Before the Mithun Chakraborty starrer Disco Dancer started playing on the big screen at The Royal repertory cinema in Toronto, the trailers of two upcoming releases set the mood.
First up was the Canadian slasher film My Bloody Valentine (1981), about a murder spree in a mining town in Nova Scotia, infamous for having nine minutes cut out by American censors due to excessive gore and violence. Next was Black Belt Jones (1974), introducing a new screening series that celebrates the best and campiest of black cinema.
By the time B Subhash’s Disco Dancer unspooled, everyone was primed for a Bollywood style 1980s extravaganza. They chortled every time the villainous characters played by Om Shiv Puri and Karan Razdan yelled “Bastard!” while the subtitle read “Rascal!” They cheered along as Chakraborty took on a bunch of bad guys in a fight that also involved a battle of snapping fingers.
The point of the Disco Dancer screening on February 13 was to celebrate its 1980s glory, said David Bertrand, a programmer at The Royal. While locals watch the latest Hindi film releases at theatres across the Greater Toronto Area, pound the dance floor at monthly Bollywood-themed club jams and work up a sweat at Bollyfit dance-exercise classes, opportunities to indulge in retro cinema are few and far between.
A fan of movies from the ’70s and ’80s from across the world, whether it’s Italian crime dramas or horror films, Bertrand likes “finding the place where highbrow and lowbrow cinema meet”. He told Scroll.in, “I like heavy movies, but I don’t want to feel sad and beaten in the theatre … That’s what we do at The Royal in our retro screenings. We find fun gems from a different time. Bollywood cinema from that era – and I am talking about the commercial, big budget cinema, not the independent cinema – was designed to experienced with a crowd, where people stand up and cheer.”
Moreover, given the current political climate, where people are dealing with the emotional exhaustion of watching news related to American president Donald Trump, screening Disco Dancer offered a reprieve, Bertrand added.
That sense of escaping explains the popularity of Disco Dancer in such places as the Soviet Union, Sudha Rajagopalan writes in her book Leave Disco Dancer Alone!: Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-going after Stalin. While most local critics didn’t consider Disco Dancer as seminal viewing, some even writing scathing reviews, pre-teen and teenage audiences couldn’t “‘tear themselves away from the screen’ … and waxed eloquent about the hero’s tribulations, his ‘splendid and wonderful self, his talent for dance, and the ‘brilliance’ of the film.” Disco Dancer and other popular Hindi films were a way to escape the “grey Soviet reality”, Rajagopalan writes.
Fleeing the news is one reason that drew Claire Launay, a receptionist, to the Disco Dancer screening. “Disco and Bollywood are two of my favourite things,” Launay said. “I can’t say that I remember many Bollywood movies, other than Devdas. They all seem to blend in together. I watch most of them online, so it’s great to come to a theatre to watch this one, especially during these dark times.”
Paulo Figuerias found out about Disco Dancer while seeing a trailer during a screening of the Hollywood film Dirty Dancing. “I was immediately interested,” said Figuerias, a vegan animal rights activist. “What intrigued me was the idea of a classic Bollywood film, with the whole rags-to-riches plot, the tragedy and the emotional roller coaster, melded with disco.”
Watching Disco Dancer at The Royal turned out to an enjoyable experience for Figuerias. The audience was laughing along the bizarre jump cuts, Chakraborty’s contorted moves on the dance floor and fight sequences and the motif of a literally electric guitar. “It really lived up to the expectations, which were not super-duper high,” Figuerias said. “It’s a dated film, so you go in with a different type of lens…The disco twist really did it for me. I would see it again. Definitely.”
Figuerias attended the screening along with five friends, including Vikas Kohli, a composer and music producer. “I’m sure I’ve never seen Disco Dancer before, although I’ve known about the [title] song forever,” said Kohli, who runs the annual Bollywood Monster Mashup concert, where members of Toronto’s symphony orchestras perform popular Hindi film tunes. “So it was kinda cool that I actually got to see it.”
Bappi Lahiri’s music for Disco Dancer was one of the reasons The Royal’s Bertrand gravitated towards the film. Bertrand’s exploration of American funk led him to Hindi film music composers such as RD Burman. “Soon I was buying CDs and vinyl collections, and my obsession started to grow from there,” he said. Further research led him to understand Bollywood celebrity culture and its peculiar mash-up of genres.
It wasn’t until 2011, however, that Bertrand actually got to watch a Hindi movie. He was co-programming Blue Sunshine, a now-defunct film centre “devoted to the relentless enjoyment of good, weird cinema in all its forms” in Montreal. Don, the 1978 original starring Amitabh Bachchan, was their first Hindi film. “It went over so well,” Bertrand said. “People were cheering in the audience. I started to dig in further. Clearly I was missing something in my life.”
It was the “transcendent” soundtrack of Disco Dancer that conquered him. It’s the seminal disco soundtrack along with Saturday Night Fever for him, and he listens to it with his toddler. When the DJ at Bertrand’s wedding played tunes from the movie, his wife’s family took to the dance floor. “Her mother’s side is from Guyana,” he explained. “They were busting down to the music because they had grown up with it. The dance floor just exploded.”
Kohli has had similar experiences while performing the title track of Disco Dancer at his Bollywood Monster Mashup concerts.
“I hated the song when I first heard it, when the movie came out,” Kohli said. Unlike songs by Mohammed Rafi or Kishore Kumar, I am a Disco Dancer was cheesy and kitschy. However, when Kohli asked for a song choice from one of the Indian singers he had roped into performing at the first Bollywood Monster Mashup in 2011, the performer, with whom Kohli had jammed on 9 Inch Nails, Guns N Roses and Radiohead covers, came up with I am a Disco Dancer.
Whenever they perform the song, the crowd “just eats it up…everyone is singing, they know this song…It’s so much fun. Ridiculous, but fun”.