I’ve become used to catching up with classics late. The latest addition to my list of well-I’ve-finally-gone-ahead-and-done-it accomplishments is viewing Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West. A DVD of it was lying around in my gym with a sign that said ‘Take me!’, so I did, and watched it on Friday night.
I suspect Once Upon a Time in the West is one of those movies that, for me at least, will improve with repeated viewings. Not of the entire movie, I don’t have time for that, but of certain key sequences. Foremost among them would be the opening, set at the railway station, where Harmonica (Charles Bronson) makes his dramatic first appearance, and the family massacre scene, which introduces viewers to the ruthless Frank (Henry Fonda, cast against type as the ruthless killer).
The latter scene is of especial interest to anyone that grew up watching Bollywood movies. The chances are that such a viewer has seen Sholay, the longest running movie of all time in Indian cinema history. (Other movies, in this day and age of global distribution, have raked in more money at the box-office, but it is unlikely any of them will approach Sholay‘s attendance records, which include a five-year run at a Mumbai movie-house.) A crucial scene in Sholay–a revenge movie like Once Upon a Time in the West–is a flashback to the massacre of a family by the ruthless bandit Gabbar Singh. For most viewers of the movie at the time, it was a shocking scene with a chilling conclusion that confirmed the Devil-on-the-earth persona of Gabbar. And it is inspired rather directly by Leone’s classic, in its grammar, its use of music, its final conclusion. (This YouTube clip, subtitles and all, includes both scenes in full; the quality is not stellar but it is still worth a watch.)
I saw Sholay in 1976 in Hyderabad. Buying tickets for it in Delhi was next to impossible; it was sold out for weeks in advance, and I was growing increasingly frustrated by my inability to join the select gang of those that spoke glowingly of its unbridled shoot-em-up action, a tempting vision for a nine-year old boy. Our summer vacation that year took us to South India, where local enthusiasm for Sholay, set a couple of notches below the North Indian version, gave us just enough breathing room to procure tickets for a matinée. My mother accompanied my brother and myself to the movie; for weeks afterwards, we happily repeated its lines and staged many of its scenes in our backyard.
But I remained spooked by the massacre. I had not seen anything quite as ruthless and cold-blooded like it in the movies till then. I had imagined there was a line they would not cross but this scene blew that naive impression out of the water. Call it my coming-of-age, the end of my innocence. In the movies, that is.
Note: Ramesh Sippy, Sholay’s director, had made no secret of his desire to make a movie inspired by the Hollywood western. This included bringing in Hollywood stunt directors Jim Allen and Gerry Crampton to supervise and direct some of the Western-inspired action sequences: horsemen–yup, Indians!–attacking a train, and horsemen–Indians again!–attacking a village (in lieu of a wagon train).