FACE-to-FACE In Bappi Lahiri's words, the stories behind the jewellery, the recent World Cup tie, and Chennai's place in the annals of disco.
Bappi Lahiri is seated in front of me, outsized sunglasses framing an outsized head on an outsized neck, hinting at either a baby-faced chainsaw-murderer in a Coen Brothers' movie or a benign Buddha, smiling and waving away the world's worries. But to hear the singer-musician speak, he'd rather be thought of as Paul the Octopus, whose predictions during the FIFA World Cup were awaited with as much breathlessness as the royal announcement about when Kate and William would finally get hitched.
Lahiri is certain that India will win the ICC World Cup, and his confidence springs from his exhortatory album ‘Come On India', in which he belts out the sentiment, “Aankhon mein hai bas ek sapna, haathon mein hoga World Cup apna.” He has a dream, a singular dream, that we will win the trophy shaped like a golden globe held up by three silver columns. It makes sense that Bappi Lahiri has his eye on that trophy. There is, after all, all that glittering metal.
And then, he moves on to music, which allows him to drop into the conversation the entirely unexpected phrase “Jimmy Jimmy country.” Like “Sholay”, he says, “Disco Dancer” is a milestone in Indian cinema. “When I landed in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, all the taxi drivers would ask me: Are you from ‘Jimmy Jimmy' country?” The reference, of course, is to the chartbuster from “Disco Dancer”. “That, to me, is bigger than Oscar and Grammy.”
The call of the Grammy
And now, Grammy has come calling, appointing him a judge for the World Music section for the 2012 awards. He talks of composing for 12 silver jubilees in a single year. He speaks of having spent 40 years in cinema, with 461 films bearing his imprint as music director. These facts come tumbling out from the corner of the armchair where he is perched, leaning slightly forward, as if rattling off his own records is his idea of edge-of-the-seat entertainment.
This is a man easy to mock, with his blue sports jacket and its halfway-down zipper revealing a smooth chest dappled with gold, and with the black scarf he wears like a garland, as if worshipping his own awesomeness — deity and devotee in one portly package. But there is something disarming about his energetic pronouncements about his accomplishments and the childlike pleasure he takes in them. It is very likely that a great many would-be mockers have walked away charmed.
Every piece of jewellery on his person carries a bit of history, and like a war veteran giving a sense of his traumas through his wounds, Lahiri gives a guided tour of his career through the chains around his neck. The “Hare Krishna Hare Ram” medallion, for instance, is a gift from his mother, after his first superhit song, ‘Jalta Hai Jiya' from “Zakhmee”, climbed to No. 1 on the Binaca charts. “I am bling-bling Bappi-da,” he crows. “Gold is lucky for me.”
Long before he was crowned disco king, he was a meticulous melodist, and the mention of two irreproachable Yesudas numbers — ‘Zid Na Karo' (“Lahu Ke Do Rang”) and ‘Maana Ho Tum' (“Toote Khilone”) — dredges up another memory, of listening to a Malayalam song and insisting that he wanted this voice, “this deep male voice.” But, that Bappi Lahiri lies forgotten. He's known today as the man who brought disco to Bollywood, and his narration of how that came to be is easily the evening's highlight.
When Ravikant Nagaich, with “Suraksha”, set out to distil the essence of James Bond into ‘Gunmaster G-9', he told Lahiri that he was making a different kind of film with a different kind of hero and that he wanted a different kind of music. That music reached Lahiri's ears in a nightclub in Chicago, during his first world tour. “I heard ‘Saturday Night Fever' and felt it was something new.” Lahiri was inspired by the beat — “not the song” — and he composed ‘Mausam Hai Gaane Ka' in a room at the Chola Sheraton in Chennai. In other words, the disco wave that swept the country was birthed in our own backyard.
“Bengal is my janmabhoomi, Mumbai is my karmabhoomi, but Chennai is my lucky charm.”
“I am a superstitious man. Even my e-mail ID ends with 009 because 9 is my lucky number. My date of birth is 27.
“In the early days, disco music was played live. There were no samples.”
“I play a fictitious character in the TV show ‘Ishaan'. I am a golden man in a golden palace.”
“Of course, I take my chains off when I go to sleep.”