The Channel 4-backed 1992 movie Wild West had no intention of ticking boxes, and nearly 30 years later it’s ripe for reappraisal.
I’m nine years old and looking at the cover of my dad’s VHS copy of Wild West (1992). Naveen Andrews (Lost, Planet Terror) is in a yellow cowboy jacket and hat, looking straight ahead, straight at me. He has rings on his fingers, is holding a guitar with a leopard print strap and is sat on a bicycle.
There is also a group photo of five brown people who are smiling at me. Ravi Kapoor (24, Miss India America (Dir.), Sarita Choudhury (A Hologram For The King, Homeland), Andrews again, Ronny Jhutti (Ideal, Survivors), and Ameet Chana (Bend It Like Beckham, The Black Prince), are beaming with excitement.
This is the all-Asian country band – yes, really – and heroes of the film, Southall’s very own Honky Tonk Cowboys, who are as far away from Bollywood as you can get. The band features its three Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam-loving, Nashville, Tennessee-dreaming Pakistani brothers, along with their Sikh drummer mate who can’t seem to keep his turban from catching on fire, their delightfully protective dog, Spook, gun-toting extrovert manager, Jag, played exuberantly by Bhasker Patel (Emmerdale, Snowden), and a young Asian girl stuck in an unhappy marriage. Who also happens to dig Nanci Griffith.
How on earth does this oddity get made? I mean, it’s not exactly the gritty social drama audiences normally like to salivate over, to appease their general perverse voyeuristic insights into the native ethnic minority’s home lives. Feel free to call me cynical.
During the 90s, I recall doing something you probably wouldn’t have had to. If there was a brown person on the television, you called the family to look at them, to stare at the TV and acknowledge amongst ourselves that we’d been recognised, mostly for seconds. Speaking with Bhasker Patel, I asked him what it was like for Asians in the British film industry prior to Wild West.
“The parts were… not even cameos and, they were non-specific… by playing a part as a waiter, chemist, shopkeeper, you weren’t represented properly, you were just there,” he told me. “You didn’t add to a sitcom, or in an episode, or in a drama; I think it was appalling, it took years and years to make ourselves known. But also, this came from the [white] writers and producers; they had no willing power to actually make us alive… and this is where we were totally neglected, we didn’t have a voice.”
Cue Harvant Bains. His second play, Blood, was performed at the Royal Court Theatre, where Bains succeeded Hanif Kureishi as writer in residence. He subsequently acquired an agent, and started pitching television and film scripts, one of which was Wild West, to Channel 4.
“My interests at the time were not political or culturally motivated. I had no notion or interest of writing as an Asian, in genre, whatever that meant,” he said. “The genre of Asian, South Asian, Indian or Pakistani was of a brown guy in a corner shop and I had no interest in engaging with that at all.”
What Bains submitted was a homage to Southall, inspired by friends and his own musical experience playing in bands, and influenced by the strangeness of Alex Cox’s Repo Man. It’s fair to say Wild West was not what Channel 4 had expected to receive from its new Indian writer.
“They were expecting something about race war or oppression and instead they got something that was quite ebullient, and not even addressing their agenda,” he recalled. “Which was the whole point for me. I thought their agenda was absurd, the shit they were talking… bear in mind I read philosophy, so I wasn’t stupid, I wasn’t coming into this as some kind of ingénue.”
“So, my movie sat there for I think over a year, and then David Aukin took over. Now the great thing about David Aukin was that he kind of knew nothing about movies… I’m in Los Angeles, on holiday, and my agent phones me up, and he’s going, ‘Harvant, it’s really weird, I’ve just had a call from Channel 4; there’s a new commissioning editor there and apparently he wants to do your film!’ and I’m like, what, really, which one?”
Aukin and Bains set about trying to secure Cox as Wild West’s auteur. Which seemed achievable having successfully recruited Cox’s Sid And Nancy and Straight To Hell producer, Eric Fellner. But as Bains began navigating the mercurial filmmaking world, Fellner disappeared at the start of production, leaving Bains to take charge of the situation, and he needed a director.
“I was completely naïve,” he admitted. “I had no idea about this world I was entering, I had no idea about these people, I had no idea about how they operate, how the middle classes operate. I was just like, ‘we’re making a movie, that’s great, and everybody is going to be enthusiastic about it, brilliant!’. Of course, that’s not how it works.”
Around this time, Bains met BBC script editor, now producer, Jane Tranter, who he sought advice from. She suggested director David Attwood for the film. Befriending Attwood, Bains lobbied for him as director and Fellner reappeared; things were looking up, or so Bains thought. It’s also worth mentioning that Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Slumdog Millionaire) was also considered for director, having previously shown interest in wanting to direct Bains’s play, Blood, from their days working at the Royal Court Theatre.
Regardless, Attwood got the job.
In front of the camera, for the young Asian cast, where Wild West was their first or second feature, there was cause for optimism, as Ravi Kapoor who played one of the Ayub brothers, Ali, reflects. “There was the real sense of an exciting underground culture that was happening, and was beginning to bubble and burst into the mainstream, and it felt like Wild West was a part of that to some degree, like we’ve finally arrived,” he said.
“There was a definite sense of excitement doing this project, thinking, ‘oh fuck, this is something really cool, and this is going to be something really huge, and we’re all going to be fucking stars’.”
“But part of this came through naïvety as well, at not having done much up until that point, so in some ways it was about what happened afterwards for me… I began to see how that sense of excitement, in some projects, dissipated.”
Does Bains believe Attwood committed to engaging and realising his script, which encompassed such diverse and nuanced aspects of Southall’s Asian community amongst the exaggerated and fantastic characters he wrote? Not in the slightest. Though in fairness, I do also fully appreciate there being a history to writers not being happy with how their work can end up in the final cut.
Patel also recalled an interaction before filming began, where the young Asian actors were told by one of the team that they “know nothing about your culture, so you’ve got to correct me”.
“I was like ‘shit, you shouldn’t be saying this’… in a feature film, [you have to] have a vision, his story has to be told, this is not acting by numbers.”
Had the film been more of a drama, or even an outright comedy, then the consensus by all interviewed is that the film would have met the expectations placed on Bains to deliver the only type of movie the industry appeared to have deemed worthy of producing concerning a minority group at the time.
Navigating Southall, via the many individuals which make up such a community, was not a bankable movie idea, especially without a white lead. So when you’re seen to be missing the predetermined racial criteria expected of you, and don’t happen to be in vogue during whichever ethnic minority season programming is being championed that month, what chance does a film like Wild West have of making it?
“When the film came out, a lot of critics compared us to The Commitments – they were saying this is an Asian Commitments, and you think, ‘hang on, just a minute!’,” Patel recalls. “The critics wanting to put you in a box, that happens over and over again.”
“I think it [Wild West] did something that people didn’t get at the time, at all,” Bains added. “I think Indian kids from Southall got it, totally. But to the outside world, it was a strange creature because, [if] you take it on face value and don’t read anything into it, you watch [it] like that, it’s going to be a bit of entertainment. That’s not what it was, from my point of view.”
To me, Wild West was the first time I saw British Asians. These were people who looked like me, who didn’t speak with an accent, who had interests that weren’t specific to being brown, and who navigated a world where we saw a range of other Asians, from pleasant to arseholes – which is a positive – for more than a few seconds!
There were no stereotypes, because characters were written and portrayed as individuals; the ideas and values of the story were rooted in a reality that resonated with me, and in some instances brought me to tears. Naveen Andrews showed me that I could be cool, whilst Lalita Ahmed’s (Bhaji On The Beach, Brick Lane) mother to Andrews and his on-screen brothers aptly surmised the generational gap between the first wave of immigrants and those of us who were born here, who were caught in a limbo of seeing England as our home whilst being brought up by those who didn’t, in a country who reminded them so.
I think it’s about time for Wild West to be re-evaluated as so much more than a quirky little film that adamantly refuses to fit any moulds.
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