As I struggle to type these words with my newly affixed hooks, the guest posts continue over here at 4DK. This time the awesome Beth Watkins, author of the universally beloved blog Beth Loves Bollywood, reports back from the trenches of dodgy Indian VCDs to fill our heads with Mithun Chakraborty and his disco-socky spectacle Karate.
Why this film is not on Youtube is one of the great mysteries of life. I understand why it does not exist on easily-findable DVD—the print is terrible, the plot and acting are absolutely standard, and none of the songs stands out as particularly hummable—but it seems like the kind of thing custom-made to exist in the medium most supportive of our ethos of pop culture instant gratification. Because when you hear that there is such a thing as a Mithun Chakraborty disco karate movie, you need to see it right now and then immediately share it with an appreciative world. The Mithun fanboy army has, perhaps, let us down. This post will humbly attempt to redress this sad oversight in our collective appreciation of early 80s Bollywood.
Basically what I’m saying is that if you like Disco Dancer, you should definitely watch Karate. And for the non-Hindi-speakers among you, I wouldn’t worry about not finding a version of this with subtitles. Any seasoned Bollywood-watcher has seen this movie a dozen times.
Then they sing a song to their mother and she embraces them both, which confirms that this family is closely bonded and thus will soon be torn apart and eventually reunited. Then evil-doer Kader Khan, who has been stealthily recording all this karate practice and emotional goop, narrates a film that demonstrates how the boys’ father (Dr. Shankar) has invented a very powerful laser weapon thingy that harnesses the sun’s power through a diamond. Shankar gives us more information about his blood, sweat, and diamond-hiding location, and Kader Khan sets their house on fire and kills Shankar. The boys and their mother are, of course, separated during all of this; one of them is raised by Jai and grows up to be karate expert Danny (Mithun), and the other runs off to a gypsy camp and grows up to be...frankly I don’t know what Desh is. Good friend Cinema Chaat says he’s a jewel thief as well as a performer of karate-themed stage shows with his friend Imran (Mazhar Khan, aka Mr. Zeenat Aman), but my Hindi and this VCD aren’t good enough for me to have picked up on that. Desh is performed by story/screenplay/director/producer Deb Mukherjee.
At this point, I need to pause for two asides. First, as a recent but fevered convert to Bengali cinema, I find it hilarious that the leads of a film called Karate are both Bengali. Admittedly, this amusement stems directly from regional stereotypes and has very little to do with the reality of Indian movie industries. Bengalis had been working in mainstream Bombay cinema in droves for decades by the time this film was made, Mithun was already a rising Bollywood star, and Deb Mukherjee comes from a massive and long-established film family.* But there’s still a fun cognitive dissonance going on here, because when you think tough fighter heroes you just don't tend to think "…from Calcutta." For readers who don't watch a lot of Indian films or aren't conversant in regional stereotypes, this is a bit like populating a kung fu movie with Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh, actors who at least in name come from a less bombastic and more literature-based cinema culture. We are well aware that there can be action stars from Manhattan and England, but that's not our first cinematic association.
Desh Drohi (write/produce/star) and more recently by his reviled presence on Twitter. Unlike the first three "actors+" I listed (and Deb Muhkerjee as well), KRK, as he likes to call himself, has not worked under other directors or learned anything about presenting oneself as a leading man, or even filmmaking in general, I assume because no one else would bother with him. I think it is safe to say that all of these men have a very strong sense of self and self-importance, as well as earnestness applied in very different ways; some of them know what to do with these compulsions most of the time, but others do not.
“Tum Tum Tumba,” is full of skittering strings, laser pew-pew sounds, boogeying club-goers, and Mithun swiveling his hips and dance-fighting around a bar and swimming pool in silver boots. Frankly, this sequence falls under the category “If you are not entertained by this, you are made of stone.”
Another special—or “special,” take your pick—feature of Karate is its ridonkulous bromance between Desh and Imran. You can guess by their names that there is some delicious inter-communal bonding going on; without subtitles I can’t be sure if that is mentioned overtly, but it’s reinforced visually in at least one scene that I can’t mention without spoiling the plot. There is an exchange near the beginning of the film in which Desh and Imran embrace and affectionately touch one another for at least 75 seconds, all while beginning most of their sentences with each other’s names. This is a doozy of a bromance. See them in karate-dance action in this video.
Hey You!) and heading out for a night on the town. These two women have an amazing dance-fight around a campfire that starts with each tied together at one leg by a long rope, then their wrists tied together and knives clenched between their teeth, then suspended from the air. This is probably the longest and most determined fight by women I’ve ever seen in Indian cinema, and I respect the film portraying a heroine and vamp as being as strong, athletic, and talented as the men. (I should also note that without subtitles I cannot be confident that the lyrics don’t undermine all this independence and ability, but at least the visuals are good.) Some of the camera angles are a little suspect, but given that the men thrust around in tight white satin pants as often as we see Prema’s miniskirted thighs, this at least falls into the Feroz Khan camp of equal opportunity gaze. See for yourself here, beginning with the ladies’ less dance-y brawl before the music kicks in. Keep an eye out for the totem pole in the background of the gypsy camp.
Many thanks to Cinema Chaat for sending the Karate VCD all the way from Australia! That’s love, people.
* For the uninitiated: his uncles include Ashok and Kishore Kumar; Tanuja, Kajol, and Rani Mukherjee are more distant relatives; and he is the father of currently successful director Ayan Mukherjee of Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani).