Bappi Lahiri, an Indian film composer who combined the melodrama of Bollywood film plots with the exuberance of the electronic orchestral sound of disco, sparked a pop craze in India that earned him the nickname ‘Disco King’, died on February 15 in Mumbai. He was 69.
The cause was obstructive sleep apnea, said his son, Bappa, who was his arranger, manager and band member.
Mr. Lahiri was an emerging pop musician in 1979 when he traveled to the United States to perform a series of performances for an Indian-American audience. While there, he toured nightclubs in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, catching the final months of America’s disco fever. In New York, he bought a Moog synthesizer, several drum machines, and so much other musical equipment that it filled two cabs.
Upon returning home, his experiments with those instruments culminated with a career-making soundtrack for a hit movie, “Disco Dancer” (1982). It was a disco-style musical – penetrating basslines under soaring horns and strings – and a declaration of love for the genre. In one scene, a frenzied crowd and the main character, a superstar disco musician, spell the word “disco” and sing it.
“Disco Dancer”, which chronicles the rise of a young street kid named Jimmy and his battles with a family of villainous plutocrats, became the first Indian film to earn 1 billion rupees (about $230 million in current dollars), and its soundtrack helped fuel the disco mania in India.
It also boosted the career of its sad bouffant-wearing star, Mithun Chakraborty, producing two of the most catchy dance tunes in Indian pop history, each sung by Mr. Chakraborty on screen: “I Am a Disco Dancer” and “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja.”
Long after the movie was shown in theaters, those songs endure all over India. Weddings are known to inspire everyone from elderly aunts to friends of the groom to dance on the dance floor.
Mr. Lahiri would back many of his disco songs with a recognizable Indian melody, and he soon realized he had found a winning formula, leading to 80s hits like “I Am a Street Dancer”, “Super Dancer” and “Disco Station”. Disco.” He earned a place in the Limca Book of Records, recording the soundtracks of 37 films in 1987 alone, citing the worldwide achievements of Indians.
He also developed a mega-celebrity’s fashion sense, inspired by his childhood respect for Elvis. The look included tinted sunglasses worn indoors and out, velvet tracksuits and shiny jackets wrapping his pillow-like body, and a mountain of gold jewelry hanging around his neck.
“I remember a man once refused to accept that I am Bappi Lahiri,” he once told The Times of India, “because I was wearing a coat to protect myself from the cold and he couldn’t see my gold chain.”
Bappi Lahiri was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on November 27, 1952. His parents, Aparash Lahiri and Bansur (Chakravarty) Lahiri, were singers who met while performing for the public broadcaster All India Radio. As a child, Bappi showed talent for playing the tabla, a traditional Indian drum, and on the advice of the popular singer Lata Mangeshkar, he studied with tabla master Samta Prasad.
His family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) when he was a teenager to further Bappi’s career. There he found a powerful ally in the family’s spiritual guru, Amiya Roy Chowdhury, who gave him a letter of introduction to Bollywood star Dev Anand.
Lahiri’s decades-long career as a composer has extended beyond disco to include Indian classical forms such as ghazal. In total, he is believed to have composed about 9,000 songs that have appeared in about 600 films. In his most prolific periods, he booked four studios in one day and used as many as 100 musicians for one song.
In addition to his son, Mr. Lahiri leaves behind his wife, Chitrani (Mukherjee) Lahiri, whom he married in 1977; his mother; a daughter, Rema Bansal; and two grandsons.
Although interest in disco had faded in the United States by the time Mr. Lahiri gained fame, he became a central part of the disco phenomenon elsewhere, especially in the Soviet Union. “Disco Dancer” was one of the most popular movies in the USSR, and the songs of Mr. Lahiri still serve as the standard in music shows on Russian television.
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, a journalist from the Indian Express News Service discovered that the country was full of “Jimmy” fans.
“Everyone knows him where I’m from,” said a local fan, identified only as Yuri, as he reached for his phone. “Let me show you which of his songs is my favorite.”