Fifteen years later, Biddu doesn’t look very different from the man we remember from the promo videos of the 1995 album Made In India. Dressed in a grey T-shirt and track pants, he rolls up and puts away his yoga mat when we meet him at his service apartment in Mumbai. He is in town to promote his autobiography, which packs in enough adventure to be a best-seller.
“I remember I was dressed in blue denim, boots and a cowboy hat, with my long hair flowing in the wind at Ballard Pier. All I had was my guitar,” he recalls. And as he looked down at the boat that was to be his ticket to freedom from the socialist India of the 1960s, and his entry to the Western world, “there were 800 Muslim men dressed in white robes, travelling to Haj, looking back at me and wondering, that must be the devil,” he adds. Thus began his journey, which included hitchhiking in West Asia and which ended in London, where his music career took off.
In India, people from different age groups have different memories of the 64-year-old musician. For those born in the mid-1980s, Biddu is the man who gave them the pop anthem Made in India that introduced Alisha Chinai and the short, sweet era of Indipop.
Back in India: Biddu says his only regret is that he didn’t give his singing career more of a chance. Kaushik Chakravorty / Mint
For those born before that, he’s the man who introduced teenage Pakistani sensation Nazia Hassan to India and the world—Aap Jaisa Koi from the film Qurbani and the album Disco Deewane became cult classics. And to many who have been listening to Kung Fu Fighting on their iPods or over a beer at their favourite watering hole, it will come as a revelation that the music for the single that became a worldwide hit in 1974 and sold nine million copies was composed by Biddu.
From trying to run away to Japan as a teenager growing up in Coorg, to becoming the lead singer of a pop group in India and then going to a travel agent with all his savings to get a passport and ticket to London, there’s enough material in his autobiography—Made in India—to keep the reader engrossed. And like any good page-turner, his story begins with deceit—the travel agent he went to runs away with all his money.
Crying for the first time in years, in a small hotel room in Mumbai, Biddu decides that he won’t let the incident affect his destiny and takes off on a long journey to London by boat, without money or even a map. “You would have to be rather stupid to have done that,” he admits. “I had no foresight at the time.” Although he doesn’t believe in God, he allows that there had to be someone looking out for him, for him to be able to make it to his destination. “I was so unusual-looking for the people in the Middle East, they thought I was one of the Beatles,” he says. “So they drove me and I didn’t go hungry most of the time.”
Biddu landed in London secure in the belief that in two weeks he was going to crack the West and that he would be No. 1 in three weeks. “When I got there, I realized I wouldn’t last 10 minutes. The standards of the music industry there were impossibly high,” he recalls. “And as an Indian in those days they were happier to hire me as an accountant than as a singer.” So he gave up on his ambition of being a singer and decided to produce his own records instead of working for a recording company. His first record with Japanese artists went on to become a hit, and set the ball rolling. Carl Douglas, Tina Charles and Jimmy James happened later, and the rest, as they say, is all in his autobiography.
Biddu believes that what sets apart his style of music is that it is very sensual in the rhythm— he mixed a “sensual Latinish rhythm” with other rhythms. “All my songs had a very sensual samba rhythm, whether it was I Love to Love by Tina Charles, Made in India or Disco Deewane,” he says.
Sonu Niigaam, Shaan and Chinai started their careers with Biddu. They are still in Bollywood but Biddu’s last Bollywood hit is from the 1980s. “You would have to live in Mumbai to make music here,” he explains. “Also, I don’t think I would be right for Bollywood music. For the picturization, the actor has to go to Switzerland and you have to change the music for that. I can’t do that kind of thing.”
The lack of a systematic royalty system and the chaotic Indian music industry also put him off. “But now Bollywood music is like pop music. A song like Dhoom would earn you $2 million (around Rs9.26 crore) abroad. Here, it would earn you about Rs2 lakh,” he says.
Moving between his homes in Spain and London, he has spent the last 10 years setting up and working on his publishing house called SueBiddu Music, which administers music for artists. In India, he has cut an album each with Abhijeet Sawant and Shaan.
But after being in the business for 51 years, he decided it was time to move on. “It’s a lonely and insular kind of job, especially when you’re working with computers,” he says. “I work on my own, composing and doing the arrangements.” Over the past few years, he realized he was losing interest in his work. That’s when he decided to “gracefully bow out” from the music scene and write a book. “I find most people either want to be in a film, open a restaurant and write a book,” he says. What about being a rock star? “That too. But then I already got that. I didn’t want to wake up one day and realize that all I did was music. No matter how well I did.”
He worked on a novel for over a year, but every publisher he went to with it made him an offer for his autobiography. He was hesitant, because to him it was a bit like “undressing”. And then there was the fear of coming across as big-headed and egotistical while writing in the first person.
“My wife coaxed me,” he says. “She said your stories are so interesting you must write them.” It took him three months to write about his life and make it into a book.
This time he is in India with Sue, his wife of 39 years, to do concerts as a singer. “It’s like coming back to the womb. I started as a singer in India and now, after all these years, I am back doing that,” he says. And that’s why the title of the book had to be Made in India.
“The West helped me bloom, but it doesn’t matter where you pay your mortgage. Your culture, roots and heritage is a strong umbilical cord. I am an Indian and will always be one.”