The movie is essentially a “curry Western” – a mixture of a spaghetti western along the lines of Sergio Leone and a regular western along the lines of Sam Peckinpah, made specifically to entertain Indian audiences. It’s somewhat of a remake of Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) for Indians, as much as that movie is a remake of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) for Americans. The difference is that it only has two protagonists. It has all of the requisite songs (five, to be precise) interspersed into the film, composed by Bollywood legend R.D. Burman.
It was the breakthrough film for Bollywood superstar (and recent recipient of France’s highest civilian honor, Officier de la Legion d’Honneur) Amitabh Bachhan and launched his career. It also starred Amjad Khan as the indomitable Gabbar Singh, a villain that affected the Indian psyche to such an extent that even today, parents will grin with pride when their toddlers recite his lines verbatim. The movie also featured Bollywood stars Dharmendra as the romantic lead, Hema Malini as his love interest, Jaya Badhuri as the Thakur’s daughter-in-law, and the wonderful Sanjeev Kumar as the Thakur (literally 'landowner') and former police officer. It turned out that both Dharmendra and Amitabh married their leading ladies in real life.
The plot is simple. Veeru (Dharmendra) and Jai (Bachhan) are two small-time, lovable cons. Their friendship is of Bollywood (read: mythical) proportions which makes them even more endearing. Meanwhile, Gabbar Singh (Khan) has kidnapped and killed most of Thakur Baldev Singh’s (Kumar) family, and scarred the Thakur, both physically and mentally, for life. Since Veeru and Jai are known to do anything for the right compensation, they are recruited by the Thakur to “take care” of Gabbar. Although landowners in Hindi movies are usually evil powermongers, in this case the Thakur is a good man, and just. As they proceed with their pursuit of Gabbar, they both meet their respective love interests and ultimately, of course, win them over.
What is most interesting about this movie is the phenomenon that it became. The movie itself is not spectacular from the perspective of film as art. It is certainly entertaining with a great soundtrack (at least, from an Indian standpoint - the average Westerner may not see the appeal). The acting is good, but not great and the direction is stylized and over-dramatized at times – almost a parody of the spaghetti westerns themselves. In fact, when it was released on 15 August, 1975 (also India’s Independence Day) it received lackluster reviews and mediocre attendance. It was weeks after the bad reviews that the movie halls started filling up and shows started to get sold out. Scalpers started selling tickets at outrageously high prices, lines extended up to a mile outside the theatres, even in heavy monsoon rains. People went to see the movie again and again and they would quote the dialogue simultaneously with the movie, with some even mimicking the sound effects. Although it is no longer shown in cinemas, it was shown for the first time on public television in 1996. The streets of every city in India were virtually empty that day.