It would be only later that we would realize how we had been taken for a ride; the real villain were not the Amerindians; they were defending their land against the invading European immigrants who should be the real villains
As an adolescent I had always entertained the secret wish of seeing some ‘French movies’, but spelling it loudly would be folly. The feeling was that dad was anti-‘western’, and I would not wish him to rake up the question of my studies at any time. So I kept that movie agenda hidden from the old man.
It was one thing to accompany the family to the Indian movies, but trying to go for ‘French movies’ was another kettle of fish, for it was almost taboo to talk about such films at home. We boys were well aware of those other sessions at Roxy Theatre to which the family rarely alluded, though we knew that our uncle Marday was a regular visitor there.
Exposed to posters about Indian and Western pictures we, Asian origin boys, would slowly realize that there was a different world lying to the west. Besides our education, those ‘French pictures’ contributed to shift our beliefs away from our familial way of life, thereby weaning us slowly from strict traditional eastern culture.
After puberty one’s physiology began to be moulded by all sorts of hormones, and the mind became fired by the ‘western’ trailers at Roxy Theatre; it was unfair to expect us mature boys to remain indifferent to the magnetism of those shows.
In those teen years full of uncertainties, my uncle came to my rescue. He was the first one who took me to Roxy to have a glimpse of this extraordinary world yonder; being used to the second class balcony he initiated me in that new space, so different from the first class downstairs. At that time French, American and English movies were all the same to us boys, because they were all dubbed in French.
The introversion of the actors and the well-clad heroine of our Indian pictures had little to do with their counterparts in the westerns; the adolescents’ fancies became polarized by new emotional experiences. We discovered that the world looked more pragmatic, down to earth but cruel in the ‘French pictures’ than in the Indian one; there were more realistic fights, stunts and more physical intimacy between hero and heroine – all of which would start channeling our male brain dominated by testosterone and curiosity into new unexplored universes.
In those years we were treated to three ‘westerns’ in one show! How we were impressed by the American macho actors – more so as they went about with a revolver hanging at their hip. And the softer, paler colour of those pictures were different and many of them were in scope projection.
All these small technical differences, combined with our ability to understand the language, gave us the impression that we were in a different world of make-believe, unlike our experience with the ‘Film Indien’, where we had to do a lot of guess work.
In these western plots we were entertained by such villains as Jack Palance and heroes like Alan Ladd, John Wayne or Dean Martin and how they rode their horses with such ease and dexterity with typical harmonica or banjo western music in the background.
How could we forget the classical ‘western’ arid, rainless village found in the very midst of nowhere. it had a single, dusty main road, furrowed by the wheels of the daily passenger Fargo carriage drawn by 4 to 6 horses from which would get down some despicable, dirty, unshaven and may be foul– mouthed bandits. We were astounded to see the villagers walking the main road in their full three-piece suits – in such a warm, dry and dusty village environment, we kept wondering what sort of country was that.
On both sides of that road would sprout out a single row of wooden buildings and the main official offices of the village. The sheriff’s office stood out as the most prominent of them, and the saloon with rooms for rent upstairs was a regular feature of the film. And the other professionals like the barber, the iron smith and the inevitable undertaker’s shops were part of the décor, while a single steeple church lay isolated at the other end of the village.
In the saloon of the bar, with the typical creaky swinging half-doors, would be some good for nothing ruffians whiling away their time drinking whisky and playing endless poker games on round tables, while the anxious looking barman behind his bar would be busy shining the empty whisky glasses. Here would be the perfect setting where a confrontation between the hero and the villains would be sparked off at any moment.
The sheriff, hero or friend of the hero, would either be a honest, reliable cowboy or a paid underling of a local mafia landlord, while the undertakers would always be hovering in the background, on the lookout for potential clients – as gunshots could start whizzing by at any moment. It was often that a fight would be sparked off, and the whole furniture of the saloon would be reduced to a mass of broken wood.
Soon we would be witness to its happy-go-lucky gun culture; the hero would be finally challenged by the villain in the main street at dusk, while all the inhabitants would run away for dear life.
At the same time a howling breeze would be blowing, stirring some dust and forcing some small weedy bush from the nearby highlands to roll onto the streets – all to lend the genuine rustic western stamp to the movie.
As they stood facing each other, both hero and villain would brush aside their leather jacket and uncover their pistol butts, with fingers hovering, twitching and wriggling nearer and nearer to their fire arms, as the camera shot would slowly shift the angle from one antagonist to the other. Then suddenly the hero would be as fast as lightening and in a wink of the eye he would have flipped the gun out of his holster and deliver the deadly shot to the villain, who would struggle to stay upright but would finally succumb to the wound. The hero would walk by, cast a last disdainful glance at his opponent and stroll down the main road nonchalantly, jump on his loyal horse, and ride away all alone, abandoning his heart throb girlfriend behind – while the sun was slowly sinking below the reddish yellow horizon in the background.
We were impressed, because we could appreciate the difference from the Indian pictures where the actors can afford to be sentimental, where life was about songs, love, family and marriage ; but ‘westerns’ were about justice at the end of the barrels of a pistol!
Of course, in most westerns at that time the villains could also be the Amerindians; they had their proud chief with beautiful plumage and colourful paintings on his face; how they dared to attack the white men’s farm and family, while indulging in acrobatics on their saddle-less horses and howling in their strange, piercing tone; and the farmer’s wife and children would hold on the ranch, shooting at the ‘savages’ until the arrival of the men or the cavalry.
For us adolescents it was great fun to sit through three movies. By the end of the day, as we walked back home, we would be a bit befuddled also; which actor was in the first film, or was he in the third ? We might mix and confuse the three scenarios; but that did not matter much. They were the unforgettable exciting days of our adolescence.
It would be only later that we would realize how we had been taken for a ride; the real villain were not the Amerindians; they were defending their land against the invading European immigrants who should be the real villains. But then we would be told that the film maker was just epitomizing and depicting the way life was decades or centuries ago in the wild unruly west.
And gradually it would dawn upon us adolescents that there were different ways to look at life, some preaching about peace and joint family life while others were about brute justice and individualism. And that in different countries there were people with different cultures, traditions and values.
* Published in print edition on 11 May 2018