How 40 years of Disco Dancer went viral thanks to a Chinese video

Through the lens, lightly

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Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 9:23 PM

My Disco Dancer memories came rushing back last week, not because the iconic film, India’s version of Saturday Night Fever, will turn 40 next month, but because a reel suddenly went viral: in China, one of the movie’s songs — the very foot-tapping Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy — had been adapted to Mandarin and was being sung as Jie mi, jie mi, jie mi (it means “give me rice”), and being used a protest song against the strict lockdown in the country.

I have indistinct yet specific memories of the time when Disco Dancer was released. It was 1982, and a few video prints had been immediately made by a local video parlour chappie in the neighbourhood I grew up in in Calcutta. He was doing a hard sell by telling all his clients that the city’s “Bengali boy” has finally hit the jackpot in Bollywood. Ergo, watch Disco Dancer; the prints, he said, were not originals obviously (it took months after release for that to happen), but they were still “very good”. All this I heard from my aunt, who was the Bollywood buff in our family and would watch at least a couple of movies on the VCR player that had been newly acquired. None of the other adults in the household were into Bollywood, and we, the kids, were banned from watching anything to do with ‘Hindi cinema’. “Corrupting influence,” my father would fume.

But a funny thing happened with Disco Dancer. It was deemed an exception and we were allowed to watch it. Maybe it was because Mithun’s gyrations were considered — by the parent body — to be more athletic rather than filmi (aka, crude, vulgar, take your pick). So we watched it once, our jaws dropping in wonderment when Mithun sang ‘I am a disco dancer’ and set the template in my mind (irretrievably) for the term “disco”: D for dance, I for item, S for singer, C for chorus, O for orchestra — and I swear I didn’t have to Google that, it’s so firmly entrenched in my head. I then re-watched it several times over, with my aunt, who would smuggle me into the TV room that was usually beyond the kids’ ken. I think I watched it about 10 to 12 times. She claimed she watched it 30 times, and had kept the video cassette well beyond its permitted ‘borrowing’ time.

But the best thing happened with my cousin, who was around two or three years old back then, and who had watched Disco Dancer with his mother (the same aunt I was talking about) with unwavering constancy. He, my brother and I were taken to watch (the musical) The Jungle Book that was playing in several theatres in Calcutta as part of a Walt Disney retro — right after our Disco Dancer binge at home. The theatre was packed with excited kids, and as the movie started, all of them began to clap their hands to the songs, some were singing along. And then suddenly, my three-year-old cousin began to bawl loudly.

“Shhhhhhh,” his embarrassed mother — my aunt — reprimanded him. “What happened? Aren’t you enjoying the movie?”

“No,” he sobbed, “I am hating it. I want to watch Disco Dancer.”

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