The characters played by Balasubrahmanyam are time-tested, with great recall value for they were few and far between.

A screengrab from a movie acted by SP Balasubrahmanyan
news SPB Saturday, September 26, 2020 - 13:57

Kathiresan, a police constable, returns home and sees Prabhu, his son, sitting down with a notebook in deep sorrow. When his efforts to find out what’s wrong are met with the defensive ‘it’s personal!’, Kathiresan decides to buy two beers. For he is not the conventional father — he gently sings ‘Gnayiru Enbathu Kannaaga’, the haunting melody from Kaakum Karangal (1965), prompting a 21-year-old Prabhu Deva, who plays Prabhu, to collapse crying onto the lap of SP Balasubrahmanyam as Kathiresan. Finally, Prabhu, the young man from a middle class family, admits that he is in love with Shruti (Nagma), the Governor’s daughter. Instead of admonishing his son, he encourages him, telling him that love conquers all. 

Now who wouldn’t admire a father like that? This evergreen scene is from the movie Kadhalan (1994), directed by Shankar. It gives the man who has been known to audiences as an ace singer, the chance to display his talents as an actor. Throughout his decades-long career, singer SP Balasubrahmanyam juggled multiple roles, including that of an actor. In Tamil cinema, in particular, he acted in about 30 films. 

From Keladi Kanmani to Sigaram to Kadhalan to Minsaara Kanavu, SPB was very much typecast in the role of a father. However, he was able to bring something unique to each of his performances while retaining the premise of a loving and supportive parent. In the rare films where he was not playing the father, SP Balasubrahmanyam gave some memorable brief roles and cameos — Nandhini, Thiruda Thiruda, Avvai Shanmughi.

The characters played by Balasubrahmanyam are time-tested, with great recall value. This is because Balasubrahmanyam was primarily a singer and did not focus on acting. This meant that seeing him onscreen was a precious delight for audiences in the 1990s and 2000s; movie-goers could exclaim ‘hey that’s SPB!’ and not see him in any other movies for a while, until the next one comes along. 

Though he was reportedly invited by many leading film-makers to play various roles, Balasubrahmanyam turned them down, stating that his first love was music. 

A lookback at some of his acting performances:

Manathil Urudhi Veendum (1987)

The story of the film revolves around Nandhini (Suhasini), an independent woman, who works as a nurse in a hospital run by Dr Arthanari (Balasubramanyam). She has to uplift a family of six siblings and her parents. 

Balasubrahmanyam plays the role of her mentor and a doctor in the movie. He dedicates his life to being a doctor and decides not to marry. However, he makes up a story that he has a wife in his hometown. Only a few minutes before the climax, he reveals to his mentee whom he looks upon as a younger sister that he is not married and tells her his ambitions.

The role of SPB is of a jovial doctor, but the twists and turns of the character also demand smart acting. His dialogues are a mix of humour and philosophy and he masters both.

Keladi Kanmani (1990)

This was SPB’s first major film in Tamil cinema and one that continues to be remembered for his acting and singing, including the iconic ‘Mannil Indha Kadhal Indri’ song. From a single parent trying to navigate love after being widowed to being a care-giver to an ailing adult daughter (Anju), SPB’s performance throughout the film leaves us misty-eyed. 

Unlike the cliched, chirpy rom-coms of the time, director Vasanth's debut film showed two adults (Radikaa and SPB) in a romantic relationship, coming to terms with love, loss and the challenges arising out of their difficult personal situations. Balasubramanyam was given the opportunity to play a layered, emotional character even in the early days of his career as an actor.

SPB dutifully plays the role of a father who would give up his own desires for the sake of his beloved daughter. The climax of the film where the daughter is able to reconcile her actions as a child is sure to leave fans in tears every time. 

The unconventional film was a box office success too, running for 285 days in cinemas. The movie was also released in Telugu as O Papa Lali.

Thiruda Thiruda (1993)

This Mani Ratnam film remains one of SPB’s standout performances. Just one long scene was enough to establish him in Thiruda Thiruda as a quick-thinking CBI officer in the movie. Lakshmi Narayanan (Balasubrahmanyam) enters a building with fellow officers. He discusses the details of his case and enters the room where an accused (Ajay Ratnam) has been kept. Taking his time and revealing how much he already knows, SPB plays the character with authority, a departure from his usual father roles. 

He interrogates decisively while coming across as a bumbling, sincere officer showing his ID card to every person he wishes to speak to regarding his case. Skirting the law as a government official, the actor in SPB takes on a challenging role as an investigator who has to find Rs 10 billion within 10 days. 

SP Balasubrahmanyam was truly believable as a CBI officer and he lives up to expectations till the end.

Avvai Shanmughi (1996) 

This Kamal Haasan film is one of the first that audiences may recall when thinking of SPB’s acting career, despite the fact that he makes only a very brief cameo. Inspired by the Hollywood film Mrs Doubtfire, Avvai Shanmughi is a laughter riot from Kamal, KS Ravikumar and Crazy Mohan. 

When Kamal tries to become part of his father-in-law Vishwanathan’s household as a woman nanny to be close to his daughter, he saves her from a firecracker accident. Kamal, as Avvai Shanmughi, throws his daughter into a swimming pool to ward off the burns. She is given a dressing down by patriarch Vishwanathan for not wrapping her in a gunny sack to douse the burns. This is where SPB, as the family doctor, enters. 

In a brief scene, elevated to comedy gold by Crazy Mohan’s witty lines, Sethuraman Iyer (Delhi Ganesh) attempts to explain to the doctor what the emergency is. SPB interjects each attempt with a possible explanation even before Sethuraman can finish. His role, as the man who ends up giving the final stamp of approval to hire Avvai Shanmughi is memorable. 

Priyamaanavale (2000)

Vishwanathan (SPB) is a father who wants his son to lead a normal married life, but his son (Vijay) does not believe in marriage. SP Balasubramanyam plays the role of a businessman who wants the best for his son. Fond of his assistant Priya (Simran), he tries to convince her to marry his son who is set against it, unless it is a ‘one-year contract’. 

Priya agrees to the marriage due to various family issues. However, after a year, they lead separate lives based on the contract. SPB’s role in the movie is to play a father who disagrees with the beliefs of his son, but still wants to shape him into a better person. SPB remains an anchor throughout the movie and his role changes from being a happy father immediately after marriage to a disapproving father once his son decides to divorce Priya to an emotional father when Priya points out the mistakes of his son.

SPB was the perfect choice to handle the multiple layers of the movie. With strong acting abilities and charisma, SPB makes the audience laugh and cry.

Apart from these, the legendary singer has also acted in films including Palaivana Ragangal, Thiyagu, Sigaram, Gunaa, Thalaivasal, Kadhal Desam, Ullaasam, Ratchagan, Bharathan and April Maadhathil in Tamil.

While fans adored him for his music, many also admired his acting skills. The demise of the singer on Friday also means audiences will never again see the familiar, genial face on screen and exclaim, ‘ah, there’s SPB!’.

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