The Western, Violence and Social Contexts

As looking into contexts in order to find out some relationship between a film genre and society, one should remember that a contextual study would not provide a final answer to how to make sense of a (re)surge of the genre. Such an approach often leaves unexplored questions like why the Western instead of other genres which, in theory, can equally or similarly be reflective, symptomatic, or allegorical, of sociocultural contexts. The Western is not simply exchangeable with other genres; it interacts with sociocultural contexts in a distinctive way and thereby touches upon distinctive aspects or issues of sociocultural contexts. Therefore, one should not ignore questions like What distinct pleasure can a genre of American origins provide to societies outside America at certain moments of their developments?; What unique appeal can the Western have for non-American societies at a specific historical juncture, the one that other genres cannot provide?; Does the unique charm of the Western invites us to some specific issues that other genres cannot raise as effectively as the Western does?; Then, what are they?

A genre can be an effect of social change; on the other hand, one should remember that it can serve as a prism which makes legible certain aspects of a society at a specific historical conjuncture, namely a distinctive problematic that incites or allows us to interrogate, come to terms with, and/or react to the sociocultural milieu differently than other genres do. While a genre can be read as reflective, symptomatic, or allegorical of society, this generalized notion should not lead us to a hasty conclusion that it is exchangeable with others.

The Rise of the spaghetti Western and Italy in the 1960s

Lino Miccichè, qtd. in Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Western, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

The rise of the Italian Western to prominence particularly in 1964-66 corresponded to “the ideological and moral confusion of that period, as well as the difficulty, which seemed to exist in a broad section of petty-bourgeois public opinion, of distinguishing ‘who was guilty?,’ ‘who was responsible,?’ ‘who were the good guys?’ in situations where, more often than not, old enemies were coming together and historic connections were being pulled in opposite directions. All this while the range of individual choices seemed to be restricted to forms of social conscience that were becoming more and more confined, because directed by ‘external’ forces. So it is that the Italian Westerner, far from reflecting the somewhat ‘mystificatory’ epic of the frontier, impersonates, in ways which are paradoxically entertaining (and too explicitly cynical to trouble the conscience) a commonplace of the everyday psyche of the ‘average’ Italian…When he went to see a Western in the mid-’60s, which was really about the violence of a man who believes his only choice is violence, the Italian viewer could imagine himself shooting, wounding and killing the puppets of the cinema’s kitsch, identifying himself with the protagonist–who was not a hero, but a cynic in despair. Few at that time could foresee the crisis of 1968 towards which…all the many strands of contemporary dissatisfaction were leading–a crisis in values which seemed to hit everything that was certain in the past, made it difficult to define the present, and impossible to locate the future” (55).

For Leone’s pessimism on the political conditions in the 1960s (disillusioned socialist), see Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 305-307.

Sholay and India in the 1970s

Sholay, in many ways, answered to the mood of the time. This was a period which experienced much social disenchantment. The war in 1971, the pervasive social unrest, the rise of the new urban rich who has no compunctions in flaunting their wealth, the increase in the numbers of the urban underclass, proliferation of crime, a general dissatisfaction with the existing social order created a sense of widespread disillusionment. Sholay at the level of popular entertainment, caught that mood and made a performative intervention into it.”

“The relationship between film and social history is as complex as it is fascinating. It can best be grasped as a process of discursive transcoding [involving such processes as contraction and displacement]…What cinema does is to transcode [the social] into filmic narratives. It is important to bear in mind, in this regard, that films do not reflect an antecedent reality; they serve to construct one. This is accomplished by effecting a carry-over from one discursivity to another.”

Sholay clearly is not a realistic film; there is very little social specificity inscribed in the film text. The narrative codes employed in the film serve to construct a metaphoric view of Indian society and its manifold problems. A metaphoric representation displaces accuracy and specificity with ideality. This strategy serves to universalize the problems depicted in the film and give them a pan Indian applicability. Hence, the codes and the general poetics of Sholay have to be understood in relation to that heightened mode of social perception and not in terms of some kind of documentary realism.”

The concept of the family (often with a mother figure as the gravitational center), which almost always provides narrative closure to Indian melodramas, is conspicuously absent in Sholay. First of all, the Thakur’s family is decimated by Gabbar early in the film, which leaves in Thakur’s mind nothing but the desire of revenge. Besides, to that end, the ex-officer hires two outlaws, Jai and Veeru, who lack family ties and remain outside the accepted social values. Hired mainly for money, they takes on an air of professional fighter and remain detached from moral norms and their institutional embodiments, which, although neutralized by their gaiety and humors, unmistakably exhibits a cynicism about society.

Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, Sholay: A Cultural Reading (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd.,1992), 25-6: 66-7.

This entry was posted in European Cinemas, Film History, Indian Cinema, N. American Cinema, The Social, The Western, Violence, World Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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