They just couldn’t figure out what was going on! Why did the new big star – post Zanjeer and Deewar have to die? Why was the gifted Jaya given such a small role? What was this rehash of Sergio Leone’s curry Westerns, Mera Gaon Mera Desh and several other ‘inspirations’ trying to say and who the hell was this weird, eccentric, uncouth villain Gabbar Singh speaking “a mix of khadiboli with a flavour of Avadhi and belonging to somewhere between Mexico and Uttar Pradesh?!”
It was generally deemed too violent and imitative and the general impression was that it could never ever hope to recover its huge costs and was doomed to be a spectacular failure. Dubbed CHHOLE by some malicious people, the first few weeks was greeted with deafening silence, convincing the cast that it was doomed.
Ramesh Sippy insisted that from day one, the public actually liked it, but the media’s blitz of negative reports scared them off and many refused to see it, convinced that it was worthless. Also, the film-maker believes that when anything new arrives on the scene, it tends to confuse and bewilder people initially because it is challenging the traditional norms & beliefs & conditioned mind-sets, causing discomfort. The plot, storyline, language, locale, villain were all new beasts to contend with for a constituency which traditionally associated dacoit films with the Chambal Valley ravines or deserts of Rajasthan; Head-gear & tikka on the forehead, dhoti-clad with fire in the eyes of a desperate soul who turned bad because he was wronged by the system or evil zamindar.
Further, city-slicker-mercenaries were also a completely new animal embracing this genre. I remember Javed Akhtar once telling me –during an interview in the early 90’s – that the idea of the special lilt and language in terms of dialect, look n’ feel of Gabbar Singh came about after a conversation with the director, who once returned from seeing a curry western “very taken up by both the inarticulate language and body language of Eli Wallach. Uncouth, unkempt with a garbled, uniquely expressive dialect, Ramesh-ji seemed genuinely excited about the way the actor communicated. That could have been a possible trigger into our Gabbar characterisation.”