Hema Malini's life chronicled in new biography: On Dharmendra, and making of Sholay
Hema Malini: Beyond the Dream Girl is an inside look at the remarkable life of one of our greatest cinema icons
Hema Malini: Beyond the Dream Girl, the official biography of the multi-faceted Bollywood actress Hema Malini, is being published by HarperCollins India to coincide with her birthday on 16 October. Written by Ram Kamal Mukherjee, the book offers an inside look at the remarkable life of one of our greatest cinema icons. The following is an excerpt from a chapter titled 'Colours of Spring', reproduced here with permission from HarperCollins.
‘There has never been a more defining film on the Indian screen. Indian film history can be divided into Sholay BC and Sholay AD.’
Shekhar Kapur’s words have perhaps served as the most befitting description of what Sholay (1975) meant for Indian cinema. Taking off from the hugely popular American genre, the spaghetti Western, this was one film that doffed its hat to several cinema greats — from Akira Kurosawa to Sergio Leone. But it was the finer nuances, from the framing to the engaging screenplay, from its characters to the poignant sense of unhurriedness, and the underlying tone of tragedy that made this solely a director’s film. With Sholay, Ramesh Sippy outdid himself. Whether any other film has come close to the craftsmanship or popularity of this monumental effort will always be a matter of debate.
After owning author-backed roles in films like Andaz and Seeta Aur Geeta, Hema was initially reluctant to play the role of Basanti, who would have all of five-and-a-half scenes. ‘This isn’t your film. This is Thakur and Gabbar’s film. But your role will be very interesting,’ Ramesh assured her. Having worked with him closely and knowing all too well what this director was capable of creating, Hema needed no further convincing.
True to this actor–director association, Sholay tested every nerve, every limit in Hema – not just her acting prowess but, equally, her indomitable spirit. Apart from playing a motormouth and having to rattle off several pages of dialogue every time she came on screen, being a gutsy tangewali meant braving risky chase sequences and even dancing on glass. Hema did it all, in a film that would truly be her grandest effort on celluloid.
‘It was a great experience,’ she confesses. ‘I was habituated to Ramesh-ji by then. He would give me three pages of dialogues that I had to deliver breathlessly. It wasn’t easy. I still remember the action sequence that Ramesh-ji shot with me. It was very risky. Riding a horse-driven cart is very difficult, but somehow I managed. Sholay will remain a special film for me.’
The making of Sholay was as epic as the film itself, with enough anecdotes to fill up an entire book! Salim–Javed drew some scenes from real-life incidents too. For example, the scene where Jai goes to Basanti’s Mausi with Veeru’s marriage proposal was borrowed straight out of the writers’ lives! It is believed that Javed was in love with Honey Irani and wanted to marry her, but neither her mother nor Salim was keen on the alliance. Javed coaxed Salim to convince Honey’s mother. That’s when a reluctant Salim went over with the proposal, seemingly singing Javed’s praises, but in reality undercutting every one of them. Like almost every other scene in Sholay, this too is one for the ages.
Interestingly, many of the dangerous scenes belonged to Hema. One of the most difficult scenes was the chase where she had to ride her tonga at ferocious speed while trying to escape the dacoits out to grab her. Most of the shots for that sequence were taken from a camera vehicle that towed the tonga. For some shots, the camera was placed inside, next to Hema, but the horses were removed to minimise danger. For the long shots and the scene where the tonga overturns, a double – Reshma – was used. In fact, during that last shot, Reshma lost her footing and fell in front of the cart. The wheel went over her and she lost consciousness.
Another remarkable feat on Hema’s part was shooting for the preclimax number, ‘Jab tak hain jaan’. Basanti is forced to dance before the leering band of dacoits outside Gabbar’s den on jagged rocks. A gun is cocked at Veeru’s head, while his arms and legs are bound. ‘Jab tak tere pair chalenge uski saans chalegi … tere pair ruke toh yeh bandook chalegi’ (As long as your feet keep moving, he’ll keep breathing … if your feet stop this gun will go off) – Gabbar spits out his threat. Being a consummate dancer, the steps were easy for Hema, but the stage wasn’t. To make the struggle look real, Ramesh wanted to shoot the song in summer under the scorching sun, on location, near Bangalore.
‘Why not shoot this in January?’ Hema asked him.
‘Because I want that expression of torture due to the extreme heat on your face,’ replied the director.
The song was shot in May. But Bangalore, known for its unpredictable weather, only added to their troubles. The days were blisteringly warm while the nights brought rain. By morning the rocks were damp and slushy. Shooting could start only by midday, once the production unit hastened the drying process with fans and blowers. By the time the crew was ready for the day’s shoot, the rocks were scalding. Characteristically, despite the situation, Hema refused to dance with pads on her feet. It made her uncomfortable, she said. For the long shots, though, Ramesh insisted on them. ‘I don’t want to torture you unnecessarily,’ was his reason. After each shot, Hema’s spot boy would rush to splash water on her feet to provide temporary relief.
Ask anyone from the Sholay team and they will tell you that shooting for this film was, without doubt, one of the most exciting chapters of their lives … one of those phases that seem like an
unbelievable dream in retrospect. As for the couple that was slowly falling in love, the backdrop couldn’t have been more paradisiacal. That Dharmendra was by now plain besotted with Hema was known to all in the crew. In love and unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, tales of how he wooed her have now become legendary.
It is said that Dharam would tip the light boys to slip up during the romantic scenes, so they would have to do retakes! He had worked out a code with them. If he pulled his ear, they would either mess up the trolley movement or drop a reflector; if he touched his nose, the shot was okayed! The tip could go up to a hundred rupees for each take. On a ‘good’ day, the light boys went back richer by at least a couple of thousand rupees!
Dharam roped in Ramesh Sippy as well, pleading with him to play cupid. ‘Please say nice things about me to her. I want to marry her,’ he would tell Ramesh beseechingly. Ramesh also had Hema’s unflinching trust. He was the only one on the sets she used to confide in. Over time, she began confessing her growing feelings towards Dharam. Soon, the two became inseparable. As Hema admitted years later, while talking about those days, ‘It was such a beautiful atmosphere that everyone was in love … even the old cameraman!’
When asked about these tales, Hema says, ‘Pata nahin kitna sach hai yeh sab baton mein (I doubt if all these stories are true). I remember reading in various interviews and articles that Dharam-ji used to bribe spot dadas so that they would deliberately create some mischief and he would get a chance to do those romantic scenes over and over again. I think I should ask Dharam-ji directly, if at all he did anything like it!’
While Sholay earned Hema unprecedented accolades as an actor, she faced problems during her live classical dance shows post the film. People would always want her to dance to the Holi and ‘Jab tak hai jaan’ songs onstage. ‘I think it’s the organisers who would give false hope or promote the show as Bollywood star Hema Malini’s dance show. I think they wanted to sell their tickets at high prices, and thus resorted to these cheap routes. But once I would start my classical recitals on stage people would enjoy them too and the situation would be under control,’ says Hema.
It was certainly a disappointment for her fans when Hema didn’t receive any nominations for Sholay at the Filmfare Awards that year. Others from the movie like Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan, Salim–
Javed, GP Sippy (producer), Ramesh Sippy, RD Burman (music), Asrani (who played the role of the jailer) and MS Shinde (editor) were nominated, but finally only MS Shinde went on to bag the award
for Best Editor. ‘I was nominated (as Best Actress) for Khushboo and Sanyasi, along with Jaya Bhaduri in Mili and Suchitra Sen in Aandhi. But Laxmi won the award for Julie,’ Hema adds with a smile. ‘From that year I decided that I will focus on my work and not pay much heed to awards.’
With the roaring success of Sholay, Hema Malini was at her zenith. If she had been one of the popular actresses thus far, with this film, she decimated all competition to claim her position at the top. She was the highest-paid actress in Hindi cinema by now and went on to hold the numero uno spot for the next decade.
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