The call came in the middle of the night. “I’d just wrapped up a sold-out concert in Fiji Islands. My father and I were finally sitting down for dinner at the hotel we were staying in,” says Bappi Lahiri, his voice dropping a little low as he continues, “The reception called and said that somebody wanted to meet me. Who could it be so late? Baba asked the hotel security to escort the person to where we were sitting.” It turned out to be an “achchhi bhadraladki, a ladies” who pressed a bag in his hands and told Lahiri, without preamble, “I know you are a gold man. The song you performed tonight, Yaad aa raha hai tera pyaar (Disco Dancer, 1982), it touched me. I couldn’t give you anything at the concert — here’s all the gold I own.” The Disco King of India was stunned but before he could utter a word, his father chortled, “Itna sona toh uske gale mein hi hai (He’s wearing that much gold on his neck)!”
Lahiri laughs heartily while recounting this story; the seven gold chains around his neck jiggle, a few of the pendants clink against each other. One would think that the 100-plus framed discs celebrating bumper sales of his soundtracks, covering every inch of the living room walls of his Juhu bungalow, would be indication enough of the achievements of his 45-year-long career in the Hindi film industry. But the 65-year-old composer and singer has always worn his success close to his heart.
“The industry first noticed me after Zakhmee (1975). My mother gave me a small gold necklace to celebrate. When I got married in 1977, my wife gave me two more: a ‘B’ for Bappi locket, and this Ganapati one. When I met Michael Jackson in 1996 when he came to Bombay, he saw it and said, ‘Oh, what a beautiful Ganesh!’,” says Lahiri, who was such a fan of the late American popstar that, for a moment, he contemplated parting with the necklace. “But then I thought, he has everything, whereas I have only this gold that is lucky for me. There was one more thing — I was born in Kolkata but it is the soil of Maharashtra that gave me its blessing. If I gave Michael the Ganesh, then maybe the blessing would leave me too,” he says.
He had cause for concern. While Lahiri had ruled the ’80s with his disco-dance hits, churning them out one after the other, the ’90s had witnessed a sobering down of sorts. A couple of formidable duos had arrived on the scene: Nadeem-Shravan, Anand-Milind, and Jatin-Lalit, who offered melodies over pulsing beats; there was the inconsistent but clever Anu Malik (who lifted a chunk from Abhi abhi thi dushmani, from Zakhmee and repurposed it for Kitaben bahut si padhi hongi tumne in 1993’s Baazigar); and there was a new kid on the block, AR Rahman, whose training in Western classical music, and southern sensibilities, set him apart from everyone who came before him.
Every decade would bring new players to the game, Lahiri knew that. After all, almost 20 years ago, hadn’t he come to Bombay too, to seek his fame and fortune?
Flashback: When “Master Bappi” made his debut playing the tabla at a concert at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens, he was only four years old. A child prodigy by all accounts, Alokesh Lahiri had music in his blood. His parents, Aparesh and Bansari Lahiri, were well-known singers in Kolkata; his mother was close to Kishore Kumar’s family and Lata Mangeshkar was a dear friend. “She told my parents to send me to train under Pandit Samta Prasadji, the biggest tabla guru at the time. It never occurred to me that I could be anything but a musician. Sangeet mera jeevan hai, mera mazhab hai, mera sab kuch (Music means the world to me),” says Lahiri, a touch dramatically.
One can tell that this is a sentiment that he has repeated in interviews for many years now, but even at this age, he possesses a certain childlike glee in talking about the good old days. Did Lahiri ever experience childhood like the rest of us? It’s hard to say, since he began composing his own songs at 11 years, performing alongside his parents, and by the time he was 20, composed music for a Bengali film, Dadu (1969). “But then I ran away to Bombay, because my heart was set on working in the Hindi film industry. My parents sacrificed their careers and came with me to this city, to help me get established,” says Lahiri.
Kishore mama proved to be helpful — his nephew Shomu Mukherjee wanted songs for Nanha Shikari (1973), and when he heard Lahiri’s work, he signed him on. The soundtrack was received well enough, but a phone call from Tahir Hussain would bring him his first big hit. “He’d heard Ek ladki badnam si, and he reportedly said, ‘Yeh ladka ke andar bahut talent hai (This guy is very talented)’,” recalls Lahiri, matter-of-factly. “He said, ‘I want to do my next film with you.’ I was shocked because he was dropping Panchamda (RD Burman) to work with me. But when Zakhmee became a hit, I felt like I’d hit a straight sixer,” says Lahiri, with a wide smile. He freezes for a second — he’s spotted our photographer from the corner of his eye and keeps still so that he can get a good shot.
It’s easy to see how Lahiri became such an iconic figure in Bollywood. He’s not just a musician, he’s a showman. “My childhood hero was Elvis Presley and I wanted to emulate his look,” says Lahiri.
His narcissism is inoffensive, and almost charming — Lahiri knows he’s one of a kind. “People laugh at me, and that’s fine. I laugh at myself, too,” he says. But, at the beginning of his career, Lahiri possibly wanted to be taken seriously — Chalte Chalte (1976), Paapi (1977) and Aap Ki Khatir (1977), were all in the mould of composers of that era. Lahiri had always been interested in Western music, he says, but in the ’70s, he was yet to move in that direction. It wasn’t a new trend anyway. C Ramachandra introduced Western instruments and rhythms in the 1950s. Modern styles and sounds were embraced by everyone in some measure — from SD Burman’s Tadbeer se bigdi hui (Baazi, 1951), OP Nayyar’s Mera naam chin chin choo (Howrah Bridge, 1958), to Shankar-Jaikishen’s Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe (Junglee, 1963).
But if there was one name that ruled the roost in the ’70s, it was RD Burman. “He brought to the forefront lesser used instruments like bass guitar, along with the brass section (trumpet, trombone), encouraged the use of jazz style chords, mixed up different rhythms in a single song, and experimented with secondary percussion like castanet, kokiroko, madal, donkeys jaw and more,” say Balaji Vittal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee, authors of RD Burman: The Man, The Music. Lahiri respected Pancham immensely but also saw himself as a contender. It was clear to him that if he had to turn the tide in his favour, he’d have to offer Hindi films a brand new sound. When he walked into a Chicago nightclub in 1979, Lahiri had no idea that his life would change forever. “I was on a US tour with Kishore mama. The disc jockey at the club said he’d play disco and he played Saturday Night Fever. I heard that thumping beat, and, right then, I decided that I was going to bring that to India,” says Lahiri. He got his hands on a Moog synthesizer, and with its futuristic-sounding sequences, he prepared himself to create interludes and tracks that would propel the Hindi film song into the global disco scene. But Lahiri didn’t use his new-fangled tricks immediately. “I knew it would make everybody dance but I had to wait for the right opportunity,” he says.
Or rather, the right man. One day, Lahiri received a call from filmmaker Ravikant Nagaich, who talked up a storm about a naya ladka. “Ravi said, this guy is like John Travolta meets Bruce Lee — action aur dance milake — so I should make a beat for him for an upcoming B Subhash movie. I did, and it became Disco Dancer,” says Lahiri, and laughs. The overnight success of that film and its soundtrack cemented Mithun Chakraborty’s status as a star for the masses, and Lahiri as India’s disco king.
Disco Dancer set the ball rolling for the rest of the decade. “After that, I composed Dance dance, Hari om hari, Rambha ho, Yaar bina, De de pyaar de, Jawani janeman! I brought the beat to Indian songs, and other forms like Caribbean folk,” he says. He sings the opening lines of Sochna kya (Ghayal, 1990). “Jennifer Lopez used it in On the dance floor (2011), same tune,” says Lahiri. It is now time to interject and say that JLo sampled Lambada by Kaoma, a global hit in 1989, which was copied from Llorando Se Fué, a Bolivian folk song recorded by Los Kjarkas in 1981. Lahiri dismisses this and says, “Lambada type ka tha.”
When it comes to popular music, if the ’80s are considered a failed decade all over the world, it stands true for Hindi film music as well. And, over the years, Lahiri, somehow, has become the fall guy. “His sense of rhythm was excellent, but he went overboard with disco, flagrantly copying albums which were readily available, coming out with caricatures of the originals,” say Vittal and Bhattacharjee.
In the age of the internet, Lahiri has faced significant criticism for copying Western hits. It could be just a hint of Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head in Dur dur tum rahe (Chalte Chalte), or Elvis Presley’s Wooden heart in Kitne phool (Teri Baahon Mein); or full-blown lifts sparing nobody from Mory Kanté (Tama tama in Tamma tamma), Buggles (Video killed the radio star in Koi yahaan naache), and even LV Beethoven — the opening bars of Für Elise suddenly switch to Haske guzare zindagi (Brahma, 1994). His biggest disco hit, Jimmy Jimmy, is from Ottawan’s T’es OK, T’es Bath.
“I’m not one to say that I have been ‘inspired’ or ‘influenced’ by them — I lifted the entire style of the song. But everybody did it. Panchamda’s Aao twist karein was taken from Chubby Checker’s Let’s twist again. Mehbooba mehbooba, too, from Ta rialia, a Cypriot folk song. But look at my capacity: in those days, before the internet, I was asked to create these types of songs and I delivered every time. But nobody wants to look at the music that I didn’t take from, like my classical chapter,” he says, ruefully.
Lahiri did dabble in songs with a classical base: Dard ki raagini (Pyaas, 1984) in raag Abhogi Kanada; Kisi nazar ko tera intezaar (Aitbaar, 1985) was based on raag Bhairavi, and most notably, Ke pag ghunghroo bandh Meera (Namak Halal, 1982), based on raag Darbari. “It was originally a 12-minute song. Kishore mama said, ‘Arre chaar gane ke barabar leke aaya’. What’s not there in that song? Sargam, qawwali, disco. On the fourth day of recording, Kishore mama said, ‘Kya Bappi, tu thaka deta hai (You tire me out),” says Lahiri, with another belly-shaking laugh.
The man occupying seat number D-27 was beginning to feel restless. It had been over 50 minutes since Lahiri had taken the stage for “Yaad Aa Rahaa Hai: Bappi Lahiri Live in Concert”, at Shanmukhananda Auditorium in Sion, Mumbai, but the show had yet to really kick off. He turned to his missus and mumbled, “Disco dancer, Ooh la la baaki hai”. On cue, Lahiri reappeared in a sequinned navy jacket, a long gold shirt and more gold necklaces than he donned in the first half. Nobody does a throwback like Lahiri anymore.
The opening riff of Disco station (Haathkadi, 1982) thrummed through the air for a few seconds before the crowd let out a raucous cheer; in that instant, Shanmukhananda, with its ’80s crumbling décor, felt like the setting of a Mithun Chakraborty pot-boiler featuring lots of revenge and singing at concerts.
Just before Lahiri and his band launched into a 30-minute long medley of his disco hits, the emcee yelled, “Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy the last part of Bappi Lahiri!” He spoke prematurely, because if this June 8 show was any indication, the mullet-and-shades sporting, gold-toting composer is far from done. “In my 45-year-old career, I am the only male playback singer who has sung for five generations of actors — from Dev Anand to Sunil Dutt, and his son Sanjay Dutt; for Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek; Jeetendra of course, Dharmendra and Sunny Deol. Then, for Ranveer Singh and Varun Dhawan. A lot of people say that ‘I had done this and that’. That’s not the case with me — I am still doing,” says Lahiri.
These past few years, Lahiri has been touring America, performing at shows for the desi diaspora. In the meantime, Hollywood has come calling. Sometimes, it’s to feature a lesser-known song of his, like Come closer (Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki) — with Salma Agha’s sensual voice and its baby-making bassline — in the Oscar-nominated Lion. But the big studios go for the big hits: Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (2008) used Jimmy Jimmy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 used Yeh raat hai jo mazaa hai.
And now, they don’t just want his music, they want him. “You know how Ranveer Singh dubbed for Deadpool 2? I’ve also dubbed for the Hindi version of Kingsman 2, for Elton John’s character. I respect him like an elder brother. In Moana, I dubbed lines and recorded a song for Tamatoa, a crab who wears a lot of gold, just like me,” he says and laughs.
Never quite appreciated for his playback singing, Lahiri has enjoyed success with Vishal-Shekhar, who first collaborated with him for Mumbai nagariya (Taxi No 9211, 2006). “Nobody understands the camp-ness that he brings to a tune. His delivery, his expression give him a really unique flavour that one can’t duplicate. Also, why would you duplicate it when the original is around?” says Vishal Dadlani, of Vishal-Shekhar.
In 2011, the duo even reworked one of Lahiri’s Jeetendra hits, Ui amma (Mawaali, 1983) into Ooh la la for The Dirty Picture. “One of the briefs that director Milan Luthria gave us were the old Jeetendra-Jaya Prada songs from the ’80s. So Bappida was not an afterthought, we built the song around his vibe,” says Dadlani. Their third collaboration with him has also been a hit. At Shanmukhananda, when Lahiri sings the Bengali prelude of Tune maari entriya (Gunday, 2014), the crowd can barely contain themselves — “Tan, tan, tan” is bouncing off the walls.
June has been frightfully busy so far. He released We are one, a new track for World Music Day on June 21, and now he’s off to LA to put the final touches to his song with Snoop Dogg. “His agent got in touch some time ago. We’ve made a track together, it’ll hit the radio by the end of the American summer,” says Lahiri, who is also working with Akon on another single, slated for release next year.
All through this interview, Lahiri has sidestepped the question about how he works, his “process”, so to speak. “Arre, it happens just like that,” he says several times. After our conversation ends, he acquiesced the request for a demonstration. “What’s your name? Anushree?” he says, and goes silent for a few seconds. He sits up a little straighter and begins to sing: “Tumko main kya kahoon, tum kya Tejashree ho? Tum kya Rajashree ho? Tum mere Anushree ho. I hope you recorded it. It’s an original.”