Ahi Karunaharan used to imagine what a Western with an all-Indian cast might look like, so now he's written and is directing a play about it, My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak. He tells Dionne Christian about why that most American of films shares a lot with Bollywood films.
Westerns were the kind of films I remember the men in my family watching – all my uncles and my dad, they all watched a lot of Westerns. I was born in the UK, where my parents were studying but we returned to Sri Lanka when I was 3.
We lived in Colombo and I remember, from the ages of around 6-9, being taken by my uncles to a lot of films. I don't remember them taking me to the cinemas to watch them but I have vivid memories of my uncles sitting at relatives' homes drinking whiskey and re-enacting or talking and repeating dialogue. It was a very male, private thing but a lot of my childhood was spent peeking into conversations or places and I would sneak in to watch.
My uncles lived overseas, so when they visited, they would come with VHS [tapes] of films that they had copied. We would hire a video player to watch them and the neighbours would turn up, because there's something communal about watching a film. Hardly anyone had a video. Especially in our street; I think there were maybe four or five families with one so we would rotate our video tapes around and people would find out who was coming and, if someone was coming from overseas, there were bound to be a few films that would turn up.
For me, there was something about the landscapes in Westerns because Sri Lanka was very green and what I saw in the films, there was nothing green in them. I had never seen anything like it. I guess I'd describe it now as desert plains and there were horses and just a ridiculous amount of action. I'm not a very physical person – I am terribly physically challenged – so there was something about watching these incredible feats of athleticism and action. Lots of chases. And something about the music. Music always draws me in.
As kids, we would dress up and play "cowboys and Indians" but when people referred to Indians, I always thought they meant Indians of South Indian origin. I was about 8 or 9 when I realised these were actually First Nation's indigenous people. Honestly, up to that age I was like, "I'll play the Indian" but the Indians would always lose, so the cowboys could always win. My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak looks at the idea of the West and the East and whether there's a bias that we carry or whether there's a certain thing that we aspire to because that's what we see.
I remember seeing a lot of Clint Eastwood on screen. This is a terrible thing to say – and it was only because I was young – but I couldn't tell the difference between actors. I think they played a function; they were always the outsider coming in and, perhaps because of that and the costuming, they always looked like the same person to me. Anyway, from memory, I remember thinking how vastly different and contrasting these films were to the kind of vibrant colour and noise that Bollywood was but there were certain elements in there that I recognised.
There's such a mythology around this idea of the lone man and this kind of patriarchal system that I think Sri Lankan and India struggles with. I think it comes from this need to emulate the hero, the machismo … Also, I think there were traditional systems or roles that we were proscribed to play but – and this is what also interests me - in the 1970s, there were a lot of shifts and tilts that were happening culturally and politically. In Sri Lanka, those political shifts were about the government limiting the use of Tamil as a language, which started in the 50s and 60s. I think Westerns appealed because there was a longing for some sort of iconic hero image or symbol – someone who could speak for the oppressed – someone who represented a new way of being, someone who challenged the status quo and the privileged. In a lot of Westerns, the new energy is the new person who comes in and breaks or challenges a system that already exists. I think there's something in that also speaks to a Bollywood/Indian kind of sensibility in that we idolise our heroes and we idolise our gods. I guess that comes from Hindu mythology; you look at all of our epics, you know there's a hero who's going to come and set us free.
If you look at Bollywood cinema – and I don't mean all Bollywood films, but the social/drama-led ones - it still sticks to a lot of the tropes and conventions of a good Western. You have those archetypes and the looking at ideas of progress, modernisation and globalisation while a lot of the action stars are almost a modern twist on that sort of Western sensibility.
As an adult, I think there's some beautiful and artistic stuff to be seen in Westerns – especially those that Sergio Leone made with Ennio Morricone's music, which is very operatic and cinematic – but when you look at some of the thematics or representation, it is hugely problematic in the way that women or indigenous peoples are represented. I don't think that's a conversation that would have ever occurred to my family back then but there is something interesting about that.
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My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak is about a famous film-maker in the 70s who's making India's first spaghetti Western-inspired Bollywood film but he dies midway when it's in production. The responsibility of finishing the film falls upon his two children; one trained in America and the other in India but they have completely different artistic sensibilities and ways of honouring their father's legacy and uplifting his mana and taking his traditions forward. It's a fun and playful work. It's a subversive way of looking at the idea of representation and identity, which are recurring motifs in my works.
I am really interested in the kind of conversations we are having now around this but also, I always imagined if there was a spaghetti Western made in the 1970s with an all-brown cast, what it would have looked like because I'd never seen it. So in a way, it's me imagining "us" in genres or in times and places that, again, I don't have any reference to or record of.
We lived in Sri Lanka until I was 10 and then, in 1990, we moved to Wellington. We moved because of the civil war but we weren't refugees; Dad was a lawyer and my uncle was here, so he sponsored us. They stopped watching Westerns. Once we were here, it became all about Tamil films and films from home that they wouldn't have access to often. I think then it was about preserving the language and the culture.
My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak is Silo Theatre's last play for 2019. It's on at Q Theatre's Rangatira from November 21-December 14.