Starring: Mithun Chakraborty, Kim, Rajesh Khanna
Music by Bappi Lahiri
Produced & Directed by B. Subhash
My critics often ask two questions:
1) Muffy, why don't you wear more black eye shadow right above your false eyelashes, to give you a more dramatic look?
2) Don't your reviews simply exaggerate the wackier aspects of Indian movies, and imply that Western movies in the same genre do not contain similar moments of total, glorious lunacy? Do you honestly believe that a Bollywood spy film like "Great Gambler" or "Shaan" is crazier than -- say -- your average James Bond flick?I refuse to answer the first question because it's personal (and how dare you ask, masher!), and I don't know anything about James Bond so I can't give a really good answer to the second question. But you might ask the same thing about the 80's film "Disco Dancer," a sort of benchmark for aficionados of wacky Bollywood: is it any more ridiculous than Hollywood kitsch classics such as "T.G.I.F." or "Can't Stop The Music?" Or, more to the point, I can imagine people gearing up into a frenzy of pre-review indignation: "Muffy, are you going to pick on 'Disco Dancer' just because it was made in India? Why are you so snobby and ethnocentric? Why don't you take advice from people who really KNOW how to apply cosmetics? WHY DO YOU HATE US SO MUCH?!?"
Before you get all defensive, let me put on my glittery burgundy thinking cap for a moment and try to answer your question in a way that isn't stupid. Superficially, Western disco movies are just as laughable and tasteless as "Disco Dancer"...the costumes are ugly, the plots are vapid, and watching Steve Gutenberg frolick with The Village People is a grotesque thing, that's for sure. But Indian films like "Disco Dancer" exceed Hollywood's own disco wackiness in a few important ways: they have an almost religious level of sincerity, endless layers of melodrama, a lack of technical skill and -- to top it all off -- the fact that by the time "Disco Dancer" came out, much of the rest of the world was already trying to forget that the whole disco thing had happened. Kids wearing "Boney M" T-shirts in the early 80's got lynched on the streets, and they probably deserved it too.
India in 1982, however, must have been going through absolute disco fever. Like the Hindi-Go-Go films of the 60's, Indian filmmakers didn't seem to know exactly what disco dancing entailed -- was it really just Mithun Chakraborty lying on the ground and randomly kicking his feet in the air, and does a man need to look GOOD in his outfit in order to be taken seriously? -- but they threw themselves into the movie with such gusto that you can't help but wish that disco -- or at least this strange, enthusiastic version of it -- were back in style. Though perhaps not anywhere nearby. Maybe just in India again. Somewhere far away.
In Hollywood, disco movies were always about vapid, superficial people with some measure of talent trying to become famous, presumably to support their drug habit (or their skinny girlfriend's drug habit). But that sort of plot was deemed WAY too superficial for Bollywood when they got around to making this film. The plot must be inspiring, tragic, and beautiful! So they pulled together a disco hero, a disco heroine, and (most importantly) a very cruel disco villain. They also needed a devoted and self-sacrificing mother and a lifetime of trauma and arrested development. Then they threw Bappi Lahiri in there -- to lay a pastiche of stolen Western songs over tinny synthesized bips, bongs, and laser zaps -- and they didn't just end up with a disco MOVIE, they had a disco EPIC...one that turns a flippant dance floor trend into a life-sustaining form of religion. One that finally explains the TRUE meaning of disco: it's not a WORD, apparently, it's an ACRONYM, and it stands for...well, "Dance, Item, Singer, Chorus & Orchestra."
Hmmm. Well, that part of the disco religion falls a little flat. But the rest is a gem! As BollyGord -- our newest film-loving member -- said so aptly about "Disco Dancer," "It's the future of the 70's...in the 80's!"
All disco messiahs need a tragic past (otherwise they end up like the aforementioned Steve Gutenberg: idly plinking away at the keyboard in an expensive loft and wishing he could afford a bigger coke spoon) and little Jimmy is no exception. He's grown up in the sort of an environment that would leave most people bitter, hateful, and prematurely aged. He lives in Bombay with his mother and spends his days busking with Raju (Rajesh Khanna), a man who occasionally taps his fingers on Jimmy's disturbingly scrotal bongos...and perhaps by doing so manages to instill Jimmy with some good, strong life lessons: the meek will inherit the earth and everybody should be happy with the way things are.
When you hear poor people say things like that near the beginning of an Indian film, you know they're going to face some pretty tough times, probably sooner than later.
In the moments when Jimmy isn't being hand-fed by Raju he is spending time at home being hand-fed by his mother, which seems a little odd because he is definitely old enough to feed himself. When, 18 years later, Jimmy is STILL being hand-fed by his mother -- in front of his adoring fans, no less -- you start to wonder why more kids in India don't turn into helpless, atrophied, breast-sucking agoraphobics. There is so much hand-feeding in this film that it deserves another page of its own: The Feeding Gallery. If images of emotionally-regressed adults make you feel sick to your stomach, don't click on this link until you've finished eating.
And when you do eat, please use a fork and spoon...for my sake.
Jimmy -- who himself has never seen a fork or spoon -- has the hots for Ritu, the daughter of the evil villain next door. This villain -- named Mr. P. N. Oberoi -- is so vicious that he keeps a stick next to his front gate specifically to beat visitors with. When Jimmy tries to teach Ritu how to play her guitar, Mr. Oberoi goes on a mad child-slapping spree of a sort seen frequently in Walmart but rarely on the silver screen. He also throws a sucker-punch at Jimmy's mom and sends her toppling to the ground...and then to jail, unfairly branded a thief. She becomes the star of a daily "slum parade" in the poor section of town...I've heard that everybody loves a parade, but not when it consists of a mob that follows your mom around yelling that she's a thief. This makes Jimmy fighting mad and is the beginning of a mealtime grudge that lasts him well into adulthood, even after they've moved to another town.
Some ex-Bombay slum-dwellers turn to drugs, but not Jimmy...he turns to something far more addictive and destructive: disco. In his bedroom, under a poster of a comparatively handsome and talented John Travolta, Jimmy does a sort of awkward, crippled, over-sexed but extremely honest hybrid of disco and interpretive goth dance. During the day he sings happy songs to newly married couples and he takes particular joy -- you would too -- serenading a very fat woman who has just married a dwarf. You knew there had to be a fat woman and a dwarf, didn't you? If you weren't 100% sure I bet you were hoping.
Jimmy is not the only Disco Dancer in town. A mean man named Sam has claimed the disco crown for himself (along with the testicle-squashing jumpsuit which comes with the territory). He and his dance partner smile a lot and are able to jump out of their bodies using a form of astral projection, but that doesn't mean they're good dancers...in fact, Sam is the worst dancer I've ever seen, even at weddings. His awkwardness cannot be captured in still images. He moves like a drunken uncle with an inner ear infection while dancing to "Koi Yahan Nache," a blatant rip-off of "Video Killed The Radio Star." Still, his fans seem to love him, and huge crowds of them -- dubbed by two women who say "hello, hello, autograph, hello" over and over again -- chase him all around town.
In the Green Room, his manager -- David Brown -- finally gets sick of Sam's womanizing sleaziness. Or maybe it isn't the womanizing he's fed up with...maybe he's annoyed by Sam's habit of always referring to himself in the third person. After walking out on a steamy scene with a thermos in the background, David Brown decides he needs new talent. Guess who he chooses to manage next? No, not Donna Summer -- she gave up disco YEARS ago, along with the rest of the Western hemisphere! He spots Jimmy prancing all alone down a dark alley -- high on the disco drug -- and it becomes obvious: Jimmy will be a star.
It doesn't look good at first, though, At Jimmy's stage debut, Sam's bitter dance partner tries to disrupt the performance by showing off her fantastic gold boots and cryptically shouting "We won't listen to the Street Smart!" But the fickle crowd DOES listen -- the guy in the snazzy blue jumpsuit is particularly enthralled -- and before you know it Jimmy is teaching the audience how to disco dance with a rollicking game of Simon Says. Going further than any disco dancer has ever gone before, he also rolls on the ground, girlishly kicking his feet in a way that isn't supposed to be gay but is. Mithun's disco experience is primarily about rolling around on the ground. At one point a gaggle of women poke him affectionately in the belly...is this perhaps the Indian interpretation of "the Polka?"
As David Brown says at the end of the number: "Jimmy, YOU HAVE DONE IT!" Bombay is instantly consumed with Jimmy fever: Jimmy ice cream! Jimmy chocolate! Jimmy fabrics! Jimmy T-shirts and perfumes! But the disco dancer doesn't let success go to his head...that would make him a multi-dimensional character. He still spends much of his time being hand-fed by his mother, and when he manages to slip away from her he engages in coy fights with Sam's resentful dance partner, who he drags around by the back of her knee (a technique familiar to fans of Harpo Marx). He also threatens to autograph his name on her lips, which would be tragic for such a beautiful woman (even if her "brain stinks of wealth.")
But guess what? Sam's partner is actually Ritu...the daughter of that horrible villain from the beginning of the movie! Since the villain has a vested interest in Sam's career (and doesn't want to see his daughter hanging around with such a disco-dancing, mommy's boy piece of trash), he spends the rest of the movie trying to kill Jimmy. And everybody knows that the best way to kill a disco dancer in India is by putting a Greek and an Australian on the job.
The Greek is Vasco. His gang of finger-poppin' "West Side Story" thugs learn the hard way that you shouldn't break Jimmy's guitar. Transforming from disco dancer to disco fighter in the blink of an eye, Jimmy sends the members of Vasco's gang flying into those beautifully-arranged piles of loose bricks that you always see in Bollywood fight scenes. The gang member who drove Jimmy into this ambush will forever mourn the day he learned the secret code signal that started the fight: 22 erratic, disjointed honks of his car horn. For completists, here is the signal as I understood it, expressed in Morse Code dashes and dots:
"-..-- --..- .-.. ...- .-.-"
The Australian is, of course, the burly and bald-headed hero of the BollyBob Society, Mr. Bob Christo himself! In this movie Bob plays a more menacing role than usual, strikingly attired in a black turtleneck and a pair of wrap-around shades. His most powerful fighting technique is something I think of as "the Christo Claw," which means tensing your hand up like a bird's talon and then touching another person's face. It doesn't look like much, but the victims of this technique scream a lot.
Bob never gets a chance to use "the Christo Claw" on Jimmy...he's just not fast enough and he's not the hero of the movie (as much as we BollyBobs wish he were...hint-hint, Aditya Chopra!) Nope, Jimmy sends the foreign tough guys packing, and then totally ruins a young girl's birthday party by telling everybody there about how horrible his childhood was. When he repeatedly refers to himself as an orphan, nobody has the nerve to tell him that his mother is standing right next to him (with a handful of birthday cake ready to shove into his mouth), but that must be because Jimmy is such a big star. After all, every woman in town has a picture of Jimmy in his "Krishna Pigeon" outfit under their pillows, which isn't surprising because every other man in town looks pretty ugly.
We get to see Jimmy "perform" several times, occasionally backed up by four chubby sax players that I think of as "The Tower Of Pigtails." He also performs with a bunch of men wearing shower-curtain capes; he dances around Krishna's crown and what appears to be an enormous golden dosa. During one song at the peak of his career -- where he again lies on his stomach and kicks his feet like the sassy coquette he is -- he wears a headband with zebra-striped horns on it...you know, the usual disco stuff.
Even though the actual DANCING in the movie rarely even approaches disco -- it's more like an aerobic routine performed by easily-bored people who are perpetually off-balance -- the MUSIC is certainly disco music. The problem is, it's BAD disco music. Other than the plaintive "Jimmy Jimmy" number -- sung by Ritu, at last repentant and wearing pants that I can only describe as "hot slacks" -- the songs are bland and forgettable, the beats repetitive, the playback singing dull and unemotional. If it weren't for the outrageous costumes, horrible dancing, and the strange camera lens which turns every image into a fly's-eye-view of a pile of vomit, the song sequences would be very painful indeed.
But it's later in the film -- at the "Internationalntie Of Dance Competition" (yes, that's what the sign says) -- that the dancing reaches its pinnacle. I am of course talking about the must-see performance by the "Disco King & Queen Of Africa," who appear to be an epileptic man and a very bored secretary respectively. If "Disco Dancer" were only this single 30-second dance routine -- and perhaps the brief performance by the "Disco King & Queen Of Paris" as well -- the film would deserve its title on that basis alone, and it would have earned its place in the upper ranks of Fun Bad Bollywood Films.
You won't cry when you watch "Disco Dancer." You won't find yourself feeling a deep personal identification with Jimmy (permanently morose and sulky), Ritu (as much personality as a bug or a fish) or Jimmy's mom (so much of a martyr you wish her sari would get caught in somebody's car door, because that's obviously the sort of suffering she desires). There's very little to like about the music, and the fight scenes are just plain bad. But what makes "Disco Dancer" so special, really? Why does it have such a reputation amongst afficionados of Bollywood kitsch? How did it manage to inspire a song by Devo, a group of people already so kitschy and over-the-top that they'd seem to require no further inspiration for their music?
Besides the usual explosive Bollywood bombast, it's that the film takes disco so darn SERIOUSLY. You can make a movie about hip-hop and have the music be a SYMBOL for something important. You can do the same thing with blues, jazz, swing, and any number of other styles of music or dance throughout history. But DISCO? Come on fellows, the idea alone is funny. All disco ever inspired anybody to do was have sex, take pills for their STD's, then go out and have more sex. I'm just glad that India made at least one movie about it before the fad ran its course.
The sequel, of course, left Disco behind: "Rock Dancer," featuring Samantha Fox. The less said about it the better.
Forget all about that Stephen Hawking stuff, we've made a really important discovery! After hours of scrutinizing the Disco Dancer screenshots -- under controlled conditions, of course -- our experts let out a surprised gasp: could it really be? Sitting on the table in Sam's love-pad? Is that...A THERMOS???
Indeed it was! We have made a crucial find that will force us to reevaluate the entire history of thermoses in India. Disco Dancer was released in 1982, meaning that this is another mid-80's thermos discovered in an Indian film, which would imply that the thermoses in 1983's "Agar Tum Na Hote" were not anachronisms after all! Here is the shocking evidence:
If you've seen a thermos in an Indian film, please let us know! And if it's in a film released after 1983 you might have made an even more important discovery than this one...you might have discovered the missing link between Indian Film Thermoses, and the Thermoses of today! Imagine!