Aditya Sarpotdar’s biopic The Sholay Girl opens with a scene from the 1975 classic before seamlessly moving to the behind-the-scenes action. As dacoits give chase to Sholay’s heroine, Hema Malini, she flees on her tonga, but loses her balance and falls to the ground. It’s an unplanned moment, one that takes us out of the movie and onto the sets. We see Malini’s body double, Reshma Pathan, writhing in pain. Reshma is badly injured, and as she is taken to hospital, we move into a flashback of how she got there.
Life turns out to be a bit like the movies with happy endings that nurture Reshma in The Sholay Girl, which is being streamed on Zee5. Both the screenplay by Faizal Akhtar and Shrabani Deodhar and Sarpotdar’s treatment make little distinction between Reshma’s work and her life away off screen. The result is an undeniably uplifting biopic that pays tribute to Reshma’s daring and can-do spirit, but also softens the rough edges and underplays the exploitative conditions under which she often worked.
The dialogue is packed with the kind of aphorisms that were popular in the 1970s, when Reshma traded street-side acrobatics for a career as a stunt artist. Spotted by stunt director Asim (Chandan Roy Sanyal), the impoverished Reshma starts working as a stunt double despite opposition from her orthodox father (Aditya Lakhia). You don’t need talent to shine, you have an inner light – but don’t ever show your face to the camera, Asim advises Reshma.
She turns out to be one of his finest students. Asim asks Reshma, will you run through fire? A sheet of glass? Leap off the third floor? “Yes guruji,” Reshma replies with a goofy grin, glowing with a sense of achievement and the knowledge that she is finally able to support her parents and three siblings. Bidita Bag turns out a compelling performance, and Chandan Roy Sanyal too is a warm presence as her mentor.
The running length is trim to the point of being terse: the 106 minutes prove to be inadequate to provide an overview of Reshma’s life. The highlights-only approach ensures that the workings of the film industry remain underexplored. As The Sholay Girl speeds by, it devotes one scene each to poor working conditions, the lack of workplace safety measures, the contributions of technicians, and the harassment of women that are common on the sets. Reshma has to make a noise to gain membership to the all-male stunt artists’ union, and when she gets her card, she clutches it with the same fervour as an actress would an Oscar.
The emphasis on celebration extends to the heavily saturated colour palette – yellows brighter than the sun, reds deeper than crimson. The climax echoes the beginning, bringing a nice, if all-too-neat, circularity to the chronicle. As the film switches back from fiction to fact, we meet the real Reshma Pathan, and see her in one of her most recent appearances, as an extra in Rohit Shetty’s blockbuster Golmaal Again (2017). The film is filled with fictionalised treacly moments, but the sight of the silver-haired Reshma Pathan proves hard to beat.