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Bappi Lahiri (1952–2022): The Disco King steps off the stage

The composer-singer-actor, who died in Mumbai after a long illness, will be remembered as a larger-than-life figure who enjoyed life, bling, music and the limelight.

Shriram Iyengar

Bappi Lahiri is no more. The composer-singer died last night in Mumbai at the tender age of 69. But Lahiri’s showmanship, musical flair and personality leave a mark on Hindi film music and Indian cinema that is likely to endure for a long time.

For the Twitter generation, the composer had become a meme. A man who made bling his thing, long before rappers imitated the style, Lahiri’s image often preceded his talent. Having idolized Elvis Presley, the composer lived his life like a performance. For the Hindi version of Disney’s Moana (2016), he voiced a crab, Tamatoa, who hoards shiny things. Unabashed, unapologetic, and with tongue firmly in cheek, Bappi-da could laugh at the world and at himself with ease.

A legacy can sometimes be foretold. Born in a family steeped in music, Alokesh Lahiri was meant to be a composer. He was born to singer parents Aparesh and Bansuri Lahiri in Jalpaiguri on 27 November 1952. The legendary Kishore Kumar was his maternal uncle. The child's talent was apparent by the time he was three years old. It was a certain Lata Mangeshkar who spotted the potential and suggested he be enrolled for tabla classes. By the age of 4, he had held his first solo tabla concert.

In an interview with the Indian Express newspaper in 2018, the composer revealed, “She [Mangeshkar] 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 is my life, my religion, it means the world to me].”

His first break as a composer came with Daadu (1969, Bengali). It was a runaway success, but Bengali cinema was not the teenager's aim. His first break in Hindi arrived a few years later with Shomu Mukherjee’s Nannha Shikari (1973).

He was just 20, but the album was a clear sign of the prodigious talent that was beginning to show. Producer-filmmaker Tahir Husain noted it and offered the young composer a chance to compose the background score for Madhosh (1974). The film’s musical score was composed by RD Burman, a Husain regular. But the young composer impressed the filmmaker so much with his background score that he was offered Zakhmee (1975). Lahiri stepped into Burman’s shoes with elan.

The hits kept coming. Chalte Chalte (1976), Aap Ki Khatir (1977), Toote Khilone (1978) were embellished with compositions that rule the airwaves to date. In the era of RD Burman, people often forget the freshness and magic that Bappi Lahiri brought. He was not all disco, and not always. 

The breakthrough arrived, in Lahiri’s own words, with the blockbuster Hollywood dance drama Saturday Night Fever (1977). It was during a tour of the US that the composer discovered disco. In the newspaper interview mentioned earlier, he recalled, “I was on a US tour with Kishore-mama. The disc jockey at the club said he would 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.”

His first collaboration with a young actor named Mithun Chakraborty was for the cult favourite Surakksha aka Gunmaster G9 (1979). Directed by Raveekant Nagaich, the film’s background score is a thrilling ride of disco and synth beats which were pathbreaking for Hindi cinema.

It was the first collaboration between Lahiri and Chakraborty. The duo was to go on to create one of Indian cinema’s prime pop-culture moments of the 1980s with B Subhash's Disco Dancer (1982). The film was everything one expects of Bappi Lahiri. Zingy, colourful and absolutely rocking, the soundtrack remains one of his best works, if not the best. Lahiri even composed the music for the film's Tamil remake Paadum Vanampadi (1985), but the film could not recreate the magic of the Hindi version.

For a while, though, Lahiri was unstoppable. Compositions for Namak Halaal (1982), Himmatwala (1983), Sharaabi (1984), Kasam Paida Karne Waale Ki (1984), Aitbaar (1985), Saaheb (1985), Geraftaar (1985) roll off the list with rapidity. And to think that this was still an era when RD Burman ruled the roost boggles the mind.

Not all of these music albums were disco. ‘Pag Ghungroo Baandh’ for Namak Halal is a wondrous composition that flows from one genre to another with seamless ease. A qawwali, raga-based composition and disco beats are synchronized to create a kaleidoscopic mix that defines Bappi Lahiri’s ability. The long composition also had the indefatigable Kishore Kumar at his best.

For a composer who worked in four major film industries — Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu — it is a sad record that the only Filmfare award Bappi Lahiri won was for Sharaabi. Despite his many iconic compositions, it was the eclectic mix of Kishore Kumar at his finest with Bappi Lahiri's innovative style that won him the black lady.

It was not just his compositions that underlined his playfulness. The composer had a taste for the limelight as well, which came across with his short acting performances. It started with the comical appearance in Badhti Ka Naam Daadhi (1974) and continued till his last screen appearance in Bombay Girls (2018).

Like RD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan and a few others before and after his heyday, Lahiri was also accused of lifting musical scores from composers and groups around the world. In those pre-liberalization days of a socialist economy, the latest music, like many other latest products and ideas, was not always easily accessible to the ordinary listener in India and composers sometimes used that to their advantage; at other times there was genuine cross-pollination of ideas. Yet, the innovator that Bappi-da was, he never stopped testing and experimenting with Western ideas in the Indian film medium.

In turn, his music came to be sampled by artistes like Dr Dre, Masta Ace and Prodigy. He even won a lawsuit against Dr Dre for sampling his song ‘Thoda Resham Lagta Hai’ without permission in the 2003 album, Addictive.

But it is a mark of a great artiste. Whether it is ‘Tamma Tamma Loge’ from Thanedaar (1991) or ‘I Am A Disco Dancer’, Lahiri's compositions have in turn inspired and influenced a new generation which seeks to live out the nostalgia.

While there is a tendency to capture Lahiri's personality into the definition of ‘Disco King’, something even the headline of this obituary does, that does not quite reveal the full scope of his talent or his output. One simply has to sample the fantastic ‘Kisi Nazar Ko Tera’ from Aitbaar (1985), or the Koli music-inspired ‘Bambai Se Aaya Mera Dost’ from Aap Ki Khatir (1975), to know that disco was but a part of Bappi-da's ouevre.

For an Instagram Reels generation that seeks to shorten everything, Bappi Lahiri will be remembered as a larger-than-life figure, covered in gold, almost a caricature of himself. It is an incomplete picture, and yet, the performer in him would enjoy that. He likened himself to Elvis and Sir Elton John. In his compositions, he was not too far away. Despite its performative nature, Indian film music has lacked a personality that loved the limelight as much as Bappi Lahiri did. The composers who followed have been sedate, packaged, and designed to suit audience tastes. A Bappi Lahiri cannot be manufactured.