The Poor Man’s Pop Star

For years, Mithun Chakraborty has been a victim of elite prejudice—what multiplex goers call a ‘downmarket’ star. But the emergence of filmmakers from small-town India can change that
Dress Circle
That’s the thing about Mithun. He is not ‘cool’ like the English-speaking Amitabh.(Photo: DINODIA)

In Gangs of Wasseypur, Manoj Bajpayee publicly baits his rival by jumping into a jeep and shouting obscene threats into a microphone. He is accompanied by a Mithun Chakraborty-impersonator who mimics the actor’s deranged dance moves to the beats of Kasam paida karne wale ki as they parade down a dusty street. In the background, extras—mostly women—shriek as if they’re at a concert.

Set in the coalmining town of Dhanbad, Jharkhand (though shot in Banaras), the scene reflects director Anurag Kashyap and writer Zeishan Quadri’s love for Mithunda. “When I was six or seven, I used to dance like Mithunda. My friends would whistle at me, ‘Oye, Mithun come here’,” recalls Dhanbad-born Quadri. Quadri’s articulation of rural India offers proof of its ‘Mithunisation’: “His posters are at every barber shop. Young boys emulate his hairstyle. People try to walk, talk, dress and dance like him.”

Also walking the Mithun talk is Emraan Hashmi in his upcoming comedy Ghanchakkar. Director Raj Kumar Gupta, also from Jharkhand, has transferred all his fan-boy fantasies to Hashmi’s character—a flashback to his memories of watching Mithun in movie halls as “people all around me clapped, whistled and threw coins on the screen as Mithunda danced.”

In an extraordinary moment of serendipity, Mithun Chakraborty—1980s’ disco king, forgotten failure, Elvis-impersonator, pop comet, poor man’s Amitabh Bachchan, auto-rickshaw driver’s hero, thrice National award-winner, successful hotelier, super-spy Gunmaster G-9, object of urban ridicule, pelvic thrust expert, exceptional character actor and a star with mass appeal—is experiencing a sort of rebirth, thanks to filmmakers and writers from small town India who were raised on the ‘Mithunda brand of B-movies.’

In the last decade, this man of many sobriquets has staged a spectacular comeback into the consciousness of not only those who came of age in the 1980s, but also those among modern, educated, urban audiences who had perhaps never heard of him. Without our realising it, he is in our lives more than ever before—doing a Golmaal 3 and Housefull 2 here, and a Dance India Dance there. Senior movie journalist Rauf Ahmed describes Mithun as a rare combination of action hero and dancing sensation. “There was a Shammi Kapoor hangover in his dancing style, without the good looks,” he says. At 62, Mithun can still convincingly swing a punch and shake a leg. And instead of slowing down, he is becoming ever more prolific.

A Bengali who considers Kolkata home, Mithun remains more active in Bengali cinema than Bollywood. His two recent Bengali films, Shukno Lanka and Nobel Chor are the sort that keep the actor in him alive. He has a deep personal connection to both films. Like Mithun, who worked as a junior artiste on the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Do Anjaane, Shukno Lanka’s protagonist is an extra who eventually gets a break as a hero in an international film. The film won rave reviews. One critic on IBNLive.com gushes, ‘Shukno Lanka is a model lesson on some [of the] best acting we have seen recently in Bengali cinema. Mithun Chakraborty proves again that he is, perhaps, the best actor in the country today who puts everything and some more, into every role he plays...’

Nobel Chor, on the other hand, pivots around Bhanu, a peasant who discovers Tagore’s Nobel medal and decides to sell it off in the city. The film’s director Suman Ghosh, who holds a PhD in Economics from Cornell University, wrote Bhanu’s character with Mithun in mind. “I saw Tahader Katha and Agneepath in college,” Ghosh told IBNLive.com, “and I remember thinking about the unbelievable range he had as an actor. Then I saw Guru and he stunned me. I saw Shukno Lanka next. I started writing Nobel Chor two years ago and I knew he was a busy actor and would probably not take up the role.”

As for Hindi cinema, Mani Ratnam’s Guru would be a good starting point. If there were any shaq (doubt)—to borrow his famous Ghulami refrain—about his talent, this film ought to put it to rest. Mithun’s portrayal of a crusading Gandhian newspaper editor, invested with a lifetime of experience and wisdom, was nothing short of a career high point. Guru was followed by a string of potboilers where Mithunda played Mithunda—a form of self-referencing that bordered precipitously on self-mockery, as in the ‘I am a Disco Dancer’ serenade in Golmaal 3. Yet his fans lap up whatever he offers, without complaint. One commentor on the Golmaal 3 clip on YouTube observes, ‘Nowadays all kid’s will know mithum (sic) it really make a difference. well done mithum keep it up.’ Another writes simply, ‘mithunda z rockin.’

Shukno Lanka is set in pastoral Bengal, a region Mithun knows well enough to bring a touch of sensitivity to his portrayals, whether of a poor farmer or a tribal. A story about him goes that he was once a Naxalite. But he seldom talks about what he has called the “touchy subject” of his early life. Acting was not his first love. He was compelled to join the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, to escape poverty.

In 1976, the art-house heavyweight Mrinal Sen spotted this dusky, lean student during one of his visits to FTII and formally introduced him in Mrigayaa, for which Mithun bagged a National award. Cast as a tribal hunter implicated in a murder case, Mithun ranks Mrigayaa as technically his finest film and never fails to credit Sen as his mentor. “He is my God because God gives you a chance and he gave me a chance,” he once told The Telegraph.

Before Mrigayaa, he had tried his luck as a dancer. “He was a part of a group of dancers who took on the stage name of Rana Rej and used to stand behind Helen. But later on, when he became an actor, he switched to Mithun to give himself a new identity,” says Rauf Ahmed, who befriended him in the 80s during his stint as editor of Movie magazine. Although Mithun remained proud of Mrigayaa, he was quick to move to commercial cinema. Anuvab Pal, screenwriter and author of Disco Dancer, a book on the cult Mithun movie by that name, attributes this switch to purely financial and practical reasons. “Back then, there was a sharp divide between art-house and commercial cinema. It’s not like today where an Irrfan Khan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui can survive alongside a Ranbir Kapoor. At that time, art-house films offered little money. Mithun must have done Mrigayaa for a small amount and got a National award, but then he must have realised that he couldn’t live off such niche films,” conjectures Pal. And he is right—Mithun spent the next decade in the ruthless pursuit of money.

The 1980s are known for their awfulness, to which Mithun contributed in no small measure. Movies in the 80s followed a set template that didn’t allow much experimentation. More or less, the stories followed the same pattern. Mithun plays the hero—often impoverished but flush with moral anger—wronged by a cruel and corrupt system. Either his mother is killed or sister raped and he spends the film trying to extract revenge. Helping him in his battle is an ingénue who conveys love and grief with the same expression, and the villain is a rich businessman—preferably someone with a dramatic-sounding surname. Mithun came into his own in 1979 as the secret agent with a weakness for women in Surakshaa, which Pal describes as ‘Robert Rodriguez-meets-Tarantino’. Over the years, the film has become a pulp classic, inspiring a string of spy thrillers all the way to Sriram Raghavan’s Agent Vinod. But real stardom came with B Subhash’s 1982 smash hit Disco Dancer—the kind of film ‘you laugh along with over drinks, like a movie version of karaoke,’ writes Pal in his book about the movie.

Disco Dancer was the Slumdog Millionaire of its era—the story of a slum boy making it big. Except that Disco Dancer invented a peculiar medical condition called ‘guitar phobia’ that the makers of Slumdog could never have dreamt up. The film made Mithun more famous in Russia and Kazakhstan than Raj Kapoor. Acquaintances told Pal that when Mithun went to the Kazakh capital Almaty, “the president’s address to the nation was cancelled because a million-strong crowd was busy welcoming Mithun at the airport”. In Tokyo, “there is a shrine to the Disco Dancer”.

At home, Disco Dancer made Mithun the pop star of the poor. It was here, in B and C centres, that he became nonpareil. “Between 1982 and 1987, Mithun was God,” says Pal. Second only to Amitabh Bachchan. Ahmed recalls Jaya Bachchan telling him, “After Amit, if there is any real action hero, it is Mithun.” Next, says Ahmed, “Amitabh had that accident and later, he moved to politics. Suddenly, Mithun, along with Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff, became a contender for the slot left vacant by Amitabh.”

Despite getting so close to the mark, Mithun couldn’t sustain his place on top. The arrival of the Khans by the late 80s pushed him out of the frame. A shrewd businessman, he relocated to Ooty, a hill station in Tamil Nadu and started a hotel. A story goes that he would invite anybody with a camera to shoot a movie with him in Ooty, provided the crew was put up at his hotel. This outdoor studio was, perhaps pejoratively, called ‘Mithun’s Dream Factory’. He made dozens of flops, but his finances were fine. With the profits, Mithun founded a multi-crore hotel empire that today spans South India. Many B-films from that period, especially those by director TLV Prasad, are finding renewed viewership in the post-ExtraTorrent era. Mithun had his own reasons for signing films with such recklessness. In 2009, on the TV show Seedhi Baat, he said: “An actor cannot be on top all the time. At some point, you will have to come down the charts. If you get addicted to fame, it will kill you. Who will think about my kids? I decided to strike the iron while it was hot. I wanted to secure my children’s lives.”

But when did Mithun complete the transition from the top of the Bollywood heap to B-movie monarch? What prevented him from becoming another Amitabh Bachchan? Anuvab Pal says Mithun lacked Bachchan’s drive and persistence. “Amitabh’s career trajectory is very American. He fell but recovered and reinvented himself with every turn of the decade. But if you look at Rajesh Khanna or Dev Anand, they had their time and then they faded away. The same thing happened with Mithun. I don’t think after the 80s he was ever able to reinvent himself.” Pal speculates that perhaps Mithun didn’t wish to play the ‘Bombay game’. “Maybe his priorities were different. He could have become like Rishi Kapoor or Boman Irani but maybe he didn’t want to.”

Also, his PR skills have never been anything to write home about. It’s impossible to know what Mithun, an incorrigible old-timer, thinks of image management. Those who know him declare he doesn’t care. Ahmed says he was media-savvy in his heyday but somewhere along the line his relationship with the press went askew: “He was friendly with us at Movie magazine, visiting us at our office whenever he could, and if he was shooting [nearby], one of our reporters would drop by.” Today, pinning Mithun down is as easy as getting the Pope on phone.

Unlike Bachchan or Anil Kapoor, Mithun as a brand is almost nonexistent. Pal articulates the contrast: “Amitabh is on TV all the time, selling you a dozen different things—from chocolates to ICICI policies. He belongs to the new India and in some ways, has played a part in shaping [it]. As for Mithun, he became a character actor. It’s not like he ever said, ‘Okay, I want to sell Reid & Taylor suits.’ Or, ‘Okay, now I am going to be on the cover of Vogue with my son.’”

That’s the thing about Mithun. He is not ‘cool’ like the English-speaking Amitabh. His son is Mimoh, not Abhishek. And therefore, he is not our man. He is seen as catering to rural aspirations, what urbanites might call ‘other people’s hero.’ Much like Rajinikanth or Govinda, the urban elite look at him with a slightly raised eyebrow and a look that says ‘Ugh.’ When Pal announced his book on Disco Dancer, the common reaction was—‘Why Mithun?’ “The whole perception is that he is downmarket,” says Pal. “But it’s only a perception. It’s like Shashi Tharoor is not downmarket. But Lalu Prasad Yadav is.”

But this attitude is not exclusive to Mithun. Pal feels that urban prejudice also extends to other stars of the 80s. “Even someone like Jeetendra,” he says. “They get laughed at in the new India, in this India of [the] Farhan Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap brand of cinema. Because the stories that folks like Mithun were given were so ludicrous that they somehow get seen as entertainers for your drivers, maids and auto-wallahs.” Pal absolves Mithun of all blame: “It’s not his fault that the multiplex phenomenon had not happened or there weren’t enough urban, sophisticated stories for him to be part of. It’s not his fault that there was no Karan Johar or Dibakar Banerjee. The misfortune of Mithun is that he just missed our part of India.”

Pal compares him to Hollywood dark horse Mickey Rourke, awaiting real recognition in the twilight of his career. If Dibakar Banerjee can seek out Farooque Shaikh for Shanghai, he wonders, “Why not Mithun?”