Writing about the Mahabharata, the poet A.K. Ramanujan claimed that no Indian ever reads it for the first time: we encounter it through countless stories heard and overheard much before we actually encounter it as a text. If there is one Hindi film which could earn a similar reputation, it has to be Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 classic, Sholay. The film, through its myriad presences in popular culture, seems to enter our consciousness even before we have actually seen it. So we know, for instance, the answer to the question “kitne aadmi the”, even if we have never seen the film. While it is common for people to mouth dialogues of popular films, this is perhaps the only film where people even know the sound effects by heart.
In its 40th year, Sholay is finally getting an official theatrical release in Pakistan. It would be safe to assume that many people in Pakistan, as Bollywood obsessed as India, are already familiar with the film after watching it for years on VHS tapes, then VCDs and finally DVDs. And yet what a thrill to imagine seeing the menacing Gabbar, the loquacious Basanti, or Helen shimmying to “Mehbooba”, in full 70 mm glory. Yet, strangely enough, the version that will be seen in Pakistan, while being the same as the one seen by millions in India, is still not going to be the version that was intended by Sippy.
In the last scene of the version we know, just as Thakur Baldev Singh is about to kill Gabbar, the police arrive, reminding him that punishing criminals is the responsibility of the law, and as a former police officer he should respect this authority. After a moment’s hesitation, Thakur hands over Gabber to the police, thereby reinstating the sovereign authority of the law and preventing a climax which would have depicted an act of personal revenge as redemptive justice. A little-known fact about the film is that what we see in the bowdlerised version is the result of just such an act of sovereign intervention off screen.
Sippy’s original shows Thakur killing Gabbar by kicking him into a nail stuck on the same pillars that Gabbar had tied him to when he chopped his hands off. After he kills Gabbar, he falls down with a vacant look and Veeru slowly walks up to him and drapes his shawl on him. The music reaches a melodramatic crescendo as Veeru and Thakur hug each other and cry.
The release of Sholay coincided with the declaration of Emergency, a period marked by extreme censorship. The censor board was worried that depicting a former police officer as a vigilante would be dangerous in the context of the Emergency and demanded a change in the climax in the interests of the rule of law. The Sippys tried everything to retain the original ending but finally had to succumb to pressure and reshoot it to arrive at the one that we now know. Ramesh Sippy described his unhappiness with the changes he had to make. He felt it was not just a legal imposition but also one with aesthetic and philosophical consequences. The original climax, Sippy says, had Thakur killing Gabbar Singh with his feet since his hands had been cut off and it “was poetic justice, but the censors didn’t allow that and unfortunately I had to accept it, there was too much pressure”.
The original scene would have been a rare instance of a man breaking down after an act of violence in Hindi cinema and this denial of tears opens a way for us to think about the relationship between violence, vengeance and mourning, the different ways in which they deal with grief, loss and anger. What are the consequences of the loss of an extremely moving and slightly uncanny image of a man crying after killing someone? How do we think about the narrative consequences of the original, compared to the bowdlerised version, in terms of their relation to revenge? Is justice achieved in one and not in the other? In the censored version, it is not just the violence that we are prevented from seeing but also the tragic outcome of an act of revenge. We are not allowed to witness the grief and mourning that follows revenge. In a film that is largely about Thakur’s obsessive desire for revenge, this would have been the only moment where he showed any vulnerability.
Given the past that India and Pakistan share, from Partition through the various wars and the continuing calls for blood and historic revenge, the real opportunity perhaps lies in a simultaneous release, in both countries, of the original version of Sholay, which reminds us that we are tied together not just through violence but also through vulnerability and mourning.
Liang is a lawyer and writer at the Alternative Law Forum. He is also completing a book on law, justice and cinema in India.