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sholay poster

SHOLAY- Understanding from a Feminist Perspective

Guns and roses running parallel to the hush sepia hue brings home the idea of surrendered embers (or Sholay as we say in Hindi). By surrendered embers, one might ignore the frightening commerce which surrounds the film expanding the rope of its humongous profit since August 15, 1975. The unbelievable market  included thousands of general recordings, DVDs, CDs and now, the internet. The nostalgia received from the popularity of the film paints the walls, schoolbags, windows, cupboards, clubs, bars, college hostels etc. in colors of abundant love and admiration. This summary is not even half of the unpracticed faith Indians have for Bollywood. The heroes are our Gods and Fridays have become our day of worship. Over the years, the purveyors of Indian Cinema opened up to the reflections of human life, bringing in the best content thereby creating undeterred business. The one film which knew no boundaries of success and went on to create history was Sholay, directed by Ramesh Sippy, produced by G.P. Sippy, and written by Salim-Javed. The film depicts emotions of love and tragedy which enriches it with an amalgamation of cultural history and modernity. Although it gives a perfect delight if looked at objectively but subjectively, a feminist viewpoint will differ. The surrendered embers thus become a metaphor of women representation in the film which points at the  patriarchal environment she lives in.


The film starts off as a tribute to unquestionable friendship portrayed by Jaidev (played by Amitabh Bachchan) and Veeru (played by Dharmendra). They fly across the village landscape vowing to never leave each other until death does them apart.  Representation of a gendered society comes to us as a surprise when a young girl holding an earthen pot walks by confidently while she is unknowingly being stalked by the two men arguing with each other over her. Normalization of visual stalking seems to be an inalienable right of the cast and crew of a Bollywood Masala. How plainly Patriarchy follows a mundane pattern of stalking and justifying becomes the focus here. Fights have to be men’s or else the film has zero recognition, similar to what happened in the film. None of the giant fight sequences bring women to the forefront. The physical fight is exemplified with  violence, alcohol consumption, abject hooliganism, and jarring vandalism. Amidst the chaos, social messages are elaborated through the depiction of corrupt practices inflicted upon the innocent villagers through Soorma Bhopali, a member of the merchant class. This is a reflection of what Gerda Lerner means, “that is how Patriarchy creates inequality”. Looking through a feminist lens, one may find it amusing how comedy is introduced in the film through a hint of totalitarianism inside a jail.

sholay hitler

The Hitler-like image of the general imparts an understanding of the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ or ‘authorization’ in terms of the personality the general has to keep up to, that is the maintenance of manly strength inside the domains of confidence, rationality, and courage. If he is in a position to compromise all of these structures, he is ridiculed and the focus shifts from hierarchical domination to reasonable subordination. To add to the cultural imbalance presented in the film, one cannot undermine the presence of LGBTQ identity. However the fact that the identity is suppressed through comedy and bizarre representation gives the queer feminists some  food for thought. Here, we bring into focus the global phenomenon of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ which discusses how heterosexuality suppresses homosexuality. Thus, we see that effeminacy takes a backseat in the film and becomes a mere tool of comedy in a male-centric tragedy.


Bell Hooks is of an opinion that Patriarchy is the single most life threatening social disease. The association of the terms ‘social’ and ‘life threatening’  opposes the sincere, equal, and just society one wants to live in. Over the course of the film, it becomes clearer as we see how the storyline surrenders itself to the ideals of revenge and vengeance. All these ideals being masculine, they should be dealt with proper care and only by men . The first interaction in the village  is with Basanti, played by Hema Malini. Her loquacity, albeit unintentionally, charms Veeru. She drives a horse cart and in her monologue, she discusses the sexism in the village. She knows she is a girl but “my horse is a mare, so why can’t I, as a girl, drive a cart with her?”. Veeru, trying to flirt, agrees and makes the point that “women in the city drive cars, and no one tells them not to.”

In trying to sketch an individual self in a man’s world, Basanti brings home the idea of raised consciousness (precisely what the second wave feminists emphasized on). However, this conscious state becomes a classic mockery when emphasized molestation is left unexplored  in the film. How insanely hypocritical empowerment’s argument is, becomes a matter of critical concern. The inappropriate touching and coaxing during the interaction with Veeru is circulated as mere innocence but one sees the clear agenda behind this, which is the propaganda of assault. This unapologetic image of a vivacious girl takes a poor shape as the film progresses. It is only in the end that we realise that Basanti’s existence had no meaning. The fact that she believes in an ideal life where she is the queen and has a financially successful husband makes the interpretation interesting by reducing the space for female independency. Marriage as an institution is similar to the institutions of religion and patriarchy. Feminists have argued that Marriage as an institution has reduced women to mere sexual slaves. In the process of obtaining  settlement, women tend to struggle with social stigmas. Religion, plays a supreme role here because of the involvement of Patriarchal values in it, like fasts or other rituals which are centered around a man’s life. This is depicted when Basanti is fooled by Veeru when she goes to pray for her marriage. The fact that she successfully submits herself to God’s will is a criticism of the film.


Experimentation with sounds is a delight in the film. The consequent sounds of the labour class concluded by a loud thud of the rifle gives us a clearer image of a rural setup where the lower class is oppressed by the hands of land owners, merchants, and money lenders. However, women clearly face ‘double oppression’ in this landscape. This is evident through Radha, played by Jaya Bachchan. Radha, a widow who lives inside a pitiful cocoon, is only occasionally seen in the film.. The circumstances she deals with are empathetic; she is  seen only as a free domestic labourer who is denied the right to celebrate festivals. Within the periphery of festivals, the festival of Holi gives rise to feminist arguments. The lyrics


काँटों के छूने से, फूलों से नाज़ुकनाज़ुक बदन छिल जाते हैं, होली के दिन दिल… ( With the touch of thorns, flower-like bodies get chapped..)

sholay basanti-veeru

present a clear dichotomy between a male-like thorn and a female-like flower. What makes the varied parts of a plant masculine and feminine? This is how performativity is constructed.  The violence inflicted upon the villagers becomes important in the film as it zooms into the vulnerable state of women and children when the village is attacked by the dacoits. How Basanti becomes a passive participant in the situation is a silent  observation. She helps the two men (namely Jai and Veeru), escape the massive net of the famous dacoit Gabbar Singh. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to the patriarchal setup of Thakur Sahib’s household where men are the producers who pursue activities like shooting and farming and the women are the consumers who are seen chopping vegetables and applying makeup. This highlights the concept coined by Judith Butler called ‘gender performativity’.  The entire narrative of a ‘sushil bahu’ begins here. A sushil bahu is rightfully oppressed in terms of society and tradition. She should be a passive recipient of Patriarchy who is denied all rights leading to freedom and who should becomes a slave after marriage. Meanwhile, if the husband dies, she should be half-dead too. How Radha suppresses her love for Jai and denies celebration of any kind synchronizes with the society’s treatment towards widows. One of the many objectives of good cinema is the betterment of society. I think that a film like Sholay has nothing to offer in that regard.  In fact, this leads to the propagation of such a social stigma. Here, Radha’s submissive behaviour becomes a tool of justification for re-marriage.

sholay jaya-amitabh

One of the songs, “Mehbooba-o-mehbooba” depicts the blatant objectification of women. The objectification through sophisticated lyrics shows how women are treated as commodities in a capitalist setup. Women’s bodies are sexualized to an extent of normalizing physical abuse and  the same women should save her honour from foreign bodies. In order to do so she should have strength. This point becomes the epic climax of the film where Veeru orders Basanti to not dance in front of the dogs (the dacoits). However, it is bizarre to note it is the man who denies a certain issue and it is the same man who gives consent to it. Offense and persuasion happens over the time frame of one song. The heroine, who is  constantly harassed has nothing to complain about. This is acknowledged, unquestionably. One of the songs in the film draws parallel connections between an offended young woman and a broken down car. This is a pure state of commodification of women. From the assumption of Basanti as a burden and prioritizing her aunt’s ‘yes’ for marriage over hers to the portrayal of Radha as a dependent woman sets us free from any notions of female empowerment often associated with the film.  Honor, love and marriage accompanied by the reason of revenge give birth to Thakur’s tragic flaw.


Female portrayals inside and outside of the idiot box have heightened the kind of culture we dissociate ourselves with. Subordination is internalised and if this internalization gives birth to clear profits, it seems a win-win situation for both Patriarchy and Capitalism. Media is an active participant and Sholay happens to be just one of the million examples. Inalienable rights are rights of the entire human fraternity. Why is woman a woman and not a human in this context? The ‘dance’ which concludes the film creates a  hypocrisy on which the society runs. What is the weapon of attack in this case? Is it because Veeru was tied up that Basanti had to dance? Or is it the universal propagation that women cannot attack? This rant is just an example, the reality is grotesque. The beauty of friendship creates an epilogue of the film. However, the imagery of Radha closing the windows throws light on a space where a new story begins, a story which paints a monochromic picture of valiant embers, embers which have been surrendered to subordination, oppression and unsurpassed “othering”.

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