In the history of world cinema, there will be few films where you can hear the words ‘come sing and conquer’ or ‘he has guitar phobia’ or ‘he has murdered over thirty disco dancers in London’. And even if you did, chances of them being in the same film are slim. That’s till Disco Dancer came along.
In the glory days of socialist India, where the Hindi film industry churned out hero versus system stories, Disco Dancer turned that concept on its head. It gave you a proper ‘Bollywood’ film – much before the term came into existence – with all the struggle of a hero’s journey from poverty to success, but through fighting the villain, but through…yes…disco dancing.
Part screenplay, part interview, some analysis, this book tries to understand what it was about this film that drove Osaka, Japan, to build a Jimmy statue, stadiums of devout Russian fans for three generations to go into raptures when it came on, and for millions from Dubai to San Francisco to know only this movie, when anyone mentioned Bollywood.
Most of all though, it is an effort at preservation: To translate and archive some of the greatest lines of dialogue, ingenious inventions of plot and narrative, and perhaps the greatest dancing character ever written in any cinema. So that even if new India is not the nation we once were, Disco Dancer, hopefully, will not be forgotten.
When I got a call from the publishers about writing a book on a seminal Indian film, I suggested Disco Dancer. As a friend later asked and what struck me after I’d enticed my publisher: ‘Why?’
The cultured elite remember this movie (many post-liberalization children don’t) with disdain. And understandably, many can’t understand why this merits a book. B-grade Bollywood in general and especially of the 1980s is shunned by anyone vaguely literate in this country and for good reason too. The storytelling felt like the accidental fiddling of a two-year-old, the morality was forced, the titillation laughable and the message well-known by its audience long before the movie ticket was bought. Indeed, Disco Dancer was voted by many film critics not only as the worst film ever made but the worst film ever made in the 1980s, which is a significantly bigger achievement because we made some spectacularly awful cinema in that decade. To give you some examples:
Dharmendra fought a love-child of a bear and a woman without much question of such a creatures’ origins (Katilon Ke Kaatil); Amitabh drove a taxi that flew (which was not the main story of Khuddar); Shatrughan Sinha taxied up to Zeenat Aman (lounging on a runway in a sun hat) in a private plane to say ‘hi’ and then took off in Dostana; Amrish Pun as the legendary villain Mogambo had a hideout under which molten lava flowed (Mr. India). I could go on. To shine within that poo1 takes workmanship of a different kind. And just from the outset, a rags-to-riches story of a street urchin who becomes a disco dancing sensation doesn’t sound as ridiculous as the film was. (Now that I think of it, it does.)
Most of the ‘80s’ films which were hated by the educated set were huge successes at the cinemas because, unlike today, civilized people with families did not go to cinemas which were largely single- screen dens of spiders, cockroaches, masturbators and criminals. The expectation was essentially sex and violence with a dash of spectacle, like the Roman circus. Storytelling didn’t mean anything, it was a thing to tie the sex and violence and spectacle together. Understandably, there was no proper legitimate funding for this; so, an underground mafia financed, created and profited from Bollywood. Old-timers, people in the business before multiplexes and corporate production houses, tell incredible stories of entrepreneurial ingenuity about how they got movies made. One anecdote I heard involved a producer keeping the reels under his bed and roaming the city in disguise, because he had creative differences over a song with his mafia funders, and a creative disagreement, back then, could lead to death.
The themes in the stories were very socialist. Typically, a man against the system, the system being anyone running a business (usually with a last name like Bansal or Oberoi, something that sounds rich). It was as if the whole movie business was out to support the agenda of George Fernandes, the late ‘70s being the golden years of his brand of. socialism. In Disco Dancer, the same morality is espoused except not through bringing down a murderous corrupt mill owner who is a smuggler on the side but by its protagonist becoming an ethical and morally responsible disco dancer.
Still, the character had to be called Jimmy, a Christian name, because somehow a disco dancing Hindu might be offensive to an audience. Once he is called Jimmy though, you could do anything, make him drink and fornicate and disco. All of which our hero does once he changes from Anil, the name he was born with, to Jimmy, his stage name.
My interest in Disco Dancer came from its ingenious script. Very few film scripts actually from translation because you lose its original meaning. With this one, I think once you change the dialogue and write the settings and the situations in English, it becomes a different film. It becomes an epic comedy. Language can sometimes make a new story out of an old one and I wanted to see if that was possible with this story. Woody Allen took two bad B-grade Asian love stories and turned them into comic spy films just by re-dubbing them in English while keeping the spine of the main story intact. I wanted to see if it was possible to change genre from a serious, earnest, heroic, against-impossible-odds journey film to a very funny one just by changing language and the nuance of dialogue while keeping the central plot intact. The verdict of my success or failure lies with you as you read this.
As a screenwriter, one is always looking for original stories and trying to tell them cinematically. Influences come from many places, scraps of journalism, life, academia, popular culture, and trivia. Sometimes, if delicately extracted, they can be buried in existing movies. My journey to find an English comedy inside Disco Dancer is sort of like digging for treasure within wreckage or spotting a genuine gold bar within a million gold-plated bars. It can’t be the story exactly as is and it can’t be the English subtitles in the DVD, nor can one stray far away into plots and subplots of one’s own. It involves a delicate balance of all these things — the original Bollywood creation, the English subtitles the creators give us and my imposition of possible comedy within it. Any excess or veering or slightly incorrect choices in any of these fragile elements, and either the B. Subhash Bollywood film takes over, or a comedy I’m forcing takes over. It’s a bit like dancing with the original script but letting it lead. It’s like carving a statue of a horse from one of Socrates’s, without losing any marble. It’s a screenwriting challenge to see if a sentence can mean two things at one time and therefore, if there is another movie buried under this famous one. It’s like looking into a deceptive mirror and spotting all the reflections. Ok, I’ll shut up now.
All I would like to add is that much has been written about the sociopolitical impact of Indian films in communist countries, including a well- researched exploration tided ‘Leave Disco Dancer Alone’ which tries to understand the thinking and conditions behind why these movies seen as rubbish by our intelligentsia gained such popularity abroad. This book does no such analysis. If you are looking for a deep academic study on 1980s’ cinema, this is not that book.
Over the years many things happened with Disco Dancer. A young, hip, urban population, especially the diaspora, discovered this film while growing up in London or New York and it became a thing you laugh along with over drinks, like a movie version of karaoke. I attended a Disco Dancer theme party at Columbia University in New York in 1998 and was surprised to find, over and above an attempt by guests to emulate the loud outfits the characters wore, people who had memorized lines, sequences and dance moves. A part of this crowd was non-Indian and they told me of Disco Dancer theme parties in San Francisco, London, Oslo and Prague. I guess, for Indians who migrated with the movie and those who discovered it, every Western notion of ‘kitsch’ and this film match perfectly. Plus, it was Bollywood so extreme, so far out there, so truly terribly made, that in some oddly comic way, it becomes accessible to the West. Perhaps our first genuine crossover success. Recently, pop star M.I.A released her remixed version of the song ‘Jimmy’ from the movie.
In Russia, there are statues for Jimmy and some acquaintances in Kazakhstan told me that when Mithun Chakravarty went to Almaty, the capital, the president’s address to the nation was cancelled because a million-strong crowd was busy welcoming Mithun at the airport. In Tokyo, there’s a shrine to The Disco Dancer. In Egypt, people serenade Indian tourists by singing Disco Dancer songs. Across Western Asia in general, a swath generally denied Hollywood entertainment through the Cold War years, movies like Disco Dancer, and especially this one, found the audience it was always searching for. An audience that bought the idea that this was indeed a plausible dream being chased by plausible people. Either that or they worshipped Jimmy like a Sasha Baron Cohen or Mike Myers or Mr Bean. Perhaps pre-empting Austin Powers or Borat, perhaps a dancing Inspector Clouseau. If you start watching this movie with that mindset, every word uttered by the characters is hilarious.
There is, of course, much credit to be given to those who made this movie because in an era when there was very little money in the movie business and very little money in India in general, they tried to create an idea of what posh meant and what style meant. They failed because they showed you disco balls and silver shirts and Sun & Sand hotel but the failure was spectacular. They went down trying to create an India George Fernandes tried so hard to stop. It was a nation only in B. Subhash’s imagination. With sequined dresses and rotating stages and glistening mirror balls and foreigner villains. Ahead of its time in 1981. In Manmohan Singh’s twenty-first-century new India of BMWs and nightclubs and London weekends, that nation is a reality. No one wants to be a disco dancer because we now know what success and fortune look like. And they don’t include disco dancing. The fact that we’ve realized that and seen our past as ridiculous is sad.
Yet, the movie will live on because we may be a young, hip, entrepreneurial capitalist nation now but the Disco Dancer will never conform to that nation. He will ignore our irony, walk past our cheekiness, overcome our laughter, scoff at our Blackberries and prevail. No matter how we point out that he is foolish or cheap, his was an India we have lost forever. And only in his ambition to become a disco dancer can we see it, know it and know who we once were.
In him we see our fiat cars, our safari suits, our Johnny Walker smugglers, our Indira Gandhi, our limits on foreign exchange, our ration cards, our Sikh riots, our Doordarshan, our celebration at a home phone connection, ourselves.
Deep down, I am a Disco Dancer. And I hope you will be too.
North Indian Music (277)
Original Texts (59)
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