The Sound of Protest: Bollywood’s Jimmy Jimmy and COVID unrest in China

In October 2022, following a Covid outbreak, factory workers in China began protesting the Chinese government’s stringent measures to control the spread. What followed was a series of protests against lockdowns and the government’s closed-loop management system that did not allow factory workers to leave the factory; this led to the virus spreading rapidly among the workers. The government came down heavily on the workers in trying to curb the protests. While the factory workers voiced their protest on the street and online, another subtler wave of online protest emerged as humor through the sound of Bollywood. The Chinese Tik Tok Duoyin abounded with videos of Chinese netizens (Internet citizens) singing Jimmy, Jimmy a popular Bollywood song from the 1980s. Jimmy Jimmy, however, is not just any Bollywood song; it was the youth anthem for many soviets and east Europeans in the eighties. In this post, we focus on primarily three aspects of this event. First, what qualities make a song a protest song? Second, how do we account for the transcultural, trans-linguistic flow of the song, and what does this exchange reveal about the cultural dissemination and absorption of Bollywood in China?

The song Jimmy Jimmy from the Bollywood film Disco Dancer (1984) has historically enjoyed a global resonance. In a time when the Soviet Union did not allow American exports, the sound of Disco made its way to the USSR and Eastern Europe through Bollywood. The song has had an interesting afterlife in the post-Soviet digital space through performers like Baymyrat Allaberiev, whose rendition of Jimmy Jimmy in 2009 brought back the Disco Dancer phenomenon, leading to multiple versions, performances, and renewed digital fandom. In the context of the circulation of the manifold Tajik and Uzbek versions of Jimmy Jimmy, Chapman notes that past film materials provide rich dispersed content that can often be reified with new meanings.[1] The digital in this context provides a fecund space for the osmosis of Bollywood’s malleable cultural form within transcultural spaces.

However, the question still bears asking, why Disco Dancer? The very specific kind of technological and capitalistic bent of Disco was unique, but it became a distinctive amalgamation when fused with Bollywood’s expressionistic and melodramatic overtones. Its catchy lyrics, over-the-top mise-en-scene, and melodrama entwined together to lend it a malleable quality that overlays well with the discursive malleability of the digital – that is ever-changing and evolving.

There are multiple factors that go into creating the digital malleability for Jimmy Jimmy. First, is the music and ease of lyrics. Second, is the sound of Disco “mix” that is more immediately subversive and situates the audience as the true star of the show. The hedonistic, subversive quality of disco comes together seamlessly in its Bollywood iteration with Jimmy Jimmy’s excessive and melodramatic mise-en-scene. It, therefore, became the perfect globally malleable Bollywood sound that is equally availed of by the Tajiks or the Chinese.

What explains the Chinese resonance?

The performative sentimental excess in a film like Disco Dancer lends it a camp quality that is further accentuated by Disco. In protesting the state-imposed oppressive Covid restrictions, China’s netizens leaned into the malleable quality of the song and its Bollywood aesthetic. What was being performed was a queering of the Bollywood aesthetic wherein the Chinese performers of Jimmy Jimmy donned androgynous digital avatars through filters (See images below). The political resonance of the moment juxtaposed with the campy quality does not diminish the citizen videos’ political import. It rather accentuates it by couching a subversive protest by queering and highly stylizing the performance. The parodic adaptation of Jimmy Jimmy, in this instance, works as a political tool and strategy of subversion that allows them to escape direct state censorship yet communicate their protest musically.

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