Graded on a Curve: Bombay Disco: Disco Hits from Hindi Films 1979-1985

One of the finer developments in this still young century has been the steady flow of well-annotated retrospectives offering knowledge into global sounds once largely obscured by national boundaries. Happily this trend shows no signs of receding, and those carrying a jones for intercontinental funkiness will very likely find Bombay Disco: Disco Hits from Hindi Films 1979-1985 to their liking. Featuring a recurring cast of contributors led by prolific Bollywood composer Bappi Lahiri, the 2LP’s 13 selections brandish a pleasing consistency along with its highpoints.

As detailed in this collection’s liner notes, by the time disco was stalling out in its country of origin, the form (spawned from the intersection of urban African-American, Latino, Italian-American, and homosexual communities) was just getting its footing in South Asia. Like Euro disco, the South Asian variant not only continued to thrive far into the following decade but reportedly retained popularity with Hindi audiences into the 1990s. And as Bombay Disco’s full title clearly explains, its spoils all derive from Bollywood film scores.

Some might remember and sense a connection to Bombay the Hard Way: Guns, Cars & Sitars, a late-‘90s Dan the Automator-instigated project that found the producer revamping the “Brownsploitation” soundtrack work of the composer/arranger/conductor duo Kalyanji-Anandji, and while there are similarities, there are also notable differences.

The biggest distinction is that outside of careful remastering, Bombay Disco’s producers, DJs Brother Cleve and Deano Sounds, have admirably left the compilation’s entries untouched. That means no remixing, no added instrumentation and to my understanding no editing. This hands-off approach not only enhances the historical importance of the whole endeavor, but also underscores the sustained focus of a specific wrinkle, namely filmi (the South Asian term for movie music), from inside of a much larger artistic impulse.

In his notes, Cleve describes filmi as a “remarkable mix of incongruent musical styles.” It’s a quote that many, particularly those unfamiliar with the song-and-dance cinema of Classical Hollywood, might easily extend to the very motion pictures they score. Lengthier than is the norm for western commercial fare, Hindi movies contain numerous musical sequences, with this attribute constant across the gamut of genres.

Beyond South Asia the efforts of Bollywood are often valued for providing a taste of needed refreshment amongst the deluge of its various industry counterpart’s reliably stale mainstream product. Hindi flicks basically achieve this by being full-tilt bonkers, but importantly (indeed, crucially) their spiciness isn’t necessarily striving for an atmosphere of the outlandish. Instead, they are the result of an unabashedly profit-oriented environment, one that just happens to be a superb example of legitimate cultural uniqueness.

Unique, but far from isolated, with the crossroads of filmi and disco directly impacted by John Badham’s 1977 smash Saturday Night Fever. According to Cleve, composer Bappi Lahiri was given explicit instructions to come up with comparable music for the ’79 movie Surakksha: Gunmaster G-9. And with “Mausam Hai Gaane Ka,” he far exceeded his producer’s opportunistic expectations.

Eschewing labored imitation, Lahiri’s achievement endures through inspired adaptation. The song is distinct from both American and Euro disco as it utilizes recognizable characteristics from both; there are bountiful strings, electronic flourishes, strategic handclaps and naturally, a forceful beat. But the track’s five minutes also possess a well-rounded compositional sensibility.

Intended to accompany images based upon Travolta’s famous sidewalk strut in Saturday Night Fever, “Mausam Hai Gaane Ka” connects closer to a dance-floor Morricone, one wielding a large arsenal of backup singers and a studio orchestra, than it does to the relatively direct melodic physicality of the Bee Gees. And the cut is indicative of Bombay Disco’s whole; if Lahiri’s boss, like most producers, was unquestionably pushing commerce over art, the composer had no difficulty serving both ends of that equation.

While the beginning of filmi disco, “Mausam Hai Gaane Ka” doesn’t commence the record, with Cleve and Sounds wisely resisting a strictly chronological presentation of the material and placing the song second in the order. 1980’s “Hari Om Hari,” co-written by Lahiri, skillfully sung by Usha Uthup and based on the universal meditational mantra that removes suffering, opens Bombay Disco, the piece delivering an excellent introduction to this geographical sub-genre.

But tune three, “Hum to Aap Ke Deewane” by Kishore Kumar and Amit Kumar (written by Rajesh Roshan and Anand Bakshi) spotlights the record’s strongest ties to precedent as it simultaneously offers its boldest transformation of those inspirations. Cited in the booklet as a derivation of Les Baxter’s exotica warhorse “Quiet Village,” the more readily apparent association is to the Steve Miller Band’s “Swingtown.”

As the text emphatically states, the complete experience requires the film’s attendant visuals; its wildly zooming camera and extensive choreography are easily available on YouTube (and are definitely well worth the look), but the nearly eight minutes of “Hum to Aap Ke Deewane” are so profusely loaded with content that I can’t imagine anybody feeling shortchanged.

“Udi Baba” is the first of two Bombay Disco numbers co-penned by the aforementioned team of Kalyanji-Anandji (both with Anand Bakshi); the complex melodiousness found on Bombay the Hard Way is immediately discernible and significantly enhanced by vocalist Asha Bhosle. She also figures on “Bugi Bugi” and the fantastic “Bongo Bongo,” two mid-‘80s tracks revealing Hindi disco’s progress quite well.

And with “Discotheque Music” we are given a succinct taste of Lahiri’s non-dance themed incidental contributions. This instance begins in a near-Krautrock zone before getting taken over by interweaving horns and strings. It’s splendid stuff. Then Bhosle returns for the second Kalyanji-Anandji piece, the alternately stomping and intricate “Pyar Ka Imithaan.”

From there Lahiri and Amit Kumar’s “Karate” features an outstanding opening bass-line and a full LP’s worth of variety (in particular a too short trumpet solo) in the span of 8:31, while the Roshan/Majrooh-penned “Disco ‘82”’s concise 3:44 unwinds like a well-crafted single (which it probably was.) And “Main Gul Badan” finds Lahiri and Usha Uthup tapping a vibe reminiscent of but not overly indebted to Morodor/Summer territory.

Penultimate cut “Dil Dil Dil, Kabhi Dil De Bhi To Do” includes Bhosle’s final appearance on a piece composed by Indian classical flautist Pandit Raghunath Seth. It’s an especially strong one and diverse in its popish hues from anything else on Bombay Disco. Closer “Jeena Bhi Kya Hai Jeena (Part 2),” a blatant but likeable steal from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” captures the spirit of this set and brings it full circle.

Again, the decision to present these nuggets minus any added contempo flavoring is a smart one (though a supplemental two-song 12-inch does include one dance-floor reedit by Cleve), and when coupled with the attention to a tight group of writers/performers, this collection succeeds as far more than just an exotic curiosity.

As it progresses, a tangible sense of personality, and by extension cohesiveness, takes shape. These are important artists deserving of a worldwide following; with Bombay Disco Brother Cleve, Deano Sounds, and the Cultures of Soul label have provided them a great service and their listenership a valuable resource.


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