The Good, the Bad and the Curry

Recently released Abhishek Chaubey’s latest action film Sonchirya(about the notorious dacoits of Chambal ravines) takes us back to our very own invention of popular Western sub-genre—Spaghetti Western which was instrumental in inspiring what we today call the ‘Curry Western’ films which illuminated the lives of most notorious dacoits of India.

The Good, the Bad and the Curry The Good, the Bad and the Curry Source : Press

Sergio Leone made Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America which are widely considered to be among the greatest films of all time but he is still remembered most for the film which shot him to fame-the "Dollars Trilogy" or "The man with No Name Trilogy". Sergio Leone invented the Spaghetti Western genre with A Fistful of Dollars that released in Italy in 1964 followed by For a few Dollars More in 1965 and finally, the best of the trilogy and most popular-The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that came out in 1966 which became an unprecedented classic of its genre and time and ascended Clint Eastwood into stardom. It is today a film of cultural significance and one of the most popular and influential of all time.

The Spaghetti Western Cinema of Sergio Leone departs from the classic Western cinema of John Ford (My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach, and The Searchers) and Howard Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo) in its tone, texture, style and soundtrack; and the values. The use of widescreen format; innovative editing techniques like juxtaposing sweeping panoramas with extreme close-ups; and excessive action scenes separates it visually from the earlier westerns. Ennio Morricone's music is distinctive and in stark contrast to the folk songs and orchestral scores of the classic westerns which was as much a creative decision as it was a budgetary one. Leone and Morricone's collaborations became one of the greatest composer-director partnerships ever. Morricone's thumping music blends well with the elaborate visual style of Leone. The Spanish locations Leone used is similar to the haunting images of Salvador Dali whom he was a great admirer of. The name Spaghetti Western comes from the simple fact that they were produced and directed by Italians.

Sergio Leone in his Spaghetti Westerns distorts the idea of American Old West by the harshness of the setting, by his unscrupulous loner protagonists willing to go extreme lengths to fulfill their self-interests; by idiosyncratic villains; and by distilling Hollywood's definition of western mythology. He disentangled the American myth from the American reality.

During the period between 1940s-1970s, dacoits flourished in the beehad (ravines) of Chambal which lies at the intersection of the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Art imitates and life and life imitates art. After Gabbar Singh, mothers used to put their children to bed "So ja beta, so ja. Varna Gabbar Singh aa jayega (Go to sleep my child, or Gabbar Singh will come)". It also captures how the terror perpetrated by the bandits had become part of the culture and life in the region. The fables about dacoits were passed on for generations and Hindi film writers and directors took the opportunity and create the ‘daku' (dacoit) genre. The new stories were exaggerated to fit the old notion of dacoits. Mehboob Khan is credited with giving birth to the genre with his film Aurat (1940), which he remade as Mother India (1957) which went on to define the ‘daku' genre together with Dilip Kumar's Gunga Jumna (1961). Homi Wadia's Diamond Queen (1940) and Raj Kapoor's Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1961) are other popular films from this genre.

Sholay (1975), one of India's most iconic films ever, is also the most famous Curry Western film. Starring Amjab Khan, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Hema Malini and Jaya Bhaduri, Writers Salim-Javed blended the tropes of typical genre dacoit films like Mother India and Gunga Jumna with inspirations from Spaghetti Westerns films like ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' and ‘Once Upon a Time in the West' (some scenes, score, and sound effects are eerily similar). The friendship of Jai-Veeru draws heavily from the Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman in George Roy Hill's western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sholay was quite an overwhelming experience for Indian audiences of the time but soon enough they caught up with its style and it became a classic which led to an explosion of films made in the same vein like Ganga Ki Saugandh (1978), again starring Amitabh Bachchan and Amjad Khan.

The narrative, cinematography, editing, sound effects and villains of Sergio Leone's films and Morricone's soundtrack proved to be huge inspirations for Curry Western filmmakers as they Indianized their remakes. Many of the films sometimes employed direct renditions of the source of their inspiration. Raj Khosla's Kucche Dhaage (1973) and Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), Narendra Bedi's Khhotte Sikkay (1974) and Kachche Heere (1982), Feroz Khan-Parveen Babi starrer Kaala Sona(1975), Deepak Bahry's two Curry Westerns Hum Se Badhkar Kaun(1981) and Hum Se Hai Zamana(1983) draw heavily from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Raj Sippi's Loha (1987), Sibte Rizvi's Joshilaay (1989) is a remake of For a Few Dollars More.

Driven by the popularity of the dacoit genre, it became a fad to make films set in Chambal, at the very home of daku legend. Some of the films include Moni Bhattacharjee's Mujhe Jeene Do (1963, which is about a notorious bandit who authorities aren't able to catch as he spreads terror in the region), Harmesh Malhotra's Patthar Aur Payal (1974), Prakash Mehra's 1978 film Aakhri Daku ("Mangal Singh played by Vinod Khanna is a dreaded dacoit of the Chambal valley who mercilessly loots people and kills them."), Daku Hasina (1987), Rahul Rawail's Sunny Deol starring Dacait (1987).

There have only been a handful of ‘daku' films that realistically depict their subject and derive its form and content not from some western film but from the local culture, society, and place of its origin. Films like Shekhar Kapoor's internationally acclaimed masterpiece Bandit Queen (1994) which is a provocative story of female bandit Phoolan Devi, and in recent years Tigmanshu Dhulia's Paan Singh Tomar and Abhishek Chaubey's Sonchiriya(which is about the cracking down of Daku Man Singh and his gang). All these films were shot in the beehad of Chambal that partly explains why these films are regarded higher than the ones which merely used the ‘idea' of Chambal to create a world hanging by the thread of allusions, fixated at the fables without ever setting feet in the ravines.

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