Thamizh Talkies: Balu is an emotion
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
Once upon a time, my dad bought his first second-hand LML Vespa scooter from a man, who was an upcoming playback singer. This singer had just shot to fame having rendered a song for none other than MGR himself. In our music and movie-loving family, SP Balasubrahmanyam was perhaps the first ‘household celebrity’ name. He was the favourite singer of all my cousins who would visit his recordings and recount his style and ‘machismo’ in rendering songs; they saw him record many hit numbers in a studio that one of my uncles managed at the time. Every day of my growing up was peppered with anecdotes of praise from my uncle who felt that ‘Balu’ was a voice who would give both Sivaji Ganesan and MGR youthful longevity on screen that would belie their real age. I also grew up dreaming that the man I fall in love with should have this voice. I believed that a ‘real man’ would talk like SPB, sing like SPB, show as much love for a woman as SPB did in his songs and have as much purpose and pathos as SPB rendered.
I also grew up thinking he sang the song, “Sujatha, I love you Sujatha” (Kodeeswaran Magal) just for me and even asked him to render a few lines just for me when I interviewed him for this paper a couple of years ago. Needless to say, he is my first ‘hero’; before I saw a hero on screen, I first heard his voice through SPB’s songs. The voice of this singer seems like everything a woman would want in a man: It’s steadfast, intense, clear and sweet (read ‘sensitive’). When a voice like that sang for a face like a Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth or Chiranjeevi or Mohan or anyone else, the hero became as winsome! I’m wilfully averting the temptation to get into a list of favourite songs, because it’s just beyond count. However, what I do wish to emphasise is how wonderfully SPB has touched all our hearts and lives irrespective of which generation or era we may belong to! His health status seems to be getting better and I can hear an entire population breathe a sigh of relief on reading that. That kind of love for an artiste is the pinnacle of a blessed life.
The next best thing SPB did apart from playback was singing on stage with equal passion and becoming one of the best singers who could easily recreate in a live performance, the theatrical experience of a song. It took two decades and a bit more for the arrival of another singer who would perform with as much virtuoso: Shankar Mahadevan. Still, SPB held fort for the ease with which he would render a ‘Kaadhalin Deepam Ondru’ and ‘Yengeyum Yeppodhum’ without missing an expression or beat every single time he performed. To do something well is talent but to do something well consistently for decades is an indescribable standard of excellence. Despite initially lacking formal training in music, SPB’s prowess shone in his capacity to be able to straddle the mainstream with the Classical. In a highly competitive field like cinema, there’s always a comparison with peers for any shining talent. But to compare SPB’s panache with KJ Yesudas’s mellifluousness would be wrong because firstly, both belong to different eras and to different musical schools. If there ever were a singer who is much loved and is a universal favourite across generations, it has to be SPB.
For me and my family—and to the film fraternity and his fans, SPB is a name but Balu is an emotion.
P.S: When I met him in 2003 for his (and my first) FM radio live chat, he did ask what happened to the scooter he sold to my dad. He said that if we could trace the buyer, he would like to buy the scooter back. I didn’t have those details and he went on to talk about how it’s all for the good and how one must move on with the times. He spoke about how much life finds a way to reward us if we listen to our heart’s calling.
Heal well, Balu Sir. We love you.