Disco Dancer (1982)

I love a good copyright infringement free-for-all.  In the cheap-o Brucesploitation picture The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” (i.e., Bruce Leong) teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist and “Clint Eastwood” in Hell.  In The Seventh Curse, a James Bond-styled super-agent goes on international Indiana Jones adventures into ancient temples, ultimately teaming up with a Rambo-knockoff sidekick to defeat a flying Xenomorph with batwings; it’s somehow just as thrilling as it sounds.  At first glance, the Bollywood Saturday Night Fever knockoff Disco Dancer doesn’t appear to share the same free-flowing creative collage approach as those post-modern Hong Kong actioners, but as its collection of “borrowed” pop culture ephemera builds (especially on its soundtrack), so does its disregard for the real-world details of its disco nightclub setting.  Disco Dancer ultimately ends up being a huge improvement on Saturday Night Fever—actually delivering the delirious, retro fun audiences misremember the somber American film as—precisely because it feels no fealty to borrowing from just one inspiration source, nor sticking to just one tone.  It’s made entirely of pre-existing building blocks, but it manages to arrange them in new, exciting configurations that out-entertain the wholly “original” (i.e., more subtly derivative) creations it resembles.

In case its Saturday Night Fever inspiration source was not crystal clear, Disco Dancer is careful to include a scene where its dancing, fighting disco hero Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) dance-struts across a nighttime bridge in flared pants to a rolling Bee Gees bass line.  In the very next scene, he’s shown dancing alone in his bedroom under an actual Saturday Night Fever poster to underline the connection.  Most of Disco Dancer‘s other copyright oversteps are limited to its soundtrack, give or take a rival disco gang menacingly snapping in-rhythm like extras from West Side Story.  An instrumental backing track mimics the melody of Grease‘s “You’re the One that I Want,” scrambling the film’s Travolta reference points beyond recognition.  More importantly, the first big disco number, “Auva Avua” opens the story with a spectacular discofied rip-off of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which should be all you need to know to understand that this film is great.  To be honest, most of the soundtrack’s other borrowed melodies from French disco & Indonesian rock legends soared miles over my head; it was the familiarity, recognition, and delight of that opening Buggles-inspired dance track that put me in a great mood, and the movie never let me down from that high.

If defining Disco Dancer by its collection of loose, disparate influences is making it sound creatively bankrupt, I’m doing a poor job selling its charms.  As a cultural artifact, it’s a wonderful snapshot of disco’s absurdity as an international export, with large, seated crowds watching disco performers from stadium benches as if they were watching an orchestra, not a participatory dance fad.  As a rags-to-riches, rise-to-fame story for a street musician climbing the ranks of the then-burgeoning Bombay disco scene, it’s a winning melodrama – especially in his mission to musically smite the wealthy bullies who publicly shamed his mother when he was a helpless, borderline-homeless child.  As a martial-arts action epic, it’s got plenty of deliciously over-the-top details, like the hero’s third-act development of “guitar phobia” zapping his ability to perform on stage, thanks to a guitar lethally weaponized by his enemies.  Disco Dancer was a huge international hit in its time (especially in the Soviet Union & China, oddly enough), and that success had nothing to do with its familiarity to pre-existing works.  It’s its own uniquely beautiful, deliriously unhinged novelty, often reaching a disco-scored, light-up-dancefloor euphoria you won’t find in any of the better known works it vaguely resembles.  I just also think its willingness to freely borrow from those works—totally unconcerned with accusations of theft—is an essential part of its appeal.  This kind of free-association borrowing is an artform in itself, not something to be ashamed of.

-Brandon Ledet

Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022)

I’ve been very slow to respond to the lulls between COVID spikes over the past couple years, waiting too long to poke my head out my turtle shell before the next variant sends me back inside.  As a result, I wasn’t fully ready to dive into the social deep end of Mardi Gras this past month, even though the gorgeous vibes and weather were making me terribly jealous of everyone out there celebrating early glimpses of a “post-COVID” life.  I’m gradually easing myself back into the world outside my living room, though, by which I mean I’ve returned to movie theaters for the first time since the lull between Delta & Omicron.  I generally appreciate the ways the theatrical environment enhances the joys of movie-watching for me, not least of all in how it forces me to ignore my phone for two-hour blocks – a near-impossible feat at home.  However, as I’ve returned to cinemas, I’ve found that the types of movies I’ve been watching on the big screen haven’t really changed.  If you ask most audiences, the only three movies of note to be released in the past year have featured Batmen, Spider-men, or Ghostbusters, and everything else has been either disposable or nonexistent.  I’m not feeling especially drawn to those big-name IPs as I’ve returned to the theater, though, whether that’s a safety precaution in avoiding indoor crowds or if I’m just out of practice in seeking out anything that’s not a low-budget indie that will soon be streaming anyway.  I’ve finally started leaving the house again, but I’m leaving it to watch the exact kinds of movies I was already watching on my couch.

The major exception to this loss of big-budget appetite is that I am ravenous for Indian blockbusters now that I’m back at the megaplex.  I enjoyed watching both Tamil-language actioners I caught at home last year—Karnan (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Bacuaru) & Master (an over-the-top blockbuster version of Dangerous Minds)—but I can’t say I loved them quite as much as I would have on the big screen, rattled by their booming sound & gargantuan visuals for their full three-hour runtimes.  So, the biggest change to my movie-going diet since I started leaving the house again is that I’m watching mainstream Indian cinema again, which I’m finding way more thoroughly entertaining (and way less conversationally exhausting) than its Hollywood equivalent.  While almost everyone I know was checking in with The Batman on its opening weekend, I sat down in a near-empty theater to gaze at another superhero of sorts: the fearless sex-worker advocate Gangubai.  The Bollywood drama Gangubai Kathiawadi is a formulaic, loose-with-the-facts biopic of its titular Indian political activist, depicted as rising to power from a victim of forced prostitution to a Mafia Queen to a populist hero of women’s rights.  As is tradition with most big-budget Indian productions, it delivers everything you could possibly want out of a movie, all at once: music, dance, laughs, danger, romance, tragedy, and shameless feel-goodery.  It’s also the rare Bollywood counterprogramming that’s actually shorter than the mainstream American blockbuster that’s currently crowding theater marquees.  Gangubai Kathiawadi is a half-hour shorter than The Batman and offers a much more impressive range of emotions & entertainment value.

For at least the first forty minutes of Gangubai Kathiawadi, I was worried I made a huge mistake in choosing which Indian crowdpleaser to return to theaters for.  The red-light Kamathipura district of Mumbai that the movie dwells in makes for a grim atmosphere.  Gangubai immediately looks cool & powerful at the start of the film, but she’s introduced in conversation with a child who’s being forced to start life as a prostitute after being sold to a brothel by her abusive, adult husband.  Asked to show the kid the ropes, Gangubai recounts her own story of being sold to a brothel by a boyfriend who promised her a career as a Bollywood actress.  Even with the rape & other violence mostly obscured offscreen, this early human-trafficking portion of the story is almost too dark to stomach, but that only makes the movie more satisfying once it starts hitting its feel-good biopic beats in the second hour.  Gangubai rescues the child from repeating that plight instead of condemning her to it, then recounts how she rose through the ranks in her own brothel to become the most powerful political voice in Kamathipura.  She essentially unionizes her fellow sex workers so they can set the terms of their employment, first as a low-level crime boss then later as a legitimate politician.  As she rose to power, I was hugely won over by the movie’s emotional stings & sex-work politics in a way that really surprised me, even if it took nearly an hour of squirming to get there.  By the time Gangubai shuts down all business in Kamathipura for a night so that her fellow sex workers can dance & celebrate instead of working for the first time in their lives, I cried.  Later, when she advocates in a radio broadcast speech that these women should be able to “Live with dignity” despite moralistic, hypocritical objections to their profession, I cried even harder.  It’s wonderful, hard-hitting schmaltz.

I am far from an expert in any of India’s varied, sprawling film industries, but I have finally seen enough of these movies to recognize a few of its main recurring players.  Gangubai is played by Alia Bhatt, who played the take-no-shit, tough-as-nails girlfriend in the “Bollywood 8-Mile” drama Gully Boy.  I was amazed by her fierce defiance in that performance, which she amplifies here to the point where she’s practically a sex-worker superhero.  Gangubai slaps anyone who disrespects her.  She openly drinks & smokes despite men’s moral objections.  She practically has a kink for making men sit on the floor to admire from below, which at one point manifests in forcing a young admirer to take her tailoring measurements in total awe of her body.  When she walks down the streets of Kamathipura, she immediately gathers a crowd of starstruck on-lookers, an effect that’s amplified by crunchy guitar riffs announcing her presence – like Gal Godot in Wonder Woman gear.  Just about the only thing she doesn’t do is lip-sync during her own musical numbers.  I have little context for how standard that is in modern Bollywood productions, but here it has an MTV-era music video effect, where she gets to strike powerful poses without worrying about emoting to the romantic lyrics.  Like an 80s action hero, Gangubai is presented as the coolest, most righteous person who ever lived, and Bhatt is incredibly adept at performing that badass self-assurance.  Between this film & Gully Boy, I’d even go as far as calling myself a fan, at least to the point where I’m looking forward to seeing her pop up as an “extended cameo appearance” in the upcoming S.S. Rajamouli film RRR.

Not everyone was impressed with the real-life Gangubai Kothewali’s portrayal in Gangubai Kathiawadi.  Her surviving family sued Bhatt, the film’s producers, and the authors of its source material for defamation, claiming that Kothewali was a social worker who was never employed by the brothels she serviced.  There are also news articles dismissing that controversy as a marketing ploy initiated by the producers themselves, so who knows.  All I can say for sure is that I don’t hold based-on-a-true-story Hollywood pictures accountable for being factually inaccurate, so I’m not sure how much that matters here.  The film was adapted from one thirty-page chapter in a much larger historical book about the Kamathipura red-light district called Mafia Queens of Mumbai, so it left itself a lot of room to build whatever story it wanted out of broad-strokes aspects of the real Gangubai’s life.  It went with the most formulaic, crowd-pleasing approach possible, typified by eye-pleasing symmetrical tableaus of vintage Mumbai street life and a romantic depiction of workers hooking by candlelight during a city-wide power outage.  It’s a big, beautiful mainstream heart-warmer with a shockingly grim opening and shockingly sharp political edge.  I’m more typically drawn to over-the-top Kollywood action thrillers than this sincere Bollywood drama, but I was fully satisfied by the movie-magic charms of Gangubai Kathiawadi in a way that I rarely am by American movies on its budgetary scale.  It was a satisfying return to a specific flavor of theatrical experience I’ve greatly missed over the past couple years.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #96 of The Swampflix Podcast: Gully Boy (2019) & Hip-Hop Biopics

Welcome to Episode #96 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-sixth episode, Britnee, Brandon, and James fight through some technical difficulties to discuss the revisionist artistry of the hip-hop biopic, with a particular focus on Gully Boy (2019), a Bollywood descendent of 8-Mile (2002). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet, Britnee Lombas, and James Cohn

Gully Boy (2019)

When director Curtis Hanson died a few years back, there was an understandable outpouring of appreciation online for a few of his more notable films – titles as disparate as L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys, and The River Wild. I was mostly on-board with this posthumous gushing for a fairly low-key studio director, but the praise that confounded me at the time was the effusive love for his hit battle-rap melodrama 8 Mile. I just can’t imagine a 2010s audience willingly looking at or listening to Eminem on purpose (especially not the Film Twitter crowd), no matter how rousing the film’s against-the-odds/rise-to-fame story of a trailer park rapper made good could be in the moment. One of the many miracles of the 2019 Indian melodrama Gully Boy – directed by Zoya Aktar – is that it’s finally enabled the world to enjoy the emotional triumph of 8 Mile without having to look at or listen to Eminem, something we sadly can’t always avoid. Detroit’s favorite White Boy makes a brief appearance in a magazine clipping pasted in the lyrics journal of Gully Boy‘s titular aspiring rapper, but that image is mostly just a get-it-out-of-the-way acknowledgement of 8 Mile‘s influence. It’s almost unavoidable that this lengthy Indian battle-rap melodrama will be reductively contextualized as the Bollywood 8 Mile, but I hope that descriptor doesn’t scare anyone off from giving it a fair chance on its own terms. No offense meant to the legacy of Curtis Hanson, but Gully Boy only borrows 8 Mile‘s basic structure in order to create something far superior in both craft &  emotional heft. Its class politics hit harder. Its romantic drama is genuine & heartfelt. And, most importantly, there’s little to no Eminem to be found, which is always a plus.

Loosely based on the lives of “the original gully boys” Naezy & Divine (two rap-fame success stories from the slums of Mumbai), this sprawling melodrama doesn’t necessarily do anything narratively or thematically that you wouldn’t expect based on its early acknowledgement of its 8 Mile story template. That’s why I was shocked to find it one of the most emotionally moving, politically invigorating films I’ve seen all year. Half an aspiring street musician’s triumph against the odds of soul-crushing class disparity and half a Romeo & Juliet-style tale of doomed romance, Gully Boy fully utilizes its 2½ hour runtime to ensure that neither of those tracks plays as a rushed afterthought. An unassuming hip-hop nerd (played by the superhero-handsome Ranveer Singh), living in an overcrowded shanty with his overbearing family and facing a future of lifelong servitude, finds the courage to voice his frustrations with economic injustice in his YouTube-uploaded rap videos. His mentor & idol in the Mumbai’s minor-but-growing rap scene (whom he has a big, goofy boy-crush on) is phenomenally supportive of the new kid on the block, pushing him past class lines & familial roadblocks to a rapid, bewildering success he didn’t know was possible (not least of all because of his debilitating shyness). His efforts to maintain a lifelong romance with a childhood sweetheart under intense scrutiny & surveillance only complicates this rapid rise to fame, which explodes the scope of his world of possibilities from a cramped neighborhood to a global playground. Both of these simultaneous storylines are surprisingly effective, as both are ruthless in refusing to pull political punches in their discussions of class,  gender, privilege, abuse, and – above all else – power. You already know every beat of the story this movie wants to tell, but there’s a heartfelt conviction to its messaging that makes it feel like an anomaly in the rise-to-rap-fame genre.

I suppose you could take an objective look at this film as a fascinating snapshot of American pop culture’s omnipresence as a global export. It’s alarming to see the full scope of how much of our bullshit makes a significant cultural impact worldwide: Eminem, Nas (who’s listed as an Executive Producer here), dabbing, Grand Theft Auto, conversations that inanely pit commercial rap against Real Hip-Hop, etc. Gully Boy  is just as aware of that potential fascination as it is of its inevitable 8 Mile comparisons, though, staging scenes where wealthy American tourists treat our titular hero-rapper’s talent & poverty as a sideshow novelty. Mostly, there isn’t much room to objectively examine Gully Boy as a cultural object all, as it’s continually engaging on a personal, intimate level that more than transcends its potential Bollywood 8 Mile status. Translating the American rise-to-rap-fame story template to an Indian filmmaking sensibility only strengthens its merits as a genuinely engaging melodrama & an act of political Art, not at all reducing it to a novelty act the way you might expect. The lengthier runtime allows you to fully invest in both the rap-hero’s artistry & his rocky romantic life instead of either track feeling rushed or inauthentic. It’s amazing how well rap lyrics like “The lava of my words will melt my shackles,” and sweet nothings like “You let me be myself” land when there’s enough breathing room to fully flesh out their context. Also, Indian cinema’s built-in musical breaks from reality provide the perfect platform for Gully Boy‘s hip-hop music videos, which voice righteously angry class politics at full length & full passion in their allotted space. As much as I’ve enjoyed other 8 Mile improvements & revisions over the last couple decades (Hustle & Flow, Patti Cake$, Straight Outta Compton, etc.), this is now the definitive benchmark for the rise-to-rap-fame genre in my eyes. No offense meant to Curtis Hanson (but plenty of offense meant to Eminem, who remains The Worst and should be avoided whenever possible).

-Brandon Ledet

Bava Goes Bollywood: Veerana (1988)

EPSON MFP image

There’s no denying the widespread influence Mari Bava has had on cinema, especially horror. Bava’s masterful 1964 crime thriller Blood & Black Lace, April’s Movie of the Month, has been credited as ground zero for not only giallo as a film gene, but also body count slasher films at large. Its influence can also be detected in unexpected places, such as William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising and essentially any film ever directed by Brian DePalma. Even these connections are less surprising to me, however, than the influence Blood & Black Lace had on the 1988 Bollywood horror film Veerana.

Admittedly, I have a limited knowledge of Bollywood films as a genre, having only seen a couple titles here or there, so there was plenty of room for Veerana to surprise me. It was most certainly the very first Bollywood horror film I had ever seen, so there was an almost complete lack of genre expectations I may have had if I’d seen, say, any other film produced by the infamous Ramsay Brothers before. What I found the most surprising was how easily the film gets easily distracted. At a whopping 145 minutes, Veerana is undeniably overstuffed, having no qualms with putting its horror movie plot on hold for extended song & dance sequences, underwhelming martial arts, and painfully corny stabs at humor. However, if you re-cut the film with about 45 min less of the dillydallying (about a third of the run-time), I honestly believe you’d have a verifiable masterpiece on your hands.

The horror movie at the heart of Veerana is a beautiful work of art. Smoke, bats, black magic, Satanic statues, cartoon lightning, humanoid rocks, telepathy, ghosts, witches & warlocks all haunt the screen in a dazzling display. The film wastes no time getting there either. The opening scene & credits plunder the Mario Bava aesthetic immediately, attacking the viewer with strangely colored lights, intense sound design, and ludicrous camera angles. The synths that accompany these images sound like they could be an experimental side-project from giallo soundtrack legends Goblin where they tried to incorporate more Eastern influences in their work. The film is downright overwhelming in these stretches, but in an admirably eccentric way. The juxtaposition with the horror segments with the more traditional Bollywood tropes in the humor & dance numbers is fascinating (and somewhat of a relief), but it’s in the depictions of black magic & evil deeds that the film truly shines as a unique work.

Produced over two decades after Blood & Black Lace, Veerana helps to solidify Bava’s classic whodunit as a seminal work with a stylistic influence that was felt literally across the world. There are some basic genre tropes that the Bollywood version gets wrong about giallo, especially in its tendency to over-explain why everything looks & sounds the way it does. An opening warning urges the audience to “watch this film only for entertainment,” explaining, “This film has no connection to reality,” but is instead “influenced by old folklores.” There’s also the push to blame the visual witchcraft on straight-forward Satan worship (or “evil god” worship), which leads to truly beautiful imagery like a towering demon statue on fire, but feels oddly old-fashioned when compared to more eccentric, detached-from-reality giallo like Argento’s Phenomena or the much more recent The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears.

It’s interesting what Veerana did & did not pick up from the genre Bava inadvertently birthed with Blood & Black Lace. In addition to the stylistic tropes mentioned above, it also borrowed ideas like site-specific kills (in this case a lumber yard) and a general air of mysticism. However, it also missed the mark a bit on where that mysticism originates as well as an opportunity to give itself the obnoxiously long, complicated titles that accompany giallo movies (“Veerana” is translated as “Creepy Forrest”; not all that awe-inspiring when other genre titles include Black Belly of the Tarantula & The Devil Has Seven Faces). Veerana is an interesting film for giallo fans to see where it lines up with its Bava ancestry as well as where it deviates. It 100% delivers on the premise of Bava Meets Bollywood, displaying a healthy dose of both seemingly irreconcilable genres. Sometimes they mix perfectly and other times they sit side by side, confusing the audience thoroughly, but it’s a fascinating clash even when it doesn’t work.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, 1964’s Blood & Black Lace, visit our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet