Bappi Lahiri, Amit Khanna and the story behind the iconic song ‘Chalte Chalte’

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

In the aftermath of the Hindi cinema composer and singer Bappi Lahiri’s demise on February 16 many obituaries and tributes have inevitably invoked one of his most iconic songs—’Chalte Chalte Mere Yeh Geet Yaad Rakhna’ (As you leave, remember my songs.)

He was barely 22 when he composed that song for the movie ‘Chalte Chalte’. Although the song was composed in 1974, the movie was released in 1976. The song having acquired a cult status over the decades it would seem to have some enchanting backstory about how memorably it was created. Not particularly.

As described by Amit Khanna, the much-regarded lyricist, producer, director, writer and once a powerful movie conglomerate boss, the story behind how the song came to be is quite low-key. To begin with, it was Khanna’s very first song which he wrote as a lark.

“The producer of the song was the actor Bhisham Kohli who was Dev Anand’s nephew. He was starting his first production. He had originally taken R D Burman as a composer. Pancham (Burman) was a friend of Bhisham’s but Pancham was very busy,” Khanna reminisced. Given Burman’s preoccupations he could not compose for ‘Chalte Chalte’. The next choice fell on the composer duo Laxmikant Pyarelal but they too were very busy with other assignments.

It so happened that the young Bappi Lahiri had met Khanna, who was also about 23 then, a couple of times and wanted to be introduced to Dev Anand. Khanna, who was part of Anand’s Navketan Productions, organized a meeting for Lahiri with Anand. It was a courtesy meeting but around the same time Kholi too happened to be there bemoaning that he was not able to get either Burman or Laxmikant Pyarelal.

That is when Khanna mentioned Lahiri to Kohli. “I told him there is a young boy who has come from Calcutta and he is very talented,” Khanna recalled. The young “boy” being, of course, Bappi Lahiri.

In his meeting with Kohli, Lahiri played and sang some melodies with dummy words. Khanna, who was present there, remembered, “The film was titled ‘Chalte Chalte’. The dummy words sounded odd to me. So I wrote a few lines and gave it to Bappi Lahiri to sing. That was the song ‘Chalte Chalte Merey Yeh Geet Yaad Rakhna.” Close to five decades hence the song remains one of Hindi cinema’s most cherished and quoted songs, especially the part ‘Kabhi Alvia Na Kehna’ (Never say goodbye).

It was in keeping with many great Hindi cinema songs that even this one was born so casually without either the composer or the lyricist conscious of its impending success and longevity.

Although Lahiri had already tasted success a year before Chalte Chalte with the songs for the movie ‘Zakhmee’ it was this song that gave him the visibility that never dimmed until his death at age 69. His emergence came at a time when India was coming of age as a nation less than 30-years-old in its current avatar and Hindi cinema music was also undergoing a shift. While the period between the 1950s and early 1970s is regarded as Hindi cinema’s golden period, despite the fact that equally great music was produced prior, Lahiri’s distinctly youthful sound made a quick mark. He was in a sense carrying forward the glorious tradition of Rahul Dev Burman, who had already caused a tectonic shift in the way Hindi cinema music was conceived, arranged and composed.

Although Lahiri became known as the “disco king” of Hindi cinema music, it bears noting that by the time his first disco hit ‘Mausam Hai Gaane Ka’ (It is a season to sing) for the movie ‘Suraksha’ came in 1979, he had already produced achingly melodious songs for movies such as ‘Zakhmee’ (1975) ‘Toote Khilone’ , ‘Dil Se Mile Dil’ and ‘College Girl’ (all in 1978).

Lahiri’s youth informed his music both compositionally as well as in terms of the instrumentation and sounds he chose. In many ways he appeared to be under the influence of Rahul Dev Burman in the way he approached Hindi cinema music.

It is easy to minimize Bappi Lahiri’s gifts as a composer behind his flashy persona as someone who wore gold necklaces that could support several families and who introduced disco beat to India. However, the songs for ‘Toote Khilone’, ‘College Girl’, ‘Dil Se Mile Dil’ (1978) and much later for ‘Haisiyat’ (1984) stand out for his natural gifts to produce wonderful melodies. Songs such as ‘Mana Ho Tum Behad Haseen’ (I concede you are very beautiful) in ‘Toote Khilone’, ‘Pyar Manga Hai Tumhi Se’ (I ask for love from you) in ‘College Girl’, ‘Yeh Naina Yeh Kajal’ (These eyes, that kohl) in ‘Dil Se Mile Dil’ and ‘Dheere Dheere Subah Hui’ (Dawn breaks gently) in Haisiyat all illustrate his gift for melody.

In a career spanning 50 years Bappi Lahiri notched up some 500 films to his credit and in many ways went on to become a worthy successor of R D Burman’s.

Delightfully self-absorbed about his music and life, Lahiri was said to be a jovial and amiable personality who loved wearing his bling, shiny clothes and trademark sunglasses like Elton John. He gained some international traction in 2002 when he successfully sued Dr Dre for copyright infringement using his 1981 song ‘Kaliyon Ka Chaman’ uncredited. Lahiri was later credited as the original composer.

His early disco numbers became a rage around the world, especially in Russia, and remain so.

In Bappi Lahiri’s passing perhaps comes to an end the era of compos