Excerpt: When Ardh Satya Met Himmatwala by Avijit Ghosh
This edited extract from a new book on 1980s Bombay cinema looks at the Disco phenomenon in Hindi films of the era
Disco struck Bombay cinema like a viral fever in the early 1980s. Swinging strobe lights, loose-limbed dancers, shimmery outfits, and hysterical synth-driven rhythms — the disco song was obligatory in the mainstream movie. Even a vegan family romance like Saajan Mere Main Saajan Ki (1980) found a way to incorporate a disco number. Ashok Kumar, then approaching 60, and Shashikala, touching 50, jived and crooned “Hi honey” at a night club. The song was peddled as the film’s special attraction. Horror films (Hotel) and murder mysteries (Sannata) couldn’t do without them either. It was almost as if a film wouldn’t get censor clearance without a couple of shake-and-rattle tracks.
Disco came out of the West in the 1970s. The online Merriam Webster dictionary describes it as a “style of dance music… characterised by hypnotic rhythm, repetitive lyrics, and electronically produced sounds”. John Travolta bopped his way to millions of hearts and dollars in Saturday Night Fever (1977). The growth of disco coincided with the birth of MTV in 1981, which fundamentally changed the way the global young consumed popular music.
Till now, music was primarily about listening. Now songs also became about watching. Music videos rose to prominence in due course. The beat became as important, if not more crucial than the melody. Words were often drowned by the electronic beat. Looking back, The Economist wrote in December 2020 how the Yamaha DX7 synthesiser single-handedly influenced the world of electro-pop in the 1980s.
In Bombay cinema, the first disco track to make a mass impact was Aap jaisa koi from Feroz Khan’s Qurbani (1980). Khan got London-based composer Biddu to record a song for him. The composer was unknown to most Indians but had carved out a name for himself with floorscorchers like Kung fu fighting (Carl Douglas, 1974) and Dance little lady dance (Tina Charles, 1976).
In his autobiography, Made in India, Biddu said that he knew little Hindi, having forgotten most of what he had learnt at Bishop Cotton School, Bangalore. But language was no barrier in this case. He wrote, “I had a catchy introductory riff played on the sitar; I used syn drums, which had never been used in a song before. The syn drum made a sound not unlike my name. It went “bidoo” every time you hit it and I double-tracked Nazia’s [Hassan] voice to give it some oomph. Once again, I used a rhythm box with a Latin beat to give it a hip-swaying groove. ‘Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye,’ she sang, her voice sounding young and sexy as the song came alive.”
Aap jaisa koi, lensed on Zeenat Aman, sounded novel and proved contagious. The song bossed the airwaves, bellowed out of loudspeakers at street corners and was endlessly swayed to. Even bandmasters found a way to play it in wedding processions. It finished fourth in the wildly popular radio countdown show, Binaca Geetmala’s (BGM) annual charts in 1980. Nazia even got the Filmfare’s best female singer award! And the syn drum was employed a hundred times over.
The hot-selling Qurbani track ushered in the disco age in Bombay cinema. Another chart climber, Hari Om Hari (Pyaara Dushman, 1980) also joined the party. The song was a xeroxed version of One way ticket by British band, Eruption (1978).
Of course, the disco sound was not completely alien to Bombay cinema before the Eighties. Several “inspired” tracks in Nasir Hussain’s box-office smash hit, Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977), especially those used in the song-and-dance competition scene, could be categorised as disco numbers.
...But it needs a blockbuster to start a trend. That’s what Aap jaisa koi did. It kick-started Hindi cinema’s disco song industry. A series of non-film disco albums were released around the same time. Cashing in on composer Biddu’s insta-popularity, HMV brought out Disco Deewane (1981) with songs crooned by the teenage sister-brother sensation, Nazia and Zoheb Hassan. The album went gold in 24 hours and platinum in three weeks. As per HMV ads of the time, platinum disc meant that 2,00,000 LPs and cassettes had been sold. Gold translated to 1,00,000 LPs and cassettes being snapped up.
Soon non-film disco became the musical snack of the season. Runa Laila and Bappi Lahiri’s Superuna; Sharon Prabhakar’s Chal Disco Chal; Mahendra Kapoor, Canadian singer Musarrat and Boney M’s M3, Babla’s Disco Dandiya and Preeti Sagar’s Heartbeat were some other disco-centred albums of this period. The Agha sisters — Salma and Sabina — brought out a Hindi version of ABBA hits.
In Bombay, directors, dance directors, lyricists and composers were forced to introduce something novel in the disco track in what soon became an overused genre of music. A railway station set was constructed for Disco Station (Haathkadi, 1982). The song was integral to the film’s climax. Composer Rajesh Roshan gave a sitar twist to Khud-Daar’sDisco 82. In Saaheb’s (1985) Yaar bina chain kahan re, the night streets became a “disco” setting.
Disco gave rise to a bunch of female singers with muscle in their voices. Usha Iyer nee Uthup’s sensual huskiness, which first came into chart-busting prominence in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), sprouted new shoots in the 1980s: Sharon Prabhakar, Alisha Chinoy and Anette Pinto. These voices, brimming with vitality and power, were the forerunners of the more sinewy voices that emerged in the 1990s and the new millennium: Jaspinder Narula, Sunidhi Chauhan and many more. In those conservative times, however, their voices were mostly filmed on dancers, and seldom on major heroines.
Born in Bombay and settled in Calcutta, Usha voiced the smash hit Rambha ho ho (film: Armaan, 1981), which ranked third in Binaca Geetmala’s annual hit parade. Her verve also found suitable outlets in Aowwa aowwa (Disco Dancer, 1982), Pyaar mein jeena, pyaar mein marna, pyaar se lena hai uska nam, Radhey Shyam (Do Ustad, 1984), Aaa main gulbadan, main hoon chaman, beautiful, sundaram (Locket, 1984), and many more.
She, however, made bigger news for an unmusical courtroom drama in 1983; Jatin Chakraborty, the PWD minister in Jyoti Basu’s Left Front government in West Bengal, being on the other side. Chakraborty described her performances as, “apasanskriti” (anti-culture), which was destroying the youth of Bengal. She was stopped from performing at government-run venues. The minister’s young supporters even tried to disrupt one of her concerts.
Uthup filed a defamation suit. Underlining everyone’s right to song and dance, the Calcutta High Court ruled in her favour. The judgment even made news abroad. In its 4 September 1983 issue, the New York Times headlined an article, “Marxist leader fails to silence Indian singer.”
Sharon Prabhakar’s Haan meri jaisi haseena ka dil yahan jise mil jaaye (Armaan, 1981), inspired by Dr Hook’sWhen you’re in love, became a runaway success. Her urbane intonation created the perfect stew of melody and desire in Pyar chalke halke halke (Sumbandh, 1982). She also acted and sang in MS Sathyu’s Kahan Kahan Se Guzar Gaya.
Ahmedabad-born Alisha Chinoy’s sumptuous voice found a suitable platform in Tarzan My Tarzan (Tarzan, 1985). The footstomper rose to BGM’s song No 2 the following year. Zoo zoo zoobie zoobie (Dance Dance, 1987) has a combined seventy million YouTube hits now.
Kalpana Iyer was the dancing queen of the era. If you close your eyes and think of a disco song, she is the first face that flashes before your eyes. Some of the best selling tracks of the era — Hari Om Hari (Pyaara Dushman), Tu mujhe jaan se bhi pyaara hai (Wardat), Haan meri jaisi haseena (Armaan), Aowwa aowwa (Disco Dancer) — were filmed on her. The foot-thumping Rambha ho ho (Armaan, with Prema Narayan in company) had a disco-friendly beat but was filmed outdoors in a carnival. Even today her dances feel trendy. Later, Iyer worked as a hospitality hostess in Dubai.
Among the male singers, Vijay Benedict, and to a lesser extent Nandu Bhende, became a disco specialist in Mithun movies. Allahabad-bred Benedict burst into limelight with the title song of B Subhash’s Disco Dancer (1982). His energetic rendition of I am a Disco Dancer matched the song’s rhythm and aura. Over the next few years, Benedict continued to deliver hot-sellers especially in B Subhash movies such as Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984) and Dance Dance (1987). He became a gospel singer later.
Disco Dancer’s music magnified the appeal of the genre, bringing it to the forefront in Hindi films. What was just an item song until then had become the subject of a movie. Disco Dancer has become iconic like Raj Kapoor’s Awara, especially in Russia and China, where people continue to sing and jive to its songs in music talent contests. At least 10 separate Russian dance videos of Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy aaja aaja aaja (singer: Parvati Khan) are available on YouTube. So are videos made in Georgia (over 7.3 million views), Belarus, Mongolia and other countries. The song, has also become a part of the original score in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. By the way, Jimmy Jimmy’s original tune can be traced to T’es OK, T’es Bath (1980) of French pop duo Ottawan. Krishna dharti pe aaja tu (singer: Nandu Bhende), an unabashed lift from Tielman Brothers’ Jesus, won’t you come back to earth, was another winner...
Disco Dancing with Bappi
Nobody understood the disco sound better than Bappi Lahiri. And nobody made India dance to his tune like him. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that his music massified dancing on the streets. In the Eighties alone, the composer-singer provided the score for an eye-popping 230 films, including a few in Bengali, to become the most industrious and prolific music director of the decade.
Here’s a startling fact: In 1985, he gave music to 33 — 30 Hindi, two Bengali and one Tamil — which means a film released every 12 days! Trade Guide editor BK Adarsh wrote that Bappi Lahiri once signed 30 films in 30 days. “He was the king in Madras. He used to do four to five recordings a day,” recalled film director B Subhash.
In a cover story for Madhuri magazine in 1986, well-known film journalist Vinod Tiwary described Bappi as a workaholic who preferred to spend more time at the recording studio or doing music shows than resting at home. Even if he reached home by eleven or twelve at night and found a producer waiting for him, Bappi would not only talk to him but also start a music sitting with him.
Critics carped that Bappi’s music lacked originality and longevity. But the music director saw that as a sign of changing times. He once told Film Information, “In the old days, our films had a slow tempo. Also, lesser number of films were produced. Today we have fast kind of films made at a comparatively faster pace. Since we provide fast music at a faster pace, the sustenance power of a tune, howsoever good, has diminished to quite an extent. This leads to the wrong notion that today’s songs do not linger on in one’s mind because they lack melody.”
Bappi’s name was almost mandatory in the opening credits of southern masalas, notably in the box-office winners of director K Raghavendra Rao and K Bapaiah. The fortunes of Himmatwala, Mawaali, Maqsad, and Tohfa were propelled by his bouncy compositions. Director K Ravi Shankar described 1980s as a Bappi phase. “He ruled the southern market,” he said.
The composer was in demand among Bombay directors too, notably Prakash Mehra and Basu Chatterjee. His music in Disco Dancer, Namak Halaal and Sharaabi were worth the weight of the gold chains he wore. Namak Halaal’s Pag ghungroobaandh, including the opening orchestral passage, was nearly 12 minutes long. The composer’s love for electronic sound as well as new instruments such as the bokodor, which imitated the human voice, kept him in fine fettle through the jiving times.
Bappi was born in Jalpaiguri, the north Bengal town. His parents were practitioners of Indian classical music; his mother the first woman music director in Bengali films. He learnt tabla from the legendary Samta Prasad. He had made his debut as a usic director with Nanha Shikari in 1973 and found limited success with Chalte Chalte (1976), arguably his best score. But he worked his way up dishing out hit music even in low budget films such as Wardat (Tu mujhe jaan se bhi pyaara hai, 1981). Even his disco superhits such as Hari Om Hari (Pyaara Dushman), Rambha ho ho (Armaan), Pyaar chhalke halke halke (Sumbandh) weren’t exactly from A-list movies.
He surprised critics with his surefooted folksy tunes in Apne Paraye (1980). Shyam rang ranga re, where he employed the Bengal percussion instrument khol, has the meditative feel of a Chaitanya kirtan. Gao mere mann carries the smell of ponds, banana leaves and nineteenth-century Bengal. Apne Paraye wasn’t an exception; it underlined Bappi’s proficiency with folk music, just as he had underscored his familiarity with the classical in Aangan Ki Kali (1979). In the 1980s, Bappi created noteworthy melodies in several other small-budget films such as Ek Baar Kaho (1980) and Sheeshey Ka Ghar (1984).
“He had sound knowledge of Indian music. People don’t believe me when I tell them that the song Kisi nazar ko tera intezaar aaj bhi hai [Aitbaar] was composed by him,” said lyricist Hasan Kamal.
The composer, who was once part of RD Burman’s unit, established his musical identity with Disco Dancer. Film director B Subhash recalled, “He could sing, play and compose. He was a complete music man. Interestingly, Bappi would play the worst tunes first during a session. Then he would gradually pull out his better tunes.”
Bappi was often accused of plagiarising tunes. The composer didn’t deny the charge. His view was: Everybody steals. He once told Madhuri film magazine, “All great musicians of the past that we don’t tire of praising have also used foreign tunes. In their times, people travelling abroad wasn’t a common thing. There were no cassettes. People praised them thinking they were original. If you want, I could give examples. But I am not doing so because I don’t think it is wrong. Every artiste is inspired by something. He gets a thought from somewhere in his head. What’s wrong in hearing a tune and creating a composition based on it? Even today many famous music directors are doing the same.”
He wasn’t wrong. A visit to the websiteitwofs.com, which lists plagiarised tunes in Hindi films, underlines what Bappi said. Even the old masters would occasionally lift or get “inspired” by foreign tunes. But it is undeniable that Bappi was more regular in filching foreign tunes. He even used foreign tunes for background music. In a chase sequence in Dance Dance (1985), you can hear the famous theme of Chariots of Fire (1981). In another scene, the composer used the haunting background score of Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975).
Sometimes he also copied tunes from indigenous classics. The song, Roshan roshan (singer: Kishore Kumar-Asha Bhosle, lyrics: Kaifi Azmi, film: Hum Rahe Na Hum, 1984) was borrowed from Rabindranath Tagore’s, Purono sei diner kotha. Again, Chanda dekhe chanda (film: Jhooti, 1985) incorporated elements from Aami tomay joto, another Tagore composition.
Bappi-da passed away on 17 February 2022. He was 69. The glowing tributes that followed underlined that his music was far more durable and influential than what many critics had predicted.
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