For all the commercial acclaim and sobriquets it received, Sholay, one of the most seen Indian films, had, until recently, one of the least-seen climaxes.

“The greatest star cast ever assembled. The greatest story ever told.” That is what the CDs/DVDs of the film proclaim. “Movie of the millennium” is how the BBC describes it. Articles, books; even high school chapters have been written about it.

However, Sholay - released on 15th of August, 1975 - had its first tryst with destiny not with the audiences but with the censor board.

The climax, as visualised by a young and ambitious Ramesh Sippy; and the Star writer duo of Salim-Javed, was perhaps the greatest ever to have never been seen until about five years ago.

The version most of us - except a few fortunate ones - saw until recently had Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar) overpowering Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) and having his hands crushed under his feet. Then, just as he is about to trample on Gabbar's face, the police arrives. They remind the Thakur of his past - of his alter ego Inspector Baldev Singh. Thakur, despite all the vengeance hardcoded into him since Gabbar mass murdered his family, decides to let the law take its own course.

However, this was not what the filmmakers originally had in mind. Thakur, though once an honest Inspector, was a warrior with a bruised ego, a humiliated fighter. The objective of his life, for many years, had been: Revenge [with capital R], by killing Gabbar. Qanoon (law of the land) wanted Gabbar dead or alive. Thakur wanted him alive, because he had the right of first refusal. And refuse he was not to.

However, Sippy was forced to go with the censors. To quote my friend Divya Solgama, who has spoken to the Sippys, and even got his sholay DVDs autographed by them, "the movie's release date could not be put off and it was the emergency". The ending had to be re-imagined and retrofitted. Though the removal of a spoke did not cause the wheel to come to a halt, it did disrupt its momentum.

This is what IMDB says, “[T]he Indian Censor Board did not agree with this ending, saying that its vigilante aspect undermined the rule of law and could adversely influence naive young minds.” So, Gabbar gets arrested, to show the Police in good light and to avoid “adversely influenc [ing] naive young minds”.

My tryst with the original version

I came across the original ending only in 2006. I had watched the film at least thrice by then. When one of my friends said he had dreamt about an alternate ending in which Thakur kills Gabbar, I retorted by remarking “Well if wishes were horses, Thakur would get his hands back!”

Only after watching the director’s cut - whose length was 204 minutes, as opposed to 198 minutes of the abridged one - I somewhat understood the poetic justice the writers and the director set out to do by killing the unrepentant bandit.

Gabbar. Arguably the meatiest author-backed antagonist in the history of Bombay cinema. No redeeming qualities in him. Abrasive, foul-mouthed who treats the entire Ramgarh village as his fiefdom, he is shown fleeing life imprisonment once. He might have done it many times before. There is no reason he wouldn’t do it again.

Thakur. Once a brave inspector with an inclination to take risks, an adventurist. One of his adventures end up in Gabbar’s arrest. Gabbar comes back. He wants to hit back, by not killing him. He wants it to be more brutal: he wants Thakur stripped of his dignity. He cuts off those strong hands which are akin to phaansi ka fanda (noose at the gallows).

Would it have been more appropriate for Thakur to do a tit for tat and hand Gabbar over to the police, sans his mobility? Isn’t that what Gabbar did instead of killing Thakur?

It is interesting to ponder over this but given that Thakur was too belligerent to consider an alternative and that Gabbar in all likelihood would have taken a different avataar even after losing limbs, it was approprite ato show Thakur killing Gabbar. Besides, police in our movies was always shown closing the stable door only after the horse had bolted. So, it would have been incongruous to show police doing it for the most notorious criminal - one who every neighbourhood mother used to deploy as a bogeyman while ordering her child to sleep. (so jaa beta so jaa, nahin to Gabbar aa jayega!)

Thakur Baldev Singh was once an adventurist who liked to play with fire. Gabbar is more of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). If Thakur is son of the soil, Gabbar’s abode is the jungle, the mountains. He understands only the language of violence. His response to any overt/covert display of human emotions - including servility shown by his minions - is violence. Hence, he is not able to differentiate between a conscientious inspector and his lovely little family.

As Gabbar kills Thakur’s family members, we are spared the horror of watching him kill youngest member -his eight-year old grandson. Only to be served an even more terrifying reminder of what lies in store for the patriarch. We see the grandson's corpse only from Thakur’s perspective - the noise of Gabbar’s bullet gets dissolved into the noise of Thakur’s train as Thakur returns home for his vacation.

Thakur is home. Powerful winds blowing across the mountains lift the veneer of silence to reveal the horror of corpses lying in a row. However, the winds are not intrusive enough. He has to forcibly lift the semblance of silence that a white chaadar (blanket) imposes to see the terror written over the child’s body. We expect grief. We are served with angst.

As he seeks instant revenge from Gabbar, in all his bravura, he is outmanoeuvred by Gabbar’s men; Gabbar intends to kill him but knows better - he ties Thakur’s hands, the very hands which Thakur considers phaansi ka fanda (noose of the gallows). They plead for help as Gabbar dissects them, rendering them lifeless. Thakur’s dead hands become an extended portion of the heavy iron chains to which they had been tied.

It is at this point that the two lifeless rock pillars in Gabbar’s den on which the chains hang seep into Thakur’s memory, become internalised into his psyche. The pillars assume an added dimension, become a character in the film.

Thakur comes out with little left inside but a desire for revenge. Having already lost his family, he loses his sense of dignity, his medal of pride.

Sharpening the axe

Another scene - presaging the climax - involved Thakur's faithful companion Ramlaal (Satyen Kappu) hitting nail on his two shoes with a certain mechanical precision. It’s here that we see the pent up frustration, the raw anger, the existential angst on Thakur’s face.

Ramlal keeps hitting the nail on the shoe’s ‘head’ with his hammer. The monotony of hammer shots mix with with the Thakur-Gabbar motif - the background music - and create a workmanlike precision to the scene. No dialogue here. A sense of chill. Silence.

Thakur keeps staring at this process, unflinchingly. Once it is over, Ramlal takes the shoes up and shows them to Thakur. Thakur looks at them without batting an eyelid and gives a vengeful nod.

Without having the original climax, having this gem of a scene would have been unnecessary, hence it was not taken.

The expression and the coda

The pent up angst in Thakur finds expression when Veeru leaves Gabbar’s fate to him. Thakur walks through the space - between two dilapidated rock pillars, one bigger than the other - where he lost his hands. The space that created the distance between his daredevil past and disabled present. That’s the space where he lost his previous self, a part of himself. On the pillars hang the chains his hands felt before being rendered useless [ye haath humko de de Thakur].

He crushes Gabbar’s hands, treating them as one treats a venomous snake once it comes under control, then forces Gabbar to ambulate near the same two lifeless rock pillars. Gabbar is by now losing consciousness though still having some willpower. He is about to collapse when Thakur forcibly makes him stand; then, sensing an opportunity, he rams Gabbar’s body into a sharp, rusted rod, sticking out of one of the pillars like a sore thumb. The spot where he lost his limbs marks the point where his antithesis loses his life. The moment is as surreal as it is eerie.

To bring more phantasmagoria, the rod could well be a hardened form of one of his two cut hands - decayed, rotten - hanging out just for this one final act, to taste Gabbar's blood.

However, the real poignancy is reserved for the next sequence. Thakur collapses, his head resting at the adjacent pillar. Some kind of rigor mortis sets in. Veeru brings Thakur's shawl, a mark of Thakur's self esteem. Thakur breaks down, his head pressed firmly on Veeru’s shoulder. Revenge accomplished, he mourns. Mourns for the lives lost. Mourns for his own helples self. Mourns for the futility and the fatality of all that has happened.

Thakur has not expressed his anguish till that moment: not when he realised that his family became unwitting victim to the dictates of his duty; nor when reality dawns that his bahu Radha (Jaya Bachchan) may remain a widow for the rest of her life, following Jai’s death. He is someone who can’t cry, can’t stoop (na toot sakta hai, na jhuk sakta hai).

However, at that final moment, when he has extracted his revenge, it is as if his pain cannot hide itself any more behind the veil of vengeance. He cries, inconsolably. This forms the perfect poetic justice. “Revenge tastes best when served cold”; Thakur’s grief waits till the perfect moment. This marks a well-choreographed closure for him, maybe a sense of justice? Perhaps, in this battle between bandits and peasants, only the rule of the jungle - not the rule of the law - can consummate his desire for justice?

It is when I ruminate on these questions that I realise that the act of Gabbar getting arrested takes the coda out of the climax.

Serotonin for the cinephilic soul

These changes, however, did not take away the charm of the movie. Perhaps that detour was necessary considering the political condition and considering that fundamental rights lay suspended. Maybe with the original ending, Sholay would not have become the cult classic it became.

We still had Veeru getting into the empty coach at the end with Basanti waiting for him inside, the train taking the couple to an unknown destination, in search of an unscripted future. We still had Manohari Singh’s whistling in the background, as the end credits rolled, with Thakur watching the train depart. All of this creating a certain melancholy.

It was befitting to show a tired, emotionless Thakur wondering about how to keep himself motivated to live, now that his purpose was over. He needed a new purpose, a new vision.

The end credits roll. The film ends with melancholy, a sense of uncertainty, solitude and perhaps some tranquility [the background music here plays the role of a stimulant]. It is this tranquility that makes us want to rewind and watch the movie all over again, irrespective of whether Gabbar dies or gets arrested.