The plot of Sholay narrates the tale of Jai (Amitabh) and Veeru (Dharmendra), two friends, who are petty criminals. They are hired as mercenaries by an ex police officer, called Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), to combat the bandit, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). In a grisly incident he has lost his two hands and his whole family was brutally murdered by the same bandit. It is revenge and not forces of law and order which motivates the Thakaur to hire the duo to bring Gabbar Singh to him. As the two arrive in the village what follows are two parallel love stories and lots of action and thrills. While Veeru is in love with the garrulous Basanti (Hema Malini) Jai falls for the widowed daughter-in-law of the Thakur. This role was superbly enacted by Jaya Bhaduri.
The opening scene train scene in Sholay, the horse riding scenes and other sequences were never seen before on the Indian screen. Whether it is the background music when Gabbar Singh is first introduced on the screen or the soft number that Jai plays on his mouth organ, the music pieces perfectly suit the scenes. The last actions scenes are unforgettable. As the two friends put up a brave fight against a group of bandits Jai realises that Veeru needs to leave as they are running out of bullets and Basanti needs protection too. As Veeru refuses to leave him alone, Jai resorts to his old habit. He goes for the toss and says it is heads so Veeru leaves.
Unaware that Jai has been hurt by a bullet Veeru leaves with Basanti. Fighting valiantly Jai loses his life and Veeru is shattered when he comes back. Jai is always seen with a coin belonging to British India. He always tossed it when both the friends could reach a decision. As Veeru picks up the same coin he is shocked to find out that the coin is double headed. Veeru loses his cool and goes after Gabbar Singh. This twist in the storyline was quite uncommon in those days as commercial films generally had a happy ending. Despite this Sholay was accepted and appreciated by the audience. The last scene where Sanjeev Kumar is seen combating the villain is awesome. Finally as one love story ends on a heartbreaking note, the other is seen ending on a happy note.
The storyline of Sholay is deftly punctuated with comic relief, music and dance. The dialogues of Sholay are popular till date. In fact the dialogues were so popular that they were incorporated in the audio cassettes. As far as the performances are concerned Sholay instantly catapulted Amjad Khan to stardom. His sinister act as Gabbar Singh worked for him. Till date he remains one of the most popular Bollywood villains. Another star rose to the horizon with Sholay and that was Amitabh Bachchan. Although his character dies at the end but his performance left an indelible mark behind. Dharmendra was his lovable self and the all encompassing hero who can fight, woo women, sing, dance, loves his friend and so on. Hema Malini was hilarious as the voluble Basanti who took up the unconventional occupation of riding a horse cart or 'tanga.'
Sanjeev Kumar was almost the age of Bachchan and Dharmendra when he portrayed the role of the Thakur. But he played the role of an aged man too convincingly. But it was Jaya Bachchan, then Bhaduri, who wooed the hearts of the audiences with her act. She played the role of a widowed woman who rarely speaks but is in love with Jai. The subtlety with which their love story is handled is superb.
The songs were a national rage. Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar and RD Burman lent their voices for the songs. Yeh Dosti, Holi Ke Din, Mehbooba Mehbooba, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Koi Haseena were runaway hits. An interesting facet about the music of Sholay was that the song 'Yeh Dosti' was recorded twice. One was a happy version and the other was a small piece, the sad version. This style became in vogue in Bollywood and for several years to come Hindi films used this form. Sholay was in every sense a complete film with an invincible script, flawless music and peerless performances. As a result it remained the highest grossing film in India.
In fact it took two and a half years to make Sholay. The entire film was shot in Ramanagaram, a village with rocky landscape in Karnataka. Such was the craze of the film that it ran continuously for five years in a Mumbai theatre. Sholay was actually a cult film for the Indian cinema. It led to a spate of multi starrer, hard core commercial films which concentrated on male friendship. But none could repeat the overwhelming success of Sholay.
However Sholay won only one award at the Filmfare Awards that year for best editing. MS Shinde won the award. But the film won Bengal Film Journalists' Association Awards:
Best Actor in Supporting Role: Amjad Khan
Best Cinematographer (Colour): Dwarka Divecha
Best Art Director: Ram Yadekar
In the history of Indian commercial cinema Sholay will always be remembered for it is truly a legend.