At the height of his fame in the 1980s, “the disco king of Bollywood”, Bappi Lahiri, who died this week, was composing nearly 15 soundtracks a year.
Born in Kolkata in 1952 to a musical family (his parents were classically trained musicians and the playback singer Kishore Kumar was his uncle), Lahiri’s first soundtrack was for a 1973 movie called Nanha Shikari.
But Lahiri, also lovingly called Bappi “Da” (Bengali for brother), is best known for his songwriting on the film Disco Dancer (1982). The movie broke all records and led to an unprecedented boom in disco music in India and disco-themed Bollywood movies. His soundtrack helped the film become a worldwide success and to this day it remains the highest-grossing foreign movie in the Soviet Union.
The score focused heavily on synthesizers, drum machines, string stabs and playful, sexy vocals. The film’s most famous song, Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja – featuring the little known Indo-Trinidadian singer Parvati Khan – can still be heard on radio and adverts and was sampled by the British-Sri Lankan rapper MIA on her 2007 album, Kala.
Elsewhere on Disco Dancer, Nandu Bhende, vocalist of the underground psychedelic rock band Atomic Forest and Velvette Fogg, sang his first Bollywood number, Krishna Dharti Pe Aaja Too. The renowned singer Usha Uthup guested on Auva Auva Koi Yahan Nache, a Hindi remake of Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, while Bappi himself produced and sang Yaad Aa Raha Hai.
On the Namak Halaal (1982) soundtrack, Lahiri continued his electronic and funk adventures. Its breakout track, the Donna Summer-esque Jawani Jan-E-Man, which featured the actor Parveen Babi dancing and crooning to the voice of Asha Bhosle, became another seminal Bollywood anthem.
That same year, Lahiri also helped Runa Laila, a young Bangladeshi singer who was known mostly as a ghazal and movie playback singer, create a new pop avatar as Superuna. The groundbreaking album fusing disco, reggae, funk and Hindi vocals was a commercial and artistic success.
Lahiri’s output was prolific and in 1986 he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for recording more than 180 songs for 33 films. It’s no surprise that, as the man whose soundtracks gave Indian cinema a youthful injection throughout the 80s and 90s, Lahiri had a sense of style as loud as his music: black shades, gold chains, gold rings, ornate jackets and jumpsuits.
With the rise of hip-hop and break-dance culture in the latter half of the 80s, Lahiri took up the challenge and experimented with electro sounds on I Am a Break Dancer (Pyaar Karke Dekho), Break Dance (Kahan Hai Kanoon) and I Am a Street Dancer (Ilzaam), among others. Mithun Chakraborty and Govinda, two mega-stars in Bollywood known for their dance moves, became synonymous with Bappi’s compositions and vice versa. Govinda wrote on Instagram after Lahiri’s death that he would not have become a star without his music.
A favorite of the cult horror and gore directors the Ramsay brothers, Bappi wrote scores for many of their shoestring budget horror movies including Guest House, Dahshat, Maut Ka Saya, Dak Bangla and Saboot. Meri Jaan and He Met Me in the Guest House are prime examples of him acing the horror aspect with the help of eerie Moog sounds and echo effects.
Although Lahiri is known for his disco stylings, his repertoire and portfolio is not limited to it. He was lauded for his ghazal, classical and folk compositions as well. For 1984’s Kamla, a movie based on the theme of human trafficking and slavery, Bappi delivered delicate ambient compositions based mostly on Indian classical instruments.
Bappi’s career was not restricted to scoring Bollywood soundtracks. He also wrote music for many Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati and Bengali movies. He stayed true to his Bengali roots and would regularly release Bangla albums that would break the barriers of the genre by fusing folk and funk. He launched his very young daughter Rema Lahiri in 1987 with the album Dance Songs For Children, which featured nursery rhymes with a synth-pop flavor. The father-daughter duo launched another album, Dance Party (1990), with a similar theme. In 1988, Lahiri also found time to release an Indian-flavored house track called Habiba.
His work as a mainstream composer fizzled out in the early 2000s but he continued to be relevant in Indian popular culture owing to his appearance as a panelist on TV talent shows, among other guest slots.
His death comes as the Indian film industry faces the passing this month of the legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar, “the nightingale of Bollywood”. Lahiri had been close to Lata since his childhood and they worked on numerous projects together. He described her as “not just an icon, but a pillar of the Bollywood industry”.
One of their collaborations, Thoda Resham Lagta Hai from the Jyoti soundtrack, was illegally sampled by Dr Dre on Addictive by the US R&B singer Truth Hurts. Lahiri was eventually listed on the song’s credits after his record company sued Universal Music Group for more than $500m.
Bappi Da passed away on 15 February 2022 in Mumbai due to a lung infection caused by obstructive sleep apnea and is survived by his wife, two children and grandchildren.
Nishant Mittal is a music collector who can be found @digginginindia, where he celebrates Indian music’s weird and wonderful archives