A laugh here, a sigh there: Remembering SP Balasubrahmanyam's unique musical style

How SP Balasubrahmanyam lent his unique musical style to multiple leading men, from Arvind Swamy in Minsara Kanavu, to Rajinikanth in Thambikku Entha Ooru, to, more recently, Dhanush in Vetri Maaran’s Aadukalam.

Subha J Rao September 28, 2020 08:07:44 IST
A laugh here, a sigh there: Remembering SP Balasubrahmanyam's unique musical style

SPB in 'Mannil Indha Kaadhalindri' | Image from YouTube

It’s the beginning of a tender, young love and the couple’s hands graze each other. They are dizzy-headed, in a kerakkam, as they’d say in Tamil. Who else but SP Balasubrahmanyam — all of 65 when Vetri Maaran’s Aadukalam (2011) was being made — could make you feel that sizzling chemistry with a voice heavy with love, yet light with playfulness? The music was by a boy he adored, GV Prakash Kumar, whom he first saw as a child in his uncle AR Rahman’s studio, where he would keep running away from the mic instead of singing Chikku Bukku Rayile.

Prakash is still in awe of how SPB lent his unique charm to Ayyayo Nenju’. It was a song very close to the singer’s heart, because it also featured his son SPB Charan, and went on to win many awards. “That’s his trademark, right, he always manages to introduce a little laughter here and there to add flavour to a song. It’s all him,” recalls Prakash.

This anecdote comes from a time when you can visualise the songs you like by simply YouTubing them. But decades before that, SPB helped you see songs even as you heard them. Remember Siriya Paravai Siragai from the 1985 Andha Oru Nimidam, a whole 26 years before Aadukalam? At 4.50 minutes, just when the song is about to conclude, there’s this burst of laughter, before the song moves to a positive note. Kamal Haasan, as always a great song actor, aced that laugh on screen. Did the music director tell him to laugh this way? Did he know this is how the actor would lip sync? How did he know to laugh to a set musical metre?

As kids, my cousin and I could go back and forth, rewinding and fast-forwarding the tape on our National Panasonic 543 so that we could go land at that exact minute. Years later, we saw that smile on Doordarshan during Oliyum Oliyum when they played the song.

(Also read on Firstpost —SP Balasubrahmanyam was a lesson in decoding tradition while keeping with the times)

In 1997, when satellite television had entered homes, and with it, film songs, most saw first hand what SPB managed with Thanga Thamarai Magale from Minsara Kanavu. The song went on to fetch him a National Award too. Director Rajiv Menon remembers the recording. “It was a high-pitch song and SPB was not very happy with his output. We tried reducing the pitch and the song died. Suddenly, he decided he would sing in high pitch. He held up the paper and a suspended mic caught all the action. He’d always tell me I made him scream for his food.”

Thanga Thamarai’ had a different kind of kerakkam, distinctly one-sided, and was a mix of love and admiration for a girl who had no clue about the boy’s feelings.

A lot has been written about how SPB had the ability to sound like the top actors of his time, but one could go on and not tire. He sounded like Kamal, drenching songs with love, grief and playfulness, and revelled in his famous disco numbers too. Annatha Aadaraar and Unna Nenachu are examples of exuberance and a broken heart, both picturised on Kamal and sung by SPB. It almost felt like SPB knew how Kamal would introduce a half-smile somewhere, and he sang its musical equivalent.

For Rajinikanth, Tamil cinema’s angry young man, he sounded appropriately more mature, and gave him probably his best love song in ‘Kaadhalin Deepam Ondru’, from Thambikku Entha Ooru (1984). There’s also a ‘haah’ at the 1.36 mark. The famous Rajini introduction songs need an SPB.

For Karthik, SPB was playful and passionate in turns. In Kizhakku Vaasal (1990), he sang Pachamala Poovu, where Karthik serenades a goddess-like Revathy with a certain reverence; later, in Paadiparandha kili, he’s full-throated in grief, his heart broken after he realises the girl he loves is to be married to someone else.

SPB was the voice that nudged Meenakshi Seshadri towards Prabhu’s love in K Balachander’s Duet. His songs for Prabhu were filled with the good-naturedness and wholesomeness that the actor’s characters were known for.

Mohan would not have been ‘Mike’ Mohan but for SPB’s voice. Most remember Mouna Ragam (1986), but there’s also Udhaya Geetham (1985), among a whole lot of other 80s hits, with its chartbusters, one of which also lent SPB the moniker ‘Paadum Nila’. The songs for Mohan defy listing, hit after hit after hit, in so many genres. So many memorable love songs down the ages.

There are also a tiny bouquet of songs where SPB sang for himself on screen, most famously Mannil Indha Kaadhalindri in Keladi Kanmani (1990), which rang in 30 years of its release this year.

The singer with a voice that traversed so many emotions was also a great voice actor. Not many know of how much life he lent to Kama Haasan’s Tamil films that were dubbed into Telugu, or vice-versa. Indran Chandran and Sippikul Muthu came alive for Tamil audiences thanks to SPB; he did the same for over 150 films of Kamal, including Dasavatharam, when they travelled from Tamil to Telugu. His voice bond with Kamal was one for the ages, with people often getting confused as to who was speaking.

SPB, the singer, took over every other talent of his, one of which was acting. A film that brought together the actor, the singer and the expression king in one scene is Manadhil Urudhi Vendum (1987). He plays a doctor who has to kick off a smoking habit. He fondly looks at a cigarette, absorbs its scent with intensity and a smile, and then sings a ‘mangalam’, usually sung at the conclusion of a classical Carnatic concert, to signify the end of a relationship. Luckily, for us, he never sang a mangalam for his bond with his listeners.

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