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SP Balasubrahmanyam (4 June 1946–25 September 2020): The singer who could act with his voice

A Guinness world record holder, SPB was someone who could express the same emotions behind a mic that the hero would enact on screen. He could be as versatile as Kamal Haasan, as regal as Rajinikanth and as playful as Salman Khan without even appearing on screen.

Shriram Iyengar

There can be no worse ailment to strike a singer than one that affects his very breath. It would have been difficult for a man who was identified by his voice to have lived without it. His death rings the curtain down on one of Indian cinema's most expressive singers since the great Mohammed Rafi. SP Balasubrahmanyam was just as expressive, refreshing and vibrant as his ‘guru’.

For fans of Hindi cinema who grew up in the 1990s, it is Balasubrahmanyam's voice that echoes through memories of teenagers trying to imitate Salman Khan in a leather jacket. It was never strange to them that a distinctly South Indian voice was singing for a Bandra boy.

That big stars wanted SP Balasubrahmanyam to sing for them should not have been surprising. He had, after all, broken through in Tamil cinema with a song for one of its biggest stars — MGR aka MG Ramachandran. In Adimai Penn (1969), he sang the wonderful ‘Aayiram Nilavae Vaa’ which became a hit.

Born to SP Sambamurthy and Sakunthalamma in Nellore in 1946 as one of seven siblings, SPB, as he was known to generations of fans, developed an interest in music from an early age. But he did not pursue it to the extent of looking for a professional teacher. Finishing school, he enrolled in the JNTU Engineering college in Anantapur where his singing ability made him popular among classmates.

Balasubrahmanyam's natural talent brought him to the troupe of the Pavalar brothers — Ilaiyaraaja, Gangai Amaran and Baskar. He was to go on to form formidable partnerships with Ilaiyaraaja and Gangai Amaran in the 1970s. Their partnership remained strong until a spat in 2017 brought about a rift between them.

SPB made his professional singing debut with the Telugu film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna (1966), followed by a Kannada film, Nakkare Ade Swarga (1966). Things had started to move for him.

It was during a song recording that MGR overheard his voice. In an interview with The Hindu newspaper last year, the singer recalled, “I was recording a Telugu song for the dubbed version of an MGR film in AVM Studios. He [MGR] was sitting under a tree during a break. Since there were no air-conditioners then, the doors of the studio were kept open. MGR was said to have remarked that he liked the Telugu version of his song and asked an assistant to check out on the singer. He was keen on using a new voice for his next film and suggested my name to music director KV Mahadevan, fondly known as ‘Mama'.”

That was how an extraordinary career took off. But SPB remained a reluctant professional singer in his early years. “I was studying to be an engineer," he said in another interview. "To be a gazetted officer, with a salary of Rs250 per month, that was my dream.”

But when he won his first National award for Best Playback Singer with the brilliant Telugu musical Sankarabharanam (1979), Balasubrahmanyam's popularity began to soar and the gazetted-officer dream was well and truly laid to rest.

Even with competition from singers like KJ Yesudas and Kishore Kumar, Balasubrahmanyam was impeccable with his inflections and voice acting. It should have surprised no one, given how big a fan he was of the late Mohammed Rafi. As he mentioned in the video interview above, “Some of the greatest singers with extraordinary voice timbre could sing beautifully... but no one could enact. Only Rafi.”

An example of this could be seen in his debut in Hindi cinema. The 1980s saw SPB break into the Hindi heartland with Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), which fetched him the National award for Best Male Playback Singer.

It was quite an achievement. For all its cosmopolitan nature, Hindi cinema can be quite regional and biased towards the North. Top Southern stars like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth and excellent singers like Yesudas, Chitra and S Janaki were unable to carve niches for themselves, most of them petering out after a short burst. SPB was the only one who was able to not just keep his place, but also thrive over the next two decades. That was perhaps because he was able to convey emotions through his songs like no one else could. Just sample this popular number from Ek Duuje Ke Liye.

The effortless and silly charm of Kamal Haasan as he blabbers off the names of popular Hindi films would not have registered quite so memorably unless the singer had reciprocated the same playfulness in his singing.

Few could do it as well as SP Balasubrahmanyam. He would go on to win his first Filmfare award for Best Male Playback Singer for Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), a film that made Salman Khan an overnight star, and cement himself as the actor's voice for the next few years.

Despite the arrival of competitors like Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan and Sonu Nigam in the 1990s, SPB retained his position as Salman Khan’s voice through most of the decade. Some of Khan’s biggest hits had the singer’s voice headlining them. From ‘Saathiya Tune Kya Kiya’ in Love (1991) to 'Didi Tera Devar Deewana' in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994), Salman Khan sang only in SPB’s voice.

One reason for a range of actors enacting their songs in SPB’s voice can be traced back to his worship of Mohammed Rafi. Like Rafi, SPB worked hard to enact his songs better than other singers. His intonations, inflections, pauses and style reflected the actors on screen. An impeccable mimic, he could imitate voices without those imitations becoming caricatures. In an interview in 2011, he said, “In a way, every singer is an actor. We act before the microphone. If he or she is as comfortable in front of a camera as they are before a microphone, they can do well as actors.”

He proved this with own acting performances on screen. From his role in Keladi Kanmani (1990) to the character of the gregarious father of Prabhudeva in Kadhalan (1994), he had some memorable and lovable performances on screen. He went so far as to have the audacity of dancing alongside the rubbernecked star. That was one of his specialities: SPB never shied away from self-deprecation or from having fun.

The 1990s also saw the rise of a phenomenon called AR Rahman. Needless to say, SPB was among the singers that the Mozart of Madras could not do without. Roja (1992) began the collaboration cinematically, though they knew each other from much earlier. Their first film was a spectacular musical success and it is safe to say it wouldn’t have worked without the romance of SPB’s voice. 

Balu, as he was known to friends and peers, retained this sense of joy as a performer on stage and behind the microphone. Over the last decade, he was still singing, performing on stage, and travelling till the inevitable arrived on his doorstep in the form of the dreaded COVID-19. Even then, he battled his way out for a brief moment, as though playfully winking at death, asking for one more retake, one more verse to sing. It was not to be.

SP Balasubrahmanyam leaves behind the legacy of a voice that will remain anchored to every memory of romance, playfulness and fun for fans across many languages.

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Indian cinema