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Bappi Lahiri: The maverick musical genius

Print edition : Mar 25, 2022 T+T-

Bappi Lahiri, a 2007 photograph.


With the actor Renuka Shahane in June 2007 during the launch of “Shiksha” music video in Mumbai as part of an effort to support the education of underprivileged children.


The musician’s wife, Chitrani Lahiri (centre), son Bappa (right), and daughter-in-law Tanisha (second from left) at a prayer meet in his memory on February 23.

Bappi Lahiri (1952-2022) gave some of the best songs in Hindi cinema yet in many ways remained unsung, pigeonholed by the media and even his committed audiences into the image of a musician who composed for the dance floor. The fact is that Bappi Lahiri broke boundaries and continuously experimented with his music.

Man is forever a prisoner of his image. Wherever a man goes, his image precedes him. Who would know it better than the peerless Bappi Lahiri, the man often hailed for introducing disco music in the Hindi film industry? He was, tragically, also the man who failed to demolish the stereotypes that came with the image of Disco King. Of course, his love for jewellery, his flashy lifestyle helped him not.

Dubbed as the Badshah of Bling, the bejewelled Bappi Lahiri was often a victim of preconceived notions. His heavy neck chains, his necklaces, bracelets and rings often conveyed the impression of a man more in love with his jewellery than his music. Some 30 years ago, a film glossy called him “Bollywood’s chalta-phirta jewellery shop”. The comment was made half in jest, half in disgust. Despite all this, the fact remains that Bappi Lahiri was a real jewel. If he did not get his due, it was largely because many judged him by his looks, and many others pigeonholed him into the disco king image.

Yes, he gave us Disco Dancer, and he gave Mithun Chakraborty a new image. But there was more, much more to Bappi Lahiri than the world cared to discover. He gave us that haunting background score for Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara, but cinegoers were happy to recall only “I Am a Disco Dancer” sung with verve by Vijay Benedict; “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja”, Parvati Khan’s rare successful foray into Hindi film playback; or “Ramba ho ho, Samba ho ho”, Usha Uthup’s abiding acquaintance call with Hindi cinema. Foot-tapping chartbusters as these numbers were, they essentially reduced Bappi Lahiri to a man whose talents were meant for the dance floor. More is the pity, for his music was meant for all times, good times, sad times, romantic moments as well as those of adolescence pranks.

Many credit him with giving Mithun Chakraborty his super dancer image. Of course, without Disco Dancer, Dance Dance and Kasam Paida Karnewale Ki, Mithun would have remained trapped in the Mrigayaa image. But few give him his due for Sridevi’s thunderous comeback in Hindi cinema riding on “Naino Mein Sapna, Sapna Mein Sajna” in Himmatwala, a few years after the damp squib called Solva Sawan. Likewise, Jeetendra, who was all but consigned to the dustbin of history by the early 1980s was given a new lease of life, courtesy Bappi Lahiri’s sometimes foot-tapping, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic songs in films like Justice Chowdhury, Himmatwala, Maqsad, Mawaali, Tohfa and Majaal.

Also read: Lingering melody

Bappi Lahiri and Jeetendra combined to give Hindi cinema 12 silver jubilee hits between 1983 and 1985. The two made quite a team. Back then, most Hindi blockbusters were financed by the likes of Suresh Productions, D. Rama Naidu and Padmalaya Studios. Keeping Jeetendra and Bappi Lahiri company in credits were the lyricist Indeevar, the comic villains Shakti Kapoor, Kader Khan and Asrani, and leading ladies Sridevi and Jayaprada, occasionally joined by Meenakshi Seshadiri and Padmini Kolkapure. It was a potboiler recall of the 1950s vintage camps, like those of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy. Bappi Lahiri did not mind it a wee bit, happy as he was to record songs which would be happily sung by the masses, those vast multitudes looking for escapist fare without extra moral baggage.

Much of Amitabh Bachchan’s intoxicating success in the early 1980s can be attributed to Bappi Lahiri’s music. Not many would have forgotten “Pag ghungroo bandhe Meera nachi thhi”, “Aaj rapat jaayen” and “Jawaani jaaneman” from Namak Halal or “De de pyar de” and “Mujhe naulakha manga de re” from Sharaabi . When the film released, the masses queued up to watch Bachchan whip up his magic on the big screen. Outside, they listened to Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle’s rendition in rapt attention. Hardly anybody bothered to find out the man behind the pulsating tunes.

Talking of Sharaabi , it gave Jayaprada a shot at the pinnacle of Hindi cinema; the mould of a coy, domesticated young woman, however, was broken not by Prakash Mehra’s blockbuster but by Mawaali , where Jayaprada’s gyrations to “Ooi Amma Ooi Amma” went against her image and got the frontbenchers to whistle all the way. The song was lifted many years later for Vidya Balan’s “Oo lala lala to hai meri fantasy” in Dirty Picture .

Behind all these stories of heady success was one man—Bappi Lahiri, who gave some of the best songs yet in many ways remained unsung. Incidentally, when Dirty Picture hit pay dirt, many viewers accused Bappi Lahiri of lifting the popular tune from Mawaali . Most remembered the original tune, few recalled that both songs were composed by the same man.

Also read: Pursuit of perfection

Hailed as a disco king, deservedly trashed for trash like “Devi, o baby, tu banja meri biwi” and “Ek ankh marun toh”, Bappi Lahiri was not taken at his real worth. After all, how many men would have modulated their basic instinct for popular music to come up with a gem of a score for Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara? So far removed was it from Bappi Lahiri’s perceived core competence that many had to double-check to find out if it was indeed Bappi Lahiri who gave the music for the film, arguably the best film of Anupam Kher’s career after Saransh.

On the same lines, one has to consider the soft-as-velvet ghazals of Aitbaar in the mid 1980s. The Suresh Oberoi-Dimple Kapadia-starrer had two gems, “Kisi nazar ko tera intezaar aaj bhi hai” and “Awaaz di hai aaj ek nazar ne” by Asha Bhosle and Bhupendra. That the ghazals were composed by Bappi Lahiri around the time he gave us the frontbenchers’ delight “Ankhon toh kholo swami” (once again sung by the inimitable Asha Bhosle) in Rajesh Khanna’s Masterji and “Dhoop mein nikla na karo roop ki rani” in Amitabh Bachchan-Madhavi’s Geraftar makes the effort even more laudable. Such a range, such verve, and such patience to live with the pigeonhole chosen for him by the media and a large section of dream merchants! Never once did he lose his cool, nor ever complain about being limited to a certain kind of cinema. He was happy to do the films he got and went on to do a good job of even bad offerings.

Aitbaar , Masterji and Geraftar , released in 1985, each had a different sensibility. Another film to grace the silver screen around that time was Saaheb , where Bappi Lahiri was back to his musician-for-dancefloor image with “Pyar bina chain kahan re”, where he pitched his vocal cords with S. Janaki. The film failed at the box office; but the song proved better than the film. Much like some other gems that Bappi Lahiri composed in his career. For instance, the popular director Manmohan Desai’s ambitious Ganga Jumna Saraswati failed to reap the reward for a multi-star cast and all the ingredients of a masala flick. Yet Bappi Lahiri covered himself with grace in “Sajan Mera Us Paar Hai”; the song became a must entry for North Indian marriage videos in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Incidentally, Desai was a rare film director who got Bappi Lahiri to compose a bhajan—“Pati Parmeshwar ke siva mujhko na parmeshwar chahiye”. Sung by Lata Mangeshkar, it remains popular on the occasion of Karva Chauth across North India.

Maker of many fortunes

Incidentally, back in the 1980s when Bappi Lahiri was at his peak, his music scores revived not only the careers of ace film stars but also the sagging fortunes of film banners and gave many south Indian film directors centre stage in Hindi cinema. It was Bappi Lahiri’s music that contributed in no insignificant manner to the box office success of Padmalaya’s Pataal Bhairavi. The film attracted houseful shows in initial weeks, only thanks to his hit songs like “Mehman nazar ki banja”. Later, something similar was attempted by Padmalaya in Singhasan . On the same lines, K. Bapaiah, K. Raghavendra Rao, K. Bhagyaraj and Dasari Narayan Rao owed a measure of their success in Hindi cinema to Bappi Lahiri’s ability to whip up chartbusters on demand.

In 1986, he entered The Guinness Book of Records (Now just Guinness World Records ) for recording 80 songs in 33 films in a single year! Films like Tohfa , Maqsad , Masterji , Aaj ka MLA Ram Avtar owe much of their recall value to his music. Back then, not once but twice he fulfilled the wishes of the fans of Sridevi and Jayaprada, then vying for the top slot. For Maqsad , he came up with “Nagaraj tum aa jao”, where the leading ladies gave a breathless dance performance, reducing the heroes Rajesh Khanna and Jeetendra to mere props; for Majaal a little later, he composed “Itni kisiki majaal kahan”, where again the two heroines matched their dancing skills to tunes which demanded stamina and innovation. Yet again, the heroines walked away with hosannas, while Bappi Lahiri’s genius remained under appreciated.

Also read: Musical mind of Banaras

Though hugely popular as a music director, Bappi Lahiri was also an enthusiastic singer who chose his songs with care. In fact, the songs he rendered chose him. For instance, back in 1977, he sang “Bambai se aaya mera dost” in Aap ki Khatir . One cannot imagine anybody else doing the song with such zest and energy, almost drawing the listeners in. Much like “Pyara ek bangla ho, bangle mein gadi ho” in the same film where Lata Mangeshkar let herself go with abandon even as Bappi Lahiri briefly sang, supplementing her, well, like Bappi Lahiri.

He had earlier proved his worth both as a director and singer in Chalte Chalte where Kishore Kumar sang one of his best songs, “Kabhi alvida na kehna”. The film came with some of the best songs of Shailendra. He gift-wrapped chutzpah for his fans with “Pyar mein kabhi kabhi aesa ho jata hai”. Bappi Lahiri himself sang “Bahar hi bahar hai” and “Jana kahan hai” with Sulakshana Pandit. The songs were hits, and Bappi Lahiri had every reason to believe he had arrived. Except that he had to wait a bit longer, for Armaan and Disco Dancer , to find favour with listeners to be certain of his niche.

This ability to hold his own as a singer in front of the best was due to the early grooming under his artist parents, Aparesh and Bansuri Lahiri, both Bengali singers and noted musicians. He was merely three when he started playing the tabla. Unlike his parents, he left Bengal and came to Bombay (Mumbai) to try his luck in cinema when he was 19. Within no time, he was composing music for and soon came up with , for which Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar sang together though only Kumar’s “Jalta hai jiya bheegi bheegi raaton mein” hit the bull’s eye at the box office. The film though is remembered for Lata’s “Aao tumhe chand pe le jayen”. There was something inscrutably beautiful about the song. Much like Bappi Lahiri’s music, which was meant for the skies, the stars and the moon, for the deities and the devotees, for discotheques and for expressing the angst of the companion left behind.

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