Checkpoint Theatre's The Good, The Bad And The Sholay gets to the heart of an iconic Bollywood film

The cast from The Good, The Bad and the Sholay during a rehearsal.
The cast from The Good, The Bad and the Sholay during a rehearsal.PHOTO: CHECKPOINT THEATRE

Kalaa Utsavam 2015: The Good, the Bad and the Sholay

Checkpoint Theatre / Esplanade Theatre Studio/ Nov 26

Forty years after it first reached screens in India, the Hindi film Sholay remains such an untouchable icon of Bollywood cinema that in late August this year, the Delhi High Court slapped a Rs 1,000,000 (S$21,000) fine on a director behind an insipid remake that "distorted and mutilated the original work".

The judgment was imposed for violating the original maker's copyright but the wording makes me believe it was handed down by a fan of Ramesh Sippy's 1975 movie about two lovable rogues who take down the bandits terrorising a small village.

That same judge would probably have approved of Thursday's sold-out theatrical homage to the movie, The Good, The Bad And The Sholay, written by Shiv Tandan and co-directed by him and Huzir Sulaiman. Here on stage was recreated not just some of the film's most memorable scenes but also the childlike awe with which many still regard Sholay, and heartfelt explanations of why the story resonates. It is a coming-of-age story about losing innocence and gaining maturity, making it the perfect vehicle for a fan to understand the changes in his own life.

On stage, shoot-outs, Bollywood dance numbers and desperate chases alternate with moments from the life of protagonist Raghav Sharma, who goes from child cycling merrily on roads with no traffic signals to a life governed by the Internet, online communication and little real-time interaction with human beings. And this happens before he moves to Singapore to study at the National University of Singapore.

The connections made between the movie and Raghav's life - also Tandan's - sometimes stretch credulity but that does not matter. What matters is that the eight cast members believe in them. They throw themselves with serious abandon into the intensely physical roles the play demands, running crouched in place to simulate cycle rides or waving their arms to become the wheels of a horse-drawn tonga carriage.

They whistle to simulate the wind and explosively mimic the sounds of firecrackers. When they sing - a multiracial cast, in Hindi - it is with commendable poise and aching beauty.

I first watched this show in 2011, when it was co-presented by Checkpoint Theatre and NUS Stage and this re-staging is more polished in terms of the cast's performance while retaining the feeling of rawness integral to understanding and enjoying the production. Sholay is a boy's own adventure about two best friends - criminals, yes, but their robbery and chicanery can be discounted as youthful high spirits when contrasted with the irredeemably evil villain. It begins with light-hearted capers and moves into the adult territory of love, tragedy and sacrifice.

Raghav's story follows a similar arc, if smaller in trajectory, as he grows from secure child to confused teenager and wiser, sadder adult. The movie allows him to recapture the larger-than-life emotions and feelings that society is not always comfortable seeing adults express.

The play does exactly the same for the audience, recreating in an intense, atmospheric bubble a place where viewers can laugh and cry and drop the playacting for a second to revel like a child in a story excellently told.

akshitan@sph.com.sg