Sholay is the highest grossing film of all time in India. It has earned Rs. 2,36,45,00,000, equivalent to US$ 60 million, after adjusting for inflation. When first released, the film was declared a commercial disaster. Word of mouth convinced movie-goers to give the film a chance and soon it became a box-office phenomenon. It ran for 286 weeks straight (more than five years) in one Mumbai theatre, the Minerva. Sholay racked up a still record 60 golden jubilees across India and doubled its original gross over reruns during the late 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Sholay was the first film in the history of Indian cinema to celebrate silver jubilee (25 weeks) at over a hundred theatres across India.
In 1999, BBC India declared it the "Film of the Millennium"; Indiatimes movies ranks the movie amongst the Top 25 Must See Bollywood Films. In that same year, the judges of the 50th annual Filmfare awards awarded it with a special award called Filmfare Best Film of 50 Years.
The two petty criminals, Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai(Amitabh Bachchan), are close pals who work together and share everything. They had encountered the Thakur in the past (as seen in a flashback), when after being caught by him trying to rob a train, he let them free temporarily to help him fight off bandits. The three succeeded in doing so, but as the Thakur lay unconscious after sustaining a wound, Veeru and Jai disputed over leaving him dead and escaping (Veeru), or letting him live but facing jail themselves (Jai). The call was decided over a coin toss, which Jai won.
Recollecting that experience, the Thakur explains that Veeru and Jai would be the ideal men to help him end the tyranny of Gabbar Singh - an infamous dacoit (bandit) wanted by the authorities for a Rs 50,000 reward. But money is not what the Thakur is after.
Veeru and Jai are found and brought to Ramgarh. They are told by the Thakur that they are to bring Gabbar to him alive for Rs 20,000 plus the Rs 50,000 reward.
After some difficulty in trusting each other, the Thakur demands Veeru and Jai's word and eventually Jai promises that they will do the job and he and Veeru decide to stay in Ramgarh to repel attacks from Gabbar's large gang.
In Gabbar's camp, the tyrant interrogates the three men he sent to Ramgarh about why they were defeated by only two men. His psychotic nature is shown when he subjects his men to a twisted version of Russian Roulette where all three survive against the odds. This event amuses Gabbar who begins to laugh uncontrollably at the bizarre occurrence and the unlikelyhood of it happening. His cackles get louder and louder, as his henchmen join in. The three men who have survived this ordeal are bemused but then relieved and slowly begin to laugh as well. As the sounds of all of Gabbar's army laughing like fools reverberate around the rocky camp, Gabbar suddenly stops laughing and uses the three remaining bullets to shoot the three men dead.
Gabbar's plan to attack Ramgarh on Holi is put into action and in a much tougher battle this time, Veeru and Jai meet their match and are held at gunpoint. With his two recruits facing death, the Thakur has a chance to throw a gun to Veeru. But instead of helping, he simply stands stationary. With quick thinking, Veeru and Jai manage to save their lives but at the end state their intentions to walk away from Ramgarh, leaving the villagers to defend themselves, due to the Thakur's cowardice.
But before they can, the Thakur tells them the real reason of why he wants Gabbar and why he could not help them.
Some time ago, the Thakur had caught Gabbar and had him imprisoned only for the dacoit to escape and plot an evil revenge against him. Gabbar made his way to the Thakur's home and cold-bloodedly, killed his two sons, daughter, daughter-in-law and his only grandson. The only person in the family to survive this massacre was the Thakur's younger daughter-in-law, Radha.
The Thakur tracked down Gabbar but this time, the tyrant held the upper hand thanks to his gang and tortured him. Gabbar reminded the Thakur of his promise to come back and haunt him once he escaped and this was the day. Grabbing two swords, Gabbar maniacally approached the Thakur and ruthlessly amputated both his arms, although the Thakur survives it. The Thakur had shrouded this disability from Veeru and Jai, but now it was clear why he could not physically help them.
Jai is drawn to Radha, the Thakur's reclusive widowed daughter-in-law, who very subtly returns his affections. The Thakur's servant, Ramlaal, tells of when Radha used to be full of life and colour until the day Gabbar killed her husband. After discussing it with Radha's father, the Thakur agrees that she can marry Jai.
The duo also befriend other villagers and instill a belief of freedom from Gabbar's villainous regime. Among these are the blind imam and his son, Ahmed, who has been offered a job in the city, but refuses to leave his father all alone. He is eventually talked into going and sets off on his horse. On the way, he has the bad luck of running into Gabbar's henchmen. Ahmed is killed and returned with a message for Ramgarh: Hand over Veeru and Jai or suffer the same fate as the dead boy.
As the villagers stand over Ahmed's body, they tell Veeru and Jai, that they can give away whatever wealth they have, but they cannot give away their children's lives. The Thakur, Veeru and Jai argue against ceding to Gabbar's threats, but only the imam, who has lost his son, convinces the villagers that they cannot simply give in to evil.
The battle approaches its climax when Basanti and Veeru are captured and Jai follows. As Basanti is forced to dance by Gabbar to keep Veeru alive, Jai steadily gets through Gabbar's defences. Soon Jai is able to get into a position to shoot Gabbar and demands the release of his friends. Veeru and Basanti escape while Jai holds back the dacoits from a distance with a rifle. Once Veeru and Basanti are safe, Jai slowly draws back and heads for his friends, only to be wounded grievously by a bullet as he is running away.
Jai is reunited with Veeru and Basanti where they realise they are running out of ammunition. As Veeru is unaware of Jai's wound, Jai orders him to go back to the village where he can take Basanti and then return with ammo. Veeru does not want Jai to face the bandits alone, so he suggests that Jai should go. The two dispute once more and resort to what has been their only method of resolution over the years - the coin. As it was earlier in the film, Veeru loses the toss and goes back to the village.
Jai, slowly dying and with only a few bullets, manages to fend off advances by the bandits, who have hidden under a small bridge and have thrown a stick of dynamite that has failed to explode. Jai manages to get close enough to the dynamite and uses his last bullet to detonate it, taking out the bridge and most of Gabbar's men.
Veeru returns to find Jai dying and sadly talks with him before he dies in his arms. Some of the villagers rush to the scene, including Radha, who once again must endure the anguish of losing someone. As Veeru wipes a tear, he notices Jai's old coin in his hand and then it dawns on him that he had been tricked by Jai all along. The coin was double-headed and Jai had managed to manipulate every situation that they disagreed on to his favour. Angry at his friend for sacrificing his life to save him, Veeru becomes hell-bent on revenge and goes after Gabbar.
Veeru catches Gabbar and beats him up badly, about to finish him off. But before he can kill him, the Thakur appears and reminds him of the promise to bring Gabbar to him - alive. Veeru is ready to break his word to avenge Jai when he is told that it was Jai who made the promise. Unwilling to break Jai's promise, Veeru hands Gabbar over to the Thakur who reveals his spike-soled shoes, made to make Gabbar beg for a quick death.
Jai's funeral takes place as Veeru stands all alone in front of the pyre. In the distance, Radha watches on through a window.
With nothing more for him in Ramgarh, Veeru leaves on a train. But as he looks up, he sees that he is not alone. Basanti has also boarded the train and both she and Veeru leave Ramgarh together.
In fact, one part of Ramanagaram town was renamed "Sippynagar" after the director of the movie. Even to this day, a visit to the "Sholay rocks" (where the movie was shot) is offered to tourists travelling through Ramanagaram (on the road between Bangalore and Mysore).
Gabbar Singh was modeled on a real-life dacoit of the same name who menaced the villages around Gwalior in the 1950s. He terrorized the local police. Any policeman captured by the real Gabbar Singh had his ears and nose cut off, and was then released as an object lesson to other policemen.
At Mumbai's Minerva theater, it was shown in regular shows for three continuous years, and then in matinee shows for two more years. Even in 240th week of its release, Sholay was packing the theaters. Sholay grossed about 35 crore rupees in its first run, a record that remained unbroken for the next nineteen years. Sholay ran for more than five years.
Sholay has inspired many imitations, in cinema and television, and has spawned a whole sub-genre of films whimsically dubbed Curry Westerns as a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns. None of them has had the success of the original film. The latest attempt to trade on Sholay's fame was Ram Gopal Varma's film Aag (2007), which was pulled from theaters after two weeks. It is now considered one of the biggest flops in Bollywood's history. "Aag" was originally also called "Sholay" and was apparently meant to be a tribute to and "in the spirit of Sholay." The name was changed to "Aag" after legal action was taken by the makers of the original "Sholay." Amitabh Bachchan, who had one of the lead roles in the original "Sholay" plays the villain, Gabbar Singh, in "Aag."
The stars of the film appeared in other films; they did not seem to be limited by their roles in Sholay. Amitabh Bachchan went on to become one of the biggest stars in the Indian film industry. However, some of the supporting actors never escaped the shadow of their hit film.
Amjad Khan, who played the bandit Gabbar Singh played many more villainous roles afterwards. He played Gabbar Singh again in the 1991 spoof Ramgarh Ke Sholay. He also reprised the role in a commercial for biscuits.
Comedian Jagdeep, who played Soorma Bhopali in the film, also attempted to capitalize on his Sholay success; he directed and played the lead role in the 1988 film Soorma Bhopali; Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan also played cameos. The film was not a success.
Sholay is out of the theaters, but thanks to television, VCRs, and DVDs, it is widely available and still extremely popular. In the year 1996, "Sholay" was first shown on the Indian government-run Doordarshan television channel; streets were virtually empty during the show. Young Indians who had not been born when Sholay was released will still have seen the film and know the dialogues and characters.
R. D. Burman, who composed the music for the film, was one of the most sought after composers in 1975, when the film was released. However, out of the twelve soundtracks he composed that year, Khushboo and Aandhi were critical successes and Deewar and Khel Khel Mein mild commercial hits. No other Burman film soundtrack that year attained the resounding critical and commercial success of Sholay.
The songs picturized in the film were the following:
A qawwali, Aa Shuru Hota Hai Phir, was also recorded, but it was never picturized or released.
However, at the time, the songs from Sholay attracted less attention than the dialogues — a rarity for Bollywood. This prompted the producers to release audio-cassettes with only dialogues.
Another aspect of the soundtrack that was widely appreciated and has gone through a number of re-releases were the instrumental scores. The title track, which has a particular emphasis on acoustic guitar and brass sections is still well anthologized and is an example of Burman's foray into fusing Indian sounds with Latin and Afro-Cuban elements. Burman also created some disparate segments including a sparse track to augment the ferocity of Gabbar Singh amidst the desolate location and one to highlight the Thakur's shock at seeing his family exterminated.
Among the songs, two versions of Yeh Dosti were released, an extended version which was cited as the "happy version" and a shorter one called the "sad version". For many years this device became a mainstay of Hindi film soundtracks, with the sad concise version of the "happy song" played during the sad scenes.
The song Mehbooba Mehbooba, performed and composed by Burman, became very popular. This song has been highly anthologized, remixed, and recreated. A notable recent version being one created by the Kronos Quartet for their Grammy-nominated album You've stolen my heart.