Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russia of the 80s was crazy about Bappi Lahiri’s ‘Jimmy Jimmy, aaja aaja‘, a popular disco pop from Mithun Chakravarty’s Disco Dancer. The largest country in the world, starved of any ‘western’ popular culture, heard and grooved to Lahiri’s version of the disco, which came with glittery bell bottoms, hundreds of twinkling light bulbs, pelvic moves accompanied by synths, horns, rhythm guitars and syncopated basslines.
Lahiri, 69, who heralded disco pop and ruled the 70s and 80s with a string of chart-topping songs in India, passed away in Mumbai on Tuesday of obstructive sleep apnea. The singer had been in the hospital for almost a month and had returned home on Monday. He is survived by son Bappa Lahiri and daughter Rema Lahiri.
Lahiri’s music came from his parents who he grew up listening to – Bengali singers Aparesh Lahiri and Bansuri Lahiri – in Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, and his maternal uncle, actor and playback singer Kishore Kumar. After learning the basics of classical music from his parents, including some training in tabla, Lahiri moved to Mumbai when he was 19 and began creating music in an industry, which at the time was under the influence of the melodies from RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Kalyanji-Anandji. among others.
He may have begun his career with compositions for Bengali film Daadu, but his Bollywood debut came two years after he set foot in Mumbai with Nanha Shikari (1973) starring actors Deb Mukhrjee and Tanuja. Directed by Tanuja’s husband Shomu Mukherjee, the film didn’t do too well on the musical charts. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Lahiri finally hit it out of the park with three films in three years – Zakhmee (1975), Chalte Chalte (1976) and Aapki Khatir (1977).
While ‘Aao tumhe chand pe le jaayen‘ (Zakhmee) sung by Lata Mangeshkar was noticed, it was Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar’s ‘Jalta hai jiya mera‘ that had the nation swinging to it. Then came ‘Kabhi alvida na kehna‘, the title song for Chalte Chalte that was to become the farewell song for years to come followed by the fun ‘Bambai se aaya mera dost’.
But Lahiri was yet to hit his commercial peak. That came in the 80s. Besides the chartbusting hits of Disco Dancer (1982), there was Namak Halal (1982), Himmatwala (1983) and Sharaabi (1983). Much of Amitabh Bachchan’s film success in the 80s can also be credited to Lahiri and his unique songs such as ‘De de pyaar de’ and ‘Ke pag ghunghroo baandh’. These songs had unique personalities and extended themselves to the actors that portrayed them. Then there was ‘Kaliyon ka chaman’ (Jyoti, 1981), the Lata Mangeshkar song which became more famous as a remix in the 2000s. Lahiri’s range also extended to ghazals, a genre that rose to popularity in the 80s in India. His composition ‘Kisi nazar ko’ (Aitbaar, 1985) is still celebrated for being one of the finest film ghazals. Lahiri also enjoyed singing and sang often for himself as well as other composers. ‘Yaar bina chain’ (Saaheb), remains one of his most popular ones, apart from ‘Ooh la la’ (The Dirty Picture) and ‘Bambai nagariya’ (Taxi no 9211) both of whom were composed by composer duo Vishal-Shekhar.
While the 80s aren’t considered the finest years in terms of Hindi cinema music, Lahiri’s melodies were incalculably influential, turning him into a pioneer of disco in India. He was the first Indian composer to make it to the Grammy Jury in 2012 and had a brief stint with politics. He joined the BJP in 2014 and fought the Lok Sabha election but lost. But Lahiri will forever be known as the musician who brought disco to the mainstream and catapulted the rise of it.
If one were still to visit Russia and sing ‘Jimmy jimmy’, the Russians are likely to reply with ‘Aaja aaja’. And that’s the impact Lahiri leaves us behind with.