S.P. Balasubrahmanyam

SPB: A genius ignored in Hindi cinema

Print edition : October 23, 2020

s.p. Balasubrahmanyam with R.D. Burman. SPB outshone popular playback singers of the Hindi film industry. Photo: by special arrangement

A still from K. Balachander’s “Ek Duje Ke Liye” (1981). SPB made his debut in Hindi cinema with this movie.

A still from“Maine Pyar Kiya” (1989). The secret of the film’s success was its music and its chartbusting songs rendered by Lata Mangeshkar and SPB.

SPB cast a spell on the young cinemagoer in north India, but Hindi cinema failed to make full use of his talent.

IT was the summer of 1989. Paras cinema, then the second largest hall in Delhi, routinely kept a “Housefull” board at the turnstiles. Youths, mainly college students, waited in hordes for the next show to begin. Those were the days of daily four shows at cinema halls. They were there to watch Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), a surprise hit that revived the sagging fortunes of the Rajshri banner. Rajshri had left its time-tested formula of a low-profile family saga steeped in Indian values to produce a truly urban romance meant for the bubble gum chewing, cola sipping crowd. Surprise because Salman Khan, who played the lead role, was not a known entity then, and the heroine, Bhagyashree, was best known for her role in a tele serial. Barjatya himself was untested and had taken a huge risk by coming up with a film that by market standards was expensive. Yet the film clicked at the box office, rewriting records along the way.

The secret of the film’s success was the music by Raam Laxman and its chartbusting songs rendered by Lata Mangeshkar and S.P. Balasubrahmanyam (fondly called SPB). Lata Mangeshkar did what was expected of her: whip up magic with her singing. It was SPB who was the surprise element. Truth be told, his voice was the soul of the film. His “Yeho sach hai, shayad maine pyar kiya” made boys hum along, lost in their own little dream worlds. His voice took Salman Khan’s popularity to another realm in the years to come.

SPB made his debut in Hindi cinema with K. Balachander’s Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981). His voice came to be associated with Kamal Haasan, the hero from Tamil Nadu. So effortlessly did SPB modulate his vocal chords that many Hindi-speaking audiences believed that it was the Tamil hero singing “Mere jeevan saathi” in the north-south love story. With his voice SPB forged lasting bonds. In Hindi cinema, he became for Salman Khan in the 1980s and 1990s what Mohammed Rafi was for Shammi Kapoor in the 1960s or Kishore Kumar for Rajesh Khanna in the 1970s.

Incidentally, SPB idolised Rafi. Many found in his untamed energy, his ability to improvise, a replication of Rafi at his peak. Some though were reminded of Kishore Kumar in the way he added an element of mischief to some of his songs. As in “Hey Raju, Hey Daddy” in Ek Hi Bhool (1981). It was this ability to lend himself to a character that served SPB remarkably well. Still, north Indian audiences were deprived of the full range of SPB’s singing; the Hindi film industry failed to tap into his genius the way it did justice to Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar.

Many cinemagoers in Muzaffarpur and Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) could not even pronounce his name correctly; hardly anybody knew what SPB stood for, yet he was able to connect with them with songs such as “Hum Bane Tum Bane” (Ek Duje Ke Liye), “O, Maria” and “Sach mere yaar hai” (Sagar). The star cast of Saajan (1991) included all the popular actors of the time—Salman, Sanjay Dutt and Madhuri Dixit. The popularity of the film’s music, particularly SPB’s playback singing, outstripped that of the actors.

SPB outshone popular playback singers of the Hindi film industry. He had more gravitas than the likes of Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu and Abhijeet combined. His pronunciation was far better than that of others in the field; he knew the difference between qamar and kamar, Khhuda and khuda; his range was much wider. Whether it was with Maine Pyar Kiya or Bharjatya’s subsequent blockbuster Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), SPB’s rendition played a critical role in the film’s success. In Maine Pyar Kiya, each song—“Dil deewana bin sajna ke”, “Mere rang mein rangne wali” and “Aaja sham hone aayi”—was an SPB special. Observe how he added an element of zing to “Aaja sham hone aayi”, and a touch of angst to the title track in Hum Aapke Hai Kaun. He was miles ahead of the competition. From the soaked-in romance “Pehla pehla pyar hai” to the much more vivacious “Joote de do”, a song that celebrated the north Indian tradition of hiding the groom’s shoes, SBP proved he was no prisoner of a language or a culture. If music was a deity, he was its passionate devotee.

With the success of these two Barjatya films, SBP came to be associated with Salman Khan and the Rajshri banner to the extent that many in north India recall him as the “Salman Khan wala singer”. Brilliant as he was for Salman, SPB was equally remarkable with “Roja janeman” in Mani Rathnam’s Roja (1992) or “Ye haseen wadiyan, ye khula aasman” or “Kabhi tu chhalia lagta hai” in Pathhar ke Phool (1991) followed by “Tumse milne ki tamanna hai” and “Dekha hai pehli baar” in Saajan. Not to forget “Imtehaan imtehaan” in Himmatwala (1983). SPB was used for this track by music director Bappi Lahiri, who otherwise preferred Kishore Kumar for most of his films in the 1980s. Each one of the songs was hugely popular. Each one of them helped the film’s fortunes at the box office. Yet the common man associated SPB’s voice with Salman Khan.

The biggest compliment to SPB lies in the ability of the cinemagoer to forget the playback singer and see only Salman Khan on the screen. Like Oscar Wilde, for SPB it was important to remember the art and forget the artist. There was much more to SPB than his uncanny ability to modulate his voice for the hero concerned. SPB deserved better footage in Hindi cinema than what he got. The Mahesh Bhatts and the Yash Chopras seldom thought of him for their projects, the latter even opted for Jolly Mukherjee for Chandni. Even K. Viswanath failed to rope in SPB for Sur Sangam, preferring Suresh Wadkar instead of him. Shiv-Hari, Khayyam, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, R.D. Burman and Bappi Lahiri seldom came up with special compositions for SPB the way O.P. Nayyar did for Rafi-Asha Bhonsle and S.D. Burman did for Kishore Kumar. The loss was entirely that of Hindi cinema. SPB could have been that pan-India Hindi playback singer after Kishore Kumar and Rafi. Most of them failed to appreciate the fact that SPB could elevate even forgettable tunes or inane lyrics to another level. Often his songs were better than the films. Sometimes, his rendition was a hit while the actor himself flopped.

All he needed was music directors who could discern the genius in him and appreciate his skills and the zest he brought to his craft. All he yearned for was a few men with vision transcending the north-south divide. It was not to be. The man who could have taken over the baton after Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar had to be content being better than the likes of Abhijeet, Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan.

But SPB left an indelible mark on the limited opportunities that came his way. His was a voice that conveyed the joy of living just as easily as it transported the listener to the melancholy of parting.

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