By Aravind CV Nair
A wannabe engineer drifted into films as a playback singer and five decades later, still rues the fact that he could not pass out of college with a degree. Yet a glance at his career graph in these fifty years reveals that they have been very profitably spent. Over 40,000 songs in different languages including Hindi earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, another world record for recording 21 songs in a single day, six National Awards for Best Male Playback Singer, countless state and other awards is by no yardstick a mean achievement.
S P Balasubrahmanyam also known as SPB and simply as ‘Balu’ to his close circle of friends is a rare phenomenon and if one were to take into account his credentials as a film producer, dubbing artiste who has lent his voice to marquee stars like Kamal Haasan in the dubbed Telugu versions of his films, music director and actor, SPB soars over his contemporaries in the industry.
The singer, who was personally selected by none other than MG Ramachandran (MGR) to croon ‘Aayiram Nilave Vaa’ in the film ‘Adimai Penn’ starring MGR and the present Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa in the lead, soon found himself in demand and since then it has been smooth sailing all the way. And with the advent of music directors like Ilaiyaraja and AR Rahman, the new singer on the block who had begun to be seen as a viable alternative to TM Soundararajan and PB Srinivas who had for decades on end been hogging the limelight soon came into his own.
SPB’s acid test, if it may be called that, came when the veteran music director KV Mahadevan preferred him over acclaimed classical and film playback singers Balamuralikrishna and KJ Jesudas for the K Vishwanath directed musical ‘Shankarabharanam’.
Eyebrows were raised when SPB was penciled in to sing all the numbers in the film for the simple reason that unlike the aforesaid legends, he had virtually no grounding in classical music and in this film hailed as an all-time classic all the numbers had a distinct classical touch. Such was the faith placed in him by Mahadevan that SPB had to vindicate it at any cost and the painstaking efforts that he put into his rehearsals ensured that all the songs turned out to be chartbusters.
‘Shankarabharanam’ was released in the year 1980 and even today the hit tunes like ‘Shankara’ and ‘Brochevaara’ continue to be extremely popular among listeners. The trio of KV Mahadevan, SPB and Vani Jairam swept the National Awards that year winning the Best Music Director, Best Male Playback Singer and Best Female Playback singer respectively, a just reward for a brilliant effort and all the hard work.
SPB has been a regular feature in the films which had music by Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman and it would be no exaggeration to say that his popularity which had peaked by then and his singing prowess played very vital roles in their climb to the top. SPB’s association with Raaja dated back to the days when the maestro had been conducting concerts all over Tamil Nadu and once Raaja got his break with the film ‘Annakili’ SPB become a vital part of most of the films for which Raaja scored the music. And this included films in Telugu like the Vishwanath directed ‘Saagara Sangamam’ and Rudraveena’ as well. SPB won National Awards for both these films.
The Ilaiyraaja-SPB combination gave the Tamil film industry some of the biggest chartbusters including numbers like ‘Chinnamani Poove’, ‘Sangeetha Jaathi Mullai’ and ‘Malayoram Veesum Kaatru’. Rahman who had been composing jingles and also playing the keyboard for several composers including Ilaiyaraaja got his first break in the Mani Ratnam directed ‘Roja’ produced by the late director K Balachander.
The highlight of the film which incidentally turned out to be a runaway hit was the score by a young Rahman and SPB played his part in the album’s success by rendering as many as three numbers in the film. Since then the duo has been inseparable and Rahman continues to rely on SPB for some of the difficult songs requiring a high pitch, and the song ‘Ballelakka’ in Shankar’s hit film ‘Sivaji – The Boss’ is a case in point. SPB has also been a predominant part of the music composed by other music directors notable among them being Deva, Vidyasagar, Keeravani, and Rajkumar. SPB who had wooed Kannada audiences with hit numbers from the sixties teamed up with Hamsalekha to deliver chartbusters in the super hit ‘Prema Loka’ and has remained a favourite of the popular music director ever since. SPB also won a National Award for the film ‘Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai’ for which Hamsalekha composed the music.
Lakshmikant-Pyarelal scored the music for Balachander’s Hindi film ‘Ek Du Je Keliye’ a remake of his Telugu hit ‘Maro Charitra’. One of the conditions that Balachander laid down to L-P was that he wanted SPB as the male voice in all the songs. SPB, who had been rendering Mohamed Rafi’s hits in concerts before he hit the big time, made the most of the opportunity and under L-P’s baton he delivered like never before. All the songs turned out to be super-duper hits and the film also fetched him another National Award.
Later SPB became the voice of Salman Khan in films like ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’ and ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ and his duets with Lata Mangeshkar became a rage in no time. Almost all the songs that SPB has sung in Hindi cinema could be classified under the category ‘evergreen hits’ as they are as popular today as when they were first sung. He returned to Bollywood after a long hiatus to sing for the Shahrukh Khan starrer ‘Chennai Express’.
At the height of his popularity SPB turned into a dubbing artiste and made a success of this vocation as well. He also began acting for a lark and did a few cameo roles before Vasanth, a one-time assistant to Balachander, chose him for a hero’s role in the film ‘Keladi Kanmani’ where Radhika played the female lead. He has also tried his hand at film production and has been an integral part of reality shows on TV for quite some time now.
SPB often remarks in all modesty that he wonders how he has lasted in the industry this long. Given his remarkable talent and versatility, his longevity, as his legion of fans would gladly aver, can hardly be surprising.