Obituary | How Bappi Lahiri struck an impeccable balance of mood and melody


For anyone who grew up in India in the 1980s, the name ‘Bappi Lahiri’ meant many things. Born Alokesh Lahiri on 27 November 1952, Bappi da was synonymous with the funk-pop-disco sound that swept Indian cinema in the 1980s. At the same time, he could effortlessly stir poignant emotions with lilting melodies that remain popular to date.

On the one hand, Lahiri appeared to have not only captured the zeitgeist, on the other hand, he ushered in a new phase that made double-entendre songs the mainstay of popular Hindi film music. Although Lahiri’s output had significantly decreased in the last two decades, he remained a cultural icon thanks to his appearances on talent shows and playback singing. What separated Bappi da from most popular and successful music composers before him or his contemporaries is that he didn't have mere hits or a signature sound that defined him; he defined the era. Lahiri's death at 69 marks the end of a prolific career and an artist who had it all.

When it comes to Hindi film music, global trends rarely impact. Until the early 1960s, Western influences were limited to a tune or two being rehashed in parts or entirely. The narrative of popular cinema rarely allowed enmeshing external factors such as the 1960s’ counterculture. Even in the early 1970s, when Indian society witnessed a socio-political churn that made unemployment and price rise common points of discussion, film music rarely ventured beyond the superficial. The early part of the decade saw funk start to influence the music of RD Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji, especially the background score in films like Johnny Mera NaamBanarasi Babu.

Lahiri attained popularity with the success of Zakhmee and cemented his reputation with the runaway popularity of the title track of Chalte Chalte. The song was penned by Amit Khanna and rendered by the legendary Kishore Kumar, who also happened to be the composer's maternal uncle. Legend has it that Kumar told Lahiri that people would recall “Chalte chalte mere yeh geet yaad rakhna” long after he was gone.


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Lahiri’s penchant for delivering crowd-pleasers was not limited to a particular genre or associated with any specific singer. In Aap Ki Khattir, Lahiri sang the fun-filled “Bambai se aaya mera dost”, in Toote Khilone he got Yesudas to sing the mellifluous “Maana ho tum behad haseen”, and Kishore Kumar's “Pyar manga hai tumhi se” stood out in the otherwise forgettable College Girl. All three continue to remain perineal radio favourites even after four decades.

By the end of the 1970s, Lahiri found the sweet spot as far as his legacy would be concerned. The disco fever was at its height in the West. In the East, Lahiri introduced a new desi disco soundscape for the Hindi film hero with Surakksha that also launched the career of Mithun Chakraborty. Both Chakraborty and Lahiri were anomalies to the norm and unsurprisingly found great resistance from the trade in their initial years. It was great timing, and in each other, they found kindred spirits that provided the ideal platform for the other to showcase their talent. Hearing Surakksha’s “Mausum hai gaane ke” you get to see how Lahiri's music, and his voice, announced to the world that Chakraborty, and by extension, he, did not need any help. Over the next few years, a significant portion of Lahiri’s most famous work would feature Chakraborty, including WardatDisco DancerKasam Paida Karne Waale KiDance DanceMuddat, and Guru.

The 1980s has often been derided as the worst decade for Hindi films. The reasons to believe that notwithstanding, this was also a phase that witnessed some of the best works of music composers ranging from RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and Bappi Lahiri. Although Burman's best work featured in the 1970s, this decade saw him deliver some of his iconic scores in films such as BetaabMasoom, Saagar and Ijjazat. LP, too, ruled the charts with Karz, Ek Duje Ke Liye, Prem Rog, Hero, Naam, Mr India, Tezaab, Chaalbaaz and Ram Lakhan. Lahiri, on the face of it, might seem to be nestled in-between, but look closer, and you'd see how it was he who set the standard for the 1980s with his sheer range.

Bappi Lahiri stuck gold with Disco Dancer, Jyoti ('Thoda resham lagta hai'), Haathkadi ('Disco station'), Namak Halaal and Sharaabi. With Himmatwaala, he began his association with Jeetendra-Sridevi-Jaya Prada south remake assembly line that saw him deliver 12 box office hits that included Justice Chaudhury, Maawali, Tofha, and Jaani Dost. Despite a body of work that included a soulful “Kya khabar, kya pata” from Saheb or a classic ghazal such as Aitbaar's “Kisi nazar ko aaj bhi tera intezaar”, Lahiri came to be recognised with Himmatwala-Maawali-Tofha genre that often featured double entendre lyrics.

Usually, the acceptability of a music composer depended on the film's success as the trade labelled many unlucky even if the music became popular. Moreover, if the composer managed to strike the right chord with a leading man, it became easier to get work. In this aspect, Lahiri was a throwback to the tradition of Shankar-Jaikishen-Shammi Kapoor and RD Burman-Rajesh Khanna and gave nearly all leading men and women some of their most memorable songs. Beginning with Mithun Chakraborty, Lahiri delivered hits for Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rajesh Khanna, Sridevi, Kamal Haasan, Jaya Prada, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Chunky Pandey, Madhuri Dixit, and Govinda. Like most composers of the period, Lahiri often found 'inspiration' in already existing songs and was accused of plagiarism. He made global headlines when American artist Rakim sampled his song 'Thoda resham lagta hai' from the film Jyoti. The record label Saregama sued Dr Dre's Interscope Records for $500 million. Lahiri went on to win the suit, and the credits later featured his name.

Hindi film music transformed with the success of Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya and the arrival of younger composers (Anand-Milind, Jatin-Lalit, Nikhil-Vinay) made Lahiri jostle for space. In the 1990s, Lahiri continued to deliver the works: ‘Tamma Tamma’ (Thanedaar), Sochna kya (Ghayal) and Gori hai kalaiyan (Aaj Ka Arjun), but it was not the same. The advent of Nadeem-Shravan and AR Rahman and Annu Malik's resurgence changed the dynamics, and while Lahiri continued to work at the same pace, his time as a composer was over.

Bappi Lahiri was a craze in the 80s

It’s interesting to note how the song that established Nadeem-Shravan, Aashiqui’s “Jaane jigar jaaneman” sounded eerily similar to Lahiri's “Duniya mere tere siva” from Aandhiyaan, which was Bengali superstar Prosenjit's Hindi debut and released a few weeks before Aashiqui. Lahiri continued to be in the news thanks to his unique vocals that made him a go-to singer for songs that needed some panache. His songs such as “Bombai nagariya” from Taxi No 9211 and “Oh la la tu hai meri fantasy” from The Dirty Picture won him new fans.

Bappi Lahiri's filmography extended beyond Hindi cinema and included blockbusters in Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Gujarati. It was not just Bappi da's music that made millions love him. He was adored for much more, and besides his music, his sartorial choices, his jokes and his warmth endeared him to millions. An icon and a legend, Bappi da struck an impeccable balance of mood and melody, and he shall forever remain a conscious part of our film viewing memory.

The author is a noted film historian and author. Views expressed are personal.

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Obituary | How Bappi Lahiri struck an impeccable balance of mood and melody
Obituary | How Bappi Lahiri struck an impeccable balance of mood and melody
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