionally been in sync with the idea of machismo. The smaller characters were needed to justify a comicbook punch of humour. Since the heroes, as well as the villain of the piece, were part of a heavy text of vengeance, the sidekicks were essential to generate the occasional diversion of comedy.
Back in the seventies, minor characters inserted in a screenplay for comic relief was a commonplace idea in mainstream films. “Sholay” stands out among the numerous other films that lucratively tried the formula because its minor characters were exceptionally imagined. They were realistic in essence, yet comicbook in flavour. They were unlike any others seen on the Hindi screen — filling up the frames around the core characters, keeping the narrative busy in between the heavy drama.
Minor characters as Kaali and Sambha had another significance. They wer used to define the bigger characters.
Kaalia’s existence in ‘Sholay”, in this context, is also meant to define an important aspect of the film’s villain, apart from rendering quirky dark humour. We understand Gabbar Singh’s ruthlessness — which exists to the point of being deranged. Shortly after he has whiled away his time playing a cruel little game with an ant and a glass, Gabbar relishes in an ominous exchange of dialogues with Kaalia that amply suggests things coming up for the sidekick might not be all pleasant. The consequence Gabbar then reserves for Kaalia and the two other failed dacoits is meant to tell us that Gabbar does not tolerate failure.
Kaalia serves to generate a particular mood in the film — one of quietly sinister dark comedy — as we get to know Gabbar in that scene.
This mix of plot progession and mood generation is apparent in the way other minor characters have been used, too. Think of Macmohan’s Sambha. Gabbar asks him to remind the gang how much government prize money rides on him. “Poore pacchas hajaar,” Sambha dutifully informs.
In itself, that dialogue would seem lame — a routine sentence devoid of any drama whatsoever. Yet, when Sambha, seated on his lone watch atop a hillock, delivers it, the line crisply and effectlively underlines the menace of Gabbar Singh as a criminal in society.
The one-sentence footage that Kaalia or Sambha get have thematic importance. That is the reason why they will continue to resonate, as long as “Sholay” does.
Some minor characters exist solely to regale. Think Leela Mishra as Basanti ki Mausi. She shines in the one major convesation she gets, with Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai, when the latter goes to her with a marriage proposal for Hema Malini’s Basanti, on behalf of his buddy Veeru (Dharmendra).
Similar is the importance of , Keshto Mukerjee as Hariram nai, the barber-inmate who is known to be the inhouse spy of the jailer, essayed by Asrani, who in tunr brings out the hilarious essence of a warden driven by pre-Independence diktats.
The utility of Jagdeep’s tall-talking Soorma Bhopali is also to create comic relief, while AK Hangal’s Raheem chacha is the only character whose duty is to create tearjerker melodrama.
These are all characters whose popularity has only grown with time. There is a quiet magic that binds all the characters of “Sholay” into a cohesive whole, as each of them — big or small — harmonises the overall impact of every other.
That is what screen chemistry is all about.