The year was 1996. Mumbai was still a little bit of Bombay, the megapolis accepting us migrant cousins with open arms. Chintan Upadhyay and I were amongst the very many who had come to the city to make her our home. Mumbai was beautiful and affectionate, inspiring and challenging. The taller-than-tall apartments wowed us, the shimmering lights of the Crossroads mall and the display windows of Rupam and VAMA showrooms excited us. We were romancing with the local trains and rented homes in decrepit lower middle class societies, savouring our starvation in late night road side bhurji-pavs amidst the golden-brown haze of the sleeping city, revisiting our tangential dreams. And we knew we were growing up in an environment that we would romanticise about some day.
But I am digressing.
We were together at the Faculty of Fine Arts, the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We couldn’t take the isms and theories that we thought the world, the art world in particular, was drugged with. We wanted to create our own idiom, our own language, our own movement. We wanted to change the world. We were rebels without a pause, our shabby kurtasspearheading the mutiny. Baroda gave us the freedom to be. We revelled in it. Little had I ever imagined that Chintan’s freedom would be abruptly curtailed some day for what would look like an unlimited period of time.
But I am digressing again.
The Faculty taught us to think differently, humoring our attempts to create the revolution. Revolution of another kind was getting simultaneously created by one Dr. Manmohan Singh. The wise man sure was doing his bit to prod and perturb us lesser mortals. Liberalisation and Globalisation were ceasing to be mere buzz words. We could see the results in the hostel common room with MTV’s funky graphics staring at us, as we discovered a whole new universe, all bright and beautiful.
Before we could realize, we were in a strange, uncomfortable place. We could no longer figure who or what were we rebelling against. It was an odd conflict brewing in our hearts and our heads. This dispute wasn’t just between ideas and ideals. The fight was amongst our sanskaari past, our doordarshan-bred-hum-honge-kamyaab present and our shiny-disco-ball future. And it was a very very tough fight. Our middle-class idealism was being hit on its backside by this new India we did not know much about. But we realized we wanted to embrace this India. Despite the guilt.
The pride in poverty was stupid.
We were the gareeb consumerists, sold to the idea of consumerism, though not having the means to live it. It was during these days in Mumbai that I curated what was Chintan’s first independent exhibition. Titled This Has Been Done Before, the exhibition attempted to make a point against what we thought were the prejudiced norms, aesthetics and points of view in the world of Indian art. The catalogue was complete with a “Common Minimum Programme” for young artists. We had heated debates on what should the communication be. Chintan wanted to be loud and vociferous. I was recommending a more subdued approach. We ended up pompously calling Picasso and Gauguin ‘derivative artists’, and talked against the “biased and old fashioned attitude of the artists and art historians of the present century”.
This Has Been Done Before catalogue | 1998
This is how my piece began: “What, exactly, is Chintan Upadhyay? A frustrated phallicentric nerd out to prove the sexual connotations and escapades of everything surrounding him? Or a confused, overgrown kid, still in an animated awe of his trinkets and toys, but whispering voices of discontent against the system promoting their production? Is he just another faceless addition to a metropolis, coming to terms with the various layers of personae being gifted to him by the assemblage of cultures in a big city? Or is he simply an artist, sensitive to all things red, blue and green, exploring for an order in disorder despite his own sarcastic sneers against this search?”
Multicultural face in a cosmopolitan city (Mumbai) | Acrylic on canvas | 10’ x 6’ | 1998
The exhibition was a failure.
Not Chintan, though. He was sharp enough to figure that all the personas that I had spoken about had to be a subset of this overarching singular persona that he had to become. That’s how 90s was preparing us to face the new millennium. By becoming a brand new persona enveloping everything. The Common Minimum Programme was, therefore, out of his life. As were the thoughts of creating an artists’ collective. He had to get there first himself. He had to be in a space where he would be self explanatory and nobody would have to elaborate on “What is Chintan Upadhyay”. He latched on to the right people, allowing them to manufacture him. He figured the importance of marketing, of full page ads in Bombay Times pushing his works. Commemorative Stamps, his 2002 exhibition, flaunting the presence of filmstars and other pretty people at the opening, with wines and cheese we never knew existed, and a completely new artistic language, was a super hit.
A brand was born.
There was no looking back after that. Chintan was always the talented one. He knew it in time that it was not about being just an artist. It was about being a popular and successful artist. The kind that sells. What followed was how most of us 1990s kids embraced the changing times. We figured that life wasn’t about brooding and snorting our middle class affiliations. It was about breaking patterns. It was about earning and spending and earning some more to spend some more. The conflict that was, soon ceased to be. It had been dissolved and resolved.
Chintan, of course, went beyond that. In the quest to become a consumerist, he became a heavily marketed consumable product himself over the next ten years. We continued to play conscience keepers to each other, although I now suspect our chats, infrequent and few, were more to flaunt and justify our acts and actions than question them. I don’t know how convinced I was of the transformation of the Multicultural face in a cosmopolitan city to the mass produced Chintu, and also those performance art sessions created to shock and awe, but I guess he knew what he was doing. Chintan and Hema – another friend from the Faculty of Fine Arts – became the ‘it couple’ of the Mumbai art scene. His ganda bachchas were all over. She was kicking some serious ass as an artist of repute in biennales and triennales across the globe. Chintan’s compromises – artistic and otherwise – were worth the heartburn. He had become famous. He had arrived. He had become one with Mumbai.
But then again, success and fame have their own trappings. The couple learnt it the hard way. After some very petty fights and a very public spat over their divorce proceedings, their love story came to a tragic and abrupt end. Post their formal separation, Chintan started work afresh, low key and guarded. And then, suddenly, Hema was murdered. What followed was a macabre prime time drama that then turned into a tragedy. Insinuations, charges and counter charges. Cops playing art critics, reading motives in his doodles and diary entries. A man in jail since 22nd December 2015, held as a suspect in the double murder of the ex-wife and her lawyer. Guilty until proven innocent. And a trial that is still in progress with witnesses yet to be examined, and the supposed killer still at large. Almost seventy months of confinement. Six long years of waiting.
The honourable Supreme Court finally granted bail to Chintan on 17th September, 2021. Amongst other things, the Court has instructed him to reside in any place other than Mumbai, and visit the city only for the purpose of attending court. They have banished him from the city that made him into what he is now!
But I am not going to give this a Shakespearean hue, and project Chintan as the tragic hero. Despite knowing his journey from 1992 to 2021. The prolonged and tedious trek that he took from the Borivali shanty to the Juhu house, and then to the courtrooms and the Thane Jail, redefining his art and himself in the process. Almost thirty-odd years, how it all panned out, how our values, successes and failures got defined and redefined. I know of his hopes and desires, fears and apprehensions. I know he is very many things, or that he became very many things that I think he was not. I also know that his struggle was real, the achievements hard-earned. I would not want to believe that he would squander it all away just to cater to his whim or vindictiveness. I know his truth. I hope for the world to know it, too.
I am innocent (I hope you know why) | Performance art | 2013
I also hope he come out of this more insightful a person. With the same set of hopes, aspirations and positivity that was there when we came to Mumbai in 1996. I may ask him to go back to the Common Minimum Programme when we meet up. He owes me a chai and a long conversation. About what we were and what we became.
We shall curse the 90s. We shall bless the 90s.
(First published in Midday, Mumbai)
Of all the stupid things that the Indian humans can do to showcase their ‘talent’, writing on rice grains sits right at the slimy, slushy bottom of the universe, not very far from creating gulab jamun vadapavs, or getting 8-year olds to do pelvic thrusts on national TV because dance India, dance.
Unless your brain has been designed to sexualise Ajay Devgn’s gutka-painted teeth, how can you even think that writing microscopic letters on food grains can be a good idea! I mean, why. You have all the time and patience in the world. You can crack the nuclear codes. You can write your own philosophy. Hell, you can start your own cult.
You take a grain of rice. You scribble something on it. You then realise it cannot be read by the naked eye. This is when you must stop. Instead, you get inspired to doodle some more. And then some more. Till you write the entire Bhagavad Gita on grains of rice. Grains that could have been rightfully converted into biryanis, dosas, kheers or phirnis, and justified their presence on the planet. Only, you decide to convert them into freakshows for Uncle Barnum’s circus. Painted with the kind of precision and perfection that can make great serial killers on a good day.
And your fellow countrymen offer milk to your Ganesha statue seeing those tiny mutated pebbles. The lines between crafts, arts and gimmicks blur till they become a huge blob of nothingness. The middle class almirahs filled with middle class aesthetics go ballistic showcasing these granular inanities. Along with milk art, paper carvings, drawing on sesame seeds, and ugly large dolls in their original packaging, of course.
Gulab jamun vadapav and a grand salute to you! Kya baat. Kya baat. Kya baat.
The year was 2002. Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ had been impressing us with his shenanigans in Europe and Maratha Mandir for seven years. Amrish Puri was mouthing his I Love My India rhetoric in Pardes. We were a proud nation, give or take a few Godhras, aroused by our new global expanse while holding on to our lineage and heritage. We were delighted by the desi diaspora. Raj not touching Simran, not even giving her the quintessential shareer ki garmi, was, hell, more Indian than us Indians, more deshpremi than us lesser mortals living in the desh could ever be. In fact, that’s how the desis always had been in Bollywood. From Purab Aur Paschim (1970) to Des Pardes (1978) to Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), the authentic, true Indian living in the foreign lands always had his sanskaars intact, pining, longing and rooting for our values and sarson ka khet. And if he or his progenies ever went astray, there always was somebody known as Manoj Kumar or equivalent to show them their path. They were all good guys, they were good Indians, and the good Indians were there to win.
And then came Sanjay Gupta with his Kaante.
Six men of Indian origins living in Los Angeles, speaking in Hindi. Period. Beyond that, Hindustan, deshprem, mitti, sona, aansu, angaare, et al, were asked to take a walk where there was no sunshine. The six men had nothing in common with the quintessential Hindi film leading heroes of the foreign lands. They didn’t care for the roti-making biba in the pind. If they did, the references were very subtle, almost consciously hidden in the boisterousness of the film. Barring one Hindustan-Hindustani scene added essentially for the gallery, they didn’t really cry for the unfurling tricolor. But, most differently, and unapologetically so, they were all bad guys, they were bad Indians, and the bad Indians were there to win.
That they happened to be from India was coincidental, helping us see the story in Hindi.
This was blasphemy. Kaante disrupted everything that Hindi movies had stood for till then. Even if Raj had gone all rogue and rebel, he would have never become Ajju, Major, Marc, Andy, Bali or Mak. EVER. For Gupta took the rule book, and decided to break every single regulation in style, with this rather cocky flair that one had seen traces of in his very first film, Aatish (1994). Minus a few, the characters have no past that the audiences are told about, they don’t know each other from before, they don’t care about each other’s existence, and they are too self-engrossed to even care about the audiences’ interest in them!
With six manly men, a bank-robbery gone wrong, an undercover cop, a Mexican stand-off, six dead bodies and a helicopter chase leading to an almost open-ended conclusion, Kaante was like nothing that India had seen since the existence of Hindi movies. Not that we had not witnessed multiple-hero films or bromances. Not that the anti-heroes were not celebrated before. Not that men were not presented as swigs of swag and swagger. There was Feroze Khan in his Stetsons. There was the Vinod Khanna chin-cleft porn. There was Sunil Shetty sharing muscle space with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the roadside poster stalls.
But Kaante was a raw, basal celebration of the raw and the basal!
Every single frame of the film fetes and feasts on the coarse masculinity of its protagonists. Right from the title sequence onward, Kaante is a ride from gloating machismo at its best to bloating machismo at its worst. Only, Gupta does not try too hard. He knows he has six good looking men. He does not traverse the journey of sweat droplets across ripped muscles. Outside of the close ups at the right angles, showcasing them sharp chins and piercing eyes, he just makes his heroes walk, that’s it. The Kaante walk. The famous Kaante walk. On the streets. In the corridors. Down the steps. And then some. God, that bravado! Oh, and then there are bikes and cars and leather jackets and suits and sunglasses and guns, too. Five minutes into the film, you are all pumped already. The Adrenalin has rushed and gushed.
After you have seen them walk, you hear them talk. The world is a locker room, and our six men are the happy co-residents. They are brash, they use their middle fingers to communicate, they discuss their women, they call each other assholes, and they are ingloriously crass and crude. “Jab tak main halka nahin ho jaaun, apna dimaag kaam nahin karta hai”, says Bali about going to prostitutes without batting an eyelid. This is the world where Milap Zaveri’s not-so-vague references to a certain male body part with lines like “Mere ko mere chhote bhai ke baare mein sochne de” and “Jab woh naachti hai toh Baburao bhi naachta hai” are considered normal. This is the universe where the home truth of “Isse toh software aur underwear ka bhi farak pata nahin” and philosophical undertones of “Takdeer woh chhinal hai jo mere saath nahin soti” actually make an impact.
The men, complete with their four-lettered vocabulary, are not sorry for, well, being men. And the audiences are meant to be a conscious reflection of their heroes. Because Gupta works with the premise that he has to adult his viewers. Not just with the item numbers featuring Isha Kopikar and Malaika Arora, and the gyrating butts of white-skinned women, but with the pronounced thought that it is okay for boys to be men and men to be mean. I was there, sitting in the theater, feeling it! Having said that, he also does brilliantly capitalize on the vulnerabilities of his heroes. So the attitude of Banda Yeh Dheeth Hai Yeh Kuch Nahin Jaanta is actually followed by the tender Jaane Kya Hoga Rama Re submission. And while the second all-male song, Chhod Na Chhod Na Chhod Na Re, is supposedly just a daru ditty, a Kallu Mama happening in the middle of LA with better-looking people, the director subtly shifts the tone to Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyaan for a fleeting moment. Which is when one realizes that while their suits, glares and alcohols are expensive and exclusive, their angst, agony and ecstasy are universal. Only, Gupta does not give his viewers the time to reflect on this. The prep of the heist is not shown. All that you know of the robbery is the cheekily sassy “Aaj tak uss bank se unnki salary aati thi, ab hamaari aayegi” line. Immediately after the song, the audiences get into it cold. Now there is the anticipation of what is going to happen with these six men, their angst a thing of the past. Now there is only wide-eyed wonder, intrigue and drama.
Kaante does not have only six protagonists, though. Sanjay Gupta is the seventh hero of the film. One can see the director in every frame, shot and dialogue. He definitely knows his guns, glares, girls, and goons. I would know that first hand now since I have worked with him on a project. He is out there to unabashedly tell the world his tale with his virile, brazenly sexy offering. There are top angles, wide angles, low angles, and the shot taking seems ahead of its time, skillfully capturing both the grey indifference and the silver familiarity of the urban landscape housing his macho men. Not for a minute does this rhythm of the film change. The explosions and the gunshots are in-your-face, and there is a considerable portion where there are no dialogues at all, just blazing fires. This roaring testosterone festival, both on and off the screen in the theaters, was an experience never-seen-never-heard-never-felt before.
Broadly basing the movie on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Gupta does a Tarantino on Tarantino, giving a tribute to QT as QT does to the filmmakers that he admires. And dare I say, he actually ends up doing a better Tarantino than Tarantino himself. For if we were to compare apples to apples, he has constructed an amalgamation – of his personal language, Bollywood’s sur, and QT’s narrative – far better than at least some of Tarantino’s later outings. My belief is Tarantino would also agree with this.
The film is as contemporary in 2020 as it was in 2002. The men look as sexy. Their invincibility looks as fragile. The political incorrectness is as delicious and dark. But Kaante’s competency and contribution go far, far beyond just being a guns-and-guys film which stands the test of time. With this film, Gupta gave a new grammar and language to India, and its audaciousness changed the way we were making and consuming our content. Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, Mahesh Manjrekar, Lucky Ali, Kumar Gaurav and Amitabh Bachchan gave birth to the loud Chandigarh-Se-Hoon-BC arrogance of Roadies. The film made us perceive and receive the ugliness of the Bigg Boss skirmishes as entertainment. It gave legitimacy to the reality TV cockiness. Sanjay Gupta started the mainstreamisation of the counter-culture. Eighteen years later, the results and reverberations can still be felt.
“The Italians have their mafia, the Columbians have their cartel, the Chinese have their triads. And we, we Indians, what do we have? Nothing!”, goes Major/ Amitabh Bachchan in the film.
That’s not really correct. The Indians have their Kaante.
So. This tweet went viral yesterday.
I had a point of view on what Kangana had said. Her biases were showing. And I maintain that she was being extremely vile and ugly by getting Karan Johar in a completely unrelated fight, making snide remark on his sexuality, and insinuating that Diljit Dosanjh must have done something with Karan to get a role in a Karan Johar film. Or whatever. That was a really, really low blow, even by Kangana’s depleting standards. She went on to give a lousy counter-point, saying she had meant something else and the filth was in the mind of the readers, but the excuse/ explanation was so flimsy that it vaporised by the time it left her keyboard.
This was Kangana’s response to Hansal Mehta’s RT of my tweet.
I don’t care about Kangana’s politics. She can be a rabid right winger or apolitical or a liberal left winger. It is well within her rights to be what she wants to be, and be loud about it. It is also well within her rights to question/ troll/ fight with whoever she thinks isn’t on her side. I get it. The Kangana-Diljit debate in isolation is what makes us such a vibrant democracy. People with differing ideologies can exist simultaneously. Along with the mid-roaders. Debates, even in the form of passionate fights, are important for any democracy to flourish.
Only, there is a decorum that one expects in debates, be it in the Parliament or State Assemblies or on a public platform like Twitter. If you are a public figure, and people look up to you, then you have even more reasons to stay in the dignified space. I am fairly certain even Kangana has a point of view on the chairs, mics and chappals being thrown by the Lawmakers on each other. Her remarks of personal nature were equivalent of that rowdy chair throwing. Kangana lost the debate when the insinuations began!
However, this is not about Kangana.
What has bothered me more is the overwhelmingly large number of tweets and replies supporting what I have said, but doing PRECISELY what I have a problem with. So thank you for your replies and quote tweets, but you are NOT on my side. And I don’t need you on my side with your pronounced hatred and grating misogyny. For you are being no different from Kangana when you are questioning how she got her roles or what she did to Mahesh Bhatt to get her debut film. You are being exactly her when you are calling her a prostitute, dhandhebaaz, randi, and what have you. Hell, you are being worse when you are posting pictures from her movies, characters that she has played in fictional narratives, and are using those to question her character!
I am sorry, but you can take your pathetic prejudices and your inherent sexism and shove it where there is no sunshine! This is for each one of you, Kangana included.
I may disagree with Kangana, and I do, I may also find her approach towards her confrontations repugnant and cannibalistic, but that cannot be the reason for me to call her names. Or vice versa. This is where we do not want the discourse to go. Because once we reach the abyss, it will be mucky for everybody. We would all gasp for breath, and there would be no way to reach the surface ever. I am sure Kangana would agree with this some day, and have a debate the old fashioned way, with arguments and counter-arguments.
I will buy her a chai, agree to disagree, and fight to win. :)
Posting something I had written for my FB group “I Love Trashy Hindi Movies”. Have made a few minor factual changes without disturbing the flow of the article.
If it reads a bit dated, it is. :)
Understanding the exact factors leading to the kind of socio-political-cultural change the TV serial Ramayan could bring into the Indian subcontinent has always been a rather baffling experience for me. Despite my best efforts, I have never been able to crack how on earth could the Maganlal Dresswaala foreground and the rapturously revolting Ravindra Jain background catch the fancy of so very many viewers across the country. Seriously – and this is where it gains significance in our forum – Ramayan, at best, was B-grade cinema in a pukishly pretty mythological avatar, with a rather cracked conglomeration of lousy actors, lousy sets, lousy costumes, lousy wigs, lousy masks, lousy special effects and lousy everything else.
Compared to Ramayan, the other lethal mix of Punjabi-Bollywod aesthetics and Gujarati-Bollywood imagery, Mahabharat, was a shade better in terms of production values. But even this BR Chopra creation finds its rather important place under the sun in our space, essentially because of the wealth of actors it could contribute to the cause of B-grade cinema. Gajendra Chauhan, Girija Shankar, Pankaj Dheer, Nazneen, Arjun, Puneet Issar, Mukesh Khanna … quite a few of these guys actually stemmed from the abyss and then went back again to where they belonged immediately after the serial got over.
Okay, before some of you decide to burn me, my laptop and my computer table (and mob-lynch a few gareebs, while you are at it), this is not meant to be a comment on the epics. It is the sheer shoddiness of these serials, and the scars that that they have left, that I am commenting on, specifically talking about their actors.
Sunil Lahri: From bhaiyya Ram to bhaiyya Kishan… Bhaiyya Kishan Kumar, that is! If somebody could do a two bit role in a two bit actor’s debut film (the reference, of course, is to Aaja Meri Jaan) then that man must surely be out of job. I rest my case.
Sanjay Jog: He was the non-smoking brother of Ram. Jog did impress in his character of Bharat, but his career could not move beyond Jigarwaala or Naseebwaala. Till his unfortunate departure. He would have found employment in any of the BATA showrooms. Nobody took care of footwear as he did, seriously.
Vijay Arora: Vijay Arora sang Chura Liya to Zeenie baby. And then he played the lead in Nagin aur Suhagin. And then he widened his eyes and landed up as Meghnad, looking like Karunanidhi without his glares, speaking Hindi in Punjabi. Arora’s rapist-in-a-dhoti look did not find any takers following the epic, and though he did do ten odd movies subsequently, his career graph could never go further north.
Padma Khanna: Talking of actors from Ramayan, special mention to Padma Khanna aka Kaekayi. Guru Suleiman Chela Pehelwan, Ghunghru ki Awaaz, Sultana Daku, Kasam Durga Ki… Padma Khanna was destined to do B-grade Hindi films, though she did end up doing a not so bad job in whatever better movies she could act in.
Dara Singh: And, of course, there was Dara Singh, the king of the B-bling. Nalayak. Boxer. Lutera. King Kong. Raaka. Badshah. Hercules. Samson. Faulad. Rustam-e-Baghdad. Jagga Daku. Sherdil. Khakaan. Tufaan. And this on-screen Hanuman also could also romance with Mumtaz in the movies! Now if only he had not produced Vindu, his life would have been perfect.
Before I move to actors from that other epic Mahabharat, let me reiterate that my list is not at all comprehensive. I have missed quite a few gems. I would put the blame squarely on Jambwant, yet another of those Ramayan characters, for hitting my brains. If you are not familiar with him, imagine a fat man with hair all over him. Then imagine the same man constipated for 10 continuous days and despite all the sat isabgols of the world, unable to get it out. Now imagine the same man attempting to utter “Shree Ram”. Yeah, that was Jambwant. And yeah, thanks for sympathizing .
Mukesh Khanna: Naam – Bheeshm Pitamah. Baap ka naam – Deenanath Chauhan. That sums up our man in Mahabharat. Khanna moved on to become the quintessential Thakur/ policeman across various movies, progressing from Jaidev Singh to Suraj Pratap Singh to Shakti Singh to Mangal Singh to Thakur Raghuveer Singh to Khushwant Singh to Thakur Harnam Singh to Rana Mahendra Pratap Garewal to Rai Bahadur Mahendra Pratap Singh. Btw, those were real names of the characters he has played, no kidding! Meanwhile, he also produced, directed and acted in this brilliantly tacky TV serial called Shaktiman, which has helped a whole load of unintelligent lower middle class kids stay the same all their lives.
Girija Shankar: No blind man can look as lecherous as Dhritrashtra looked in Mahabharat, simultaneously eyeing Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi and all the hired straight-out-of-a-dandia-night extras with his kaat-loonga looks which only Girija Shankar could produce. Amongst his 15 unforgettable movies subsequent to Mahabharat, I would give special mention to Divine Lovers (produced and directed by B. Subhash of Tarzan fame), where he plays this Indian guru cum psychologist cum psychiatrist cum doctor called Dr. Pran! Please watch this movie to witness Bappi da’s English songs, Mark Zuber’s claws, some quality soft porn action (Don’t judge me. I was in college then.) and Hemant Birje’s bare butt (Don’t judge me. Even if I was in college then.).
Dharmesh Tiwari: Tiwari played Kripacharya in Mahabharat. Then he acted in Aurat Aurat Aurat. His claim to fame, though, is that he reunited the entire Mahabharat team in his directorial debut called Mahabharat aur Barbareek. Gaudy, garish and gory, it was the stuff the rainbow tinted mythological orgasms are made of. It was India’s Expendables, only they really were. The movie tanked. Obviously.
Pankaj Dheer: From Mera Suhag to playing Karna in Mahabharat and then to the Zee Horror Show, Dheer’s filmography could have been more impressive had he got the right breaks. Pity, because he could act better than lots of the other guys.
Gajendra Chauhan: Gajendra as Yudhishtir could display a whole plethora of emotions in the show. Sample this.
The poignant: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, mata shri!”
The brave: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, bhrata shri!”
The sensitive: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, Panchali!”
The decisive: (nasal twang) “Mumble, mumble, mumble, Duryodhan!”
Yeah, he was quite an actor, this guy. Which explains why Salman beats him up in Baghban. Yeah. And then, of course, they made him the Chairman of the Film Institute of India. Because why not!
Roopa Ganguli: Krishna saved her in Mahabharat. Wish he was also around to save her from Bahaar Aane Tak, Inspector Dhanush and Meena Bazaar. Good actor, though. She has done a few quality Bangla films, making up for all the movies she did in Hindi.
Puneet Issar: A blur of massive chest hair is all what I remember of Puneet Issar from the show. Of course, he had already proven his talent in Purana Mandir, Saamri, Zalzala and Zinda Laash before he cracked the role of Duryodhan. Guess he had done enough of sari pulling already. After Mahabharat, Khooni Murda and Roti ki Keemat were enough indicators of Issar’s superb body of work. And if that does not impress you, unravel this man through his directorial debut Garv: Pride and Honor.
Arjun/ Feroze Khan: He was quite the hero of Mahabharat. And with actors like Praveen Kumar and Gajendra Chauhan playing his brothers, he did not have to work extra hard for that, either. Unfortunately for him, he did not find any takers in the film industry, and was reduced to playing the comic villain sidekick in films after films. He also had a two bit role in Karan Arjun. Irony, hit me on the face again.
Nitish Bharadwaj: He who perfected the art of smiling with his lips sealed and the art of nodding with his head unmoved, Nitish won quite a few admirers for his performance as Krishna. The charm did not last beyond the great war. A few insipid movies like Trishagni, Naache Nagin Gali Gali and Sangeet later, he was back in his Krishna avatar, only this time asking for votes for BJP. As of now, he wears Made-in-Ludhiana pullovers and still does the same.
To come to their defense, the tragedy of most of the religious stars is that their screen image becomes so very imposing that the audience just refuses to accept them in form of any other character. Despite the roaring mega-success of Jai Santoshi Ma, Anita Guha could not do anything significant, EVER. This, precisely, is the reason why most of the religious actors’ careers, including the ones discussed – and this definitely is not a comprehensive list – have taken such sharp nosedives after their initial success. Unless, of course, they have been saved by Kanti Shah and his producer brethren.
Thank god for that! ;-)
PS: If you liked reading this, you may also be okay with Why Gajendra Chauhan is the greatest FTII Chairman EVER!
Kader Khan wasn’t a writer or an actor.
Of course, IMDB credits him with some 110 titles as a writer, and 416 as an actor, and a career in Hindi films spanning four decades, starting from 1971. Op-ed pieces have reasons to sing paeans about his extremely prolific contribution to cinema, proudly propping up the impressive statistics of more than ten films a year on an average before or behind the cameras. His understanding of Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani and their apt everyday usage deservedly won him awards and accolades in equal measure. BUT. Kader Khan wasn’t a writer or an actor. Or just that.
Kader Khan was a concept. Kader Khan was a genre.
The 1980s were a decadent decade. Guess the sexy swag of the flower power was so very evolved and consuming and out-there, that it was kind of tough for the generation after to live up to its legacy. The existing icons were slipping, and the antithesis were getting deified. The spaces in Arts, Literature, Films and Fashion were being redefined, confusing the lows with the highs, and vice versa. Plastic defined the new aesthetics. Loud was the new doctrine. On the real world front, the bumbling buffoons of the Janata Party had mucked up the first non-Congress government and the bumbling buffoons of the country had decided to give Mrs. Gandhi a second chance. The angry young man was ceasing to be as angry. From the suave smugglers, the lalas and budmash bahus were making comebacks as the villains of peace. It was as if all the powers in the world had combined forces to put everything in the regressive mode. The pace had become slow. The bar had become low.
Enter Kader Khan. The high priest of the lowbrow.
Of his four professional decades, it was the 1980s that saw the Kader Khan phenomenon explode. He was involved in the story, screenplay and dialogues of more than seventy films between 1980 and 1989, and almost half of them were hits. From innumerous Jeetendra PT shows like Himmatwala, Justice Chaudhary, Haisiyat, Akalmand, Sarfarosh and Maqsad to the Anil Kapoor-Jackie Shroff bromances Andar Baahar and Karma, from Amitabh Bachchan megamovies like Lawaaris and Yaarana to family tearjerkers including Swarg Se Sundar and Bade Ghar Ki Beti featuring ungrateful sons and vicious daughters-in-law, to the exquisitely convoluted Khoon Bhari Maang featuring Rekha fighting a crocodile, Kader Khan helmed it all.
Here’s the thing, though. Kader Khan did not just create the 1980s cinema. He created the 1980s. He almost decided on the narrative for the decade. He established the world as he saw it. And the world became him. Where the hero could dance around matkas wearing atrocious wigs, sweaters and suits, taming the womenfolk who alternated between playing Thunder Thighs and Pyaar Ki Devi. Where Advocate Shobha and Meva Ram could co-exist with Naglingam Reddy, Desh Bahadur Gupta, Abdul Karim Kaliya and Pinto The Great Smuggler. It was a realm where he stuffed everything he could, and made it large.
The audiences lapped it up. They were indoctrinated already.
There was a method attached to the man’s mission, though. Kader Khan catered to the lowest common denominator without any apology. He was of the people, for the people, by the people, only, louder, shriller and definitely more piercing. The trick was to pick the right elements with the right connect from the world that surrounded him and enhance them manifold. That was the Kader Khan formula, if there was one.
His hero, therefore, was a potent and colorful mix of Chacha Chaudhary’s brains and Sabu’s brawn, complete with the native Amar Chitra Katha sanskaars, and a pair of dancing shoes. His character actors were garish, ear-splitting reflections of how he saw the real world. So the unscrupulous trader from Swarag Se Sundar (1986) isn’t just an unscrupulous trader. He is actually called Milavat Ram in case you miss his blatant beimaani, and his shop is called Do Aur Lo Karaane Waala, in case you still miss his blatant beimaani.
Kader Khan brought the lowbrow out of its cultural closet. Not only did he specialize in it, he basked in it. He genuinely loved the “ghun ki tarah gehun mein pisne waale gadhe” and did his darnedest to give them their place under the sun. His metaphors and similes were not to flaunt his linguistic wizardry. On the contrary, he browbeated them to such an extent that they ceased to be anything beyond this non-nuanced gimmickry of words. This democratization of upma and shlesh alankaars was poetic justice, so to say, for the masses. “Dosti ka thoda atta lete hain. Ussmein pyaar ka paani milaate hain. Phir goonth-te hain. Phir dil ke choolhe par rakh ke ussko pakaate hain.”, says Amitabh Bachchan in Yaarana (1981) while describing how he prepares rotis for his best friend Amjad Khan. Okay then.
He made moviemaking and movie-viewing a watered-down version of what they were, and he wasn’t sorry about it. Crass became mainstream, villains became comedians, comedians became circus clowns. When somebody points out to Mukri in Dharam Kanta (1982) how he is rather short to be a dacoit, he says, “Jab hum chhota daaka daalte hain toh hum chhote ho jaate hain, jab hum bada daaka daalte hain, hum bade ho jaate hain”. And then you sample this Kader Khan truism from Meri Aawaz Suno (1981): “Mera naam Topiwala hai. Maine bahut saare ghamandiyon ke sar kaat kar apne kadmon mein kuchle hain, aur unnki topiyon ko apne paas saja kar rakha hai.”, as you see Topiwala proudly displaying his prized scalps. You can’t get straighter than that now, can you?
The audience roared. Kader Khan worked. Full stop.
And Kader Khan continues to work. In Sambit Patra & Co. on news channels. In Bharat Mata Ki Jai Whatsapp forwards. In Tanishk Bagchi remixes. In The Kapil Sharma Show. In over the top characters and situations, dialogues laced with obtuse humor, vulgar misogyny, hahaha jokes and the dholak beats to highlight the punchlines. One may complain, get offended, feel repulsed, and rightly so. And then one may snigger when nobody’s watching. Because the lowbrow charm scores. Every single time.
“Mujhe swarg nahin jaana hai kyonki swarg jaane ke liye marna padta hai”, said Kader Khan in Ghar Sansar (1986) as Girdhari Lal.
Both Girdhari Lal and Kader Khan must be having a good laugh right now.
You need to understand the 1980s to understand the impact of Mohammad Aziz on the 1980s. It was quite a decade, it was. When glitz was plastic, and glamour was gaudy, and the flamboyant and the convoluted walked hand-in-hand. We were in a zone hitherto unseen on the cultural front – read films, fashion, art and literature – and we were rather proud of where we were going without really knowing where we were going. This was the decade when Pomeranians were the rich dogs, cordless phones outlined one’s social standing, Rupa and Dora were best-selling national brands of men’s underwear, and Halla Gulla Mazaa Hai Jawaani defined young people who wore headbands and paid to watch Karan Shah in Jawaani (1984).
It was the baroquest Baroque that India could ever have been.
Men wore baggy trousers and thought they were the shizz. Women wore plastic jewelry and thought they were the shizz. Hindi film villains were called Dang and Mogambo, and they thought they were the shizz. They were right, of course. Columns of earthen pots painted for the Gay Pride Parade formed the backdrop of dancing ditties featuring heroines wearing conical cholis. Heroes contorted muscles that weren’t even discovered by Science or the human body. Rekha and Jayaprada, our reigning divas, looked like the Klingon warriors from Star Trek. And everybody else looked like Rekha and Jayaprada. Including Amitabh Bachchan, Jitendra and Mithun Chakraborty. Hamming was acting was hamming. They all signed up for the classes.
This coincided with the coming-into-being of Mohammad Aziz, famously known as Munna Aziz, or vice versa, in the world of Hindi Cinema. He arrived on a tanga with Amitabh Bachchan, no less, and, stayed on to simultaneously collaborate with the slushy histrionics of actors including Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Govinda with equal ease, and enhanced élan. The voice had just the right amount of ornate density that was the crying need of the hour. The motto of the decade was Expression Without Suppression, and Aziz was meant to be one its biggest, happiest, breeziest votaries. With Mard (1985), Karma (1986), Khudgarz (1987), Pyaar Ka Mandir (1988), Ram Lakhan (1989), Tridev (1989), and then some, he clearly was at the right place at the right time. The hummable, hammable hits were an immediate corollary. From the flashy rhythms of Aapke Aa Jaane Se to the simpering patriotism of Har Karam Apna Karenge, from the excited revelry of One Two Ka Four to the loud proclamation of Main Teri Mohabbat Mein, Mohammad Aziz reflected all that made the 1980s.
Hell, Mohammad Aziz WAS the 1980s!
Aziz entered the Hindi film music scene when there was a rather visible interval of sorts. Mohammad Rafi had just passed away and Kishore Kumar’s presence was being kind of selective. Older singers like Mahendra Kapoor, Talat Mehmood, Manna De or Mukesh were either gone or fading away. The Nadeem Shravan factory featuring Sanu and Sonu was still to happen. Udit Narayan’s Papa was yet to proclaim bada naam karega for his beta. SP Balasubrahmanyam was a glorious glint only in the Madrasi mothers’ eyes. The producers, directors and music directors had reasons to believe that the best alternative to the voice of Rafi was the voice of Rafi. Therefore, Anwar, Shabbir Kumar, Mohammad Aziz and Sonu Nigam chronologically filled in, matching Rafi husk for husk.
But Mohammad Aziz wasn’t a first-copy version of Mohammad Rafi. That would be playing unfair to the artist that he was. Mohammad Aziz was the first-copy version of all the actors that he sang for. He was Govinda’s pelvic thrust, Mithun Chakraborty’s swagger, Shashi Kapoor’s gravitas, Rajesh Khanna’s ham, Amitabh Bachchan’s buffoonery and Dilip Kumar’s melodrama. He was all that they were or wanted to be.
Imagine Rishi Kapoor and his sweaters singing Tune Bechain Itna Ziada Kiya to Sridevi in a single-screen theatre. The setting is right. The trees are around to be danced around. The lehngas are having a cheerful dalliance with the chunnis. There is enough mohabbat-majboor-vaada-iraada in the song to make the coronary arteries give warm cuddles to each other. It’s a love ballad. Only, with Mohammad Aziz, it becomes a loud and proud pronouncement of Rishi Kapoor‘s feelings for Sridevi. To such an extent that it continues to hit you long after you have left the theatre. It stays with you. Forever.
And this is because Mohammad Aziz’s voice was invented for single screen theatres. Be it the urban centers exhibiting state-of-art sound system or mofussil towns making do with their decrepit speakers, if it is Aziz that they played, he would be heard. Whatever be the quality of audio systems, it could not shake or rattle him. Why, even if there were no speakers, you could hear Mohammad Aziz!
But to know the real impact of the man, all that you had to do was travel in a video coach in the 1980s Hindi-speaking India. The worn-out video tapes may get the visuals wrong, they may skip scenes, they may even stop moving, but they would never ever EVER screw around with an Aziz song. The rickety buses all over the country were not running on diesel. They were running on Munna Aziz.
Because Munna Aziz was a concept. A phenomenon.
His presence signified the emergence of the lesser India. From “Beta aunty ko Chooby Chiks suna do”, it now was “Beta, Rafi uncle ko copy karo”. He legitimized the hopes and aspirations of the middle-brow-middle-class India. He was Munna. He was one of them. One of us. That an orchestra singer could actually become part of the mainstream was the Revenge of the Also-Rans. Mohammad Aziz was the biggest tribute to the orchestra culture of India. The orchestra culture of India was the biggest tribute to Mohammad Aziz. They were the fall-out of each other.
Precisely why when his time was up, he went back to where he belonged. To the orchestras. Where ill-fitting black suits with purple ties and fancy glares made for fancy people on stage. Where misogynistic jokes on co-singers made for great content. Where the singers actually thought they were the actors that they sang for, performing for an audience that actually believed in it. The middle India continued to love him back.
To be one of the cultural symbols of a decade that was culturally so decadent must have not come easy to Aziz. Which explains the quick rise and fall of not just Aziz, but all such symbols. Exactly why we need to give them their deserving place under the sun. Mohammad Aziz must never be on the lost pages of History, or be relegated to merely becoming an apologetic footnote. Because he was an integral part of the history when it was being created. His personal documentation of the times he lived in through the songs he sang is pure and unadulterated, even if it does not match with our evolved sensibilities and heightened sensitivities. “Kaun hai woh. Bolo bolo kaun hai woh. Haan bolo bolo kaun hai woh”, he famously asked in Jaane Do Jaane Do Mujhe Jaana Hai from Shahenshan (1988).
The answer is Munna Aziz. Always.
My Bihari cousin is getting married to a lovely Tamilian girl.
I am sure the dainty Miss Sridhar must be doing her homework already to know more about what she is getting into. We may not have life sized cut-outs of Ms. Cloaked Rotundity and Mr. Goggled Baldness, but we have enough loud fodder loud enough to make her feel at home. What we lack in flashy flamboyance, we make up with our brassy brashness. We are a raucous country, yes ma’am. When the alphabets were getting distributed, the Biharis decided to take everything with all the hard consonants. Marathis come a close second. Pethe, Kekade and Madke would agree.
But let’s stay on Bihar. Or in Bihar, if I were to take Raj T’s advice.
So we have Litti, Laktho, Thekua, Ghughni, Bhabhri, Makuni, Khaja, Pedakiya, Gaja, Dalpittha as a smattering of names randomly taken from the Bihari fridge. NONE of them sound appetizing. Not one. They taste phenomenal, but they don’t sound like something you may want to consume. And some of them look like what they sound like.
Blame it on the pastoral background of the Biharis, if we were to get all historical and sleuthy. While the neighbourhood Bengal was busy carving intricate creases on their Nolen Gurer Sandesh, singing their Baul and doing their Dhunuchi Naach, Biharis were too busy either tilling their lands or rearing Chanakyas, Buddhas and Mahaveers. So they did not really have the time to create artworks in the kitchen or outside of it. We developed as an ungainly and unsophisticated nation, without any apology and with a definite hint of pride. Take it, world!
And this gets reflected in everything we do. Or say. Or make. Or celebrate.
Which brings me to Chhatth, a festival that some theorists claim even predates the Vedas. At the concept level, it has perhaps the most modern outlook for a festival so ancient. There is no idol worship at all in Chhatth, unlike most Hindu festivals. It is not gender or caste specific. And there is no involvement of a presiding pandit. No random mumbo jumbo being babbled by some patronizing priest working on an hourly remuneration in front of a gaudy concoction of gods. It is a festival with rituals led by the devotee, dedicated to the deity. A hardcore one-on-one with the all-encompassing to acknowledge and achieve the common, combined greater good.
Spread over four days, the worship is dedicated to the Sun god and his wife Usha, greeting and thanking them for creating and controlling all the life forms on the planet earth. While Chhatth follows Diwali, it is no selfish agrarian festival stemming from the contribution of sun to the agricultural produce, coinciding with the cultivation. It is a very noble recognition of the influence of sun in our combined lives, way beyond its material beneficence, with pronounced philosophical undertones. Which explains why the worship of the rising sun is preceded by the veneration of the setting sun.
So far, so good.
Only, I don’t remember getting influenced or enamoured by any of this while celebrating Chhatth in the Patna of the late 1980s. Neither by the philosophy behind the festival, nor by its rather liberal stance. Outside of the exhilarating thrill of traveling at 4 in the AM for the morning arghya, moving past the colourfully lit-up roads to a crowded Pehelwaan Ghaat or Collectorate Ghaat, and then letting the feet play with the cold, moist sand, what actually has stayed with me is the harsh aesthetics of it all.
I am not referring to the festival, of course.
I remember the crowd. A sea of humanity amidst all the muck of the riverfronts. People rushing at the ghaats with their chaadars, fighting for and marking their territories to be as near the slushy expanse of the Holi Ganga. The rich and the powerful moving around with their gun-toting musclemen. The blaring loudspeakers, the long traffic jams, the arguments on the roads, the hawkers selling posters of Hindu gods, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the general wide-ranging cacophony of the people forming a buzzing backdrop. It all came together into something memorably lurid and raw.
This rasping rhapsody was amplified by the sindoors on the noses of the parbaitins, or the fasting worshipping ladies. Indeed. A shining, flaming, thick and radiant saffron vermillion marking starting from the tip of the nose meandering into the parting of the hair. Imagine multitudes of ladies with their brightly painted noses half immersed in the muddy waters, offering their obeisance to the rising sun. The effect was mesmerizing. The effect was daunting.
To be fair, though, it was not just these nose antennas that were browbeating me into meek submission to all things colourful and coarse. The GulshanKumarization of India had just about started to happen. The combined might of jhankaar beats recorded in cheap Darya Ganj studios on Super Cassettes was beginning to juice the entire pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. Johnny ka Dil Tujhpe Aaya Julie was being appropriated as Bhakton Ka Dil Tujhpe Aaya Devi, and then some. People not only seemed okay with these, they were, in fact, revelling in them. It was a crude, uncouth phase in the life of India, both culturally and otherwise. Patal Bhairavi and Bhavani Junction were legit Hindi cinema releases, Rajeev Kapoor was playing the Lover Boy, Rajesh Khanna was romancing Reena Roy, and people were really paying to see Raj Babbar on the large screen.
It was the attack of the lowbrow. And Chhatth was as impacted as any other festival.
So in the middle of the folk songs evoking the Sun god, the shrieking loudspeakers would play one of them Karolbagh ditties sung by Babla and Kanchan. Hum Na Jaibe Sasur Ghar Re Baba. Yeah. Soon enough, these tardy renditions were accepted as a part of the mainstream. The eighties never left the festival. The festival never left the eighties. Every subsequent Chhatth was more of the same. Exciting. Rousing. Breath-taking. And very bloody loud.
I moved on. Bombay became home. Then I shifted to Mumbai.
Patna, Bihar and Chhatth continued to be a part of my subconscious persona, but not being there meant not being there. My new native city gave me newer references to ponder over. I had graduated from Gai Ghaat to Lal Bagh. I had moved on. Or so did I think. Untill I suddenly discovered the luminous vermillion-nose brigade in a traffic jam at Juhu one fine evening. The parbaitins were back in my life, and how! And I was amazed to see that twenty-five years later, the unhinged aesthetics and revelry were unaffected, give or take a few Sanjay Nirupams trying to make Chhatth the North India Pride Parade. It was beautiful. To be in that jam. To be back there. To relive the scale and the noise. And to revisit the fantastic reasons behind the celebration of this wonderful festival.
Here’s to many such discoveries, Sanjana! And welcome to the family. Some of your new relatives may look like aliens once every year, and their vocabulary may be predominated by words with ट, ठ, ड and ढ in them, but we are good, warm god-fearing people, I promise you. Despite that fluorescent patch on our noses. Or because of it. :)
The last quarter of 1982 was extremely exciting in the history of India primarily for two reasons. The Asian Games came back to New Delhi after a gap of three decades. We realised that we were capable of rising above mediocrity as a nation and make our mark as a progressive and progressing country. Confident landmarks like Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Indraprastha Indoor Stadium and Khel Gaon got added to the Mughal-Lutyen landscape of the capital city, and became a part of the collective national modernisation dream almost overnight. We understood the power and impact of live TV, with the athletic pixels beaming across the country through seedha prasaran on Doordarshan. Offering solidarity to the cause, the TV screens started transforming from black & white to coloured, showcasing the buoyant hues of the tricolor like never before. Ath Swagatam Shubh Swagatam, we sang on 19th November at the Opening Ceremony, welcoming and celebrating the world and India, and I also suspect, the first mega-public appearance of Amitabh Bachchan after the Coolie accident.
The other big event in the life of India was the release of Disco Dancer.
B Subhash’s Disco Dancer is the rags to riches story of Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty playing Mithun Chakraborty) who braves acute poverty to become India’s best disco dancer. Fighting the whims and fancies of his punishing fate and inner demons, Jimmy goes on to ace the coveted International Disco Competition, bringing joy, pride and honour to the nation and her people, one pelvic thrust at a time.
There is enough in Jimmy’s stimulating and sterling biography to shake, rattle and roll the viewers. As a kid, he is falsely accused of stealing by PN Oberoi, the evil rich businessman. His mother takes the blame and goes to jail. The mother-child combine is taunted and tormented with the cries of maa-chor-beta-chor (which, for the record, does not sound like what it is meant to sound like), and they leave Mumbai to settle in Goa. Jimmy grows up to sing and dance at local weddings, while Oberoi’s son Sam becomes the country’s most popular disco dancer, and a pompous ass with ill-fitting moustache and trousers. His manager David Brown leaves him because of his wayward ways, discovers Jimmy, and soon enough, Sam is dethroned. Side note: Om Puri playing a character called David Brown is why a lot people from the 1980s still have trust issues.
The now-famous Jimmy exposes Oberoi at a party, and also falls in love with his daughter. Outblinged and outsmarted, Oberoi gets his men to electrocute Jimmy through his guitar, but kills his mother instead. Jimmy gets Guitarphobia, developing cold feet at the Competition, unable to dance. That’s when Rajesh Khanna in a career defining special appearance as Raju Bhaiyya hams what looks like an entire episode of Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi to motivate Jimmy, asking him to “Gaaaaa!”. The film is still called Disco Dancer. “GAAAAA!”, he beseeches and screeches. Jimmy gets his mojo. Oberoi’s goons kill Raju Bhaiyya to make him ham some more. Our hero kills them back. Oberoi gets electrocuted.
And they all lived happily ever after.
This may sound very simplistic and formulaic, thanks to my ha-ha-ha retrospective gaze, but for the 1980s cine-goers, nothing could be farther from the truth. Disco Dancer is not a film. It is a state of mind. This journey of the lowbrow to the high street is an electrifying – in more ways than one – celebration of the absurd and the awe-inspiring, the real and the surreal, the sounds and the silence. Disco Dancer is definitely not a film. It is the overwhelmingly viscous space between the trash and the transcendental.
The audiences, while rooting for the classic good-versus-bad tale, also played cheerleaders to what they thought was the emerging, new India. Where the macho hero could be a dancer, wear shiny clothes on stage and lungis at home, shake his limbs without any love-interest around for most part of the film, be surrounded by fangirls, and still have his mother feed him food with her own hand. This was a protagonist hitherto unseen. Not a brawny rebel, but an artiste, a performer. Who could fail and clam up and cry, but finally emerge victorious. Because maa ka aashirvaad. That a primarily western and alien concept like disco could be mainstreamized, with quintessentially Indian storytelling and a central character that never would exist in real life is what got the audiences to the theatres. Then you had the emotions, struggles, failure, success, vengeance, love and drama. Also, Jesus Christ and Krishna. Plus, a mandatory Rahim Chacha, thank you.
Disco dancing became us.
While there was not much to talk about the country’s economy, militancy was rearing its head in Punjab, mills in Mumbai were coming to a standstill, and the honourable Prime Minister was publicly throwing out her widowed daughter in law from her home, we were still dancing. Maruti Suzuki was on the threshold of giving the middle-class-middle-brow India wheels that they had never imagined, Amitabh Bachchan was gearing himself to get back to the studios after a long stay at the hospitals, Chambal dacoits had started wilfully surrendering, Kaur Singh and Satpal were trouncing their opponents at the Asian Games in Boxing and Wrestling respectively, Jimmy was crushing the disco kings and queens from Afreeka and Paris. Things were beginning to look up. Toh jhoomo, toh naacho, aao mere saath naacho gaao. We had reasons to believe. Backed by Bappi Lahiri’s music. And moustachioed men wearing ballerina dresses complete with tutus.
The Buggles may claim that Radio Killed the Video Star, but Auva Auva belonged to Bappi Lahiri and Usha Uthup. Jesus by Tielman Brothers could become the ballad of Krishna, and Jesus did not really mind it seeing the perfect fit. The ultimate winner of the film, though, was the title song, I’m A Disco Dancer. The song starts with Mithun jumping on the stage, and then freezes on a screaming woman’s face for almost 5 seconds. That, in a nutshell, sums up the impact of the film on its audiences. Hypnotic and frenzied. It wasn’t as if Mithun Chakraborty’s histrionics or Bappi Lahiri’s music had any novelty value. Ravikant Nagaich had previously gifted Surakksha, Sahhas and Wardaat to the audiences. But Disco Dancer turned out special because of its very universal, very identifiable theme. The synthetic saga of tribulations and triumphs scored because of its straightforward simplism. And not just in India. It was the first Indian film to pocket 100 crores worldwide, with Goron Ki Na Kaalon Ki becoming an unlikely anthem across countries!
The impact of Disco Dancer was pretty much like the Asian Games. It made us feel all good and gooey till the next big jamboree. The beats were lost to the Madrasi eyesores featuring Jeetendra, and then to the Nadeem Shravan onslaught. Mithun went on to do Ooty films. The buzz around Kaur Sing and Satpal was forgotten already.
But what a thrilling high it was when it lasted! It was quite the time to disco.
(first published on Arré)