Salim-Javed were not squeamish about pilfering, whether from life or the movies. The Hollywood western was the primary inspiration, but they looked closer home as well. Raj Khosla’s 1971 hit, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, the story of a one-armed man who reforms a petty criminal and uses him to protect their village against dacoits, loomed like a ghost in the background. There was also Narendra Bedi’s successful B-grade take on the western, Khote Sikkey, released the same year that Sholay was being written. The Bimal Roy classic, Madhumati, has a scene in which a boastful servant is caught by his master, much like what happens with Soorma Bhopali. And the coin motif – Jai tosses a coin before making any decision – came from a Gary Cooper starrer, Garden of Evil. But Salim-Javed weren’t cheap imitators. Their genius lay in their ability to refashion ideas in ways more compelling than the original…

The film had been conceived as a multi-starrer. But by the time the original idea was developed into a full story outline, the list of characters had grown beyond what anyone had expected. Casting, naturally, had turned out to be a difficult process. Many names were discussed as the script developed. Dharmendra and Hema Malini were, of course, obvious choices after Seeta aur Geeta. In 1973, with five hits together, they were already established as a successful star pair.

The big question was, who would play the second male lead, Jai? Shatrughan Sinha, cocky and flamboyant, was hot, a villain with a fan following to rival that of the heroes’. The distributors, too, were keen on him. But Salim-Javed were sold on Amitabh. Perhaps the only people in all of India to have thrice watched his colossal dud, Raaste ka Pathar, the writers were convinced that Amitabh was an exceptional artiste. The older son of noted Hindi poet Harivanshrai Bachchan, Amitabh had given up a job as a freight broker for the shipping firm Bird & Company in Calcutta to pursue an acting career. But he wasn’t having much luck. His distinctive voice was rejected by All India Radio, and in his early film, Reshma aur Shera, he had played a mute. As his films continued to flop, roles became scarce. In Duniya ka Mela, he was replaced by Sanjay Khan. But Salim-Javed, who had already convinced Prakash Mehra to cast him in Zanjeer, kept the faith.

Ramesh toyed with the idea of signing on Shatru but finally decided that he was too big a star. Three mega-watt stars translate into mega-watt ego problems. Ramesh had seen both Bombay to Goa and Anand, and was impressed by Amitabh’s talent. Meanwhile, Amitabh had also asked Dharmendra to put in a word. The lobbying worked. Amitabh was cast as Jai.

Pran was a strong contender for the Thakur’s role. Once a leading villain in Hindi films, he had become a character actor with a big draw. He had also worked in earlier Sippy productions like Mere Sanam and Brahmachari. But Ramesh decided that Sanjeev Kumar was a better choice. In Seeta aur Geeta, Sanjeev had played the generic hero role, but his acting prowess had already been established with films like Khilona, Koshish and Parichay. Born into a traditional Gujarati family, Sanjeev came to films via the theatre. He worked with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, mostly playing the role of an old man. He didn’t like that. He was a thirty-year-old playing seventy-year-old characters. One day he asked IPTA veteran, AK Hangal, why he was never cast as the hero. ‘Hero ke role main kya rakkha hai?’ (What’s so special about a hero’s role?) Hangal had replied. ‘Agar shuru main tumhein hero ka role diya to hero hi bana rahega. Actor kabhi nahin banega. (If you start with a hero’s role, that’s all you’ll remain. You’ll never become an actor.)’ And Sanjeev was, foremost, an actor.

As was Jaya Bhaduri. The diminutive actress, who had started her career with a small role in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, had become a big star with Guddi. The widow’s role that she was being offered in the new film wasn’t much on paper. The footage was less than Hema’s. It was, literally, less colourful. But who else, asks Ramesh, ‘could convey through her eyes, facial expressions and body language, the kind of feelings that Jaya could? There wasn’t another actress of that calibre at the time.’ Jaya wasn’t so sure. She wondered if she should do such a small role. But she was seeing Amitabh at the time. Their first two films together, Ek Nazar and Bansi Birju, had flopped but two more, Zanjeer and Abhimaan, were due for release. ‘Everything is nice,’ Amitabh told her, ‘we’ll be together, it’s a nice film, nice set-up. It suits you.’ She agreed.

For the important role of the dacoit, Ramesh zeroed in on Danny Dengzongpa. The Film and Television Institute of India graduate had become an in-demand villain after playing the wheelchair-bound psychotic husband in Dhund. Javed wasn’t too excited about the choice, but Danny had both exotic looks and acting talent.

With dialogue, the characters started to breathe. As the skeletal sketches were fleshed out, the script gained new dimensions. The dialogue was first discussed and then written. Putting pen to paper was Javed’s job, but his script was mostly illegible. He wrote furiously in Urdu, often at his Bandstand house, while an assistant, Khalish, waited. Javed wrote entire scenes at a time, without crossing out or rethinking. The script was then written out in Hindi by Khalish while another assistant, Amarjeet, typed out the one-line summary in English.

With each line, Gabbar Singh grew in stature. He wasn’t the run-of-the-mill daku but a larger-than-life bandit on the lines of Sergio Leone’s villains. He belonged to a place, as Javed says, ‘somewhere between Mexico and Uttar Pradesh’. His character was unpredictable and his language familiar but eccentric. Gabbar had his own dialect – a Ganga Jamuna-inspired mix of Khadi Boli with a flavour of Avadhi. There was a peculiar coarseness in his lines, a sadism even in his choice of words, and it was this undiluted, earthy violence that would eventually have millions of Indians repeating his lines and even shelling out hard-earned rupees to buy records of the film’s dialogue.

Sambha, the bit role that would immortalize character actor Macmohan, was factored in only as the dialogue was being written. The writers wanted to say that Gabbar Singh had a Rs 50,000 reward on his head. But they thought that a man of Gabbar’s arrogance would probably order a flunkie to boast for him. So the following lines were written:

Arre o Sambha, kitna inaam rakhe hain sarkaar hum par? (Sambha, what’s the reward the government’s fixed for my head?)’

Poore pachaas hazaar. (A full fifty thousand.)’

Suna? Poore pachaas hazaar. (Hear that? A full fifty thousand.)’

Sambha, Gabbar’s echo, was then integrated into the screenplay.

Gabbar’s language was so powerful that when the dialogue version was narrated to Amitabh, he wanted to play Gabbar. Salim-Javed were perhaps the only writers at the time who gave complete narrations, down to the ambience and last cut. The narration would be perfect teamwork, with Javed talking and Salim stressing a point in places, or interspersing with more detail. Hearing them narrate was like watching the film, frame by frame. Amitabh was convinced that Gabbar’s was the better role. So was Sanjeev Kumar.

When Sanjeev first heard the script, he was shocked by the violence. ‘When we reached interval point,’ says Javed, ‘his face was crushed. It was like somebody punches you on the nose. Sanjeev was totally taken aback.’ Sanjeev had agreed to do the film, but after hearing the dialogue, he wanted Danny’s role. The character fascinated him. But he didn’t insist for long. Because ultimately Gabbar was a villain, and the violence disturbed Sanjeev. And no matter how colourful Ravan is, the victor is always Ram.

In fact the script shaped up so well that every actor was tempted by the others’ roles. Dharmendra heard the final script enthralled like a child. And then asked if he could play the Thakur. The actor in him instinctively knew that he may be the hero but finally it was the Thakur’s story. He was the prime mover. ‘We can talk about it if you want,’ Ramesh said, ‘but don’t forget that even though he is central, it is a character role. Besides, if we switch roles, then Sanjeev gets Hema Malini in the end.’ The Dharmendra-Hema romance had just begun, and Sanjeev had already proposed to Hema once. Dharmendra gave Ramesh a look and made a quick decision. ‘Veeru is good. I think I’ll stick to playing Veeru.’

Excerpted with permission from Sholay The Making of a Classic, Anupama Chopra, Penguin Books India.