If Mithun Chakraborty was the star of the 1980s, then singer and composer Bappi Lahiri was the voice that made him shine. The ‘Disco King’ of India, Bappi Da, as Lahiri was fondly called, popularised synthesised disco music with superhits such as Jimmy-Jimmy, I Am a Disco Dancer, and Raat Baaqi Baat Baaqi, among others.
For all his flamboyance, he was a workaholic and composed more than 5,000 songs in over 500 films in his nearly 50-year-long career. He even made it to the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records for recording more than 180 songs in a year. “I think he was composing tunes till the day God called him,” said singer Aditya Narayan in an interview with Rediff.
The last track he sang before his death on 15 February 2022 was Bhankas for Tiger Shroff’s Baaghi 3 (2020). He was 69 years old.
Transcending the boundaries of time
From Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur:1 (2012), Arey Pyaar Kar Le in Ayushmann Khurrana’s Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) to Tamma-Tamma Again in Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt’s Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017)—Lahiri’s lively and high-octane music stood the test of time, evolving into some of Bollywood’s most upbeat and well-received remixes.
“Kids, even in 2019, dance to the songs of 1976, whereas it is believed that they don’t like old songs, and my 25 to 30-year-old songs are remixed even today,” Lahiri said in a 2019 interview with Film Companion’s Anupama Chopra.
Bappi Da worked with stalwarts such as Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman in the 1970s and 1980s and matched up to contemporary musicians such as Arijit Singh and Yo Yo Honey Singh in the 2010s and beyond, popularising his unique style in each era. “People make rap these days…I started this trend in 1987 with Jahan Chaar Yaar Mil Jaye,” he told Chopra.
His song Jimmy-Jimmy, which he composed for Disco Dancer in 1982, was dubbed into more than 45 foreign languages. More recently, in 2022, it became a protest anthem in China, against the country’s strict Covid-19 protocols and repeated lockdowns. Jimmy-Jimmy became ‘jie mi, jie mi’ or ‘give me rice, give me rice’ in Mandarin, prompting angry residents to sing the tune with empty vessels in hand. These containers represented the scarcity of essential items in China, and the videos cropped up increasingly on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
Bappi Da may have popularised disco, but he was not chained to it. He was also known for his classical compositions and ghazals.
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Jack of all trades
Alokesh Aparesh Lahiri was born on 27 November 1952 to Calcutta-based musicians Aparresh and Bansuri Lahiri. Under their tutelage, he started playing the tabla when aged just three. Interestingly, Lahiri went on to study under tabla master Samta Prasad, reportedly at the suggestion of legendary musician Lata Mangeshkar who was known to the family. Later, he picked up the guitar and saxophone.
As a child, he was influenced by singer Elvis Presley’s flamboyant style, which reflected in his own sartorial choices as an adult. Gold chains and flashy clothes were as much a part of Lahiri’s personality as his compositions and songs.
“I was a huge follower of Presley. I used to think if I become successful someday, then I will build a different image of myself. By the grace of God, I could do it with gold. Earlier people used to think it is just a way to show off. But it is not so. Gold is lucky for me,” Lahiri told ANI.
Jai Narayan Prasad, a retired journalist who wrote for the Kolkata edition of Jansatta newspaper and interviewed the singer-composer four times, remembers his fondness for jewellery.
“Bappi Lahiri always wore jewellery made of 754 grams of gold—bracelets, rings, and pendants were prominent,” he told ThePrint.
Such was his gold’s aura that even pop icon Michael Jackson couldn’t escape it. While meeting Lahiri in Mumbai in 1996, Jackson was particularly taken by the singer’s gilded Ganesh pendant. But as much as Lahiri loved him, he couldn’t offer it as a gift. “He has everything; I have only this gold that is lucky for me,” he told The Indian Express.
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His first composition was for the Bengali film Daadu (1972) and was sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Subsequently, his music entered Bollywood with the 1973 film Nanha Shikari.
But it was Tahir Hussain’s Zakhmee (1975), starring Sunil Dutt, Asha Parekh, Reena Roy, and Rakesh Roshan, that made Bappi Da a household name. From Usha Uthup to Asha Bhosle and Mohammed Rafi, Lahiri worked with the who’s who of Bollywood’s musical fraternity, composing hits for big-budget films such as Amitabh Bachchan’s Namak Halaal (1982).
Lahiri’s musical prowess slowly travelled to Hollywood. He composed and sang the Hindi version of Shiny (called Shona), a song from the animated Disney fantasy film Moana (2016). He even lent his voice to Tamatoa (a character in Moana) in the Hindi version of the film. Jhoom Jhoom-Jhoom Baba, a song he composed for Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki in 1984, was featured in the Hindi promotional clip of Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy in 2017.
The master of tunes also tried his luck in politics but did not get much fame. He joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in January 2014 and contested the Lok Sabha election from Maharashtra’s Shrirampur constituency that year. However, he lost the seat to Kalyan Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
His album, World Peace, Love & Harmony, was considered for a Grammy award in 2012 but got lost in the sea of other nominations. However, he added another feather to his cap by becoming the first Indian composer to join the Grammy jury that year. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 63rd Filmfare Awards in 2018.
After a narrow escape from Covid in 2021, Lahiri died of obstructive sleep apnea in 2022, just days after India lost Lata Mangeshkar.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)