Saturday, June 28, 2008

He is a Disco Dancer

In recent months, the people have wondered: why are you so obsessed with crazy Hindi disco movies? I've thought long and hard about this, and the obvious answer is: because I found out that crazy Hindi disco movies exist.

I mean, who knew? (Apart, obviously, from everyone in India, and other, more enlightened parts of the planet).

In the late '70s and early '80s, if you'd have asked me how much influence disco music was exerting on Indian culture, I'd have probably guessed none. What I knew about the world came from textbooks, encyclopedias, and National Geographic specials about wildlife and, occasionally, ancient civilizations. I had no idea that my counterparts across the globe were listening to Hindi language versions of the same songs I was listening to, or swooning over their own teen idols, like floppy-haired, baby-faced, rubber-limbed Mithun Chakraborty, the Disco King of Indian Cinema. Nor would I have guessed that, twenty years later, hit movies would still feature gleeful disco dance numbers, without the ridiculous pretense of "techno" or "club music" that embarrassed Americans tend to hide behind.

Even though I've expanded my resources since then, gotten two college degrees and read a million books, stumbling across '80s Bollywood disco was a complete fluke that, in my eyes, has sprinkled glitter across the globe. The lure of the spinning disco ball and the multicolored light show, of silver fringe that adorns costumery and stage backdrops alike, of songs that are frankly stupid but make you want to shake your booty, can utterly transcend the potential barriers of language and different cultural backgrounds.

At least that's what I believe under the magical sway of Mithun.

I can only deal briefly with Mithun's career in this venue, since he currently has 224 credits listed on the IMDB. And while I'm focusing on his disco milestones, I can say that he's equally adorable as a qawwali singer in 1988's Gangaa Jumanaa Saraswathi.

So far, all the disco movies I've seen are a combination of showbiz and revenge: Mithun and his mother (sometimes with extra family members) are poor but noble, and in some way persecuted by an evil bad guy (preferably Amrish Puri). He seeks to avenge the wrongs done to him, restore the honor of his family, and, on the side, find romance and make his fame as a disco dance star.

When I first saw Disco Dancer (1983), all I knew about it was that it was Bollywood, disco, and 1983, but it didn't surprise me to later learn that it was a huge, iconic hit. There are loads of great reviews of this online, so I don't feel the need to say too much about it other than to mention a few of my favorite things:

After Mithun's Jimmy gets discovered, he's marketed so much so fast that there's a "Jimmy ice cream." The Bee Gees never received such an honor; they didn't even get a breakfast cereal.

The "Krishna, teach us to love" dance number, in which Mithun seems to be wearing a feathered pant suit.

And, of course, this movie contains the scene when he is beset upon by The Finger-Snapping Gang, thugs hired to prevent him from performing. They surround him, slowly snapping their fingers, and finally beat him up until you think he's down for good. But then, from the ground, Mithun starts...snapping his fingers. The bad guys start backing away, scared. As well they should, because the finger-snapping gives him super powers! Suddenly he's all martial arts moves and sending them flying through brick walls.

Best fight ever.

Although Disco Dancer is the classic of the genre, I think I have an even softer spot for 1984's Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki. It lays more disco on the basic storyline of the already discofied Karz, only this time the narrative before-and-after is divided between a father and son (dual role!), not the same guy reincarnated as a different actor.

Composer Bappi Lahiri knocks himself out with Michael Jackson knock-off tunes and (usually thematically inappropriate) borrowings from famous film scores. The director joins in with a truly bizarre homage to the "Thriller" video which was worth the price of the DVD all by itself. But absolutely best of all is the performance of the title tune, when Mithun's hero reveals himself as Amrish Puri's mortal enemy in a dance number I refer to as "Disco Vengeance."

He is the picture of straight-faced intensity, mouthing lyrics about the villain's cruel atrocities, while writhing background singers in scanty costumes clutch his legs and cry "Whooooo!" Meanwhile, the film keeps cutting to reaction shots of Puri's equally villanous but spineless son, drinking his scotch and bobbing his head, getting down with the beat and seemingly oblivious to the context.

Dance Dance (1987) features a plot right out of Ann Radcliffe's 18th-century Gothic novels: young Mithun and his sister (Smita Patil, who was "aged" with grey hair to play his mom in Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki) believe their parents were killed in a bus crash. But really, their father was murdered and their mother held captive for years by Our Man Amrish (exceptionally dissipated as the lecherous Thakur with long, dangly earrings and a propensity for manic trumpet-playing).

This films gets a little more bogged down in its melodrama, especially with the domestic violence storyline and the struggle of Mithun's "Romeo" with alcoholism. On the entertainment upside, though, the clothes in this movie are very much in the aerobics style: leotards with gold fringed knees, white satin headbands, and (shudder) striped leggings.

Also, Mithun does the robot. You won't be surprised when the crowd goes wild.

Even when disco Mithun played the occasional rich boy in exile, his character always seemed to end up raised in the slums, and his persona clearly has populist appeal. He's exploited by cruel landlords and persecuted by rich, greedy princes and businessmen. Even in a smaller dramatic scene from Dance Dance, Amrish's villainy rises to the top when, despite his power and position, he seems to be snubbed and neglected in favor of the casual and good-natured Mithun, who's gotten where he is based on talent alone.

In the face of poverty and despair, his characters are unflaggingly loyal to his family, and continue to persevere. He fends off trouble with his fists and, of course, with his ability to dance, dance, dance. There's a strange combination of emotional vulnerability and angry, clench-faced intensity; the young Shah Rukh Khan would definitely hit some of the same notes in his early anti-hero and street-fightin' man roles.

Virgin Comics has recently released a one-shot graphic novel called Jimmy Zhingchak: Agent of Disco, a spy spoof based loosely on the character from Disco Dancer. The art makes him look kind of goofy, and Mithun was nothing if not serious about his performances. Fortunately, we can continue to see the man himself, since Mithun is still active in films. And having seen him reprise his famous dance moves in 2007's Om Shanti Om, I can say he looks a lot better than, say, John Travolta does.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I should be making brunch since people are coming over, so reading the whole post will have to wait, but in response to the opening line, I declare, as you no doubt did, "Because they were THERE." And if people don't understand that answer, then they'll never understand the movies.

NidaMarie said...

I'm going to have to see Disco Dancer, and even perhaps someday give Dance Dance another shot...well, maybe.

Anarchivist said...

Definitely, if a person were to pick one Mithun disco movie to watch, Disco Dancer is the creme de la creme. It's totally ridiculous, but awesome.

sunil said...

Just browsed in. Chipping to say I agree wholeheartedly with your praise for "Kasam Paida karnewalli ki" and the whole Mithun-Disco genre. :) Kasam ... was not THAT hack of a movie. Like you said, the title song and the way Mithun takes his glasses off to reveal to Amrish Puri just who is awesome in the same way that many sequences in Karan-Arjun are awesome - masala awesome! :) Also liked how Mithun played around with Amrish Puri, before dealing vengeance.

Anarchivist said...

Hi, Sunil. Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad someone else appreciates the underrated "Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki." Its charms are very similar to those of "Karan Arjun" -- which I really should watch again.