Bappi Lahiri: The Man, the Legend

Composer, singer and much more—Bappi Lahiri was relevant to the end. Photo: Publicity Photo

He was a fighter—always. And he was infinitely much more than the “disco” sensation that ironically became his prime branding. Bappi Lahiri died on February 15 at just 69, a man who sparkled even more than the jewelry he wore. Ironically, Bappi’s last release, Pyaar Mein Thoda Twist, hit the screen on February 18!

Born Alokesh Bappi on November 27, 1952 in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, to classical musicians Aparesh and Bansari Lahiri, his chromosomes showed up early when as a three year-old moppet, he took to playing the tabla as if to the manor born. With this began Bappi’s musical journey. Contrary to what his image might lead to assume, his training was completely in Indian classical music, though his open mind and predilection for rhythm took him big-time into all forms of contemporary Western music.

Bappi got a break when he had just crossed 15, with the Bengali, Daadu (1969) as one of its four composers. His career-first song was recorded by Lata Mangeshkar, who was close to his father—she had blessed him, he said, when he was just 4 years old and had sat on her lap when she had visited the Bappi home. Manna Dey also sang for the film.

He also did the Bengali film Janatar Adalat, in 1972 as one of two composers, and the ambitious lad decided to move to Mumbai to make a mark in Hindi films. Little did he know than that 22 years later, he was to score music for a film called Janta Ki Adalat, which meant the same as the title of his second film!

Bappi recalled, “My Hindi innings was to begin with a film called Hari Hari Chhaya, for which I had recorded a beautiful song by Mohammed Rafi-saab.”

After the film was stalled, he signed Nanha Shikari, produced by his relative S. Mukerji’s son Shomu Mukerji (Kajol’s late father). Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle were among the singers. In 1973, he did one more film, Charitra, which launched Parveen Babi. It had no songs. Then came two small films—Bazar Band Karo and Ek Ladki Badnaam Si—in 1974.

His breakthrough came in 1975 with his first hit, Zakhmee, produced by Tahir Husain, Aamir Khan’s father. It also marked his debut as a singer in the song Nothing is impossible.

In the same year, came the album release of Chalte Chalte (1976) produced by Dev Anand’s actor-nephew Vishal Anand, and the title-song became a rage. With the hit music of these two films—including Jalta hai jiya mera from the former and Jaana kahaan hai from the latter, Bappi became a known entity in Hindi cinema.

Through the rest of the 1970s, albeit mostly in small films, the composer showed two aspects of his talent that were to be the bulwark of his sustained innings: a solid grip on melody and his versatility. Lata’s Shama jale ya na jale (Paapi) and Tum saamne baithe raho (Ikraar), Rafi’s Saathi re gham nahin karna from the latter film, Bappi’s own Bambai se aaya mera dost (Aap Ki Khatir) which he was to re-create in Chandni Chowk To China (2009), Yesudas’ Maana ho tum (Toote Khilone), Kishore’s Nanha sa panchhi re tu from the same film, Lata’s swinging Rootho na (Ahsaas) were among the prime highlights.

A cavalcade of other big and small films until the turn of the decade saw Bappi spin hits galore—Sangram, Paapi, Phir Janam Lenge Hum (the Hindi-Gujarati bilingual was his Gujarati debut), College Girl, Aangan Ki Kali and Lahu Ke Do Rang among them.

And in-between came his career-defining film: “I was composing melodies rooted in folk and classical, but when my experiment in Suraksha (1978), Mausam hai gaane ka, worked, I thought of making a mark with this new form of music,” he said.


The 1980s began with melodious scores like Apne Paraye (Halke halke aayi chhalke and Gaao mere man). But again, it was Hari Om Hari, whose mukhda (main line) was inspired by the Western hit One way ticket, that made a huge impact from his film Pyaara Dushman. Disco suddenly became big with all his contemporaries and seniors following suit in the same year.

In 1981, Bappi’s Rambha ho and Mere jaisi haseena (from Armaan) again overshadowed the same film’s exemplary melodies Saare zamane ki amanat hai yeh and Zindagi ke raste mein. 1982 was his true turnaround year with the biggie Namak Halaal (with Prakash Mehra directing Amitabh Bachchan) and its super-hit songs, Pal ghunghroo, Raat baaqi, Aaj rapat jaaye and Jawani jaaneman marking Bappi’s final consolidation in the A-bracket.

It was supplemented by Haathkadi’s Disco station and the entire score of Disco Dancer, which won Bappi the China Gold award in that neighboring nation! It was in this year that Bappi came up with the super-selling debut non-film album, Superuna, with Bangladesh sensation Runa Laila as well—and Bappi’s roots were in East Bengal, as Bangladesh was known before Partition.

And then came 1983 when the composer became a conveyor-belt music spinner with his Padmalaya (the South production banner that spawned a parade of similar movies featuring Jeetendra) “brand” of music. Himmatwala and Mawaali led this hit parade.

The 1980s was Bappi’s most fruitful phase in terms of success. As Jeetendra put it, “The South producers made movies very fast, and the enthusiastic Bappi would come down with his harmonium and compose songs!” The disco fever co-existed with movies like Dance Dance and Kasam Paida Karnewale Ki, but amidst them, he came up with the Filmfare award-winning score of Sharabi as well as Aitbaar (Kisi nazar ko tera intezaar and Awaaz di hai aaj ek nazar ne), Mohabbat and the acclaimed but not-popular Salma, a Muslim social, and Sheeshay Ka Ghar.

Tohfa, Ilzaam, Hatya, Paap Ki Duniya and more—the hits continued to come. And in 1985, he did 32 films, as songs and background score composer, and entered the Guinness Book Of World Records! In 1988 Bappi’s break-dance single, Habiba, made him the first Asian to feature on Billboard charts.

This decade also marked the entry of Bappi into Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films.


The 1990s began very well for Bappi—Aaj Ka Arjun’s Gori hai kalaiyan was his first song to top the Binaca Geet Mala, and the songs of Ghayal (Sochna kya), Sailaab (Koi aaye leke pyar) and Thanedaar (Tama tama loge) were super-hits. These were followed by scores as accomplished as Zindagi Ek Juaa, Dalaal (Gutar gutam heading the list) and Aankhen.

But the winds of change had begun to blow furiously. Music companies were now run by individuals rather than as corporate entities, and they were encouraging newcomers at the expense of seniors by offering producers tempting sums as music rights. Bappi’s peak phase was being curtailed despite the occasional great songs, as his creativity began to be affected.

2000 onwards

As mentioned, the composer was a fighter. The man who had destabilized competition like R.D. Burman, Kalyanji-Anandji and Rajesh Roshan after he hit big-time (“My only competition was with Laxmikant-Pyarelal,” he has said in different interviews) refused to go down with the advent of Anand-Milind, Nadeem-Shravan, Anu Malik, Jatin-Lalit and A.R. Rahman.

Bappi recognized that times were changing—that music barons were mentoring new composers and playing dirty with him and other seniors, and a sea-change was coming into music, including greater Western influences. He thought ahead and decided to do international collaborations. When the ‘90s ended, he seemed to be on a decline, despite some pioneering steps.

He thus turned film producer (Rock Dancer, Love Story 98, which released only in 2000!) and got Samantha Fox to act in the former and Boy George and half-Indian Apache Indian to sing in the latter.

And the fighter decided to fight!

Bappi Lahiri with son Bappa Lahiri. Photo: Bappi Lahiri

Winds of change—How Bappi Lahiri reinvented in the millennium

In the millennium, therefore, it was time for complete reinvention. Early in 2002, he got a lucky boost. Singer Truth Hurts from USA, in his single Addictive, reproduced his hitherto-unsung Lata song from the 1981 Jyoti, Kaliyon ka chaman lock, stock and barrel. The composer and music label Saregama (earlier HMV) filed against him, American producer Dr. Dre and the American label—and won. Bappi was happy with his credit line that was deemed compulsorily on further editions of the song.

I had then asked him: Was it not ironical that the composer, who had plagiarized so many songs, went that way? He had replied, “See, dada, I know I have taken songs in part, but what you have finally heard, including in Sochna kya based on Lambada in Ghayal—which at its roots is incidentally a centuries-old tune!—is worked upon so that the song you finally hear sounds like me! I do not lift a song in toto.”

Soon, many other of Bappi’s songs won international acclaim—his Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki songs were used in Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 (Jhoom jhoom jhoom baba) and Lion (Come closer); Bappi composed the original song Shona for the animation film Moana, and his Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy from Disco Dancer was sung by M.I.A. in 2008 in Don’t Mess With Zohan, even before she recorded for Rahman in Slumdog Millionaire.

In 2009, when his T-Series album My Love had released, he had crowed, “Dada, it’s my 50th album and my 25th as a singer! American black Rap singer Jida has featured in the lead track, which is a first because it’s also the first R&B Indian album. I had recorded film songs in 1981 in Los Angeles for Jagmohan Mundhra’s Suraag. And the first-ever digitally-recorded song for Hindi films was my hit Tama tama loge in Thanedaar, which I recorded in 1989!”

In 2011, Bappi also composed the soundtrack of Will To Live, with M.C. Hammer, Asha Bhosle and Sunidhi Chauhan among the singers. A couple of remix albums of his own hits, like Asli Baap Mix, also became hits. Bappi also worked with Snoop Dogg, in a track that also involved Yoga exponent Bikram Chaudhary.

Simultaneously, while scoring for small films back home, he started composing background scores for films with songs done by others (Love At Times Square, Jung, Teree Sang and the song-less Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara) and when Vishal-Shekhar got him to sing Boombai in Taxi No. 9-2-1-1 (2006), entered a new field in his career—of playback singing for other composers!

Ooh la la (The Dirty Picture), the chartbuster re-creation of his Mawaali hit, Ooee amma, also for the duo, was yet another chartbuster. Bappi also sang for A.R. Rahman (Guru), Sohail Sen (Gunday), Krsna (Jolly LLB), Sajid-Wajid (Main Aur Mrs, Khanna), Sachin-Jigar (Shuddh Desi Romance), his son Bappa Lahiri (C Kkompany) and others.

Bappa Lahiri, now going along the lines of his father, also became arranger and programmer, and his indulgent father built the B9 Digital Studios within their home premises.

What’s more, Bappi, who had also acted in Kishore Kumar’s Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi in 1974 and Om Shanti Om, “could not refuse Salman Khan” when he approached him to play a character in Main Aur Mrs Khanna, and later acted in It’s Rocking: Dard-E-Disco as well.

In 2016, the composer voiced the character of Tamatoa in the dubbed version of the 3D computer-animated fantasy Moana and composed and sang Shona, the Hindi version of Shiny in it.

2017, he had told me then, was special. “My songs in Badrinath Ki Dulhania, Ittefaq and Naam Shabana were re-created and all became hits, and now I have sung playback for everyone from Dev Anand to Varun Dhawan (Tama Tama) and Ranveer Singh (Toone maari entriyaan in Gunday)!”  This was also the year his last Bengali film, Loafer, released.

On re-creations, he had added, “Today’s lyrics and music has little attraction. They lack melody as the base and good lyrics that are clearly heard and not drowned by the orchestration! So while our timeless songs are being reworked and become huge hits, today’s original songs can never be mixed in the future! On the other hand, I am proud that even kids of today dance to and sing my originals, like Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy.”

He had also preened that he had worked with five sets of two generations: Dev and son Suneil Anand, Dharmendra and Sunny Deol, Sunil and Sanjay Dutt, Jeetendra and Tusshar and Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan. And speaking of top stars, on the request of Shah Rukh Khan, Bappi also provided the musical score for the Kolkata Knight Riders team in the Indian Premier League 2008.

In 2018, he had received three Lifetime awards, from Filmfare, Radio Mirchi and Star TV’s Star Parivaar.

The composer, who owed his fetish for loads of jewelry on his person to his childhood idol Elvis Presley as also his religious inclinations, remained relevant to the end.

As they say, legends do go down—but only in History.





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