When I last investigated this film in the early 2010s, it wasn’t on youtube, and I was distraught: when you hear that there is such a thing as a 1983 disco karate movie, you need to see it right now and then immediately share it with an appreciative world. I understand why it isn’t 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 I couldn’t help wishing for it to be accessible in the medium most supportive of our ethos of pop culture instant gratification. Our fortunes in 2021 have improved, at least in this regard, and the legion of fans of this very particular Indian film star have provided.
I know some people view Karate as a bit of a disappointment when compared with other films in megastar Mithun Chakraborty’s copious dance-fight-love filmography, especially the infamous Disco Dancer, or his dance-fight-love-espionage/military shenanigan works like Surakksha, Wardat, and Commando. One of the greatest gifts of the films created according to Hindi cinema’s entertainment-for-all masala formula is that audiences might know what is going to happen in a film while also not necessarily being able to anticipate how. Parents and children will be reunited, but they might depend on the help of an omnipotent falcon to get there. Despite its apparently low budget, Karate leans hard on this potential for delight in how threads will be elaborated and resolved, especially with the expert assistance from composer and disco legend Bappi Lahiri, and I’m here for it. What Karate lacks in budget it makes up for with long-lost siblings, Kalbelias (aka, “Cobra Gypsies,” aka, the people we know as “Romani” but in India), a delicious villain, product placement by Wrangler, laser technologies that somehow hinge on a particular diamond necklace, and songs set among gymnasts.
Karate’s basic plot is familiar even outside India: children suffer trauma, then grow up to avenge wrongs done to their families. That they also happen to be karate experts on the hunt for a diamond that…* checks notes * was invented by their father to harness the power of the sun is what makes it delightful. Martial arts afficianadoes may insist upon hearing finger quotes during demonstrations of karate in this film, but they would also be missing out on the fun.
The film opens with slow-motion of two little boys doing karate on the beach at sunset while their instructor shouts didactically and the background score includes a stumbling synthesizer, quavering organ chords, and an off-screen voice yelling “Hya! Hyaaa!” and “Karate!” modulated by a heavy hand on the echo effect. But does that truly capture how engagingly loony the film’s first 12 minutes are? No. A few seconds and some gentle parental observation later, the boys play on the shore with a little girl, Aarti, the daughter of their instructor, Jai. Because they know what kind of film they’re in, 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 Khan (played by legendary dialogue writer and actor Kader Khan, last seen on the Gutter in the crocodile-infested revenge drama Khoon Bhari Maang), 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 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 a jewel thief and karate performer played by story/screenplay/director/producer Deb Mukherjee. Various people try to get the diamond; Danny and Aarti fall in love; Desh has two love interests, Geeta and Zora; fights and songs happen; and eventually the brothers realize their bond and go after Khan together.
I often wonder whether it’s possible to say anything interesting in general about Bollywood actors who feature themselves in the films they direct. My favorite example of this behavior is Feroz Khan (direct/produce/star), seen on the Gutter in the 1975 remake of The Godfather called Dharmatma, who exudes some kind of confident nonchalance that makes me absolutely approve of basically anything he does, even when it is self-aggrandizing, sleazy, or excessive in countless other ways. There’s also Raj Kapoor of the multi-generation Kapoor dynasty (direct/produce/star), who is generally held up as the most respectable and artistic example, the most capital-F Filmmaker-ish. On the other side of the firmament is Bollywood’s Tommy Wisseau, Kamal R. Khan, who suffers from similarly grand delusions of talent, heroic potential, and general relevance, first embodied by his debut film Desh Drohi (write/produce/star) and more recently by his reviled presence on Twitter. Unlike these others, KRK, as he is generally known, has a very brief filmography and has not learned anything about presenting himself as a leading man, or even filmmaking in general, I assume because no one else would bother with him.It’s 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. I’m not sure where to slot Mukherjee in the scale of success of self-driven, self-featuring Bollywood projects. Karate is his only work as director and producer, so there’s not much to go on.
His best decision in this film was casting Mithun Chakraborty and then stepping back and letting him do his thing. “Mithun’s thing” is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if that’s the case, no amount of me discussing this film’s pleasures will be convincing anyway. I’d guess that Deb and Mithun have fairly equal screen time, and their story arcs are equitable in complexity and emotional heft—for example, as adults both lose people close to them, though I think Desh does in fact suffer and gain more than Danny does—but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the principal star is. I am sold on Mithun in this film almost as soon as he enters—which he does in absurd fashion, as Jai stands facing the camera holding a cat like he’s Blofeld, then throws the cat into the air, and somehow in flight it turns into Mithun tumbling across the screen.
The choreographers (fight and otherwise) for this film have a field day with him, giving him tippy-toe prancing in combat and in dance. Mithun looks like he’s enjoying these sequences too, and for me that’s enough to make up for some other moments when he…appears less invested, shall we say. His first song, “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 swimming pool in silver boots. (Frankly, this sequence falls under the category “If you are not entertained by this, you are made of stone.” There are better-sounding uploads of this song on Youtube than the link I used, but none of them has the visuals.)
Another special feature of Karate is its intense bromance between Desh and his friend Imran. Keen cultural observers will guess by their names that there is some delicious inter-communal bonding going on between this pair of Hindu and Muslim characters; without subtitles I can’t be sure if that’s mentioned overtly, but it’s reinforced visually in at least one scene. See them in karate-dance action in this song.
In addition to the karate trappings that separate this from some of Mithun’s other films, Karate’s portrayal of the female characters is shockingly good. There are three to speak of: Aarti (Yogeeta Bali as an adult), Geeta (Kaajal Kiran), and Zora (Prema Narayan), another member of Desh’s gypsy community. Zora is also in love with Desh, and she and Geeta fight over him. Karate takes their struggle as seriously as it does any of its many others between men characters. It’s not clear to me whether Geeta’s combat skills have any context, but I really don’t care, especially when she fights in black flares and a silver blouse that frankly I would love to slip into before dousing myself in Charlie (or Gilda Radner’s favorite 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 both heroine and vamp as being as strong, athletic, and talented as the men. (I should also note that without subtitles I’m not certain 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 is at least equal-opportunity gaze.
I don’t want to make Karate into something it’s not. It’s not a convincing martial arts film, it’s not the best brotherly-slanted masala out there, and it’s not an unexpected lotus rising from the imperfect muck. It probably could have benefitted from a more robust budget. It seems to have mostly disappeared from popular attention, if it ever had any in the first place. But it also succeeds at what it sets out to do: tell a fairly familiar masala story focused on vengeance and brotherly love within the framework of karate and disco accoutrements. To me, it is more than adequately successful in creating a solidly entertaining B-movie within those parameters. “More than adequately successful” may not sound like an enthusiastic endorsement, but trust me, it is.
Karate is available on youtube without subtitles.
Beth Watkins is but a humble scholar of film and denies any assertion that she is a master of Disco Karate.