SP Balasubrahmanyam: The actor behind the singer
We didn't just lose a singer but a commendable actor as well says co-stars of SPB
“Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at,” says a character from True Detective. But clearly, such advice doesn’t apply to geniuses like SP Balasubrahmanyam. In addition to being a legendary singer, SPB made a remarkable impression in many other fields, including as a voice-over artiste and as an actor. As an actor, he shared screen space with seasoned actors like Kamal Haasan and was part of films of veteran directors like Mani Ratnam, Vasanth, and K Balachander. For the connoisseur of his songs, his acting chops comes as no surprise. For if you paid close attention to his songs, you can see him emote and act in a way that puts many a popular actor to shame.
Is it a surprise then that his acting credentials, much like his singing, cuts across regions, and in particular spans Tamil and Telugu filmography? His acting career was littered with father roles, and featured him playing dad to many actors including Prabhudheva, Balakrishna, Venkatesh, Ajith, Vijay and Arvind Swami. Among his most remembered roles is as a widowed singer in Vasanth’s Tamil film, Keladi Kanmani (dubbed in Telugu as O Papa Lali). Despite SPB’s advice to Vasanth that he not cast him as the hero in his debut directorial, Vasanth persisted. The film turned out to be a blockbuster. Vasanth owes his trust on SPB’s acting ability to his days as an assistant director to veteran director K Balachander. “I was an AD in KB's Manathil Uruthi Vendum, in which SPB played a cameo. He wasn't acting; he was simply being. He was such a natural actor. I saw that's how acting should be. It was so satisfying to watch him perform during Keladi Kanmani. He was an extremely busy person during the film’s shooting and would easily have about nine-ten live recordings every day. And yet, he managed,” says Vasanth.
The film also featured another seasoned actor Charle, who shared special affection for SPB. “I met him at an audio launch last year. He was sitting in the balcony by himself. He saw me and quoted a line from a film he composed for, Sigaram. I told him that it was a matter of pride that I was a part of the film. The film, produced by my guru K Balachander, had me in one of the lead roles. He patted my back and said, ‘Aei…’. He does that whenever he gets emotional. I will never forget that moment.”
The actor-comedian also praised SPB’s acting ability. “There are so many performances of his to talk about, across Tamil and Telugu cinema. I remember his film, Thalaivasal (1992). He is an imaginative actor and doesn’t come across as being imitative of another actor. He made a distinct mark.”
Radikaa Sarathkumar, who co-starred with him in Keladi Kanmani, says SPB was ‘born with exceptional talent’. “He was surprised when I agreed to act alongside him. He wanted to know if I was sure. Despite being a professional singer, he never took acting lightly. He was more sincere than many professional actors are. He would keep asking the director and co-actors if the shot was alright. I think he took inspiration from Kamal Haasan when it came to acting. The two would always keep chatting about everything under the sun. I think it helped shape him as a legend."
For director Shakthi Soundar Rajan, the loss is more personal as SPB was the producer of his debut film Naanayam, with music by Thaman. The singer also acted in a grey character, which helped maintain the film’s suspense. “I had actually imagined the role with SPB Charan in mind but he suggested that I pitch the idea to SPB. I was nervous as we revere SPB and Ilaiyaraaja as demigods. However, SPB’s response was a revelation. I realised he was more modern and progressive, more than I was. He agreed to produce the film and act in it as well. He was a director’s actor. He delivered what was asked and never meddled with the script. He was always on the sets in time… sometimes a few minutes ahead of the schedule also. One valuable lesson that I learnt from him is never to become redundant. If he noticed two dialogues with the same information, he would point it out. To date, whenever I write, I avoid repeating information. I learnt this fundamental advice from SPB.”
Director Vasanth notes this keen eye for detail SPB always had. “SPB was a simple man with extreme intelligence,” says Vasanth, who has always grappled with just one lingering doubt. “He was a huge movie buff with a keen eye for cinema. I wonder why he never directed. I always asked him about it.” I guess we will never know.
(With inputs from Ashameera Aiyappan)