The year was 1981. As a teenager growing up in New Delhi, one wasn’t really aware of Kamal Haasan’s popularity in the south. Hailing from Karnataka, I knew about Dr Rajkumar and Arati, but nothing about other southern stars.
Ek Duuje Ke Liye and Kamal Hassan aroused some curiosity. And while I loved the film, despite its debatable ending, I admired the voice used for the main lead. SP Balasubramanyam was completely different from everybody else, including the other southern genius KJ Yesudas, who had some big Hindi hits a few years before.
I didn’t know the words then, but SP Balasubramanyam’s timbre and intonation were totally unique.
To me, the song Mere Jeevan Saathi, where he and Anuradha Paudwal took the names of Hindi films in comic style, was a work of genius. Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s music and Anand Bakshi’s lyrics combined to create the gem Hum Bane Tum Bane and SP Balasubramanyam’s rendition of the sad version of Tere Mere Beech Mein was outstanding. His southern accent suited Kamal Haasan’s role.
Those days, SP Balasubramanyam was already popular among Delhi’s South Indian community because of his work in the 1980 Telugu film Sankarabharanam. Composed by K.V. Mahadevan, it had the classics Omkara Nadanu, Broche Varevaru and Raagam Thanam Pallavi, using Carnatic music elements. I also realised that in the early 1970s, SP Balasubramanyam had sung one of my favourite Kannada songs Haavin Dwesha from the film Naagarahaavu, composed by Vijay Bhaskar.
SP Balasubramanyam and the Stars
Many people describe SP Balasubramanyam as Salman Khan’s voice in Hindi cinema. While that is true because he sang hit songs in the films Maine Pyar Kiya, Saajan, Andaz Apna Apna and Hum Aapke Hain Koun, he was actually Kamal Haasan’s voice at some stage, singing O Maria and Sach Mere Yaar for R.D. Burman in Saagar, and for composer Ilaiyaraaja in Appu Raja.
Maine Pyar Kiya, composed by Raam Laxman and starring Salman Khan and Bhagyashree, expanded his Hindi film fan base with Aate Jaate, Mere Rang Mein and Aaja Sham Hone Aayee, and his collaboration with Lata Mangeshkar was commendable.
Saajan had typical SP Balasubramanyam numbers like Dekha Hai Pehli Baar and Bahut Pyaar Karte Hain, composed by Nadeem-Shravan. In Andaz Apna Apna, music director Tushar Bhatia got out some good songs, including Yeh Raat Aur Yeh Doori.
SP Balasubramanyam had some wonderful songs with other actors too, a notable one being Hum Na Samjhe The, composed by R.D. Burman and also featuring Asha Bhosle, in the Jackie Shroff film Gardish. In the Shah Rukh Khan film Chennai Express, he and Jonita Gandhi sang the title track composed by Vishal-Shekhar.
SP Balasubramanyam and his Linguistic Connect
The singer’s forte, of course, was to sing in the southern languages. His combination with Ilaayaraja, and later A.R. Rahman, and his teaming up with singers S. Janaki, P. Susheela, Vani Jairam and his sister S.P. Sailaja was exemplary.
Personal favourites would be Ilaiyaraaja’s Telugu songs Aveshmantha from Alaapana, Aamani Padave and O Paapa Lali from Geethanjali, and Kammani Ee Premalekhane, with Sailaja in Gunaa.
The Kannada song Naguva Nayana Madhura Mouna, composed by Ilaiyaraja and featuring SP Balasubramanyam and S. Janaki in the film Pallavi Anupallavi, was copied to create the Idea Cellular jingle. In Malayalam, Ilaiyaraaja composed Tharapradam, featuring SP Balasubramanyam and K.S. Chithra in Anaswaram.
With Rahman in Tamil films, Anjali Anjali Pushpanjali with Chithra was a big hit. His Erani Kuradhani with Janaki in Kadhalan was loved by the masses, and cut across boundaries with its Hindi version Gopala Gopala in Humse Hai Muqabla.
The songs of Roja were big hits too, and in Hindi, one version of Roja Jaaneman was popular. That apart, his Na Na Na Kaache Esona featuring Bhosle and composed by R.D. Burman is a Bengali favourite.
Whichever language he sang in, SP Balasubramanyam had a distinct melody and stamp in his voice. And he displayed that softness while speaking too.
I first met him in the late 1990s at Hotel Rishi in Dadar East, where he had been invited as chief guest at a function. There was still time, and he suggested we check out the bustling Udipi Refreshment next door. The place was buzzing and naturally a few people recognised him. Some took his autograph, even if it was on the tissue paper kept on the tables. After dosa and coffee, he willingly signed and even posed with the restaurant staff.
Our interview never stopped midway, as he answered questions as though only two of us were in a room. That was SP Balasubramanyam the soft-spoken gentleman, whose voice will be heard forever.