From modest beginnings to mass appeal… Singer ‘Gaana’ Bala has hit the high note with his chartbusters. He talks to Udhav Naig about his journey to fame

No fancy prose can capture the culture, history, unique hybrid language and the lifestyle of the subalterns of Chennai as interestingly as Gaana songs can. Someone who has emerged as the ambassador for Gaana in recent times is undoubtedly ‘Gaana’ Bala. Some of his recent songs are hugely popular amongst the young Romeos of Chennai due to its ‘humour-filled’ lyrics that candidly talk about love and life. Bala, however, isn’t surprised about the extent to which his songs have become popular, cutting across class lines. “Gaana doesn’t just belong to the slums of Chennai. It belongs to everyone living in this city,” he says.

He is right. His recent hit song, ‘Kaasu, Panam, Dhuddu, Money’ from the film Soodhu Kavvum has been heard blaring from the stereos of share autos as much as it has on fancy MP3 players. But, the massive overnight fame has come after a prolonged wait. “I always knew I will be popular one day,” he says.

He first tripped on Gaana when he was in high school. “That’s when I started writing my own lyrics for popular film songs. It was my way of becoming the centre of attraction in school,” he recollects. He gained confidence as a Gaana singer when he joined Presidency College, Chennai to study Botany. His audience comprised friends and college-mates. Those were his formative years as a singer.

Sensing that he could probably make a lucrative career of his unique talent — writing fun lyrics and singing. Lending his voice to devotional albums and local light music troupes, he realised that his reputation was growing. That’s how films happened. He first met music composer Deva, who he credits with popularising the art form of the disenfranchised in commercial cinema. Unfortunately, the film failed to take off. “I sang in three films after that, all of them sank without a trace,” he says.

His first big break came when he sang ‘Nadu Kadalula Kappala Erangi Thalla Mudyuma’ in the film, Attakathi. “I am grateful that composer Santhosh Narayanan used my tune and lyrics and credited me for that,” he says. Before this song could complete its course, he had delivered another hit number, ‘Ora Kannaley Enna Orangatturaa’ from Udhayam NH 4.

Today, ‘Gaana’ Bala records at least three songs every week. “My target this year is to sing 100 songs and write lyrics for 50 songs,” says Bala, who has already sung over 50 songs in his brief career. After the success of ‘Kaasu Panam Dhuddu Money’ and ‘Ora Kannaley’, he is also being asked to appear on screen. “I have danced in Sasi Dharan’s Vaarayo Vennilavey. I have given my best to the song in which I appear as a former college student. It will again be a fun song,” he reveals. What next? “Next step is to become a hero,” he smiles.

While Bala is usually a cheerful man, he also has a serious side to him. He is a bit of a superstar in his neighbourhood in North Madras. Not many know that he is a lawyer and has contested local municipal elections twice as an independent candidate, losing only by slender margins. Bala, who identifies himself as an Ambedkarite, says, “I am always involved in community activities. I like helping people. I would have been a politician if I had not become a singer.”

Is he not concerned with the fact that Gaana songs are being stripped off their ideology and increasingly used ‘just’ for entertainment? “When it is used for commercial purposes in mainstream cinema, this is bound to happen. I still use Gaana for political purposes when I sing for party meetings,” he explains. Does the same logic explain why Gaana is widely seen to promote misogynistic ideas? “It is not that I don’t want to mock the guys in my songs. But I can only do what the directors want me to do, right?”

As a parting question, I point out to him that singers like him have come and gone and ask him why ‘Gaana’ singers come with expiry dates. “Once you are popular, you need to make sure that you don’t get greedy. Most of them start doing shows in other countries because it is a quick way to make money and stop singing in movies.”

And does he not want to make money? “I don’t want to make easy money. Fifty years later, the Tamil people should still sing my songs. I am working towards that,” he signs off.

Popular songs

Nadu Kadalula Kappala Erangi Thalla Mudyuma: Attakathi

Kasu Panam Dhuddu Money Money: Soodhu Kavvum

Ora Kannaley: Udhayam NH 4

Thannai Thaane: Paradesi

Nee Thandi Osthe Ponna: Settai

Upcoming films

Saraswathi Sabatham

Varayo Vennilavey

Biriyani

Villa – Pizza 2

The article has been corrected for a factual error. The music director of Attakathi is Santhosh Narayanan not Mahesh Narayanan as erroneously appeared in the original article.