While Bappi Lahiri would continue to be celebrated for his very strong imprint on the musical legacy of India, his larger contribution in the social space remains as melodic and charming, if not more, with its own pronounced rhythm and bass. Because despite seemingly being a 1970s and 1980s music icon, Bappi Da inadvertently became the new India story for the generation that came into its own in the 1990s.
With the advent of Liberalisation and Globalisation, the changes that us 90s kids were witnessing were sudden and far too many, and my generation was scrambling for home grown icons that we could take pride in, and call our own. Somebody associated with beats of disco that were moving towards obsolescence already, some very brazen ctrl-c-ctrl-v accusations, and a pronounced regional accent in the Queen’s language perhaps was not what the doctor would have prescribed.
Only, in Bappi Lahiri, we did not just get an icon, but a superhero!
For this long haired short man flaunting the entire Kalyan Jewellers bridal collection, and then some, around his neck typified the spirit of the nation that we were to become, his capitalist-bull-in-a-socialist-china-shop personage breaking all the stereotypes that could have been. He embraced his obstinate confidence, he cradled his true blue rockstar credentials, he snuggled to his blings and glares, and in the process, he gave a big, big bear hug to us, to the India that was emerging. Highlighting that it was okay to believe in one’s supreme awesomeness, and that’s how any success story must begin. That we were no less than the others, that we were a strong, parallel force, complete with this luminescent luster that was both inside and outside of us, that even if we were questioned/ challenged/ ridiculed, we had reasons to be assured and optimistic, that we were ready to take on the world at our own terms.
Bappi Da’s public persona gave us the confidence to redefine cool, and create the idea of the lassi-in-a-can India that was blatant and unabashed and cheeky, ready to take off, and take on, and how! The man was Made in India much before aatmnirbhar became a part of our social lexicon. He gave us both coolth and comfort. And that’s essentially because he never tried too hard. The gold chains were naturally designed to be around him. The fancy sunglasses were mandatorily destined to cover his face. The self-comparison with some of the biggest international popstars was, therefore, the immediate and natural consequence. So what if he took inspirations ranging from Beethoven’s Fur Elise to UB40 to Modern Talking, he made them his own. He made them ours. This was him sticking it to the man, everything else be damned, and we loved it. The wheel, of course, turned a rather skewed full circle when he sued Dr. Dre for lifting one of his songs, Kaliyon Ka Chaman, and triumphed! We smiled. We chuckled. We laughed. We had arrived. We had won. The Kohinoor may still adorn the crown, we had managed our reparations.
Superhero. Bona fide superhero.
In my 10 years at MTV between 2000 and 2010, the decade that MTV was needed in India to shape and shake perceptions, Bappi Da and his personality consistently hovered around in our promos, shows, interstitials, powerpoints, the works. Hell, he literally hung out in all our acts and actions! But it wasn’t his musical presence that we are referring to. Newer sounds had emerged in both the mainstream Hindi film and Indipop spaces, and he did not really latch on to either. It was his radiant, care-a-damn presence, reflective, again, of the times we were living in. That assured rockstarness. The joie de vivre. He wasn’t willing to leave us. We weren’t willing to leave him.
I don’t think we would ever be willing to leave him.
Thank you for making us what we are, sir! Pyaar kabhi kam nahin karna.
The summer months are always kind of muggy in Patna. In the early 1990s, they appeared sultrier than normal. The days would be hot and the nights would be dry. There was only so much one could do. And that ‘so much’ was never much, with those prolonged hours of nothingness blankly staring at us. Don’t know if the irregular load-shedding and the dark absence of electricity were the reason behind the dreariness. Or if one could point towards the abrupt kal shaam chhe baje phir mulakaat hogi endings of Doordarshan as the cause. Or whether the limited stock of antaakshari songs (despite the unending stock of holidaying cousins to play them with) was the prime suspect. OR perhaps it was just the mid-teen angst.
But the insipid monotony was real. And there was only so much one could do.
Those were also the days when Aamir Khan was doing snake movies, Rishi Kapoor was wearing his last set of sweaters around trees, Jackie Shroff was giving solo box office hits, and Vinod Khanna was cracking dudhu jokes looking at women in Farishtay.
Yes. There really was only so much one could do.
Or actually, there was. Buzz words like liberalisation and globalisation were just beginning to hover around, and private TV channels were soon to be an everyday fix as a positive fallout of the policy changes. Cable TV was slowly becoming the fashionable thing to do in small town India, a perfect middle class counter point to the safari-suit-and-pomeranian superiority practiced by the elite. My professor parents, of course, thanks to their world view and wisdom nurtured by Brahmanical leanings, had a strong point of view on cable TV or any other form of unsupervised entertainment. EXACTLY the reason why I readily agreed when Ramkailas ji, my trusted aide, and the family Man Friday, recommended that we steal the cable connection since the wires went through our garden.
Till then, our experience in thieving was restricted to pocketing raw mangoes of the awesomely juicy Maldah variety from the neighbours’ yard. So I was not too sure. Having said that, the lure of breaking the boredom and seeing content outside of the staid DD programming was too much of a temptation. The programming options were way too many, beyond the Krishi Darshans and Chitrahaars of the world. There was finesse and flair one wasn’t used to seeing on television. Plus, there was MTV. That thing that was meant to morally corrupt the youth of the nation.
I was ready to be corrupted.
All it took was a pair of garden cutters and some ingenuity, and we were a cable TV household between 10pm and 5am, every day. Opening gates to a world unseen. The firang accent, the cool graphics, the smart promos, the interesting shows… they were all from a distant land. There was Star Plus with its Crystal Maze, Donahue, Oprah and, oh, those kissing cousins in The Bold and The Beautiful. Or the cigarette smoking Tara in the eponymous series on Zee TV, and even the obnoxious Mohan Kapoor on the channel’s Saanp Seedhi, and also Rajat Sharma, giving birth to a different breed of journalism in Aap Ki Adalat. This was all different. New. And real.
And then there was, of course, MTV. All different. New. And surreal.
With its funky graphics, bizarre spots and fast pace. Smelling like teen spirit. With Michael Jackson and Madonna. With Guns N’ Roses, a paradoxical co-existence that could well define MTV. With Right Said Fred declaring his sexiness and Phil Collins his inability to dance. With Pearl Jam, Megadeth, Metallica and innumerous such bands that us small-towners had no knowledge or clue about. I saw images I never thought existed. I saw people I never could be. I saw love. I saw debauchery. I saw a display of colours, commotion and camaraderie. It was culturally alien, unfathomable at times. But it was all eerily eye opening. I could never be them, I knew. And yet, I wanted to know more about them. Every day.
I saw possibilities. And I am not just talking television. I am talking life.
For that Hindi medium boy from Bihar struggling with Itihaas, Bhugol and Nagrik Shastra in school, it was almost like him creating his own itihaas every night. By unshackling himself from all that was around him. By thinking beyond the books and the course material. By taking those fantastic flights to nowhere. I never did stop thinking in Hindi. I did not develop an accent. I never could appreciate Pearl Jam, Megadeth or Metallica. I did not try becoming a different person with brand new reference points. Only, my perspectives changed. I started seeing things differently. I did not know where did I want to go, but I knew what it would be like.
We were caught soon enough by Papa. He said all that we had to do was ask. He was, obviously, very upset. Major mud on our face. But I wasn’t complaining. It was worth the trip. It was not as if it suddenly changed my persona or that I could see doors opening for me. But this entire visual experience, day on day, made me realise that there were so many doors that existed.
It was not just economic liberalisation at work. Or just liberalisation. It was liberation!
It changed my outlook. It made me more confident. It made me more audacious. It allowed me to dream differently. That gawky teenager, son of academicians, started looking beyond Engineering and Medicine as a career. As did many of us from similar backgrounds. Everything in the world, hitherto unseen, was now around us. And everything was achievable. We did not have to travel to foreign lands to broaden our horizons. The world had come to us. Very soon, the world literally was around us in the supermarkets. In form of Camay soaps and Hershey’s chocolates. As brand new malls and multiplexes. In the queues at McDonald’s. Buzzing in pagers and mobile phones. Surprisingly, none of it made me feel poor and deprived at any point of time. It kept egging me to have a deeper resolve to become better off. Read rich.
In retrospect, that was the bawdiest, and yet the most important, contribution of liberalisation to the small town India, and not just me. We stopped feeling guilty about earning and spending monies, something that Papa would have so not approved. We were okay to let go of our middleclassery. Of course, that came with its own set of struggles. Mumbai, the city I had chosen to move to, gave me its perfumed indifference, showing me my place in the 8:11 local. I gave it my unadulterated confidence. Very soon, we reached a compromise, and the city was home.
Fate brought me to MTV in 2000. And MTV gave me the confidence to change MTV. It had made me embrace its globalness, I made it embrace my Indianness, being a part of the team that made it desicool. I worked with them for ten long years. Fancy designation, et al. Little did MTV know about the role it had played in my life. Even when it was on mute. :)
Meanwhile, we got Ramkailas ji a job as a peon in Delhi. His family continued to be in a remote village in Bihar. We sponsored the education of his son who is now sixteen. The boy uses a smart phone and knows how to Whatsapp. I suspect he also knows how to order mangoes online. Only, he aspires to follow the career path of his father. Become a peon.
Twenty-five years later, I wait for another round of liberalisation.
– first published in Indian Express Sunday edition Eye as a part of their special issue on 25 years of economic reforms –