Saturday, March 6, 2010

This Is, In Fact, My Chicken Fry

There's a famous story about the P.J. Soles/Ramones comedy Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979). According to producer Roger Corman, he originally commissioned a film to cash in on the current disco craze, so the original title concept was Disco High. However, director Allan Arkush convinced him that if he wanted it to be "hip," it had to be rock-n-roll.

Most of my life, I would have agreed with that assessment. But now, with all the delight that Hindi disco films have brought to my life, I realize what a lost opportunity that was. Not that I'd change a shaggy hair on Rock 'n' Roll High School's perfect head: I just wish we could have had both! Preferably with the same irreverent attitude -- and Mithun Chakraborty as the new principal who's going to raise everyone's grades with the power of disco.

In the late 1970's United States, the superiority of rock to disco was self-evident. In India in the '90s, however, rock music is just a wannabe, a pretender to the power of disco. Or at least that's the impression one gets from 1995's Rock Dancer, which attempts to recapture the magic that was Disco Dancer -- down to opening credits that shamelessly mimic the earlier movie's title tune, spelling out what all the letters stand for. "O" is even still "se Orchestra," although I do have to laugh that the last "R" in "Rock Dancer" stands for "Rock," making the whole thing an exercise in tautology. (And take that, Amazon, with your "statistically improbable phrases").

Just so you know: this introduction to the "Rock Dancer" concept takes place over a scene of fashion models on a catwalk -- which has nothing to do with anything else.

Fortunately, we've all been able to brace ourselves, since the movie starts with the equivalent of a warning label that this is not for the faint of heart: "Bappi Lahiri Presents."

I have often pondered the distinction between "so bad it's good" and "so bad it's bad." Much bad art is just plain bad, and only worth ignoring. Some bad art, however, actually contains entertainment value within its very badness. Some reaches a pinnacle of backwards genius: the point at which the pleasure of it is directly proportionate to its badness. The problem is that this spectrum is completely individual, thus hard to share (and even harder to justify). For me, the movie that most clearly exemplifies this principle is the American musical The Apple, which by any objective standard is one of the dumbest movies I've ever seen, but which makes me roll with joyous, carefree laughter. That's a movie that isn't fun in spite of its badness, but totally because of it.

Which makes me consider that Rock Dancer may actually beat Disco Dancer at its own game! Because Disco is actually a much better movie (whoa, ponder that concept...), albeit geared to a Bad-Movie Taste, Rock might actually be a better Bad Movie. Oh, my head.

The reason I rushed to acquire Rock Dancer is because, on its soundtrack, Bappi reaches a pinnacle of bad-is-goodness with the instant classic "You are My Chicken Fry," which has become a Number One hit inside my head.

There is some controversy here, since the YouTube clip where I first heard it contains the lyrics "You are my chicken fry/You are my fish fry." In the movie, however, the young lovers sing it as "I love my chicken fry/I love my fish fry." I don't know if this is a case where it was changed slightly on the soundtrack release (and I'm assuming there was one, like that Haathkadi movie I cannot find anywhere, although the vinyl LP, featuring NPR favorite Asha Bhosle's "Disco Station," is all over eBay). I think "You are my chicken fry" is funnier, so that's the way I continue to sing it to my husband and my long-suffering cats.

You can compare the two clips: this is "Kabhi Na Kudiye Bye Bye Bye" as seen in the movie. And really, you should watch it, even if you ignore the rest of this post. It's a worth-a-thousand-words type situation. (The big guy in the black leather jacket is a cameo by Jalal Agha, but more on that later). The visuals in the "You Are My Chicken Fry" version are the maker's own music video. Rock Dancer is pretty random in some respects, but it does not contain a cameo by the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Although if it did, it wouldn't be any stranger than the appearance by "International Star" Samantha Fox, which the credits also warn us about. Just so that, during the film's attempts at being a thriller, we can ponder the real mystery: how on earth are they going to fit Samantha Fox into this?

Despite a few spots of real lameness (the "Rock Around the Clock" number, oy!), this is my favorite Bappi Lahiri soundtrack. So far. It's so over the top -- with lyrics that are ridiculous to the point of genius, if such a thing is possible -- that it really almost seems like it's done on purpose, being stupid for comic effect. Much the way that the "Aaja baby love me" lyrics in "Love Mere Hit Hit" never stop amusing me.

We'll be delving into the credits more later, since the IMDB only identifies a few characters, and while watching the movie, I had no idea who most of these people were. Thank goodness for the reassuring presence of Shammi Kapoor. I will note up front that the choreography was done by one S. Ganeshan, just so we know who to blame. (There was some speculation in my house that this might be the "Alan Smithee" of the choreography world). Also, the film was directed "By Menon." If you watched TV in the US in the '80s, this might bring something, Pavlov-like, to your inner ear. (See randomly-chosen clip here: you only need to sit through the second commercial to hear it, but feel free to enjoy the other ads, including ones for the Bush-Quayle campaign -- wow, does that seem like a million years ago).

Anyway, there's a lot of players to keep track of here -- a very complex human drama is about to unfold -- so let's tally them up.

Jaya is a hugely popular Rock Dancer. We suspect she's the person who put Rock Dancing on the map. It's such a part of her identity that, when a killer has broken into her house and she calls the police (well, after calling her sister, and then waiting around for a while), she announces "I am Rock Dancer Jaya speaking."

Raj Malhotra (yes!) is her husband. He's a good-for-nothing gambler and ne'er-do-well that her father never approved of. Also, he has a mullet. He torments Jaya with his continual demands for cash, and there's a lot of talk about him squandering her wealth. But since she claimed in an interview that she doesn't take money for her Rock Dancing -- it's all for charity -- I'm not sure where her money is coming from. All the the self-sacrificing Rock Dancers seem to live in pretty high style. Be that as it may, I found Raj perversely attractive, in an Irfan-Khan-in-Dhund: The Fog kind of greasy villainous way.

Ritu is Jaya's younger sister. She doesn't care for show biz, and has no interest in becoming a Rock Dancer. No interest whatsoever. Seriously, quit asking her! When she gives in, though, she attains Jaya's skills and success in less than the time it takes to do a full training montage song.

The other Rock Dancers are:

Rakesh. Boyishly handsome, he obviously has quite a thing for Ritu. While he's good enough for a dance partner, Jaya doesn't trust his intentions, for no reason that's ever made clear.

J.J. The best-looking in the bunch (despite an unfortunate beret-n-headband look on display below), he's also blessed with a resonant, dramatic voice. Like the other guys in the cast, he's occasionally given close-ups with ominous shadows and musical chords, to keep us in the maximum suspense about the identity of the villain.

J.J. says "Stand and deliver!"

Extra Love Interest:

Rocky. A floppy-haired, kinda dopey romantic who's Ritu's Number One Fan. Just like in Chandni, she is impressed rather than creeped out by the photos of her all over his room. Rocky conveniently works in the hotel where she stays on tour, so he's always on hand to rescue her from the rioting fans that follow her everywhere (Rock Dancing brings out a rowdy crowd!), even if means jumping off a roof to do it.

Any of the guys mentioned may or may not be the Sinister Black-Gloved Man, right out of a Dario Argento movie, who plots in a dark room while screams play on the soundtrack behind him. At first, I thought there was actually a person in the background screaming, Silence of the Lambs-like, but then I realized that the screams just follow him around.

There are also some fumbling cops, but they're played by Johnny Lever and Paintal, so we know who they are and what they're doing.

Our real introduction to whatever Jaya and her friends do for a non-living as "Rock Dancers" comes in the song "Dil Bole Koi Aye Aye. Fortunately, it involves shiny fringed tops and anklets, and makes me think maybe I should revisit Flashdance, in which I would probably discover a whole new dimension. Two things to notice about this song: it's yet another Bappi reprisal of the "Billie Jean" tune. And when the woman sings "I am alone ... Will he console my heart?" in a duet, the man calls back "Why not?" (in English). Why not? That's the most feeling he can summon? My god, it's true: they really don't make romantic lyrics like they used to.

When Jaya is shot at the end of the number by the Sinister Black-Gloved Man, my snap thought was, "It wasn't that bad." Tragically, her leg gets amputated, and the troupe fears they will be unable to fulfill a contract that would help them build a cancer hospital for children. I bet that's the same story they used to lure the cast into doing this film. To help them with this completely unselfish dream, Ritu finally agrees to learn to dance. After all, as J.J. tells her, "I know that art is hidden within you, that can illuminate and spread in the world."

Yes, with this result: "Zindagi Dance Hai."

All the screenshots that include the phrase "Rock Dancer" or some variation thereof are from different songs. It's like they thought if they kept saying "Rock Dancer" over and over, it would eventually catch on.

When Jaya finally refuses Raj's requests for more lakhs of rupees ("I am trapped in a strange dilemma," he tells her, implying that lives are in danger, but never bothering to ever TELL HER what the heck is going on), it suddenly becomes a Ramsay Brothers film already in progress. Doors fly open, the soundtrack fills with screams, and Jaya dies before she can tell Ritu who stabbed her and threw her into the pool. Since Johnny Lever and Paintal are the police officers we meet here, I don't hold out much hope that the killer will be brought to justice.

But we have other fish to fry. (Sorry). If we're going to get that cancer hospital built, we're going to need some more Rock Dancing. So in between red herrings, there's "Launda Badnaam Hua," with Ritu in shimmery red, J.J. in the aforementioned sporty beret-n-headband, and Rakesh in the yellow pants. There's a song with a Caribbean feel and prominent lyrics like "Ah-la-la-la-la/Ah-la-la-la-la" and "Then I went bonkers." We have to endure the "Rock Around the Clock" song. And then Shammi finally appears, for the "You Are My Sajna" song (imagine walking around all day with "You're my deewana, I'm your deewani" in your head). That one also includes a chorus, "Let's sing together/Let's dance together" that's roughly to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine."
Yes, there is a giant book behind Shammi's head. It appears that some sort of parade is going on? With floats? That all say "Kingfisher" on the side?

I wouldn't turn up my nose at a little insight, but at least Shammi is around to remind us what a better class of heroes we used to get. His presence inspires the first of two Arsenic and Old Lace gags, this one in which Johnny Lever thinks dance teacher Shammi is in fact Shammi Kapoor. After the "Chicken Fry" song, he'll talk to the leather-clad, Elvis looking Jalal Agha about his singing the "Mehbooba" song in Sholay. But they're not playing themselves, which gets kind of confusing once Govinda and Samantha Fox eventually show up, and they are playing themselves.

After Ritu is almost strangled by a white muffler, suspicion falls on dandy Rakesh. When he proves that he still has his muffler, he soulfully tells her, "Remember one thing in life. Friends save the lives of their friends. Not kill them." I don't know if I can remember that or not, but I'll try.

In the end, there's a kidnapped child, a huge melee, and the revelation that almost everyone is an undercover cop. Govinda also does some undercover work in his spare time.

Unfortunately for all the future kidnapped children and menaced Rock Dancers, his cover has now been blown.

Most importantly, we get "Traffic Jam," with Samantha Fox wearing her characteristic lingerie, and Govinda failing to channel LL Cool J. The song is a rambling narrative explaining his mishaps on the streets of Mumbai, with the chorus "I am sorry, sorry, madam, I am late because of traffic jam!" I'm told this is a rip-off of a Michael Jackson song called "Jam," but I don't know that one. At least it's a change from "Billie Jean." And I love the background "Traffic Jam!" echo.

The popular fusion of showbiz story with crime drama is a strange thing which, again, I can only trace back to the long arm of Karz. If anyone knows an earlier example that fits the template, please comment! It makes me imagine someone saying, "Hey, you know what would improve Dil To Pagal Hai? If there were some drug dealers, or maybe a dissipated thakur, trying to kill the dance troupe!" And someone else saying, "No, for once, let's try it without that." It's like it's not enough just to enjoy the dance beat -- the fluffiest of escapism has to be turned into a matter of life and death.

But frankly, nobody would care about the so-called mystery without the Rock Dancing. So who am I kidding: I've not only become openly fond of Bappi Lahiri, but will be on the look-out for more films "by Menon," and more classic choreography from S. Ganeshan, whoever s/he was.


memsaab said...

I am glad you watch these films so I don't have to, although you write about them so well and with such fondness that I am *almost* tempted.

Well, plus the cast sounds pretty awesome! I wish I'd known about this one when I met Shammi just so I could have seen the look on his face when I brought it up :D

Beth Loves Bollywood said...

MY MIND IS BLOWN. I have SO many questions but really I should just watch this and learn for myself. VAH VAH for your review. This is...amazing.

Beth Loves Bollywood said...