From I Am a Disco Dancer (Disco Dancer) to Oo La La (Dirty Picture), for the last 41 years Bappi Lahiri has been creating foot-tapping music in India.
“I’ve made music with Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammad Rafi and Manna Dey to this generation,” said the music composer, who’s one of the only people to have had such a long run in the Indian film industry. “I have done 33 films in one year, for which I hold a Guinness Book World record. Plus I’ve done songs for all languages from Hindi to Malayalam, Punjabi to Telugu, and Kannada to Oriya. If you come to my house in Kolkata, it is full of gold and platinum discs”.
Lahiri, who is known as Bappi Da by colleagues and fans, was in his “favourite city” Dubai late last month for a short break en route to New York for a show. Dressed casually but with his trademark gold chains, the musician met for an informal chat in Downtown Dubai.
He was merely 19 when he arrived in Mumbai in 1973, but Lahiri has not ceased to surprise with almost every number he composed since 1974 release Zakhmee’s Aao Tumhe Chaand Pe Le Jayein. From the romantic Pyar Maanga Hai Tumhi Se (College Girl) and Dil Mein Ho Tum Aankhon Mein Tum (Satyamev Jayate) to Awaaz Di Hai (Aitbaar) and Manzilein (Sharaabi) to Pag Ghungroo Baandh Meera Nachi Thi (Namak Halal) to Tune Maari Entry (Gunday), he’s often been accused of being “inspired” by international music, the best known being Tamma Tamma from Thanedaar starring Sanjay Dutt. Yet, he’s credited for ushering in a new era in Indian film music with disco, and is still known as the Disco King.
“I was the first Indian music composer to win the China Gold Award for Jimmy Jimmy from Disco Dancer. Adam Sandler repeated the song in his film Zohan. Disco Dancer is historical, as are Sharaabi and Namak Halal. In the 1980s I started disco with Mithun Chakraborty’s film Suraksha where he danced like John Travolta. I’ve also worked with Apache Indian and Boy George. I gave Samantha Fox her Bollywood break opposite Govinda”.
Ah yes, it’s tough to forget the trashy You Are My Chicken Fry from Rock Dancer with a busty Fox in a red sari.
Even though he continues to be part of the Indian music scene today, singing and composing for films such as Anurag Kashyap’s Tamanchay and Mumbai Can Dance Saala, Lahiri feels the “golden era” of the Indian film music has ended.
“I do appreciate the new generation — I have 10 films out this year as a singer and composer. I’m the only composer working for the last 41 years who’s used a live orchestra of 100 and much before A.R. Rahman — who is a brilliant musician — I was the first to record a programming song — Tamma Tamma. It’s now easier to work as you can copy and paste and modulate voice. But imagine that time when Lata and Kishore are singing together and a note goes wrong. We had to sing the whole song again. We’ve worked in very tough recording conditions with such big artists such as Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Manna Dey, Asha Bhosle and they all worked just as hard.
“Now, singing and recording is very easy. Rahman is a fantastic composer but even he cannot know that era. I’ve moved with the times. I’ve been ahead of the time at all times. Even if it is easier now [to compose music and sing songs], I’m still enjoying myself. I still have a strong voice. Listen to Oo La La. If you have the ability you can work at anytime. I don’t think so hard now that the golden era has ended I can’t work anymore. If I’m still stuck in that era I will not be able to progress”.
A football fan who supported Argentina in the Fifa World Cup final last week, Lahiri not only composed a song for the tournament, but set four of former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poems to tune, which he says is not just his tribute to the veteran politician-poet but to the Bharatiya Janta Party, on whose ticket he stood for election earlier this year. He may have lost that election by 50,000 votes, but Lahiri’s political career soon begins with a seat in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament.
“I composed Football Fever five years ago and Life of Football this year. I dedicated the song to all participating countries [in the Fifa World Cup]. I was supporting Argentina. Now, I’m composing Vajpayeeji’s Vishwa Shanti Ke Hum Sadhak Hai, Bharat Zameen Ka Tukda Nahin, Jeeta Jagta Rashtriye and one more poem for an album. I’ve also created a song on mother, which I’ve dedicated to Prime Minister [Narendra] Modiji’s mother”.
Lahiri may combine his passion for music and politics but, he says, politics was always an avenue he had considered.
“I’m 60. I feel I need to do something for the country. I’m Indian and proudly so. I travel all over the world. Four of my songs have been nominated in the top 50 [of the Grammys]. I’m now working on a fantastic album with kids from the slums, called Slum Stars. I picked these extremely talented children to sing with me in a studio. I’m doing something fresh. I want to do something for old technicians, for these kids, for my country. So I joined politics.
“The political situation in India is changing. It’s just a month since the new government took over. You can’t change everything overnight, can you? Modiji is working but you can’t hold him responsible for everything. It’s not raining, and they sarcastically comment ‘modiji aa gaye, ache din aa gaye’ [Modi is here, good days are coming]. There’s a war in Iraq, so there’s an oil crisis. In one month you can’t go ‘India is wowww’. Give the government six months and the change will happen,” said Lahiri passionately about his leader.
Singing with Kishore Kumar
My favourite memories are with Kishore Kumar, who was also my mama (maternal uncle). One thing I cannot forget is that the last song before his death he sang with me. He recorded the song and next day he’d passed away.
After his death I thought I will not make music anymore. He’d sung some great songs with me, Pag Ghungroo Baandh Mira Nachi, Chalte Chalte, Manzilen Apni Jagah Hai… So after his death I thought who will I get such quality work from? But even though I miss him every minute, till now, life doesn’t stop and work must go on.
“Lataji is like Saraswati [Indian deity of knowledge]. She has blessed me. If you go to my website you’ll find a picture of me as a child in her lap”.