The phenomenon of Mithun Chakraborty in Kazakhstan

“Almost like experiences of first love, of getting first job, of riding bike for the first time, Mithun continues to invoke pain and pleasure of those early moments of tasting freedom for the first time after long decades of Soviet appropriations of local differences,” writes Shruti Ghosh.

Mithun Chakraborty is another name for ritual in Kazakhstan (largely in all the ex-soviet countries). He is, in many ways, part of the everyday life of the Kazakh people. In the past one and a half  years of my stay in this country and experience of working as an Indian dance teacher, witnessing the euphoria around Mithun is another experience altogether. Whether it’s a taxi ride or a visit to a market, you cannot miss the smile on people’s faces as they greet you by saying, ‘from India? Mithun? Jimmy Jimmy? Oh we love him!’ and so on and so forth. Bollywood’s success across the globe is not news anymore. But it compels my wonder as to how, in the age of Netflix, Tweeter, Instagram, and Facebook frenzy, when our social, political cultural worlds, our personal-public existence(s) are constantly being formed, recognised, reorganised, defined and marked by an (almost) maniac virtual exchange and presence, Mithun continues to be such an icon in Kazakhstan.  As an Indian dance teacher and an independent researcher, I wanted to explore further into my curiosity rather than leaving it to the elements of wonder and surprise. From what I gather through my interactions with students, informal chats and conversations with friends and colleagues and my understanding of the Hindi film music (and dance) I offer certain observations on Mithun Chakraborty’s phenomenon in Kazakhstan. Why is Mithun still so special in Kazakhstan?

‘It’s his quick dance movements, his handsome look’, remarked one of my colleagues, a lady in her early fifties who still remembers fondly how she watched Dance Dance and Disco Dancer, the two films that created the Mithun magic at time in Kazakhstan. She recollected that she was a high school student when these films were touring in several villages and small cities in Kazakhstan. People would go to cinema halls with their families to watch these films. Sometimes they would carry chairs from home in case there were inadequate seats for everyone in those small soviet cinema halls. All the films were either dubbed or subtitled in Russian. She also informed that among other films, Nache Mayuri, Sita aur Gita and films of Sridevi were also shown at that time and Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan films came later. But none of these films could make a mark as the films of Mithun Chakraborty. Mithun’s virtuosic hip shakes and foot work was noted by some of my dance students as well. They love dances of Shah Rukh Khan, Hritik Roshan and Ranveer Singh but they exclaim, ‘Mithun is special!’ One of my other colleagues, a man in his late twenties who has not watched these films but is familiar with the songs noted that, there was something ‘different’ in what Mithun offered. It was unusual at that point of time. He added that apart from Mithun’s films, they also watched Rambo, Terminator, Robokov and films of Van Damme around the same time.

One must note that during Soviet era, the propaganda films people watched were all black and white and were about social issues, deeply imbued with patriotic fervour. Mithun’s dancing body with shimmering costume, psychedelic lighting imitating discotheques and fast rhythmic drum beats of the West, depicted a world which offered to the Kazakh people relief from the drudgery of images which they saw in their everyday life as well as in the propaganda films. The Hindi films were escape routes into a world which provided entertainment and facilitated a kind of ‘wish fulfilment’ for the people who watched the (film) stars romancing attractive heroines singing and dancing about freely in scenic dream-like locales. 

However, it needs mention that the connection between Bollywood films and Soviet people goes back a long way. In the 1950s, Raj Kapoor’s films, particularly Awaara and Sri 420, screened in Russia, earned huge success. The then Prime Minister of India, Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru visited Russia along with main cast of the film, Raj Kapoor and Nargis among others. The success behind RK films, as explained by scholars, owes to Nehru’s ideological proximity to Soviet Socialism. Moreover, the soviet people immediately identified the Chaplinesque gait of Raj Kapoor that had a global appeal to the working class and the downtrodden since Chaplin’s Modern Times appealed to people of all ages. The older generation of Kazakh people who are now in their late seventies or early eighties merrily hum ‘Mera joota hai Japani…..’  Apart from this, there are several other instances that show how the Indian film makers and artists were heavily influenced by Soviet literature and the films engendered as a result of this connection. But matches with the euphoria of the enigma called Mithun. From weddings to school functions, festivals, competitions to birthday parties, ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ is a the inseparable refrain that perhaps brings closer to a cultural memory of Kazakhstan played out by every day festivities over and over again.

There is nothing striking about the narratives of these films which contribute to his popularity in this country since rags to riches story, a story of a street dweller making it big in showbiz, is a staple in Bollywood and Hollywood films which Kazakh people have been watching since late 1980s particularly after the collapse of Soviet Russia facilitating higher access to global media content. A close observation reveals that with reference to Mithun, the people only mention two films—Disco Dancer and Dance Dance. If the stardom of Mithun is the decisive factor then the people would have been interested in watching his other films so as to be able to follow the body of work of their favourite star. For example films like Boxer, Guru or Agneepath are some of the most popular and significant films in his career. But these films find no mention here. In my opinion, it is the very idea of Mithun as a dancer – singer and the specific music style by Bappi Lahiri lies at the core of Mithun’s popularity. Neither the film’s narrative nor his acting abilities have much to contribute to his iconicity.

It can be extrapolated from the phenomenon of Mithun that the key to his mystery lies in understanding the musical structure and the kinesthetics it evokes personified by the dancing, lip-syncing body of Mithun. Thus through a close listening of the songs, I analyse that, ‘Jimmy Jimmy’, ‘I am a disco dancer’, ‘Halwa wala’ and ‘Zoobie Zoobie’— the four main chartbusters share something in common. It is not possible to discuss each song individually within the limited scope of this article. Hence I would confine my discussion mainly to ‘Jimmy Jimmy’

Each of the songs has a staccato musical structure, instead of the flowing tunes with long winding notes that are common in Bollywood songs. Set in a rhythm of 8beats, the mukhra (first line) stresses on a single vowel, each corresponding to single beat. For e.g. in case of, ‘Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy  aja aja aja’ the corresponding sounds are  ee, ee, ee, & aa aa aa…Also, words like ‘jimmy’ or ‘zoobie’ are not typically Indian sounding words/names which require manoeuvring of the tongue or complicated pronunciation of foreign words. As a result, the mukhras of the songs are easy to remember, palatable enough to learn, lending a hummable quality to the compositions. Once the mukhra is learnt, it can be repeated. Knowing the full lyrics become unnecessary since, in any social gathering when the song is played, each time the mukhra arrives, the crowd identifies the song, joins in singing the song engendering a sense of contagion whereby the song forms a community of listeners. The sense of contagion as crucial criteria for popularity of music (and dance) is something upon which Bollywood choreographer Ganesh Acharya had stressed during one of my interview sessions with him (Personal Correspondence, 2012). He explained that the ‘hook’ step of a Bollywood dance, i.e. the step which acts as a refrain, must be both novel and easy enough to be copied by the common people who are watching the dance. The more easily one can copy a dance step, more the step would be repeatedly performed, carried, transferred, thus ensuring its widespread appeal among the people. Similarly in case of ‘Jimmy Jimmy’, a population to whom Hindi is entirely a foreign tongue, what helps foster the connection is the palatable and repeatable musical structure. 

At this point, let me briefly mention about Kazakh and Russian folk music as I believe that ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ is not only inviting but resonating with the indigenous music at a deeper level. Although, the repertoire of Kazakh folk music is rich and diverse, but, the most prominent characteristic of this musical tradition is marked by rhythmic semi-staccato fast paced notes produced by Domra, the national (string) instrument which produces both melody and percussive beats. The rhythms found in most of the compositions are set to an 8beat structure expressing the galloping movement of horse, which is an indispensable part of Kazakh life and tradition. Similarly, most of the Russian country music and folk musical tunes along with patriotic songs share similar staccato and rhythmic musical structure which I have been discussing. The reason for mentioning Kazakh and Russian folk musical traditions is to underline that these traditions help understand the habitual sonic scapes of the native people. They function as reference points in terms of which people approach, engage and consume the other musical traditions. This is definitely not to say that any appreciation of Hindi (or other) music always happens through a ‘conscious’ comparison with or analysis of one’s own tradition. But a kind of tacit knowledge of other musical traditions is obtained with reference to one’s own musical traditions and habitual sound patterns. In my opinion, in this case both the familiarity with staccato and rhythmic compositions of native traditions as well as the newness of disco beats introduced by Bappi Lahiri in these films, caught the imagination of the Kazakh people. It is important to add here that American pop music was already popular in Kazakhstan since 1960s and mainly because of the Beatles but an underground rock culture as Igor Mukhin shows in his book, was making its presence felt in Soviet Russia during late 1980s, as the collapse of soviet era was gradually approaching. Mithun’s films, which depicted the rising disco culture in India (where he was considered as Indian version of Elvis Presley), arrived in Kazakhstan (and Soviet Russia) precisely at this crucial juncture.

Although the above discussion helps understand Mithun’s rise and popularity at a given temporal juncture but it still requires further research on to fully grasp why he stood out in comparison to other Bollywood films which were shown in Soviet countries at that time. If attraction towards ‘song and dance’ is considered to be the chief criteria for mass appeal then why did the other Bollywood films lag behind? The matter becomes more complex if we remind ourselves that during soviet regime when every single word spoken, heard or written were strictly monitored and censored, Indian films to be shown in Russia were selected by a board of experts (artists and cultural diplomats) from both the countries. Who were these experts? What were the guidelines for film selection? Why were these films chosen? What other foreign films were screened in soviet Russia during that time? What was the impact? Answers to these questions require an archival research whereby local advertisements, journals, newspapers and editorials and (the then) contemporary discussion on Hindi film reception in Soviet Russia could be studied to understand the existing socio-cultural and political milieu. However, the question regarding Mithun’s continuing fame remains to be explored in its entirety. 

I will conclude with an observation that Mithun emerged on the Soviet scene at a time when Soviet Russia was on the verge of collapse. Kazakhstan won independence in 1991 along with other former soviet countries that got independence in the early years of the 1990s. Mithun is a symbol which encapsulates the tension of this tumultuous era, which holds within itself the possibilities of new beginnings. Mithun therefore is like a moment frozen in time, a time that was continuously being marked and mapped by a struggle between holding onto soviet values and forming of new national identity. Almost like experiences of first love, of getting first job, of riding bike for the first time, Mithun continues to invoke pain and pleasure of those early moments of tasting freedom for the first time after long decades of Soviet appropriations of local differences. In the process, Mithun no more remains an exotic Indian figure from a distant alien culture. He has become part of Kazakh socio-cultural fabric. He has been emptied out to be filled in again however arranged in ways that harp a cord in the Kazakh psyche.

Shruti Ghosh is a trained Kathak dancer, teacher and choreographer. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and has published on dance and film-music/dance in journals and anthologies. She has collaborated with dance, theatre, and film artists in India and Australia, and performed in India, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, London and many parts of Kazakhstan. Currently, she is working as a dance teacher and performer at Swami Vivekananda Cultural Center, Embassy of India, Kazakhstan. 

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