While Bappi Lahiri would continue to be celebrated for his very strong imprint on the musical legacy of India, his larger contribution in the social space remains as melodic and charming, if not more, with its own pronounced rhythm and bass. Because despite seemingly being a 1970s and 1980s music icon, Bappi Da inadvertently became the new India story for the generation that came into its own in the 1990s.
With the advent of Liberalisation and Globalisation, the changes that us 90s kids were witnessing were sudden and far too many, and my generation was scrambling for home grown icons that we could take pride in, and call our own. Somebody associated with beats of disco that were moving towards obsolescence already, some very brazen ctrl-c-ctrl-v accusations, and a pronounced regional accent in the Queen’s language perhaps was not what the doctor would have prescribed.
Only, in Bappi Lahiri, we did not just get an icon, but a superhero!
For this long haired short man flaunting the entire Kalyan Jewellers bridal collection, and then some, around his neck typified the spirit of the nation that we were to become, his capitalist-bull-in-a-socialist-china-shop personage breaking all the stereotypes that could have been. He embraced his obstinate confidence, he cradled his true blue rockstar credentials, he snuggled to his blings and glares, and in the process, he gave a big, big bear hug to us, to the India that was emerging. Highlighting that it was okay to believe in one’s supreme awesomeness, and that’s how any success story must begin. That we were no less than the others, that we were a strong, parallel force, complete with this luminescent luster that was both inside and outside of us, that even if we were questioned/ challenged/ ridiculed, we had reasons to be assured and optimistic, that we were ready to take on the world at our own terms.
Bappi Da’s public persona gave us the confidence to redefine cool, and create the idea of the lassi-in-a-can India that was blatant and unabashed and cheeky, ready to take off, and take on, and how! The man was Made in India much before aatmnirbhar became a part of our social lexicon. He gave us both coolth and comfort. And that’s essentially because he never tried too hard. The gold chains were naturally designed to be around him. The fancy sunglasses were mandatorily destined to cover his face. The self-comparison with some of the biggest international popstars was, therefore, the immediate and natural consequence. So what if he took inspirations ranging from Beethoven’s Fur Elise to UB40 to Modern Talking, he made them his own. He made them ours. This was him sticking it to the man, everything else be damned, and we loved it. The wheel, of course, turned a rather skewed full circle when he sued Dr. Dre for lifting one of his songs, Kaliyon Ka Chaman, and triumphed! We smiled. We chuckled. We laughed. We had arrived. We had won. The Kohinoor may still adorn the crown, we had managed our reparations.
Superhero. Bona fide superhero.
In my 10 years at MTV between 2000 and 2010, the decade that MTV was needed in India to shape and shake perceptions, Bappi Da and his personality consistently hovered around in our promos, shows, interstitials, powerpoints, the works. Hell, he literally hung out in all our acts and actions! But it wasn’t his musical presence that we are referring to. Newer sounds had emerged in both the mainstream Hindi film and Indipop spaces, and he did not really latch on to either. It was his radiant, care-a-damn presence, reflective, again, of the times we were living in. That assured rockstarness. The joie de vivre. He wasn’t willing to leave us. We weren’t willing to leave him.
I don’t think we would ever be willing to leave him.
Thank you for making us what we are, sir! Pyaar kabhi kam nahin karna.
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.
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)