Hollywood is often considered, especially within our own cloistered cinematic borders, as the fount from which all movie culture springs, the ultimate inventor and arbiter of global tastes and trends. This is obviously far from the case, and while it’s easy to remain ignorant of all the diverse international influences our homegrown would-be monopoly sucks up in forming its own stylistic platforms, it’s even easier to overlook the ways in which those formats end up being further recycled, reshaped and subverted abroad. Bollywood, for example, is often imagined as a specific regional flavor endemic to the south Asian sphere; in fact, it (and the many smaller sister industries sprinkled throughout the subcontinent) have long functioned as a shadow unit for Hollywood itself, reworking its tropes and modes into a flamboyant counter-tradition melding borrowed structures and techniques with local dramatic motifs, one that in turn has proved massively influential for viewers from the Soviet bloc to Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
In short, it’s the all-singing, all-dancing, always kaleidoscopic reflection of our own imperialistic film industry, its overstuffed, variety-focused three-hour spectaculars providing a steroidal alternative to those commonly exported entertainments. Enter 1982’s Disco Dancer, less a direct response to the already cooling American craze than a flashpoint event for the funhouse-mirror response that was then taking India by storm. Here, instead of candy-colored dance clubs stocked with gyrating disco devotees, it’s blowout stage shows which rapt audiences watch from the edge of their seats, a workaround that likely stemmed from religious restrictions on mass male/female, full-contact dancing. To save money, the large live bands of the American scene were replaced with largely electronic accompaniment. The heavy use of synths and drum machines helps cultivate a sound that’s entirely outré but also strangely modern, pioneering elements that would later crop up in EDM sub-genres like techno, acid house and trance.
The last of those was in fact partially distilled amid the seasonal party and festival culture of Goa, a location that also has significance in this film, where it functions as the laboratory-in-exile in which soon-to-be ascendant street singer Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) hones his craft. First, as a child, he must undergo a crushing humiliation at the hands of the rich landowner Oberoi (Om Shivpuri), which causes him and his beloved mother to be spurned by their neighbors, a trauma that acts as the movie’s catalyzing event. Like many Bollywood epics, Disco Dancer trips along a knife’s edge between carefree musical wonderland and gloomy gothic melodrama, its dark and light thematic currents wending their way through both portions of the film’s fractured identity.
Within this scattered but ultimately unified approach, a standard rags-to-riches showbiz narrative gets crystallized within a gonzo dreamworld of flashing lights, outlandish outfits and acrobatic dance moves. From the start, the film exhibits an ecstatic elasticity of sound, as a child’s acoustic guitar emits strident electronic pulses, a female playback singer filling in for the tiny lad’s actual voice. The frenzied, 10-minute-long opening number informs the entire undertaking, its wild and woolly synthesis paying little attention to logic, instead concerned with the immediate means by which to launch each individual segment into the stratosphere. This means that while it eventually crumples under the heavy demands of its overburdened plot, Disco Dancer is genuinely thrilling for most of its running time, enlivened by a bold, shameless absurdity that makes its action impossible to predict.
All this can easily be read as merely ridiculous. In India and elsewhere, movies of this stripe are often impugned as low-taste trash conceived expressly for the uncultured masses, people too dense to appreciate the finer shading of more refined arthouse fare. This blinkered viewpoint ignores the fact that, in bypassing the standard constraints of professional American film grammar, these works are not failing to meet certain standards of quality but instead ignoring them entirely. Packed with copious reaction shots, over-dramatic zooms and other exaggerative touches, such movies gleefully mash together genres and styles while conducting run and gun experiments in technique and delivery, all while maintaining fairly stolid, bathos-driven narrative lines.
This doesn’t necessarily make for the most well-rounded viewing experience, but Disco Dancer excels as a humorous, high-camp extravaganza that doubles as a truly transcendent cinematic adventure. Its delights are both visceral and cerebral: a highly effective reverse Vertigo zoom that comes out of nowhere; a simultaneous mash-up tribute to West Side Story and Bruce Lee; shameless ripoffs of Buggles, ABBA and Cats; a single dolly shot that follows the female lead as she vamps out away from the camera, then flips back to her male counterpart with a reverse shot delivered as forcefully as a tennis serve. These are louder, brasher versions of the joys American musicals offer within a comfortably familiar aesthetic, with songs that overspill their boundaries and a hero who exhibits God-like powers and experiences abyssal crises of confidence. The pleasures these movies offer may seem inherently goofy, but at heart they’re the same sort of thrills, those of transport and surprise and release. To accept them is merely to lay aside your prejudices and give yourself to the specific stimulation being offered, a process that should serve as a prerequisite to any foreign viewing experience.