Moscow airport: Tattily shawled and monkey-capped delegates of the government-sponsored Festival of India, were blocked at the immigration counter. We were being glared at as if we had hidden agendas.
Shuddered, till Mithun Chakraborty swung in and raised his hands. The waves of airport officials parted like the Red Sea.
The delegation was castigated, “Why you all didn’t say you’re with Disco Dancer? Go, go.”
The bus driver, zipping us towards the cavernous Rossiya Hotel, quizzed, “You also know Raj Kapoor? We love Mr Kapoor like family.” The RK magic in Russia was legendary, it still is. Some five years before that airport glitch, Mithun with a hip shake, twist and glide had impacted the glasnost era, and how.
Today the benignly addressed Mithunda turns 71. Meanwhile, more than 35 winters have elapsed since Disco Dancer rocked the popularity charts at home and across Russia. In fact, for those who experienced the zeitgeist of the 1980s pop culture, Disco Dancer’s still his coolest calling card.
Nowadays, he’s not in the pinkest of health because of a persistent back ailment. Sporadically he does show up as an irascible patriarch in the movies or a juror on reality TV shows. Largely, though, he’s been following a take-it-easy policy.
Three National Awards for Mrigayaa, Tahader Katha and Swami Vivekananda, plus an estimable oeuvre of over 350 films, besides the ability to be at home in the art-house as well as hyper-commercial cinema, are the stuff that extraordinary star biographies are made of.
Chances are that he won’t even get it ghost-written since he invariably clams up about any reference to his days as a naxalite or to his years of struggle on Bollywood’s streets when he would call himself Rana Rez.
He doesn’t entertain questions on his widely reported secret marriage to Sridevi and their swift separation. He won’t talk about his first marriage to model-and-actress Helena Luke either. And he could well feed a reporter to the lions on being asked to elaborate on his wife Yogita Bali, or whatever happened to the acting career of their son Mimoh.
Quite clearly, Mithun, born in Barisal, North Kolkata, would rather be remembered strictly as the Film and Television Institute of Pune-trained actor, who became an A-list star of family dramas, romances, fist-bout capers, dance spinners and spy thrillers (aah those quirky James Bondish G9 flicks created by Ravikant Nagaich).
Once in the forefront of the film industry artistes’ welfare and mazdoor associations, concurrently he possessed enough business savvy to kick-start the Monarch group of hotels in Ooty, where he’d walk the lobby in a purple velvet cloak, the letter ‘M’ embossed on the back for a royal touch.
Incidentally, Disco Dancer happened purely by accident. Mithun was being directed by B Subhash in an actioner titled Taqdeer ka Badshah. A scene required the hero to break into a boogie while playing cricket. “This guy is a natural born dancer,” the director told himself and left it at that.
After lunch-break, Mithun refused to come out of his make-up room. He was in a blue funk, since his action flick Unees Bees had tanked. Recalls Subhash, “I told him not to worry. Just let’s complete Taqdeer ka Badshah and I’d give him a super hit for sure with my next film. Disco was big in the west. Saturday Night Fever was a rage. I sounded off the concept to Mithun whose eyes lit up.”
Bappi Lahiri knocked out an anthemic music score but Subhash admits, “Yeah, we did borrow the Auva auva refrain from a synth-pop song by the Buggles. And Krishna dharti pe aaja was sourced from Jesus by the Tielman Brothers. The solo dance to that number was totally improvised by Mithun. He danced as if he was possessed.”
Ironically, Subhash wasn’t enthusiastic about screening the disco musical at the Moscow film festival since “only dark and realistic films like Do Bigha Zamin are appreciated at such events.” Smita Patil called him to say that he was being “silly.” So there he was in Moscow. The show started at 3 pm at an enormous auditorium. By 6 pm, they had become the festival favourites.
“I don’t know if this is true,” the director rewinds. “When Mikhail Gorbachev visited India, Rajiv Gandhi introduced him to Amitabh Bachchan as India’s greatest superstar. I believe Gorbachev said that his wife only knew Raj Kapoor and his daughter only knew Mithun Chakraborty.”
Mithun and his Disco Dancer director haven’t been in touch for a while. “I suspect both of us would get very sentimental about the good old days,” Subhash says ruefully. “I’d rather see him smile and laugh on his birthday. If I visited him today, we’d remember the standing ovation we received in Moscow and break into tears.”
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Mithun Chakraborty’s birthday.)
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