Why Sholay’s Basanti Was My First Bollywood Feminist Icon

Posted: August 14, 2018

This independence day, it is 43 years since the release of Sholay. Pooja Priyamvada tells us why, despite her flaws, Basanti is a feminist icon to her. 

Sholay happened in 1975, a few years before I was born. So, by the time I grew up in those Doordarshan days to understand films, it was already legendary in many ways.

All along my growing up years, my favourite was everybody’s favourite. No, it was neither of the two heroes Jai and Veeru, nor the Thakur played by the exceptional Sanjeev Kumar. But it was the villain who smashed all moulds – Gabbar Singh – a character that could be played by the one and only Late Amjad Khan.

Sometimes one of our neighbours, who worked at some Public Relations department, would get the huge projector from his office in Shimla. On special occasions they would show us films on a screen made of white bed sheets from the whole colony. So on Republic day we would see Manoj Kumar’s Kranti or Purab Aur Paschim. Gandhi Jayanti was reserved for Gandhi in Hindi and Holi evening was Sholay night.

During one of those sessions, sitting on the floor along with almost a 100 other neighbourhood children and adults, an epiphany happened to me. I suddenly realised my favourite wasn’t Gabbar anymore but that I just adored Basanti played by Hema Malini.

Basanti, I much later realised, was my first role model of Indian feminism. Somewhere in the film she says something like, ”I thought if Dhano (the mare who pulls her horse-cart) can pull the tonga being a she-horse, why couldn’t I – a girl be the rider?” That statement for me is one of the most inspiring take-aways from the film, in spite of dozens of other legendary dialogues spoken by its dominant male characters.

During the 70s in India, most small-town women didn’t even dared to drive cars or two-wheelers much. Here we had a mainstream heroine, doing a ‘male task’ (as conventionally perceived), riding a horse cart to earn her livelihood.

Overall there are some regressive shades in Basanti’s character, like for instance she aspires for marriage as the end goal for herself – fasts and prays at the village temple for the same. She wants to save her ‘character’ (read virginity) at all costs when chased by the dacoits, even at the cost of her life.

Yet to me, Basanti is one of the main protagonists of the piece, whether it is being the path breaking tongawali of Ramgarh or as the spunky woman who will not be deterred from dancing in the dreaded dacoit’s den to save her lover. I understand the objectification of wives or girlfriends and partners in the whole scenario but it is no coy song of a soft, mellowed woman but the unfettered expression of a confident and gutsy woman who sings – “aa jab tak hai jaan jaane jahan main nachungi” (Till I am alive I shall dance, my dear).

For her continuous candour, her undying spirit, the compassion she shows towards the old Imaam Saheb played by the legendary A K Hangal, her defiance of the traditional division of labour, her flamboyance and vivacity – Basanti from Sholay is my first feminist icon from Bollywood.

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2 Comments


  1. So beautifully written! Both the film and its protagonist and the community life of Shimla of early 80s!

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