Returning to India after being away for many years is somewhat disconcerting. I am primarily upset with modernism. Not in an NGO “save the village tea stall from Wal-Mart” sort of way, but in a “what happened to disco dancing?” sort of way.
Now, I don’t mean this in terms of the actual death of disco, which is well documented in films such as the aptly titled Last Days of Disco or the more star-studded (Mike Meyers, Neve Campbell) 54, which recounted the story of the ill-fated 1970s New York den of hedonism, sequins and glitter balls—Studio 54.
I mean it in the sense of the birth of, the original rise of, the graceful emergence of, disco dancing in Indian cinema.
I know that (tragically) nowadays, there is a lot of money in Bollywood and actors don’t have to grow handlebar moustaches, grab Mandakini, or wear tight yellow V-neck (chest-hair leveraging) shirts. What’s worse is that Bollywood cinema is no longer the platform for noted Dubai felons to frolic with heroines under the guise of “auditioning”. It is now legitimate money, corporate money, shareholders et al, and even taxable. Some of these directors have even gone to film school (American, just to add to the pain). If that wasn’t sickening enough, people now perform dance sequences in front of the Sydney Opera House and the Buckingham Palace, just to flex our global muscle. More recently, in the lavish South Indian epic Sivaji The Boss, star Rajnikanth and entourage dressed up as Mongols (or Huns, not sure which), and danced on top of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. What happened to the days when Mysore was an expensive location? In the 1980s, if a Bollywood movie had a car chase sequence in London, it meant the film was funded by at least four gangsters in collaboration.
Rajnikanth used ‘foreign locales’ in Sivaji
“My son Zabisco has just returned from Singapore” remains a famous Amrish Puri show-offy line, which portrays how important Singapore was back then as a distant wealthy destination, not some place for upper-middle class India to hop to for a weekend of DVD shopping. As an aside, that same film, the blockbuster Naseeb, also featured a French-bearded Shatrughan Sinha, later union minister of shipping, in a fantastic Russian pirouette, dressed as a Cossack, on top of a revolving restaurant in suburban Mumbai. Sadly, the hip factor of revolving restaurants—such as Shatru movies, break-dancing, or Ronald Reagan—seems to have died with the 1980s. Now, if Bollywood wants to shoot on top of a building, it has to be the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, only the world’s tallest building till sometime ago, and the able-bodied man running around it would be the massively popular, always hip, Shah Rukh Khan.
The final nail in the coffin seems to be this growing “intelligent” Indian audience which wants “different stories”. Stories now apparently have to have logic and reason; some directors are even mentioning a sequence of events that make sense. What is wrong with these people? What is not logical about Dharmendra fighting a giant beast, which is apparently the offspring of a union between bear and woman? Or, in Shaan (a great film), the late Sunil Dutt stepping out into the leafy open-air balcony of an evil man’s undersea hideout? Enough is enough, I say. I want my real Bollywood back. I want my old India back.
There are many movies that had the disco “spirit”; Bachchan-starrers Kaalia, Don and Namak Halal, all featured a central song-and-dance number with an essential disco beat and the customary silver outfit (and shoes, naturally) all made out of an odd derivative of gift-wrapping paper. Namak Halal went as far as an aquarium sequence—certainly the only underwater disco choreography to date. Yaarana, a later classic, was about the rags to riches to rags journey of a singing sensation, although disco is cleverly positioned within the script as the sort of proverbial psycho-social id (Freud meets Bappi Lahiri).
Disco Dancer, the holy grail of the genre, has been universally proclaimed by critics worldwide as the worst film ever made—a fact that seems to cause a hitherto unknown result: getting critics to agree to one thing. The movie topped a list of the 1,000 worst movies ever made at a film conference on bad movies in Germany some years ago, beating home videos and pornographic movies, which were also in the running.
It stars Mithun Chakraborty, a 1980s megastar, who was then sort of like a mix between a Bengali Steven Segal and a Bengali David Hasselhoff, albeit with more velcro. The story starts out with him as an urchin (which he was in real life in 1970s’ Kolkata) who catches the eye of a show producer (Om Puri, in a once-only dancing role—his character was named Robert Brown, as disco dancing coaches are). Puri has gone on to meaninglessly poor cinema like My Son the Fanatic and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, but it is mainly in Disco Dancer that he has the ability to flex his vast range (literally) while showing Chakraborty some mad moves in a particularly taught dance-step coaching sequence with just the two of them in a hotel room and, oddly, no background music (“Are you watching me?” is one of his key pieces of dialogue).
The film culminates in a face-off with an evil dancing nemesis (complete with thin moustache and his own flickering headband) in a segment that rivals the final battle scene of Lord of the Rings. In one brilliant bit in the final song “war” (I Am a Disco Dancer, Chakraborty blasts with a finality) which our hero, of course, wins with the help of a special golden guitar thrown at him by Rajesh Khanna (don’t ask), the nemesis rolls down grand semi-circular steps (which are on stage), stopping occasionally to strike a Hellenic pose while Chakraborty does the same thing except somehow, in defiance of gravity, he rolls up the same grand steps.
These movies represented an earlier, more innocent world. A world where it was okay not to ask for petty explanations when the extras broke character, and admiringly gazed at Bachchan while trying to also kill him in a climax (Shaan again), or look for accuracy in every little detail of a horse-riding Shatrughan Sinha—dressed as a cowboy—jumping on to a houseboat on the Thames river, to prevent a rape (Naseeb again).
Back then, it was India without cable television, venture capitalists, Infosys, fashion designers and SEZs (special economic zones). It was an India with Doordarshan till midnight, power failures, Indira Gandhi speeches, ration cards and disco dancers. Of course, countries will progress and change, naturally people will want newer, better things; but a country is often a collection of collective memories, existing and absent. Our disco dancing days are a former country, which now so far forgotten, may only remain as a collective memory, and like the suspension of disbelief in the films themselves, the disco dancer will only live in us, the believing, ageing few.
Anuvab Pal is a playwright and screenwriter of Loins of Punjab.
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