“Disco Dancer” (1982)
DISCO DANCER (1982), dir. Babbar Subhash, 135 mins., filmed in Hindi.
Starring Mithun Chakraborty, Rajesh Khanna, Gita Siddharth, Om Puri. Music by Bappi Lahari.
You probably weren’t wondering about the first dance-competition movie to come out of Bollywood. But recently, I was. As a long-time fan of dance movies, I started to wonder about this when I saw last year’s Anybody Can Dance (ABCD) 2 in a Manhattan multiplex. It’s about a dance crew competing in Step Up-style contests, and I liked it so much I asked a friend in India to send me ABDC 1.
Looking for more background on Indian movies with dance contests, I was led to “Disco Dancer,” which was supposedly the first of its kind. I knew that Bollywood movies have had dancing ever since the dawn of the sound era. For example, the 1931 Indian film “Alam Ara” featured seven musical numbers and is said to have set the precedent for the musical trend that followed. It was even billed as “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing,” perhaps inspired by Hollywood’s earlier Broadway Melody.
But Indian movies with dance contests are much newer. In fact, Disco Dancer is supposed to be the first. I had to ask my same friend to find me a copy with English subtitles. It’s a rags-to-riches tale of a Mumbai street singer who becomes India’s disco king. Its main inspiration was Saturday Night Fever (1977), in which Tony Manero (John Travolta) hopes that dancing will rescue him from a dead-end life working in a Brooklyn paint store. In fact, Disco Dancer’s main character keeps a John Travolta poster in his room.
Disco Dancer is said to have brought the disco trend to India. It gave a disco boost to the careers of its star Mithun Chakraborti and composer Bappi Lahari, and has since become a cult classic. And it’s also a classic example of a good-bad movie. Reviewers over the years have loved to poke fun at it.
Disco Dancer is 80s Bollywood at its cheesy, campy, nonsensical worst.
The guiding philosophy of the film is to giving the audience what they want times a thousand.
Filled to the rooftop with bad décor, bad outfits, bad hair, bad dance steps and bad melodrama, this film is an absolute hoot – so bad and yet so satisfying.
–Hong Kong Cinema – View from the Brooklyn Bridge
Drugs were in fact created to simulate the experience of watching Disco Dancer.
–“Pretentious Movie Reviews,” India Times
The movie is about Anil, who as a child sings and dances for the pure love of the art. He’s inspired by his musical guru Master Raju (Rajesh Khanna). One day when Anil is dancing down the street, he’s invited into the yard of a wealthy young girl, Rita Oberoi. As a dirt-poor street kid, Anil has only a plastic toy guitar, but Rita just happens to have a real guitar and lets him try it. Right about then, her father comes home and is horrified to see a street kid in HIS yard singing to HIS daughter. Oberoi (Om Shivpuri) is one of the richest men in Mumbai, so he can get away with getting Anil arrested for stealing. When Anil’s mother comes by to take him home, Oberoi beats her to the ground, and she goes to jail for Anil.
When Anil’s mother returns from jail, they are ostracized in their small community, and forced to move to Goa. Over the next fifteen years, Anil channels the shame and anger over his mother’s humiliation into dance. Guided by his new manager David Brown (Om Puri), he recreates himself as Jimmy, the Disco Dancer. He becomes so famous that he lands his own endorsements and branded merchandise: Jimmy Ice Cream, Jimmy fabric and Jimmy T-shirts. Jimmy and his manager think it’s now time to return to Mumbai and reclaim his mother’s honor through the vehicle of disco dance.
Back in Mumbai, Oberoi’s son Sam has become the reigning disco king, and Rita (Kim Yashpal) has grown into a beautiful young woman. When Jimmy returns, he becomes Oberoi’s worst nightmare. He begins to date Rita, and also challenges Sam to compete at the International Disco Championship. Oberoi can’t have this, and hires thugs to stop Jimmy by any means necessary. He even plans to kill Jimmy by electrocuting his, er, electric guitar. Jimmy’s mother saves the day by grabbing the high-voltage instrument before Jimmy does, and she suffers death-by-guitar in Jimmy’s arms.
Jimmy bides his time waiting for the contest trying to work through his new guitar-phobia while Oberoi’s thugs think of other ways to kill him.
“Disco Dancer” is a good-bad movie of the “kitchen sink” type. If you can imagine a genre cliché from Bollywood or Hollywood, it’s here. You get misty Hallmark romance tableaus, bald-headed villains out of a Bond flick, kung-fu fighters flying into piles of rubber bricks, religious devotion and family psychodrama played out through chirpy dance numbers. The disco numbers have more polyester, glitter, tinsel and garish lighting than I’ve ever seen in another movie. Even the dancing isn’t that great.
But it is a classic that’s remembered by a whole generation of filmgoers. Why? One reviewer asks,
So why does this movie’s legend endure? Why does almost everyone who comes into contact with it come away a changed person?
–Memsaab Story blog
Looking at it with my North American sensibilities, I can think of a few reasons that might explain why it’s become so well-remembered.
The talent, for one thing.
The cast (especially Mithun Chakraborty and musical director Bappi Lahari) stayed in the disco biz and achieved fame over the next years. Several of their songs have become Bollywood classics, and are admired by people who have never seen the film. Om Puri, who plays Jimmy’s manager, went on to make more Bollywood movies, as well as independent and art films on several continents. And Jimmy’s childhood guru is played by Rajesh Khanna, who has been called “The First Superstar of Indian cinema.”
But I think the most important reason the film has endured is that it’s got heart. For all its cornball cheesiness, it doesn’t try to be arch or ironic like a Tarantino film. Even though it looks like a parody, it plays straight, sincere and honest. Even the camera is honest — it lets the dancers do the dancing and doesn’t play tricks to enhance their moves.
The film’s precious, naïve charm is the real thing, and I found the experience utterly captivating even while I laughed.
The famous song “I Am a Disco Dancer” is the film’s climax. It’s performed as a stage number with the famous Travolta finger-pointing, hip-cocking dance moves. By the time Jimmy’s in Travolta mode he’s reached the pinnacle of his art and his self-creation is complete. I couldn’t help but root for him.
At the dance contest later on, Jimmy is almost booed off the stage for depression and guitar phobia. He just stands there and can’t sing. But at the last moment, he manages to sing a song devoted to his mother’s memory. It’s a genuinely loving and poignant performance. The healing touch that finally enables him to sing is provided by his old guru Master Raju, who appears on stage singing their old song from his childhood.
That song (“Goro Kee Na Kalo Kee”) is the same one the movie opened with, and I consider it to be the spiritual heart of the entire movie. It’s a joyful celebration of the unity of humanity and of art for art’s sake. I found its lyrics and performance in the film inspiring and impossible to dislike. Here is what my English-subtitled version of the film provided as lyrics:
GORO KEE NA KALO KEE
Nor fair skinned.
The world belongs to the compassionate ones.
Live with joy and die with joy.
We compassionate people.
In all the lanes and streets our songs echo
From dawn to dusk
We are the dealers of music.
This is our business.
Neither gold nor silver
We love only songs.”
I look forward to seeing the movie sometime again soon.