Bollywood has always been about big. Big money, bigger productions, the biggest stars. In an industry obsessed with bluster, with overpriced stars and their PR machines on manic overdrive, we tend to forget that the machinery of magic that we know of as the film industry is equally run by the ‘little people’ - ushers who double up as ticket vendors at single theatres, reporters who practically invented the Page 3 format without even realizing it, gym instructors who sculpt superstars battling mid-life crises, rickshaw drivers who invented dhinchaak, the sound that has come to define Bollywood music. Also Starring is our tribute to the foot soldiers of pop culture who stitch together the dazzling quilt we call Bollywood.

It’s the time to disco

It was 1980 when Jitendra Hari Karvir, a.k.a. Appa, pioneered rickshaw pop - or dhinchaak - in Mumbai by selling his own homemade brand of car stereo. It is also the serendipity of his enterprise overlapping with chartbusters from Shaan and Qurbani that made him the Quincy Jones of his milieu. Vishwas Kulkarni tunes in

It is a sound that you associate with your eardrums bursting – something like nails scratching against a blackboard, but with a full song replacing the nails. You hail a black-and-yellow jalopy, you tell the cabbie where you wish to head, he pushes down the flag of his meter and you head off. And then, without forewarning, the cabbie turns on his stereo and out blares a chartbuster that is all treble and no bass. Once in a while, you ask him to lower the volume - but more often you sit back and soak it in, because it is an experience you cannot replicate.

Rickshaw Pop always had its own chartbusters, dhinchaak ditties that can best be enjoyed in the (dis)comfort of a taxi or a rickshaw. For every ‘It’s the Time to Disco’, designed for the middle and upper classes to shimmy to at overpriced discotheques, there is always a ‘Tere Naam Dil Ne Kiya Hai Zindagi Ka Guzaara Sanam’, a hissy male voice at the helm of a sub-culture with its own rules and its own emotionality.


But who really invented the genre anyway?
If word-of-mouth is to be believed, ‘dhinchaak’ found its birth in Goregaon West; old-timer auto drivers will point you in the direction of a man they affectionately call Appa.

Stationed in a narrow by-lane in the suburb of Goregaon West is Star StereoSystem, nestled in a tiny room that abuts the porch of a low-income housingscheme. Rickshaws zip by with cranky regularity. It is here that Jitendra Hari Karvir, aka Appa, invented Rickshaw Pop, by painstakingly manipulating the mechanism of a cassette tape recorder to give Bollywood music that tinny, shrieking edge.

He was also lucky that it was 1980. Vinyl players with ‘stereo’ written on them sold at a premium; the ‘hi-fi’ stereo system was all the rage in 1979. A year later Bollywood, always eager to import the new, came out with two films that indeed pushed the disco pedal – Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, for which Biddu composed the zeitgeist-defining chartbuster ‘Aap Jaisa Koi’, and Ramesh Sippy’s Shaan, for which R D Burman composed ‘Pyaar Karne Waale’, ‘Doston Se Pyaar Kiya’ and ‘Yamma Yamma’. Suddenly, everyone from Malabar Hill gujjus to rickshaw drivers in Dahisar thought it was the time to disco. While the aforesaid Malabar Hill gujjus could traipse down to Studio 29, a discotheque on Marine Drive owned by Sabira Merchant, rickshaw drivers came to Appa in order to convert their bug-shaped speed demons into private discotheques.

Beyond the necessity of subscribing to a fad, it was also the economics that made Appa the talk of the town. Audio systems then cost around Rs 2500. Appa’s homemade stereos, in comparison, would set a rickshaw driver back by around Rs 1400. In this regard, he could well be considered the Kabir Mulchandani of the Rickshaw Pop revolution.

Coming back to the sound engineering of the genre, Appa reveals to us how he achieved the pitch that made Lata Mangeshkar’s highest frequency seem like the thunder of a grand piano’s lowest key. Right at the beginning of his tutorial, Appa debunks a misconception that has emerged in post-liberalization India – that the excessively tinny sound that has come to be associated with Rickhaw Pop or ‘dhinchaak’ is the result of remixing the original in a studio: “Rickshaw Pop has not come from remixes that simulate the sound – rickshaw pop is a function of hardware, the tape recorder device being tweaked to a specific pitch.
“It’s simple. I would manipulate the mechanism of a car deck system called Speedking. It was a product made in Belgium, something that can still be acquired in the gullies of Grant Road (Bombay’s electronics wholesale district). Within the circuit of the car deck system, there is something called the head pre-am section. By adding extra capacitors and registers, I managed to boost the treble. This is what made the music sound so devastatingly tinny. And the rickshaw drivers absolutely loved it!”

A self-taught electrician, Appa found his calling when his first client ended up becoming a PR agent of sorts. “My first client was rickshaw driver Ganesh, who owned vehicle number MMQ 5092. I still remember that number. He is after all the guy who made me really famous around town.”

Any particular songs that really made his stereos sell like hot cakes? “Well, Vidhaata’s soundtrack had a lot of rickshaw drivers lining up for stereos. Then there was Yudh, that Tina Munim starrer. And then there is that film which had the song, ‘Dil Behelta Hai Mera Aapke Aaja Ne Se’. I don’t really remember the title of the flick, but the song did bring in lots of customers,” says the 52-year-old. Sorry, Mr Pahlaj Nihalani, but all due respect nonetheless.

Appa’s Star Stereo System had its heyday from 1980 to the mid ‘90s — and then competition increased and profits sank. Aside from fly-by-night remix outlets and modern technology (CDs and MP3s), China too has played a part in Star Stereo System’s decline by “flooding the market with cheaper car stereos”. A strange irony for a man who brought down the price of a tape deck in his time. It was economics, Appa reminds us, that made his star shine brighter.

Despite a significant decline in clientele, Appa’s isn’t the hackneyed riches-to-rags sob story. “My father made his living as a dye-maker. My son is a decently educated youth and on his way to becoming a computer professional. My brother has taken to teaching yoga. And I still command a lot of respect from the auto rickshaw driver community. From 1979 to 2003, it was a long, successful innings. Besides, I still sell home stereos and other equipment as and when a client comes knocking. For instance, the latest rage in town is to make amplifiers and stereos that are USB compatible. So I sell stereos now that have a USB port. It costs Rs 5000 for a home stereo. For a rickshaw driver, it’s Rs 4000. Life goes on,” says the man who brought lots of treble to our town.