I grew up in one of those Bengali families that rarely went to the theater to watch a Hindi film. Despite its sixty golden jubilees even Sholay could not breach that snobbishness. Haathi mera Saathi did but that was more about the elephant than Rajesh Khanna.
I watched Sholay years later, an act that was in part catching-up, and part atonement. Outside the rarefied environs of a missionary school, my Bollywood ignorance was proving to be a serious handicap in fitting in an engineering college. By the time I went to see Sholay with an equally deprived friend, almost everyone in the audience had seen it umpteen times and could recite great spaghetti strings of dialogue en masse as if at a prayer revival meeting. I felt very embarrassed but thankful that the darkness of the theatre could hide my Sholay virginity.
A film that I had only known from the Holi song telecast every year on Chitrahaar (a Bollywood music television program telecast in the 1970s) unfolded in front of me in technicolor splendor. I did not care that it had been described by some as a “curry western.” To me it was thrilling.
Perhaps it was the over-compensation of a new-found convert but I quickly became a sort of Sholay missionary. On repeat viewings Basanti’s chatter would grate sometimes and Asrani’s Little Dictator act was not quite as funny but the film still held together. I knew everything by then-the loaded coin, what lay under Sanjeev Kumar’s shawl, what terrible fate awaited young Sachin. But it didn’t matter. The film’s melodrama just sucked me in every time.
When I moved to the United States, homesick and lonely in college campuses in the Midwest, streaky pirated Bollywood movies were our magic carpet rides into nostalgia for an hour or two or three. Sholay was the ultimate comfort food.
Moving to California there were Indian grocery stores, lunch buffets, and even a rather shabby theater that showed Bollywood films while the snack counter sold stale samosas. It was our bonding time with other Indian friends. Our American friends, partners, coworkers were not part of that experience. Slumdog Millionaire had not yet brought any “Jai Ho” cool to Bollywood yet.
Then one day some local desi non-profit brought Sholay to the big screen. “We must go see it,” I told G, my very all-American partner. “It is THE iconic Indian film.”
G was nonplussed. “Didn’t you say that about Pather Panchali?”
I had to admit I had said that. And we had been to see Pather Panchali at a film festival screening. The film seemed to be on its last legs, frayed, tattered, the subtitles lost against the black and white. I had felt helpless in my frustration at how much of the film, damaged and crackling, seemed to get lost in translation.
“Yes,” I replied patiently. “But that’s the iconic Indian ART film. This is the iconic Indian Bollywood film.”
“Yes, but it has everyone,” I said enthusiastically. “Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bhaduri, Dharmendra, Hema Malini, Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, Helen …” I stopped since I might as well have been reciting the names of exotic reptiles in the Amazon.
“But you have to see it,” I said. “It’s like part of my cultural DNA.” It was not exactly true but emotional blackmail works. We went to the film together surrounded by dozens of Indians, techie couples, their visiting parents, even some ABCD types. It was some kind of charity screening and the film started late.
Then the train chugged into view onto a sun-baked platform, the supersized titles rolled across the screen and I settled down in my seat.
“Mujhe do aadmiyon ki zaroraat hai.” As I awaited the arrival of Jai and Veeru, G leaned over and said dubiously “Doesn’t this film have subtitles?”
And I realized to my horror it did not.
Thus began Sholay, the whispered translation version, in a dark theater.
“See these guys are small time crooks. They are being recruited by this guy …”
“I get that.”
“Ok this khota sikka (bad penny) line is important. Remember it.” There was some restlessness in the row behind me but I plodded on undeterred, my sinking heart wondering how long we could keep it up before G’s patience finally snapped.
“Now it’s a flashback, this train scene.”
When the screen exploded in fisticuffs I heaved a sigh of relief, able finally to suspend my running commentary. The Indian couple behind us moved to another seat. For the first time I regretted what felt like Sholay’s cast of hundreds. I wished there were more songs so that we could just enjoy the spectacle without worrying about the plot.
I tried to do the shorthand version. This character Basanti is just talkative. She talks too much. It’s not that important to know what she’s saying I said reassuringly even though the audience was laughing uproariously at the well-worn patter. My audience of one merely grunted. Amjad Khan’s dialogues in my translation seemed pedestrian, stripped of all their lazy menace. “How many people were there?” was just not loaded enough but I struggled on gamely, afraid that my iconic Bollywood experience was slipping away with every word I spoke.
When intermission came I steeled myself expecting a demand to go home right away. But for some reason-love, pity, resignation or perhaps a combination of all three-we stayed put as the lights went down. I splurged on the buttered popcorn -bribe cum peace offering.
The film galloped along.
“He is drunk up on that water tank.”
“I get that.”
By the time the great emotional roller-coaster ride was approaching its explosive end I was drained from my role as the one-man tour guide for Sholay. But it was then that I finally understood the miracle of Sholay.
As Jai lay dying and Jaya Bhaduri’s Radha snuffed the lamp, I realized G was sniffling too. Without any translation prod on my part.
“What could I do? It just holds a gun to your head till you cry. How can you help it?”
And even though my own eyes were, as usual, red-rimmed from tears as the lights came on in the theater, I could not have been happier.
My faith in Sholay was redeemed. It had crossed over even without subtitles into my interracial relationship where the experiences of my growing up had always felt so foreign, so beyond translation. I picked up the program to see what Hindi film was on offer the next week but then decided not to push my luck.
For now this was enough.
I wish I could say that Sholay proved to be the definitive litmus test of relationships across cultures. It did not. That relationship eventually faded and its end had nothing to do with that three-plus hour Sholay marathon that had tested its patience. But for a few hours in a theater in America, a 1975 Bollywood film had reassured me that a relationship like ours, forged across great cultural divides, could make sense even without subtitles. And for that I remain grateful.
Yeh dosti hum nahin todenge
Todenge dam magar tera saath na chhodenge.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. A version of this story appeared on Firstpost.com.
First published in November 2015.