“His childlike enthusiasm to act was something none of us will ever forget,” recalls actor Radhikaa Sarathkumar of the time she first met veteran singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam on the sets of the film Keladi Kanmani.
The singer didn’t just touch several hearts with his singing across languages, but also managed to make a mark through his acting — bringing in depth and nuance to the varied characters he portrayed on screen in several Tamil films.
The song Mannil Indha , featuring Radhikaa and SPB went on to become a huge hit and is still remembered, nearly three decades after the film’s release.
As an actor, Radhikaa said that while SPB had infectious enthusiasm, he was also very conscious and eager to understand the nuances of the character he was playing.
“I was very fascinated by the fact that he had sung the song without taking a breath in between and on the sets, I would keep asking him to sing and show me how he recorded the song,” says the actor, who recalls that they shot the song in Mahabalipuram and made many wonderful memories.
Over the years, he shone in a number of roles — notably as the sharp and calculative CBI officer Lakshmi Narayan in Thiruda Thiruda or even in his short, five minute appearance as the fast-talking witty doctor in Avvai Shanmughi.
“He was truly multi-faceted and a legend in his own right,” said cinematographer and director Rajeev Menon. Mr. Menon directed SPB in his 1997 film Minsara Kanvu, where he essayed the role of lead actor Aravind Swamy’s father.
“He was so enthusiastic and joyous on set. It was fascinating to see him sparring away with noted playwright and actor Girish Karnad for the film,” he recalled. Their lunch time on sets, Mr Menon said, used to be one filled with music. “Over the years, SPB and I have taken several flights together and we would discuss music as well as sing for the entire journey.”
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Like his role in Minsara Kanavu , SPB brought in a lot of warmth playing the father to several Tamil heroes onscreen - be it Ajith in Ullasam , Vijay in Priyamanavale, or Prabhu Deva in Kaadhalan.
His role in Kaadhalan in particular, the 1994 film directed by Shankar, was an instant hit among the audiences then and the video for the song Kaadhalikkum Pennin Kaigal which featured both Prabhu Deva and the singer remains popular till date.
“For someone who saw so many films across languages and managed to deeply analyse as well as reflect on them, it still surprises me that he never took up direction.” said director Vasanth.
The filmmaker recalled how he first saw SPB act in a cameo role on the sets of K. Balachander’s Manadhil Urudhi Vendum . “The minute he finished his take, Suhasini Maniratnam and I both remarked at the same time how realistic and natural he was in front of the camera,” he said.
SPB went on to star in Vasanth’s first film Keladi Kanmani . “Even in the film, he played the role of A.R. Rangaraj with such simplicity and honesty. This is a special talent that not many people have — to realistically bring alive characters on screen.”
Everyone he had worked with on the sets remembers his joyous nature and how jovial he was. “You wouldn’t expect that someone who was as busy as him could be so cheerful and polite all the time. It baffled many of us that he was never angry,” Mr .Vasanth remarked. Last year, to celebrate 29 years of Keladi Kanmani , the filmmaker and the singer participated in two stage events commemorating the film.
His nature off-screen is what the people he worked with, believe reflected in his singing as well. “The joyousness and the smile he brought into his singing is what made his voice remain young. His voice was an ageless one- with a smile,” Mr Rajeev Menon said.