How Jimmy Jimmy, now an anthem in China against Xi’s Zero Covid policy, has been feted globally

In China, where very few dissident movements have been exceptional enough to cause any significant change, a song from India is being used by the people to showcase their dissatisfaction with the Xi Jinping government’s stringent zero-Covid policy that is currently burdening the people, causing many to be stuck at home.

The government’s crackdown has found unusual competition from disco king Bappi Lahiri’s famed composition, Jimmy Jimmy, from Mithun Chakravarty starrer Disco Dancer (1982). It has sneaked into popular Chinese consciousness and become a way to register protest, albeit of a softer kind. In Mandarin ‘Jie mi, Jie mi‘ translates to “Give me rice”, and videos of people mouthing the song sung by Parvati Khan along with empty rice vessels, highlighting the shortage of rice and other essentials, have managed to escape the Chinese government and not been taken down.

Most of these are on Chinese social media platform Douyin, another name for TikTok. Many videos have surfaced showing security personnel coming down hard on the people protesting the lockdowns.

Recently, a plethora of workers hired to assemble Apple’s newest iPhone walked out from a facility in central China’s Zhengzhou due to perilous working conditions.

Even as Covid cases have gone down considerably all over the world, including in China, the country continues to lock down entire neighbourhoods even if a few people are found to be positive. The country is still working with a number of travel restrictions, compulsory testing, and negative Covid tests even to enter restaurants.

What explains the popularity of ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ in China?

Before authoritarian leader Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Chinese were cut off from the rest of the world. The media was stifled, crackdowns were rampant, and there was no presence of western goods, culture or information. One of the largest countries in the world at the time, China was starved of any ‘western’, ‘American’ or ‘capitalist’ entertainment and music due to the dominance of the Communist regime. When things began to open up a little post 1976, the Chinese began viewing movies, and listening and grooving to music from the rest of the world.

While Disco Dancer — the rags-to-riches story of a wedding and street singer from Mumbai slums who metamorphoses into Jimmy the disco dancer — found popularity upon release in 1983, the Chinese also heard what Lahiri was doing with the British and American disco trend at the time.

And while they missed the meteoric rise of the British disco kings — Bee Gees, the chart-topping hits of disco queen Donna Summer, and John Travolta lighting up the dance floor with his swagger and spirit — they heard Lahiri’s version of disco, which came with glittery bell bottoms, hundreds of twinkling light bulbs, pelvic moves accompanied by synths, horns, rhythm guitars and syncopated basslines.

Jimmy Jimmy may have been a version of the French disco song, You’re Ok by Ottawan, but it was the Indian Jimmy, a song crooned by Khan, that took the cake. China loved it then. So its presence in pop culture at this point is not new. But its use as a protest song is what has never happened before.

Jimmy Jimmy and Russia

Another country that was in awe of Jimmy Jimmy was Russia, which before its disintegration and while going through the Cold War watched Disco Dancer — the highest-grossing foreign film in the Soviet Union.

Even today, Russians know and sing the songs from Disco Dancer. The film’s director B Subhash was even invited to the Moscow Film Festival in 1983 for its screening.

According to an 80s tall tale, when the then Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited India, Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister introduced him to Amitabh Bachchan as India’s biggest superstar. Gorbachev replied, “But my daughter knows Mithun Chakraborty.”

The only other actor that the Soviet Union loved like this was Raj Kapoor. Moscow continues to have a karaoke bar as a tribute to the song. It’s called Jimmy Poy.

Jimmy Jimmy and rest of the world

While Japan built a statue of Jimmy in Osaka, the song was also used in Adam Sandler-starrer action comedy, You Don’t Mess With Zohan (2008). British singer of Sri Lankan origin, Maya Arulpragasam, who goes by the name MIA, released her version of the song in 2007. Separately, Lahiri was honoured by London’s World Book of Records in 2018 for his contribution to the popularity of this global hit.

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