To hear SP Balasubramaniam talk about Mohammed Rafi is to understand that ‘music is the universal language’.
Without understanding a word of Hindi/Urdu, SPB would cry every time he heard the song ‘Deewana Hua Badal’ at a small tea shop while cycling to his engineering college in the morning in the early 1960s. Rafi’s ethereal voice touched his heart — it was the magic of music.
It’s only for the rare few, such as SPB, that music is truly the universal language — most of us commoners swear by only singers and songs of our own mother tongue or region, songs we’ve grown up with.
People vow that one singer or the other has the “greatest” voice, but these are hollow claims — it’s more accurate to say that the voice of A or B “is the best voice I’ve heard in my mother tongue”.
If SPB had sung no song in Hindi, his genius would have remained unrevealed to most people north of the Vindhyas — just as stalwarts such as Ghantasala or P Jayachandran or Susheela are unknown in the north, like other great singers who have sung in one of the languages and dialects of India.
SPB himself had no problems in accessing the genius of Hindi singers, most of all Rafi, because of two reasons — the proliferation of Hindi film songs and because SPB himself was musically a genius, untrained as a singer but possessing an eclectic ear.
When SPB learnt the nuances of Hindi/Urdu, he could appreciate more the way Rafi sang the words ‘Tum meri zindagi ho’ in Yeh Mera Prem Patra Padh Kar (Sangam) or the word ‘Jhooma…’ in Deewana Hua Badal (Kashmir Ki Kali) or ‘Hum’ in Terey Merey Sapne (Guide).
If you love Rafi or SPB or music, his tribute to Rafi is worth listening to:
SPB sang most of his Hindi songs over two decades, first recording for Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), when he was around 35. All the songs of the movie were very popular, with SPB getting one solo, and doing full justice to it — the sad version of Tere Mere Beech Mein. Here’s him singing this live, with Kamal Haasan sitting next to him:
SPB had a near solo in Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Mere Jeevan Saathi, interspersed with the laughter of Anuradha Paudwal, and her dismissive remarks on the names of the movies which SPB sang as a song:
SPB’s fortunes in Bombay got linked with those of Kamal Haasan, who did sign a few Hindi films following Ek Duuje Ke Liye, but also remained busy with the southern movies; SPB too was extremely busy singing in the southern languages. In Kamal Haasan’s next Hindi film, Sanam Teri Kasam, Kishore Kumar did the playback for him.
SPB collaborated with RDB — Rahul Dev Burman — for the first time in Yeh To Kamal Ho Gaya, with some catchy numbers, and possibly the one that has aged well is Yeh Duniya Ghoom Rahi Hai:
In 1983 was released Zara Si Zindagi, which remains watchable even now due to the relatable angst of unrequited love, unemployment and shattered idealism among the young it depicted. SPB’s duet with Asha Bhosle, Sargam Ke Phoolon Se, still sounds sweet:
Over the next few movies, Kamal Haasan lip-synched songs sung by the likes of Yesudas, Kishore Kumar and Suresh Wadekar. In Saagar (1985), SPB teamed up again with RDB and produced some magic — an uproarious duet with Kishore Kumar, Yoonhi Gaate Raho, O Maria with Asha Bhosle and the soulful solo Sach Mere Yaar Hai:
Kamal Haasan didn’t do Hindi movies for several years, but SPB became the voice of a new superstar of Bollywood, Salman Khan. The macho Salman of today didn’t exist then, a youthful and romantic version did, and SPB’s voice went well with him, the two collaborating in several hits.
All songs of Salman’s debut, Maine Pyar Kiya, were very popular, but SPB’s soft and pliable voice, hitting low and high notes perfectly, was at its most beautiful in two of them.
Aate Jaate Hanste Gaate (LP record rip)
Mere Rang Mein Rangne Wali
SPB shone in Saajan (1991) too, in which he was competing with the new sensation of that time, Kumar Sanu, and the accomplished Pankaj Udhas. The duet Dekha Hai Pehli Baar sounds catchy and current even now, and Jiyen To Jiyen Kaise is still soulful:
In Love, also released in 1991, SPB sang possibly his best song for Salman, Saathiya Toone Kya Kiya, a duet with Chitra.
In Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), SPB and Salman teamed up for more superhit music — a ‘chitrahar’ of a movie, its songs aggregated over 70 minutes of screen time. Most of the songs are now memorable for nostalgia rather than musical quality, except for SPB’s romantic Pehla Pehla Pyar Hai.
There were non-Salman songs that made the top of the charts, too. In Vansh (1992) Anand-Milind created a magical number, Aake Teri Bahon Mein, which was made memorable by SPB and Lata Mangeshkar.
SPB sang Aake Teri Bahon Mein live on stage last year in May, and he sang it perfectly, resplendent in a yellow jacket at age 73 — note the ease with which he hits the high notes at the end.
A year before RDB died was released Gardish (1993), in which he gave SPB one of his best songs, Hum Na Samjhe Thhe Baat Itni Si.
RDB created another gem, Aaja Meri Jaan, the title track of the movie released 1993. The number has reflections of a song RDB created in the 1970s for Heeralal Pannalal, Aaja Mere Pyar Aaaja. SDB sang Aaja Meri Jaan last year on stage; studio versions are often flawless, but the stage version is just brilliant, almost unbelievable for a man touching 73.
But before that, in 1992, another southern genius, AR Rahman, had emerged — his debut film Roja, in Tamil, was dubbed in Hindi, and SPB had two amazing numbers in it, pouring his heart and soul into them.
Yeh Haseen Waadiyaan.
SPB sang his last Hindi Song, Ranga Ranga, for Rahman, in the Hindi version of the Tamil film Linga. Sung at age 68, this song shows that SPB had lost none of the sweetness and effortlessness that marked his singing.
In real life, SPB was like his idol, Rafi — humble, faultless in behaviour and revered by all whose lives he touched. ARR paid his tribute to the man he called Mr SPB and SPB Sir, who sang some of his greatest songs.
The humility of SPB can be gauged in this tribute he paid to the great Yesudas in 2016.
Finally, a song that became huge in Hindi in the voice of Kishore Kumar. In 1983, Kalaakaar, starring Sridevi and Manoj Kumar’s son Kunal Goswami, was released.
That year saw the first spate of Sridevi’s Hindi movies, and some of them did very well at the box office, but Kalaakaar was destined to fail. It had one memorable song that lives to this day, Kishore Kumar’s Neele Neele Ambar Par. Kalaakaar was a remake of the Tamil Payanangal Mudivathillai, in which the musical score was given by the peerless Ilaiyaraaja.
The original of Neele Neele Ambar Par was SPB’s Ilaya Nila Pozhigirathe. This song is merely a glimpse of what Hindi listeners have missed in SPB’s massive output in languages other than Hindi.
For those who love comparisons, and their own mother tongue, SPB’s original version, sung here live in his silky-smooth, effortless style, will provide some food for debate.