In Disco Dancer, a 1982 film written by Rahi Masoom Reza, the protagonist Anil (Mithun Chakraborty) – a wedding and street singer from the slums of Mumbai (then Bombay) – is transformed into Jimmy, the disco dancer, after being spotted by a talent manager. On stage, he plays the guitar and sings “Zindagi mera gaana, main isi ka deewana… I am a disco dancer”, dressed in a sparkling jumpsuit. The crowd goes wild, swirling with the heavy synth melody as Jimmy is rocketed to stardom. The country was still in the era of the “angry young man”. But Jimmy approached the system with something different: his song and dance, especially disco, a genre that was about to find its feet in India. Bappi Lahiri, who died on Wednesday, gave music to Jimmy’s song.
With Disco Dancer, Lahiri was attempting to redefine Hindi film music after beginning his career with melodic pieces in Zakhmee, Chalte Chalte and Aap ki Khatir. The songs in the film captured the imagination of people in the Soviet Union and China, countries that would not allow anything Western and American within their borders, and made Mithun Chakraborty a familiar name there. Even today, Russians sing Disco Dancer songs. Lahiri followed with songs like “Jawani jaan-e-man”, “Raat baaki” (Namak Halaal), “Zoobi zoobi” (Dance Dance), “Yaar bina chain” (Saaheb), Sharaabi songs among others. There was also an attempt to compose ghazals with “Kisi nazar ko” (Aitbaar). He has worked extensively with Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, his maternal uncle Kishore Kumar, Usha Uthup and Alisha Chinai.
A lover of fish curry and gold chains, Lahiri never paid much attention to accusations of plagiarism and reveled in the glory that his career and the love of the masses brought him. He served on the jury for the Grammys in 2012 – the first Indian musician to do so. The king of disco will be remembered.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition of February 17, 2022 under the title “King of Disco”.