Disco Dancer (B. Subhash, 1982)
I have to say, I approached Disco Dancer with a little bit of trepidation, not wanting to sour my experience of the popular classic by having crazily inflated expectations. I was kind of fortunate actually – I've obviously been aware of Disco Dancer for almost as long as I've been aware of Bollywood films but largely, my awareness of the film has been limited to the extremely vague concept of Disco Dancer as one of the biggest cult films to come out of India.
So here's what I knew:
- Disco Dancer was hugely popular in the Soviet Union – like, mega-mega-mega popular, attaining cult, iconic status, and I'm pretty sure I read somewhere else it was big in Japan or China. And it remains this huge cult, kitschy classic with audiences both in and outside of India, even recently inspiring a book exploring its enduring allure.
- It stars Mithun Chakraborty in the role he's pretty much famous for.
- It has at least two famous songs in it, one that goes Aaja Jimmy Aaja and one that spells out DISCO
- It's all about a guy called Jimmy who is a disco dancer. Who dances his way through the film.
Special bonus quasi-fact:
I'm pretty sure THIS AMAZING FILM borrows from/is inspired by Disco Dancer. (Having actually seen DD now – yep. Pretty damn sure).
If you gave me that information, I could not write a cult hit based around disco dancing, because...yeah – where do you go plot-wise? SO OBVIOUSLY I WAS CURIOUS as to how and why this film has inspired such a following.
Disco Dancer is the story of Anil, a talented street kid who is accused of stealing by a prominent businessman. Anil's mother takes the blame for the non-existent crime and ends up in jail. On her release, she and Anil flee from the public humiliation – people follow them through the streets every day chanting “Mother's a thief, son's a thief!”, which would get tiresome pretty quick - and leave their home in Mumbai for Goa, with Anil vowing to return one day to take revenge on the man who put his mother in prison.
18 years later, Anil gets his wish in... slightly unorthodox fashion. Unless of course, you are the star of a highly melodramatic Bollywood film, in which case, his path to revenge is totally on course.
Instead of returning to Mumbai as a gangster or a vigilante cop, heart set on hunting down the businessman who got his maa locked up, Anil (Mithun Chakraborty) returns benignly as an aspiring street performer. His lifelong talent for singing and dancing soon gets him noticed by talent agent David Brown (Om Puri) who cuts difficult star disco dancer Sam loose in favour of signing a fresh, talented face.
Anil, with a new stage name “Jimmy” and the benefit of David Brown's expert management rapidly rockets to disco stardom.
Poor, former megastar Sam naturally seethes with bitter jealousy. Turns out, in a shocking twist: he's the evil businessman's son. Other twist: SAM'S SISTER IS JIMMY'S LOVE INTEREST. DUN DUN DUUUUUN.
Together, Sam and his dad plot Jimmy's downfall because there is no way they will let him get away with being a better disco dancer than Sam.
Dad has a lot riding on Jimmy's failure.
Sam talks about himself in 3rd person WAY TOO MUCH.
(Can I just say right now, if you've seen the film, you will know than your grandma is a better disco dancer than Sam. Sam is basically THE WORST DANCER I HAVE EVER SEEN EVER IN MY LIFE).
I loved every second of Disco Dancer, and can totally see why it has inspired such a following.
Among the tiny details I just adored:
The incredibly florid, melodramatic dialogues:
Some of the (admittedly unsubtle, but still quite lovely) editing and effects – like when David Brown is talking about how he will make Jimmy into a star and it cuts from him to star shaped lights.
Or this when Jimmy's world falls apart:
I can't help but think that its reputation as a kitschy classic (read: hot mess or ridiculous awesome cracktastic masterpiece) is slightly unjustified though. On the whole, it's not a lot more crazy or outrageous than any other Bollywood masala melodrama...it's just that the story and the songs are centred around a very specific, distinctive trend that was popular for a really short, specific time.
Fact: disco came a little late to India. Saturday Night Fever, the (Hollywood) movie that brought disco from underground clubs into mainstream culture, was released in 1977, and was a mega, super hit, and though it is a much darker, different kind of film to Disco Dancer, you can see lovely little echoes and tributes all through Disco Dancer.
The disco in Disco Dancer – in 1982 - is not the disco of the West in 1977.
This song, for example, is all about Lord Krishna.
This is a different beast entirely. The precise, intricate dance moves of Travolta are replaced by...well, kind of aerobic shimmying and a LOT of pelvic thrusting. It's more about the energy, seemingly, than the steps. And of course, this song, which we are all familiar with:
The film plot does take a turn into slightly...deranged territory, briefly, when Sam and Pop Oberoi's scheme to bring down Jimmy involves SPOILER ALERT...MAKING JIMMY AFRAID OF HIS OWN GUITAR. By rigging up an electrified electric guitar with tragic consequences, Sam and Oberoi succeed in triggering a “guitar phobia” in Jimmy, sabotaging his act just in time for the International Disco Competition at the climax of the film.
But come on – THAT'S HOW YOU MAKE A FILM ABOUT DISCO DANCING SUPER AWESOME!
Well, that, and this:
Seriously. Worth it for THIS SHOT ALONE.