by Raghav Raj
[originally published March 25, 2022]
Last night, I watched Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco. It’s this dramedy released nearly two decades after Disco Demolition Night, attempting to capture a fading era through the eyes of a bunch of self-centered Mannhattanites, yuppie post-grads who nervously sip vodka-tonics and stumble into elaborate fraud schemes. Like any other Whit Stillman film, it’s positively insufferable. Like any other disco film (not named Saturday Night Fever, ironically — I loathe that movie), I think it’s brilliant, maybe solely because of how good its soundtrack is.
The death of disco, as Stillman seems to posit, was an inevitability. As the 1970’s wore on, disco had grown too big, too great, too important — I’m paraphrasing Matt Keeslar’s character here — to remain intact, crumbling under its image of hedonism and pleasure-seeking. In America, as the seeds for the Reagan era were being sown, the uninhibited euphoria of disco was far too vulnerable to outlast the paranoia, cynicism, and hatred of the new decade.
Instead, similar to the ways psychedelia did before it, disco sought refuge. Across the globe, the grooves and rhythms filtered into local strains of dance music. In Japan, it transformed into the sleek, sophisticated sounds of city-pop. In Indonesia, it became disko, a potent sonic defiance in cities like Jakarta amidst Suharto’s New Order regime. And in India, already a frequent well of inspiration and cultural cross-pollination for Western music, disco became a cultural lightning rod.
Couched within the Bollywood system, the intersection of music and cinema that lies at the heart of contemporary Indian culture, the genre found new roots. Even if America was busy stripping down to the barest, most elemental pulse in its strains of early-80’s post-disco dance music (think Larry Levan or Frankie Knuckles), disco was a fundamentally indulgent endeavor, filled with elaborate orchestration, tightly engineered grooves, and wholly expressive vocals, all stretched out for endless spells on the dancefloor. Given Bollywood’s penchant for maximalism — not to mention how eagerly it co-opted popular genres as a selling point — its marriage with disco felt like a perfect fit.
Though the sounds of disco had been percolating throughout the Indian subcontinent for a few years prior (mostly through European imports, record store bootlegs, and Saturday Night Fever’s infernal, everlasting impact — again, I fucking hate that movie), it wasn’t actually until 1980 that the sound of disco first broke through in Bollywood. The movie was Qurbani, a relatively mediocre Feroz Khan flick, one that ripped off a schlocky, Kirk-Douglas-starring Italian heist movie from 1972 called The Master’s Touch. In sharp contrast with the similarly disco-tinged Karz, which had been released the week before, Qurbani was a huge hit. (For what it’s worth, Karz features one of the finest Indian disco songs ever, “Om Shanti Om,” a dense, groovy, nine-minute barn-burner from the Laxmikant-Pyarelal composer duo). Brandishing an all-star cast and a wildly popular soundtrack, Qurbani was the highest grossing film of 1980, and one of the biggest films released in India that decade.
The soundtrack of Qurbani is, in many ways, a perplexing intersection of filmi music. It was arranged by Biddu, who, by the time the 1980’s rolled around, had already found rousing success in the West as one of the premier disco producers in England. (You may not be familiar with the hits he produced with the likes of Tina Charles, Claude François, and The Tigers, but some of his session musicians would go on to make “Video Killed The Radio Star'' — more on that song later — and he’s the primary architect behind one of the greatest novelty singles ever crafted, Carl Douglas’s 1974 smash hit “Kung Fu Fighting.”) Along with this, the soundtrack features orchestration from iconic film composer duo Kalyanji-Anandji, and a qawwali sung by beloved playback singer Kishore Kumar. (Kumar, ever in demand, was also the voice behind “Om Shanti Om.”)
Sandwiched somewhere in the middle of all this is Nazia Hassan, a fifteen-year-old singer whose family split time between London and her hometown in Karachi. Though the exact details are muddled, the gist of Hassan’s appearance on the soundtrack stems from a party in London where Qurbani actress Zeenat Aman introduced Hassan to Feroz Khan, who in turn told her to audition with Biddu for a playback singing role in the film. After winning the role, Hassan managed to convince Biddu to scrap his plans for a Hindi version of a Boney M song, instead insisting that he write a new number for her. The resulting song, “Aap Jaisa Koi,” became a huge hit both in India and in Hassan’s native Pakistan, winning her a Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer.
Listening to “Aap Jaisa Koi,” what strikes me most is the song's almost featherlight touch. Not to say that it’s even remotely a minimalist work — Biddu’s arrangement weaves wriggling guitar, plodding woodblocks, flute filigrees, and electric piano accents through the pitter-pattering drum-machine and a bouncy bassline — just that all these elements are combined so delicately, melding into a streamlined slab of delightfully lush disco. The real marvel here is Hassan’s voice, an instrument that’s both fragile and unbreakable, withdrawn and captivating all at once. She plays up the role of a disco diva perfectly, delivering something wholly entrancing, imbuing every last syllable with this intense, intangible longing.
In the years that followed, Hassan’s stardom skyrocketed. She — along with her brother Zoheb — frequently worked with Biddu, who had come to see the siblings as his muse and, by his own admission, attempted to model them after another brother/sister duo, The Carpenters. A year after Qurbani, with the help of Zoheb and Biddu, Hassan became the first playback singer to release a solo album: 1981’s Disco Deewane. Not only is the record — which features gems like the proggy title track and the surprisingly muscular “Aao Na'' — a seminal document of disco in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s also one of the region’s all-time best-selling records, having sold the second-most of any albums released that decade. The only record to top it is the one she released with her brother three years later, 1984’s Young Tarang, which again was produced by Biddu, sporting an even more polished disco sound with densely layered electronic instrumentation.
While Hassan carved out her own niche for independent musicians outside the Bollywood system, eventually reaching superstar status as the “Queen of South Asian Pop” before her untimely death due to lung cancer in 2000 at the age of 35, Bollywood continued to spend the 1980’s expounding on the footprint that Biddu and Hassan had left behind. As Vrinda Jagota aptly puts it, “much of the pop music released in South Asia at the time had some combination of disco’s pulsing synths, cascading keys, and opulent strings mixed with tabla drums and sitar.” In the wake of Qurbani’s success, disco had become the new sound of Bollywood.
There was perhaps no one who embraced this sentiment quite like Bappi Lahiri. Though he had worked in Bollywood since the age of nineteen, bouncing around various writing and composing gigs in Mumbai throughout the 70’s, Lahiri’s career really began to take shape after he visited America on tour in 1979. Playing in nightclubs across the US was revelatory for the young producer, who eagerly soaked up the waning light of the disco era, buying a Moog synthesizer, multiple drum machines, and so much other music equipment in New York that he needed two taxis to carry it all. It was the sort of grandiosity expected from the man who would go on to call himself India’s “Disco King,” a man whose boyhood obsession with Elvis transformed him into a larger-than-life figure, clad in velour tracksuits, shiny jackets, and oversized tinted sunglasses, decked out from head to toe with gleaming gold jewelry. (The jewelry in particular became such a signature that, according to Lahiri, a fan once refused to accept that it was him because Lahiri was wearing a coat and the man couldn’t see his chains.)
The only thing that could ever outshine Lahiri’s personality was his music, which was deeply reverent to the conventions of disco while also hell-bent on pushing its boundaries to their outer limits. Eagerly elevating the inherent melodrama of the genre, Lahiri’s sound was breathlessly extravagant, dense with swanky rhythms, and full of bravura, perfectly in tune with the conventions of Bollywood. Even when he was interpolating established disco classics like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which he did on “Raat Baaqi Baat Baaqi,” a song from the 1982 masala film Namak Halaal, he could imbue that iconic pulse with a theatrical flair all his own, surrounding Asha Bhosle’s seductive vocal performance with orchestral accents and percussive breakdowns.
Elsewhere on Namak Halaal’s soundtrack, he delivers the monstrous “Pag Ghungroo Baandh,” which kicks off with an utterly audacious flurry of sounds — strings playing Beethoven’s Fifth, dizzying synths, choirs, talkbox vocals, saxophones — before literally clearing its throat and going acapella around three minutes in, eventually settling into a prancing, tabla-driven gallop that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Desi wedding. It’s really just such a jubilantly flamboyant display, a quintessential example of the sort of exuberance Lahiri was preternaturally gifted at bringing out of his compositions. His soundtrack was a large part of Namak Halaal’s rousing success, raking in ₹120 million (US$12.64 million) at the Indian box office, the third-biggest film released that year.
The biggest Indian film of 1982, as it happened, was another Bollywood movie helmed by a Bappi Lahiri soundtrack: Disco Dancer.
As a film, Disco Dancer is, like most of the great Bollywood films of its time, an absolutely unhinged film. In the most simple sense, it’s a rags-to-riches story; if you dig further, it’s an absurdly engineered Marxist critique, one that fights the class war on the dancefloor. The main character (played by Mithun Chakraborty, in a role that’d eventually win him superstar status as far as the Soviet Union, where Disco Dancer was actually the all-time highest-grossing foreign film) is Jimmy, a street singer traumatized by his mother’s abuse at the hands of an evil rich guy, eventually managing to stumble onto an opportunity to hit the big time/become a warrior for the proletariat by ousting that evil rich guy’s asshole son from disco stardom.
From there, Disco Dancer gets even more insane — a gang of goons try to sabotage his gig in a West Side Story-esque fistfight, he saves a village by kicking some major ass, he develops a phobia of guitars after seeing his mom get electrocuted to death by one, his mentor resurfaces out of nowhere before promptly taking a bullet for him — but quite frankly, none of that matters. What unifies the delightful madness of the film is its soundtrack, an open-hearted, absolutely boundless love letter to the genre, arguably the high watermark of disco on the Indian subcontinent.
To its very bones, the Disco Dancer soundtrack captures Lahiri in all his multitudes, a gaudy, corpulent, endlessly plagiaristic work that oozes brilliance from every orifice. On one song, he bites every part of “Video Killed The Radio Star” that’s not the hook, pulling the carpet from under The Buggles and warping their song into a slick, sleazy, flute-driven call-and-response duet between him and the great Usha Uthup. On another, he rips off a song about Jesus from this Indonesian pop group, the Tielman Brothers, transforming it into a genuinely mind-boggling set piece that celebrates the Hindu god Krishna, firing off an absolutely filthy synth solo halfway through that sends the golden chariot into the stratosphere. Any semblance of good taste is irrelevant, and that’s what makes Disco Dancer’s soundtrack so great — this is disco without restraint, liberated from rhyme and reason, free to meld into groove after groove.
And what grooves. Even if Kishore Kumar’s just firing off nonsensical syllables on “Ae Oh Aa Zara Mudke,” it doesn’t matter; every guitar lick, every violin swell, every trickling arpeggiator, every springing 808; all of it is rendered with surgical precision, not so much chained as it is soldered to the rhythm, melding into a supremely euphoric body high. On “Yaad Aa Raha Hai,” that beat is ramped up, with Lahiri’s disarmingly soulful voice swept up in the burbling storm of drum-machine percussion. His approach to “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja,” maybe the closest thing to a pop song here, is a little different; here, Lahiri lets the relatively unknown Parvati Khan take center stage, framing her heartbroken pleas to Jimmy (who, if you’re following, is now terrified of guitars) over a rich interplay of piercing strings and noodly synth work.
Still, all of it pales in comparison to the title track, which ramps everything up to eleven, a glorious, punchy showcase of hip-shaking polyrhythms, raucous horns, and pure, unmitigated bravado. Purely in terms of structure, it’s staggering, flying out the gate with a scream and a call-and-response spelling of the word “DISCO,” jumping between direct address, extended percussion breakdowns, and Vijay Benedict’s swaggering delivery with such conviction that it’s hard not to sing, clap, and cheer along with the absolutely enraptured crowd. It’s such a forceful, spirited, physical thing, a song that commands your attention from the very first moment, holding you in complete awe for the entirety of its spell, no matter what directions it ends up taking.
In the film, Mithun Chakraborthy is performing on this absurdly kitschy auditorium stage, wearing this shiny silver velour tracksuit getup, prancing around on stage as he poorly pretends to know how to play the guitar. If any other song was playing, I think he’d probably look like the stupidest man alive. Fortunately, the song he’s dancing along to is “I Am A Disco Dancer,” so every shimmy, every fist pump, every silly little leg kick he does somehow becomes the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s really just incredible; no matter how absolutely ridiculous the movie is, as soon as the soundtrack comes in, I’m absolutely spellbound, incapable of looking away.
In the years that followed, Bollywood’s golden age of disco inevitably came to an end. After desperately trying to replicate the success of films like Disco Dancer with increasingly diminishing returns, the industry spent the late 1980’s in a creative slump, replete with cratering box-office totals and a rise in video piracy. When the “New Bollywood” revival arrived in the early 1990’s, it came with a financial crisis and a large-scale push towards the neoliberalization of India’s economy. The conditions that had allowed disco to seek refuge in India over a decade prior were vanishing; there was no place for the sort of socialist rhetoric that films like Disco Dancer eagerly championed anymore.
Watching Disco Dancer now, especially after Bappi Lahiri’s death earlier this year in February, there’s something so beautiful in how blissfully unaware it is of its own ephemeral nature. In Disco Dancer, the dancefloor is an eternal communion, a realm beyond space and time, untouched by the realities of what our titular dancer has faced, unfazed by the losses he has endured. Therein lies the power of Bollywood disco, as eternal as any strain of disco ever was: even though it exists mostly as a memory, it lives on in our spirits, as glorious, as cathartic, as purely euphoric as ever.