The 1975 film Sholay tells the story of a notorious and ruthless bandit and a former police officer who enlists the services of two outlaws to capture him.
The bandit's name? Gabbar Singh
With the bandit Gabbar Singh, Sholay introduced a unique modern villain whose memorable dialogues are part of Bollywood cultural literacy. If you are new to Bollywood, here's what you need to know about Gabbar Singh.
Even before we see his face in Sholay, we see Gabbar Singh pacing on a rock ledge as he delivers one of the most famous and chilling lines in the history of Indian film, "Kitne aadme the?"
We learn that Gabbar Singh raids local villages for his provisions and has a well-deserved reputation for indiscriminate killing. He revels in the fact that the government has put a fifty grand bounty on his head - dead or alive - but is confident that no one will be stupid enough to try to collect it.
As we watch the Gabbar Singh shoot down a whole family, we see why he is feared. He won't hesitate to eliminate anyone who sullies his well-earned reputation - even his own men. You could say he leads by example - the example he makes of others.
Many consider Gabbar Singh to be the first character in Hindi films to depict pure evil.
"In a village fifty kilometers from here ... when a child cries in the night, then the mom says sleep my son ... sleep or else Gabbar Singh will come!" ("Yahan se pachas pachas kos door gaon mein ... jab bachcha raat ko rota hai, toh maa kehti hai bete soo ja ... soo ja nahi toh Gabbar Singh aa jayega!")
Despite only appearing in nine scenes, actor Amjad Khan's performance as Gabbar Singh is a major highlight of the film.
Khan's acting experience up until Sholay was mostly in the theater and a career in films had so far eluded him. When Danny Denzongpa - the first choice for Gabbar - couldn't take the role due to scheduling conflicts, Amjad Khan was offered the part.
Clad in army fatigues purchased at a flea market in Mumbai, he used his theatrical training to bring an authenticity to the role. This was a new style of villain - he wasn't a caricature of evil, he embodied evil.
Unhinged and unshorn, Amjad Khan's depiction of a man with no allegiance to anyone but himself brought Gabbar Singh to life.
Sholay's Gabbar Singh is larger than life on the silver screen, but he was also a legendary bandit in real life.
Jaya Bhaduri - who played the character of Radha in Sholay - encouraged Amjad Khan to read Abhishapta Chambal (The Accursed Chambal) written by her father, acclaimed journalist Taroon Kumar Bhadhuri. Published in 1958, the book offers an account of the Chambal Valley outlaws in central India - including Gabbar Singh. The book was so popular in Kolkata that Bhadhuri wrote an english translation which was published in 1972 as Chambal: The Valley of Terror.
Taroon Bhadhuri spent time with the bandits to learn about them first-hand. In an Indian Express article, Jaya explained:
“For days, he would be away. He lived with them, travelled with them and fought for them with the government. He would come back with their pictures… each a legend like Robin Hood.”
Amjad Khan based much of his performance in Sholay on the real-life Gabbar pulled from the pages of Bhadhuri's book.
In 2009, P.V. Rajgopal published The British, The Bandits and The Bordermen based on the experiences of police officer K.F. Rustamji who served under the British Raj and was also the founder Director-General of the Border Security Force.
In this biographical narrative, we see another version of the story of the real Gabbar Singh or "Gabra", as he was known to his men.
The Gabbar highlighted in the pages of Rajgopal's book is frightening because he isn't a film character. The real bandit Gabra eluded police for years. It was said that he cut off the nose and ears of any policeman who tried to capture him. Pulling from Rajgopal's narrative, The Hindu explains:
The reign of Gabbar Singh, notorious for lopping off the noses of at least 26 persons in the most inhuman fashion, came to an end in 1959 when the Special Arms Force of Madhya Pradesh surrounded his hideout near Jagannath-Ka-Pur village of Bhind district. In the ensuing confrontation, he died along with his associates Jagat Singh, Ram Dulhare and nine others. The news of his death was a birthday gift to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
So why was Gabbar Singh so partial to cutting off noses? According to the book, he had been told by a tantrik that if he lopped off 106 of them and offered them to his deity, he would not be killed by police bullets!
The Deccan Herald highlighted another story of Gabbar Singh's inhuman treatment of those who fell under his shadow:
According to Rajgopal, sometime in 1957, Bhind's Gabbar, codenamed G-4, lined up 22 children and shot them "because somebody from the village, of which the children were residents, had reported him to the police."
While there were no nose-cutting incidents in the film Sholay, one major pivotal moment between Gabbar and the policeman Thakur Baldev Singh (played by Sanjeev Kumar) sets the premise for the whole film. During one of Gabbar Singh's raids, policeman Thakur chases down the bandit and catches him in a chokehold, saying, "This is no arm. This is a noose!" After Thakur escapes from jail, he sets out to make sure that Thakur can never threaten him in such a manner again.
Surprisingly, there was concern about casting Amjad Khan. Some felt his voice was too weak to carry off the role of a villain. When the filmmakers finally chose to keep Amjad Khan's voice, he worried that audiences might not agree with that decision and his voice might ruin the film.
He need not have been concerned. Sholay's initial theatrical release lasted 10 years and Gabbar Singh became an important character in Bollywood history.
In Anupama Chopra's fascinating Sholay: The Making of a Classic, she tells the tale of Amjad Khan's visit to a small roadside stall several months after the release of the film:
As they entered the shop, a voice crackled on a rickety gramophone: ‘Kitne aadmi the?’
Gabbar Singh’s dialogue boomed through the shop. The stall owner served the group drinks but did not recognize the star. For a minute, Amjad stood absolutely still. His eyes squinted in recognition of his own voice. Then, listening to his voice playing in a shanty on a dusty, deserted road in the middle of nowhere, Amjad Khan sat down and cried.
Sholay's combination of criminals and bandits who battled beyond the reach of the law seemed to resonate with audiences in 1975. In Meheli Sen and Anustup Basu's Figurations in Indian Film, they explain:
At the cusp of the Indian Emergency (1975-77), a period that deepened postcolonial disillusion about the democratic state's commitment to civil liberties, Sholay would erupt into an event - a "creative event" activating a cultural figuration of the outlaw.
No surprise, then, that fiction would spill over into the real world of social banditry. Real-life social bandits would feel its magic touch. If the historical Gabbar Singh had been one of many Chambal Valley dacoits killed in a policy ambush in 1965, the fictional Gabbar immortalized the daku as a lone figure and celebrated his defiance of the law.
In 2015, Akshay Kumar's Gabbar is Back leveraged this idea by creating a vigilante who turned the establishment upside down by eliminating those who blatantly abused their power. However, this Gabbar recognized his crimes and eventually embraced a moral code.
Want to know more about Gabbar? The following video features some of the memorable lines delivered by Amjad Khan as Gabbar in Sholay. Even if you can't understand Hindi, his delivery and body language say it all. This is one dude you want to steer clear of.
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