Well, if I’m going to kick off another prolonged period of trying to review everything that comes to me through Netflix (minus TV shows — I’m up for watching every episode of Cleopatra 2525, but not for writing about them all), this seems like a fine way to kick things off. At the same time, it’s difficult to grapple with actually getting one’s head around a movie of this nature, which seems to have been made under the premise that if you took the combined gaudiness and sparkle of Saturday Night Fever, Xanadu, and that movie where Jeff Goldblum runs the disco and Marv “the Leatherman” Gomez dances in the parking lot, then all that would be missing was, you know, an extra little dash of sparkle and over-the-top camp value. And kungfu fights. Leave it to Bollywood to not only make a tacky, eye-searing, completely delirious disco film, but to feel like they need to jack it up on steroids, complete with the overwrought melodrama and breakneck shifting of genres that one comes to expect from a Bollywood production.
Our action begins back in olden times (the 1960s, I assume). Actually, no, scratch that. Our action begins with the opening credits, which are sort of like looking at Christmas lights through translucent Christmas ornaments. The theme song isn’t so much a disco song as it is something you might find preprogrammed into a Casio keyboard — and why it is always a Casio keyboard? Anyway, whoever composed this song leans pretty heavily on the “Fill” button. Ahh, if only keyboards at Radio Shack really did come with one of the preprogrammed beats being “Bollywood Extravaganza.”
Young Anil whiles away the hours playing drums and flute with his late father’s friend, Raju (Rajesh Khanna), who has the power to create “pew pew” disco laser sound effects out of thin air. Acquaint yourself with the sound effect, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot. Their show attracts the attention of a young girl, who invites Anil and his mother, Radha (Gita Siddharth) into her rich father’s fenced-in compound for a little musical fun. Unfortunately, the father (Om Shivpuri, who looks like he ate Anthony Wong and was last seen around these parts in Don alongside Amitabh Bachchan) isn’t as fond of young ragamuffins dancing and playing music with his daughter, so he slaps the kid around, slaps the mom around, then frames them for theft.
The stigma of being criminals follows them around town as if it was a giant mob of jeering locals. It seems this way because it is a giant mob of jeering locals. Hounded and disgraced, Anil and his mother — who still feeds him by hand even though he’s perfectly capable of feeding himself — decide to leave the slums of Bombay and seek a better life down in Goa. Anil, angry at the scorn heaped upon his typically saintly mother, vows to avenge the insult.
Years later in Goa, which seems a much nicer place to live than the shantytown slums of Bombay, Anil has grown to be a strapping young lad in the form of Mithun Chakraborty (Elaan, Kismet, working as a wedding singer for fat women ho marry midgets in top hats. He’s not rich, and his mother still feeds him by hand, which was mildly gross when he was little but is downright disturbing behavior in a grown man. I suppose someone could lay out the cultural and traditional reasons why this is symbolic of this or that, but still, come on! It’s a grown man who gets hand-fed by his mother, who take sit as a great honor that she could stuff mushy rice into an adult man’s mouth. Anil vows that he will become a successful performer and lavish his mom with the honor of feeding a rich man by hand. Also, he’ll pay his wedding band a little better.
Meanwhile, across town evil disco kingpin Sam (Karan Razdan ) is showing us why we all watched this movie in the first place. Dressed as shiny man from the future circa 1977, evil moustachio’d Sam engages in some of the worst dancing I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen myself dance. He sort of flings his arms around and rolls awkwardly on the floor while his back-up dancers and female co-star do the work. From time to time, he’ll shimmy up with all the grace of a bowl of egg noodles and yell something to justify his paycheck. The overall impression the Sam, the lord of the disco, leaves on the viewer is, “Huh, well how about that?” I mean, this guy is a bad dancer. Denny Terrio weeps every time this spastic lunatic pelvic thrusts his way onto the rainbow-colored dance floor. How Sam stole godfather of the disco status from Rudy Ray Moore is beyond me. I assume Sam is the king of all disco dancers purely because everyone else had already stopped disco dancing a couple years prior, so there’s just not that much competition.
Sam is a dick, of course, who speaks of himself in the third person, and his father happens to be one dastardly P.N. Oberoi, the very same man who slapped Anil around those many years ago. When Sam’s manager, David Brown (Om Puri), gets fed up with Sam’s womanizing and drunken rants, he vows to find a new disco star and crush Sam. Sam laughs, as villains are wont to do. Obviously, David Brown sees Anil, who happens to be dancing down the side of the street one night in a scene that teaches us that in India even the street lights are blazing, star-shaped disco beacons. After a quick name change to Jimmy, the candy-colored adventure really begins.
Jimmy’s (Anil if you’re nasty, or his mother) first show looks like it might be a disaster. Sam enlists the aid of his sister, Rita (Kim — just Kim), and her friends to show up and heckle Jimmy. Jimmy is phased for a second, but he quickly takes it all in good stride and turns the jeers into cheers by showcasing the thing that makes him a better “greatest disco dancer in all of India” than Sam; specifically, Jimmy actually can dance, though like Sam he can’t resist floundering about on the floor and kicking his legs in the air like someone just injected him with pure essence of “Jane Fonda Video Workout.” Was rolling around really considered a big dance move in India? Oh well, all I know is that the music and the set owes as much to disco as it does to “Incense and Peppermint.” Seriously, it looks like sixties era Spinal Tap is about to step onto the stage and play “Listen to the Flower People.” And Rita’s boots? Let me just say that there was so much insane stuff in Disco Dancer (we’re only at the thirty minute mark here) that I filled several pages of my notebook, and one page has nothing scrawled on it but, “My God, those boots!” They’re like shiny gold pirate go-go boots or something. Just…I mean…they’re just fabulous!
The show, seen by literally dozens of people, cements Jimmy as the number one disco king. Sam, never one to acquiesce with dignity or grace, throws a fit and makes his dad hire some goons to beat Jimmy up. The plot to bring Jimmy down becomes increasingly complex and Machiavellian, culminating in a sinister plan to kill Jimmy with an electric guitar. Will Jimmy escape the murder plot? Will people die tragically? Will Jimmy get over his subsequent crippling fear of guitars in time to face off against the Disco Kings and Queens of Africa and France in the big international disco competition? Disco Dancer will answer all these questions and more, and the answers will come to you in the dead of night, and they will be wearing a black leather jumpsuit fringed with chicken feathers and adorned by a headband with zebra striped horns attached to it.
Most Bollywood productions are a bit overwhelming to the senses of sight and sound, to say nothing of the simple art of being able to think straight. Disco Dancer, however, crams in even more weirdness than usual, which is really saying something. It’s an absolutely delirious experience that will leave you reeling, staggering, possibly damaged, but also smiling and laughing. There’s such a joyous overabundance of energy in the film that it can’t help but delight you with its overzealous desire to be completely bonkers. When Jimmy faces off against a gang of finger-snapping thugs, it seems they might get the better of him until he fights back — with finger snapping of his own. Let this be a lesson to all aspiring thugs — don’t finger snap at a man who can finger snap back at you — but with an added echo effect on his snaps!
What makes this film interesting…well, let’s be honest. What makes this film interesting is the insane costuming and art design during the plentiful musical numbers (not as many as an Elvis movie, but close). But what’s also interesting is that the film doesn’t follow what you’d think would be the conventional path of a “poor kid makes it big” movie, which almost always has the hero growing spoiled and conceited, possibly addicted to drugs, before either dying or having a moment of profound revelation. Such worldly temptations never enter into Jimmy’s world (though Sam seems to like himself the heroin). When he promises to pay his band well if he ever makes it big, he comes back after he makes it big and pays them well. When he promises his mom that he will let her feed him by hand when he is rich and powerful, he does just that. He gets perhaps a bit overzealous in crushing Oberoi, never seeming to realize that it was Oberoi’s slight that gave him the burning desire to thrash about in shiny spandex, but Sam and Oberoi are such jerks that it doesn’t matter. It’s kind of a disco Count of Monte Cristo. Jimmy even saves his old neighborhood from destruction at the hands of Oberoi’s henchmen, even though the town jeered at him and his mother all those years ago.
The story is pretty well paced, believe it or not, and even decently written. Well, sort of. It’s all completely absurd, but the film’s great strength is that no one seems to realize its absurd. You can’t call this camp, because camp implies some sort of intentional goofiness. Every second of this film drips with serious earnest, as if the makers truly believe that disco dancing can save the world. You have the usually Bollywood conventions — the saintly mother, the tragic deaths, the glorious rebirths, romance, and kungfu fights. There’s very little that is subtle about the film, but a few things are clever, such as when, in a drunken depression after the tragic death, Jimmy collapses on the side of the street with his head resting on a giant chain. Can Jimmy unshackle himself from this sorrow?
Mithun Chakraborty does a decent job as Anil/Jimmy. He spends a lot of time brooding, but even more time disco dancing the night away or breaking out the kungfu on some bald guy who supposed to be the deadliest pop star murderer in Europe but in reality gets his ass kicked constantly by Jimmy. As Jimmy’s eventual love interest, Rita has little to do besides wait around for her chance to sing and dance in order to bring Jimmy out of his stupor for the finale. The supporting cast of villains is superb, though, and both P.N. and Sam Oberoi ooze sleaze.
From an art design standpoint, it looks like Disney got drunk with a clown and a medieval harlequin, ate a bunch of Sweet Tarts, then threw up all over the screen. Everything is glittering and flashing, a point that is driven home by the film’s adoration of the little “bew bew bew!” laser sound effect that seems to have fallen out of favor with foley artists these days. Too bad. Flashing lights, mirrors, and so much shiny skintight lame (male and female) that even Russian disco dancers were shielding their eyes from the brilliance and calling it “all a bit much, da comrade?” That’s how all Russians talked in the 1980s, remember. But what pushes the whole glorious mess into extremes John Waters could only dream of is the absolute shoddiness of the costumes on displays. I’ve never been a big fan of the disco look, but this is the disco look as purchased from the Halloween costume aisle of the local Walgreens. At one point, backup dancers prance onto the stage wearing light blue long johns, pink capes, cheerleader skirts, and black socks — and that’s just a tiny, tantalizing taste of the costuming insanity that runs rampant throughout this film.
That happens during the film’s stand-out sequence, the disco ode to Krishna musical number. This is one for the books, people, a production number so completely bizarre and over-the-top that it’d bring a tear to Freddie Mercury’s eye. When I was doing screenshots to accompany this review, I ended up with fifty or so just of this one number, as I struggle din vain to capture every moment of its unabashed weirdness. It’s sort of like how a person will snaps a hundred photos of the Grand Canyon in an attempt to convey the vastness of what they are seeing. It never works, and likewise, at the end of the day all people should see at least this musical number before they die.
And then when they trotted out the disco king and queen of Africa and France — Christ Almighty! That’s when my head exploded. This is the best disco has to offer? No wonder Jimmy beats them all. The African disco lords move like Dawn of the Dead zombies, and I don’t know what the hell the French guy was supposed to be doing. I think he was breaking out that Russian dance where they squat and kick their legs out. That’s a hard dance to do. If only French Disco King had known all he had to do was fall down and writhe around amid a nest of flashing lights!
It seems obvious that the person who put together this motley massacre of taste had only a vague notion of what disco culture was, and took the little knowledge they did have and multiplied the fantastical insanity of it a thousandfold. The end result is like some weird sort of DIY disco world, where people are just scraping together whatever zany ensemble they can and making up their own spastic thrashing and calling it disco dancing. Actually, some of the outfits look like things that would be trotted out in cheap Italian sci-fi and post-apocalypse films during the 1980s, or perhaps things worn in the Glen Larson Buck Rogers television series crossed with Breakin’ and Fame. It probably helps that this movie was released in 1982, a year or so too late for the real disco craze, but early enough to latch on to that last, dying breath while, at the same time, being able to draw on a rich body of neon-trimmed mirrors with Patrick Nagel artwork airbrushed on them. Sort of like those glam metal bands that came around in 1992 and just missed the boat. So fret not, Faster Pussycat, L.A. Guns, and Danger Danger, for there’s a little bit of that ol’ Disco Dancer magic at work in your showing up to the party after everyone else had gone home.
I gather that Disco Dancer has a bit of a legendary reputation amongst people who seek out bad films, especially bad films from Bollywood, and while there’s nothing in the movie that isn’t completely ludicrous, I have to say that there was not a drop of irony in my embrace of this film. It’s just so insanely, beautifully gaudy and completely nuts. I hesitated and was even a bit embarrassed to admit that I had a lot of fun watching Asambhav. I have no such reservations regarding Disco Dancer. This movie is pure, simple, candy-wrapper-colored fun.