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.