The king of Bling
He started writing music at 11, holds the record for most songs composed in a year and has worked with Bollywood legends and global music stars, but Bappi Lahiri still isn’t satisfied, he tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
Bappi Lahiri can still stop traffic even at the age of 62. On a weekday morning, posing for Friday’s exclusive photo shoot outside at Dubai’s Business Bay, scores of people gravitate towards him like iron filings to a magnet.
It wasn’t just because of his shiny purple jacket, huge gold-rimmed sunglasses, his long shaggy hair and the amount of bling he wears – five heavy gold chains with huge pendants, rings on almost all his fingers, a clutch of bracelets and a chunky watch. “Isn’t he that famous singer?” a 20-something onlooker asks, desperately trying to name him.
He was obviously too young to have been exposed to the disco fever Bappi spread across the Bollywood music scene with songs such as Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja Aaja, Yaad Aa Raha Hai and Chalte Chalte many decades ago. When I give him Bappi’s identity, he’s thrilled. “If my hands weren’t dirty, I’d go and shake his hand,” he grins.
A staid-looking middle-aged office worker who’s on his way to the car park pauses, does a double take and runs back to greet Bappi. “It’s a great pleasure to have met you!” he smiles. Bappi takes it all in his stride, of course. “Well I am the legendary disco king of Bollywood,” he laughs. That’s how he describes himself on a brochure he gives me as we sit down to chat. Underneath are the words ‘The original bling king!’
Bappi, who is in Dubai on holiday, has worked as a composer and singer in the Bollywood industry, as well as several regional films, since 1973 when he composed music for the Hindi film Nanha Shikari when he was only 21. In fact, he started playing the tabla (a percussion instrument), very early and began writing music at 11.
“I don’t remember when exactly I started playing,” he says. “My parents told me that it was at three, and I performed on stage the next year. I was billed as Master Bappi, and was popular in Kolkata, my hometown in the eastern Indian state ofWest Bengal. I received my first award for playing the tabla on stage at the age of four.’’
He’s gone on to receive 300 awards to date and was featured in the Limca Book of Records – the Indian version of GuinnessWorld Records – for scoring music for 180 songs in 35 films in a single year – 1986.
Bappi comes from a musical family – his father, Aparesh Lahiri, was a popular Bengali singer in the 50s and 60s and friends with legendary playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. “I remember my dad showing pictures of me, as a toddler, sitting on her lap,’’ says Bappi. Years later, Bappi would compose songs for Lata.
“She heard me playing the tabla at a concert at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, and was so taken in that she told her mentor Shantaprasadji from Benaras to come to my concert,” says Bappi.
“Later I also learnt to play the piano. When I was 17 I composed
music for a Bengali film, Dadoo Dadoo (Grandfather). Even then I had a burning desire to make it in Bollywood, so as soon as I finished school at 18 I took off for Mumbai.”
After Nanha Shikari came a period of struggle for Bappi until he hit it big with Tahir Hussain’s (Bollywood super star Aamir Khan’s father’s) film, Zakhmee in 1975. In only his second film, the top four singers in Bollywood at that time – Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar – sang for him. He even ended up singing a song with Rafi and Kishore. “Jalta hai jiya
mera bheegi bheegi raaton mein…” (My heart is smouldering in this rainy night) he bursts out, singing one of the hits from the film. “After that I had two super hits,
Bambai Se AayaMera Dost [My friend has come from Bombay] from the filmAap Ki Khatir [Just for you] and the title track from the film Chalte Chalte [on the move].” The two songs are still popular decades later.
But his real claim to fame is ushering in disco in India in the early 80s. “I started the disco craze,” he beams. “Today, despite all the other kinds of songs I’ve done, I’m known all over the world as the disco king – Bling bling Bappi Lahiri!
“When Michael Jackson came to Mumbai for a show in the 90s, he met me. He said he loved my chain.” He holds up one of his thick gold chains.
“He was really kind. He said he loved my composition Jimmy Jimmy
Aaja Aaja from the film Disco Dancer. That was the only Hindi song he knew,” he says.
Since then, Bappi’s lost count of the number of silver jubilees (as super hits are known in Bollywood) he’s scored. “Namak halal [loyal], Sharaabi [alcoholic]…” he reels off a string of titles that helped him become the highest-earning composer of the 80s according to trade newspaper, Screen.
He says he’s scored music for more than 500 films, in four languages, but is not interested in pitching for a GuinnessWorld Record. “I have proof of up to 400 films,” he smiles. “The rest someone else will have to [find].”
What he’s especially proud of is having sung for five sets of father-son leading actors in Bollywood. “I am the only singer-composer who’s sung for Amitabh Bachchan and his son Abhishek Bachchan; Sunil Dutt and his son Sunjay; Dev Anand and his son Suneil; Dharmendra and his son Sunny; and Jeetendra and his son, Tushaar Kapoor!”
While murmurs of plagiarism have dogged Bappi throughout his career, he shrugs them off. “Those accusations are nothing new,’’ he says. “But do you know that I filed a case in the US against a singer?”
In 2003, Bappi filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles court accusing Dr Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, of ‘borrowing heavily’ from his song, Thoda Resham Lagta Hai sung by Lata Mangeshkar, for the hip-hop hit Addictive from the album Truthfully
Speaking by Truth Hurts, without credit or royalties. “In the end I got credited for my work on the track by Dr Dre’s Aftermath Records label,” he says.
Over the past few years Bappi’s songs have gained popularity in North America and Europe. Hip-hop producers are now doing versions of his hits. For instance, British recording artist M.I.A. parlayed his
Jimmy Jimmy into the track Jimmy in the 2007 album Kala. He’s also cut albums with MC Hammer, Snoop Dogg, Boy George and Apache Indian.
“I am just back from New York mixing a song called Rupaiya with Snoop Dogg, and it should be out this year,” he says.
So has he slowed down since then? “I can never slow down, never stop composing,” he says, singing a popular line from his song Disco Dancer: “Zindagi mera gaana, main isika deewana [My life is my song, I am crazy about life].”
But you get the impression that Bappi’s stepped back from composing to leave the field open to his son, Bappa Lahiri, who had been helping his father for a few years until he struck out on his own in 2008. “Bappa has scored many super hits on his own and doesn’t need my help,” Bappi smiles.
His daughter Rema, 36, is also a singer. Her hits include Chandamama
Bole and Little Star Namaskar. Children and the future are on Bappi’s mind, and to that end he has made a documentary World Peace, Love
and Harmony, which he hopes will win a National Award.
“Actor Kabir Bedi has narrated the movie and it’s about the importance of peace in the world,” he says. He’s already won a National award for best film in 1997 with Bengali feature film, Lal Darja (the red door).
Although he’s set tunes for hundreds of Bollywood songs, Bappi is now aiming for a Grammy nomination for an album of his own.
“I’m a member of the jury for the Grammy awards,” he says. “I have submitted four albums so far, the latest being Global Legends, about Mahatma Gandhi, Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. Last year I did a jazz album, Walking on the Love Street. But so far, I’ve not won a nomination yet. That is my dream now. I’ll be very happy if my album is nominated.”
So, what’s the secret of his success? “I can tell you in one sentence: My songs never get old,” he says. “You go to any disco and you’ll find all my old hits still being played. I guess I am young at heart!”
‘I’m known all over the world as the disco king – Bling bling Bappi Lahiri!’
He’s known as ‘Bling bling Bappi Lahiri’ for a reason
After his astounding success, Bappi isn’t short of confidence