How SP Balasubrahmanyam became a rare, yet formidable, South Indian voice for the Hindi film hero
SP Balasubrahmanyam fit into the grammar of Hindi film music organically. He possessed the wizardry to make his singing style language-agnostic when appealing to a wider Hindi film audience.
Going into Sooraj Barjatya's 1989 directorial debut Maine Pyar Kiya, SP Balasubrahmanyam had the odds stacked against him. He already had over a thousand songs across four languages to his credit, along with a National Award for his debut Hindi album Ek Duje Ke Liye. But he still had to wage a war against popular perception of the time — a 'South Indian' singer as the voice of the Hindi film hero.
Balasubrahmanyam had sung for several Hindi films by then but his voice hadn't broken out in the Hindi film industry yet, especially in the way it would eventually in the years to come. The only exception would be K Balachander's 1981 romantic tragedy Ek Duje Ke Liye. But even in that film, Balasubrahmanyam's melifluous voice was reserved for a 'South Indian' hero — Kamal Haasan, which continued with Ramesh Sippy's 1985 directorial Sagar.
He had to wait for eight years since his Hindi cinema debut to make a quantum leap in Maine Pyar Kiya, starring newcomers Bhagyashree and Salman Khan. Rajshri Productions, the banner behind the seminal romantic drama, believed in usually roping in one music composer and one singer (female and male each) to lend a uniform character to their narrative. And so started the SPB-Salman journey.
In the late 1980s, the Hindi film industry was yet to see the advent of AR Rahman, and had not embraced a new male South Indian voice since Yesudas. But it was never a concern for Barjatya when he zeroed in on Balasubrahmanyam as the voice of Salman Khan to commence his film journey.
"I was a big fan of Balu sir since Ek Duje Ke Liye, and loved him as a person too when he had come to Mumbai to record songs for our film Pratighaat (1987). It was a big wish to have his songs in my first film," says Barjatya in an exclusive interview.
His maiden collaboration with Balasubrahmanyam, Lata Mangeshkar, composer Ram Laxman, and lyricist Dev Kohli concocted evergreen hits like 'Mere Rang Mein,' 'Aaja Shaam Hone Aayi,' 'Dil Deewana,' and 'Aaya Mausam Dosti Ka.'
Balasubrahmanyam fit into the grammar of Hindi film music as organically as his seasoned co-singer Mangeshkar. He possessed the wizardry to underscore the local nuances while rendering his voice for regional films, and at the same time, make his singing style language-agnostic when appealing to a wider Hindi film audience.
"There was never any concern since Balu sir spoke Hindi so well. He had already sung in a number of Hindi films before that," says Barjatya. He also adds that choosing Subrahmanyam (44 then) to introduce Salman Khan (23 then) wasn't a concern. "It's his versatility that he could sing for any age."
It was a fairly pleasant surprise that most men and women behind the music of Maine Pyar Kiya were above 40 while the idea behind the film was to launch two newcomers who were in their early 20s. In fact, Bhagyashree, who was 21 then, was then voiced by Mangeshkar, who was 60 then.
The voice of the Hindi film heroine had less restrictions as far as the age and origin of the singer is concerned. Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle sung for several newcomers or young heroines then, including Urmila Matondkar (Rangeela) and Madhuri Dixit (Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!). South Indian female singers were also encouraged to sing Hindi songs, from Kavita Krishnamurthy (Mr. India, Chaalbaaz) to Anuradha Paudwal (Saajan, Aashiqui). As long as the Hindi film heroine sounded pious and soothing, every singer was welcome. (There were alternate voices like Nazia Haasan and Usha Uthup but they were never the picks for the conventional Hindi film heroine.)
But for the male counterpart, a South Indian singer carried with him the reputation of being 'too refined', since most of the singers from the South were trained in the Carnatic style.
Earlier this month, when Ram Gopal Varma's 1995 blockbuster Rangeela completed 25 years, the lead actor Aamir Khan acknowledged in a roundtable interview that he was initially apprehensive of Rahman singing for him in the song 'Mangta Hai Kya.' He confessed that the audience was too familiar with Udit Narayan's voice for Aamir, given he also started his career with that voice in Mansoor Khan's 1988 romantic drama Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.
But when RGV insisted, Aamir gave in. And Rangeela became the pioneering soundtrack that it is considered today. In fact, a lot of South Indian filmmakers and composers were instrumental in bringing trained voices from the South to the Hindi film music. These voices were fresh for the Hindi belt as well as experienced enough to master any given melody.
Composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal were initially skeptical of Balasubrahmanyam's voice in Ek Duje Ke Liye. But when the director, Balachander convinced them, the singer went on to win a National Award for his song 'Tere Mere Beech Mein.'
After Maine Pyar Kiya, he reunited with Barjatya, Rajshri productions and Mangeshkar for Hum Aapke Hain Koun...!. With tracks like 'Didi Tera Devar Deewana,' 'Mausam Ka Jaadu,' 'Joote Do Paise Lo,' 'Dhiktana,' 'Wah Wah Ramji,' and 'Pehla Pehla Pyar,' the album became an all-time rage just like the film itself.
Balasubrahmanyam became Salman's staple voice in the early '90s, from the two Barjatya films to 'Saathiya Tune Kya Kiya' in Suresh Krishna's Love (1991), and from Lawrence D'Souza's Saajan (1991) to 'Ye Raat Aur Ye Doori' in Rajkumar Santoshi's Andaz Apna Apna (1994). He perfected another school of romance, the melancholic instead of the colourful, in Mani Ratnam's Roja (1991), which was also Rahman's debut album. After 15 years of absence from Hindi films, Rohit Shetty, Shah Rukh Khan, and Vishal-Shekhar announced Balasubrahmanyam's return with the title track of Chennai Express (2013).
Barjatya reiterates he would not like to remember Balasubrahmanyam as the 'South Indian singer who made it big in Bollywood. "The two memories with Balu sir that stand out [for me] are him rendering the full 'Mere Rang Mein' in one take... and his big smile and hug when we both won Filmfare Awards for Maine Pyar Kiya," he recalls.
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