- Excerpts from journalist Avijit Ghosh’s latest book that seeks to examine the Indian film industry in the country's social, political, and cultural context.
Indian cinema is as old as the cinema itself. In more than a century, the Indian film industry has spawned into the world’s largest and the most diverse. Its global reach rivals only that of Hollywood. Yet, scholarship about the subject has been wanting. Only over the past two decades, efforts have been made to throw some academic light on Indian films and their impact on the country’s social, political, and cultural context. Journalist Avijit Ghosh’s latest book, “When Ardh Satya Met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s Bombay Cinema” is one such effort. “Avijit Ghosh narrates the fascinating story of perhaps the most eventful, disruptive, and transformative decade of Hindi cinema.”
The following is an excerpt from the book:
How the dancing star changed dancing
Mithun Chakraborty wasn’t just a hero; he was an idea whose time had come. He emerged when theatres were facing a video piracy crisis and the gentry had abandoned them. The new cinema demographics demanded a new star that non-gentry cinemagoers, in a larger majority than ever before, could root for. Mithun was their most representative idol.
His entry marks an important break from the other darlings of the underclass. Dara Singh was the ultimate macho man whom the frontbenchers revered. Amitabh Bachchan had a fanatical following among all classes. But his screen persona of a rebel did not tally with his public school background. In Mithun’s case, the frontbenchers both loved and identified with him. Unlike Bachchan, he seemed to be one of them. Watching him was self-fantasy fulfillment.
But the actor had to walk through a minefield of perceived flaws. He was swarthy, considered a major drawback those days. His voice was too husky and his Hindi dialogue delivery wasn’t the best in business. Director Deepak Bahry says objections were raised when Mithun was signed for Tarana (1979), a shehri babu–meets–bholi banjaran tale of songs and ardor. ‘People said why have you taken him? Some industry people complained to Rajkumar [Barjatya] that he was dark.… I had met him in Pali Hill and felt that iss ladke mein kuch hai (This boy has something special),’ said Bahry, who also directed Mithun in Hum Se Hai Zamana, Hum Se Badhkar Kaun and other films.
In an era when star sons were launched with fanfare, the national award-winning actor of Mrigayaa (1977) had to carve out his space inch by inch. A careful perusal of Mithun’s filmography shows a slow upward curve, from bit roles to big parts, from B-minus to B and A-grade ventures.
In 1969, Mithun left Kolkata after getting into trouble over his Naxal links. It took him ten years to find success. The year 1979 was his breakthrough year with Surakksha, where he played the hyper-sexual spy, Gunmaster G-9, and Rajshri’s Tarana.
Dancing and fighting were the twin bedrocks of Mithun’s stardom, which came with B. Subhash’s Disco Dancer (1982). The director recalled how the film happened. ‘We were shooting the last scenes of Taqdeer Ka Badshah at the Sood Bungalow in Versova. Mithun looked depressed. Unees Bees had released that day and the initial reports were not good. [The film did better in the weeks that followed.] He was also dealing with some emotional issues with his first wife, Helena Luke.
‘To lift his spirits, I told him, “Look I am going to make a film with you and you are going to be a big star.” When he asked what film, I said, “Disco Dancer”. I could immediately see a spark in his eyes when he heard the title. I told him the story and he got very excited. I told my PRO Jagdish Aurangbadkar to announce the film. “B. Subhash produces and directs Disco Dancer, music by Bappi Lahiri”,’ remembered Subhash.
At this point, Babbar Subhash had a story but no screenplay. Till then he was known as a reasonably competent director but not a very successful one. This was his own production and he started the film with all the energy he could muster. ‘I put up big sets. Shakti Samanta saw them and asked me, “Tum itna paisa kahan se laaya hai (Where have you got the money from)?” I told him, “Shakti-da, yeh film ka kamaal hai”.’
Disco Dancer cost Rs 42 lakh. Mithun’s fees: Rs 3 lakh. The film celebrated its golden jubilee. Film Information reported that at some cinemas in Calcutta, the audience forced the cinemas to repeat the title track. The magazine also noted, ‘At some suburban cinemas, the restless cinemagoers, who could not get tickets, resorted to explosive [sic] violence by blasting bombs.’
‘The movie changed the way Hindi films looked at dancing; but more importantly, it also changed the way people danced on the streets,’ said Mithun.33 For years, his hairstyle was among the most imitated.
In an interview, the actor acknowledged that he learned a lot about dancing from John (no surname), an Afro-American, who saw him dancing in Calcutta’s Blue Fox restaurant and took him under his wing. He said, ‘It’s said I copy John Travolta. Forget it. If I’ve been influenced by anyone, it’s Elvis Presley. He used to be an expert at shaking the pelvis. I shake my pelvis in my own style and let me tell you it isn’t easy. It’s simple to shake the body but pelvis dancing, without making it vulgar, requires years of practice and skill.’
In Russia, Disco Dancer touched a chord like Awaara had done nearly three decades earlier. Umesh Mehra, who directed Mithun in seven movies, recalled a couple of anecdotes. ‘We were attending the Moscow Film Festival and staying in the huge Hotel Rossiya, which had over 3,000 rooms and corridors stretching a kilometer. As we walked into this high-security hotel, Mithun’s female fans would jump out of the shadows just to touch him.
‘Then one morning after breakfast we saw Robert De Niro walking out of the hotel gates to the viewing rooms. We decided to get his autograph and started running after him. As we approached he turned around and his gaze shifted behind us. We two were after De Niro and about a hundred fans were after Mithun,’ remembered Mehra, whose Ashanti (1982) was an important movie in the actor’s career.
Over the years Disco Dancer’s fame has spread further. In Tokyo, there’s a shrine to the Disco Dancer. In Egypt, people serenade Indian tourists by singing the movie’s songs.
The film raised Mithun’s brand value. Former Delhi-based film distributor Sanjay Mehta said that Japanese electronics giant National Panasonic preferred to use big stars to promote their products those days. ‘When Mithun endorsed their product in the Eighties, it meant he had arrived, he said.’
Mithun struck unexpected gold in the romantic family drama, Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985), a film refused by Rishi Kapoor. The film underlined Mithun as a versatile star who could deliver across genres. Director Jagdish Sadanah revealed in an interview how everyone felt that Mithun had been miscast as the father of a seven-year-old child, and revealed having problems selling the film. He said, ‘We had held a trial for the Rajshris when the film was ten reels ready. After the trial, Kamal babu [Barjatya] came up to me to tell me how much he had liked my film but he said he was sorry he wouldn’t like to buy my film…I reasoned with him that Rajshri’s biggest hit with Mithun was Tarana, in which Mithun did neither any fighting nor any disco dancing. But Kamal babu was still unconvinced.’
Gradually, Bombay biggies fell in line: Rakesh Roshan (Jaag Utha Insan), Manmohan Desai (Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi), and Raj N. Sippy (Boxer, Baazi), to name a few, though none of these films worked.
Bigger successes came in the melodramatic southern socials: Ghar Ek Mandir (1984), Swarag Se Sunder (1986), Parivaar (1987) and Pyar Ka Mandir (1988). In Swarag Se Sunder, both Mithun and Jeetendra worked together. ‘Mithun’s dialogues earned far more applause in the theatre than Jeetendra’s,’ wrote film magazine Madhuri.40 Action dramas such as Ghulami (1985), Jaal (1986), Watan Ke Rakhwale (1987) and Daata (1989), were some of his other hits in the decade.
Simi Garewal, who directed him in Rukhsat (1988), said Mithun’s strength lay in his sheer physicality, a lean but powerful presence. ‘This physicality manifested itself in his action scenes as well as his dances. I don’t think he had any “weaknesses” as such. He was an all-round good actor with a star presence,’ she said.
In September 1983, Screen had reported that he had signed sixty films and was doling out dates of early 1985.42 In January 1986, Filmfare ran a cover with the line: ‘Hit-Man, The Busiest Star of 1986’. At the heart of his signing spree was perhaps a feeling of insecurity. There was a time when he had slept on pavements and paid Rs 50 for the space.
Between 1980 and ’89, Mithun acted in a mind-boggling 120 films, as per IMDb records—a few engaging, the majority humdrum. In 1989, he had a staggering twenty releases. He once said, ‘I do three kinds of films. One kind of movie I do only for money. Another I do only to satisfy myself. The third kind I do to please my fans.’
One of the reasons Mithun managed to do so many films was, as director K. Ravi Shankar explained, his spontaneity as an actor. He ‘never gave multiple takes to improve himself and waste others’ time. He used to rehearse once or twice and generally gave a very good first take.’
Vimal Kumar, who directed him in Swarg Yahan Narak Yahan (1991), echoed the view. ‘Mithun was a one-take artiste. If we went to the second take due to a technical problem, his level would dip by 5-10 percent. He had a sharp memory. He would say, “Vimal-da scene sunao (relate the scene),” while putting on his make-up. He would remember the dialogues. He was technically sound; he would know if the zoom or the trolley was late.’
In times when losing ventures vastly outnumbered the profit-making ones, Mithun was a rare hero who could be unerringly counted upon to draw a sizeable audience in the first few weeks. In other words, he had a loyal fan base who watched a film just because it was a Mithun film. These fans were spread across India and mostly belonged to the economically backward class. They ensured that a Mithun film, even when it lost money, grossed a basic minimum at the ticket counters, much to the relief of distributors.
Distributor Mehta said the underclass identified with him. ‘Titles like Ustadi Ustad Se (1982), Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984), Charanon Ki Saugandh (1984), Hisaab Khoon Ka (1989), Garibon Ka Daata (1989) leave no one in doubt who they were meant for. Even his dance steps reminded you of the common man dancing at festivals or weddings,’ he said.
The actor strived to improve his own brand. ‘I’ve performed better [in Dance Dance] than I did in Disco Dancer. I was especially thrilled by the long shot during the climax, it lasts 168 feet. For the number, I added the moonwalk, and the robot dance and added my own thing. Ordinary disco and breakdance are out, you have to be inventive to be “in”,’ he once said.47 Dance Dance created a record, drawing a full house in all fifty-six shows during the first two weeks at Triveni, Bangalore. Youngsters in the audience danced and showered coins during Mithun’s dance numbers.
In an interview with Star & Style magazine in 1984, his father Basanta Kumar Chakraborty said, ‘Mithun always has been a model son. The one time I got disappointed with my son was when Mithun got involved with the Naxalites. At that time, the movement was sweeping through Calcutta and it was rumored that Mithun was the gang leader. Young boys involved with the Naxalites were being rounded up by the police in Calcutta and I didn’t want my son to be caught. That is when I asked Mithun to leave home, I wanted him out of Calcutta.’ They didn’t speak to each other for seven years.
But his son did him proud. Not many Naxalites went on to become a filmstar, a hotel baron, a Rajya Sabha MP from Trinamool, and now a BJP politico, all rolled into one. In the Nineties, he was also one of the country’s highest income-tax payers.
“When Ardh Satya Met Himmatwala: The Many Lives of 1980s Bombay Cinema by Avijit Ghosh. Published by Speaking Tiger.