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‘Today’s songs are fully Xerox copy’
Tête à tête

He stages an entrance without taking a step. After a short wait in the verandah of Lahiri House in Mumbai, a staffer opens the door and beckons me in. There, in a quietly opulent room is Bappida — seated regally on a well upholstered couch, his long locks open, head tilted benignly, almost like a godman. The only element missing is a hand raised in benediction.

As I step in, the staffer rushes forward, gasping in alarm and my foot hovers in mid-step. Shoes are to be shed at the entrance. Surrounded by wall-to-wall trophy discs, composer, singer, and once again, actor, Bappi Lahiri — aka Alokesh Lahiri aka Bappida — peers from behind his trademark sunshades, and enquires solemnly if I have a tape recorder. I brandish my notebook reassuringly. He inclines his head gravely.

The Badshah of Bling, 57, is dressed in a white embroidered kurta ensemble with a long red muffler draped over his shoulders but the jewellery is intact. One plump wrist is encased in a wide diamond encrusted bracelet or watch, one is not quite sure which, and a plait of numerous gold chains and pendants shine on his chest. It includes his “lucky” gold Hare Rama Hare Krishna chain that his mother gifted him for his first hit film Zakhmee in 1975.

The Golden Man — as he has come to be known after the self-mocking ad for the lemon drink 7Up, where his fondness for all things gold is linked to a hunt for glittering lemons — has cashed in on a surprisingly bankable brand image. “I created this image. Now they call me Bling Bling Bappida. Image barkarar hai (image is intact),” he says, with a careful economy of movement, his head tipped just so, his gaze mild.

Itna bada heet hai (It’s such a big hit) that neighbourhood children ask my watchman if they can see the gold toothbrush,” the composer says, beaming happily. He names a business newspaper that has put the Golden Man in the charts just behind Shah Rukh Khan, Mohinder Singh Dhoni and Amitabh Bachchan as popular advertising icons.

Though perfectly fluent in Bangla and English, Lahiri insists for some reason on frequently peppering his words with Bengali-accented Hindi or occasionally English, complete with ees (is) and bheell (will). Now that the image has become a successful brand, he adroitly hams it up.

It is an art that should hold him in good stead as the composer, and lately reality TV show host, will appear in films too. He will be seen in “a fantastic role” in Main aur Mrs Khanna, which toplines Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor. “I am an NRI tycoon, who is always singing. My name is a suspense for now, I can’t reveal it,” says Lahiri, momentarily coy.

That’s not his only star role. The man who is credited with bringing disco music to the Hindi film industry in the Seventies will be essaying the character of Disco King, a wealthy owner of trendy nightclubs, in the forthcoming Rocking Dard-e Disco. “It is a riotous comedy. I have done work like (actor-singer) Kishore Kumar had done in his comedies. He was like a maternal uncle to me. He sang his last song for me in Waqt Ki Awaaz,” remembers Lahiri, who had a long and successful career association with the genius.

Also to premier on television next month is Shur Dariya, a singing talent contest between India and Bangladesh that will be represented by co-hosts Lahiri and Rabindra Sangeet singer Rezwana Chowdhury of Bangladesh. Fifteen contestants from each side face off on the show. “Bahoot maazaa aaya (It was great fun). It was different from the other music-based shows I hosted such as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Lil Champs because this one is a Bengali show,” he says.

Lahiri began his career as a music composer with a film in Bengali before striking success in Bollywood. Apart from importing disco mania to India — I am a disco dancer from Surakksha to which Mithun Chakraborty stamped a foot gained cult status — he also hit the headlines for being the first Bollywood composer to use talent like Salma Agha, Alisha Chinai, Usha Uthup, Babul Supriyo, Runa Laila, Mouli Dave, Bali Brahmbhatt and Raja Hussain.

That’s not all. For years there has been talk of collaboration between Lahiri and the group Jackson 5 — members of the singing Jackson family, the most prominent of whom is Michael Jackson. “I met Randy and Janet (Jackson siblings), earlier. They were coming to a recording and were to do two or three concerts. I am going to LA to finalise the deal,” says Lahiri, ever optimistic.

Lahiri is good for surprises. He has won a National Award, bagging the Golden Lotus Award as producer for the film Lal Darja, directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta. As a singer he has crooned perennial favourites such as Chalte Chalte, Maana Ho Tum and Pag Ghungroo Bandh, and, more recently, for Taxi No 921, the title track of Guru, under A.R. Rahman’s baton, and for Sarkar Raj.

And with a reputation for being frequently “inspired” by scores and compositions from western albums, he left everyone open mouthed when he (successfully) sued American rapper Dr Dre for “borrowing” from his composition Thoda Resham Lagta Hai. “Dr Dre took the original track with Lata Mangeshkar’s voice,” Lahiri exclaims. “Today’s songs are fully Xerox copy,” he adds indignantly. He, on the other hand, was inspired by “only a handful of songs, two out of 500 in my career perhaps. Today people are copying me.”

He swats off competition. “I am outside the competition. For anyone to compete with me, teen dashak tak rahna padega (they will have to be in the business for three decades),” he declares.

He may be a vegetarian thrice a week and a teetotaller, but he admits to being seriously smitten by trinkets such as luxury cars, watches and clothes. In his garage are a BMW, (“latest”) and an Audi. “My son Bappa is very fond of driving cars. But I can’t even start the engine,” he waves a ring-studded hand. He has 51 glares, some in gold and even a gold-plated pair of shoes. His wife and he shop in Beverley Hill, he announces. “Beverley Hills means Hollywood,” he explains kindly for the uninitiated. Another favourite bazaar is Oxford Street. “London, you know.”

In the shadows at the turn of the decade, Lahiri has come back with a wider repertoire. In his 36th year in the business, the larger-than-life composer has released his 50th non-film album My Love. “It’s an international album, and has Jetta, a rapper with 50 Cent, featuring in three of the eight tracks. Loud music se hat ke hai (it’s different from loud music). It has a very clean sound — the whole album,” says Lahiri.

Lahiri’s parents — father Aparesh and mother Banshori — were both famed musicians. And their son is proud of the baton being picked up by his children. In his newly discovered avtaars, one old mountain remains to be conquered.

“My dream is to get the Grammy, this year or next,” he says. “Or at least a nomination,” he adds as an afterthought.

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