SP Balasubrahmanyam, the underutilised actor

On the 78th birth anniversary (4 June) of the renowned playback singer, South First explores how gifted SPB was as an actor.

BySrivathsan Nadadhur

Published Jun 04, 2024 | 12:49 PMUpdatedJun 05, 2024 | 11:07 AM

SPB, an underutilised actor

If a common thread binds SP Balasubrahmanyam’s (SPB) excellence across his various roles—as a singer, voice artiste, show host, and actor—in a five-decade-long tryst with cinema, it’s his transparency in emotion.

There’s undeniable sensitivity and a no-holds-barred quality that helps him express a plethora of emotions so efficiently on and off screen.

One may rehearse well for a role, groom themselves for a career, and do all the “hard work”, but it is a divine gift to make art seem like a walk in the park and stir a soul as SPB does.

The man, who would’ve turned 78 this 4 June, gave up his engineering degree mid-way to pave his career as a film playback singer. His singing talents eventually helped him open many doors in the industry.

While music kept his home fire burning, acting as a bonus—a safe space to liberate himself without the pressure to sustain a career.

Though film buffs may remember him for his “friendly-father” roles in a Kaadhalan (1994), Kaadhal Desam (1996), and a Ratchagan (1997), what SPB essentially brought to the performance was his zest for life—a joie de vivre, like a child exploring a new toy.

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A mature actor: Suhasini

SPB and Radhika in Keladi Kanmani (O Papa Lali)

SPB and Radhika in ‘Keladi Kanmani’ (‘O Papa Lali’ in Telugu). (Supplied)

His first significant on-screen appearance was for Pakkinti Ammayi (1981)—a remake of the Bengali film Pasher Bari (1956)—a rom-com where he plays a singer, steps in for a friend (Chandramohan) and helps him woo his lady love with his numbers.

The role, originally played by Kishore Kumar in the Hindi remake Padosan (1968), was equally tailor-made for SPB to unleash his wit, go unabashedly over the top and enjoy himself.

Interestingly, Pasher Bari was first remade in Telugu as Pakka Inti Ammayi (1953), in Tamil as Adutha Veettu Penn (1960), and in Kannada as Pakkadmane Hudugi (2004).

However, if you need to name a film that signalled the arrival of SPB, the actor was K Balachander’s Manathil Urudhi Vendum (1987), where he was cast as a medico and a supportive colleague to Suhasini.

There’s something so gentlemanly, casually witty about the performance (beyond the scope of the character) that makes him endearing, like the neighbourhood uncle you’d go for worldly advice.

“I had the pleasure of filming him on camera during Raaja Paarvai (1981) first, where (he was playing himself) I was the cinematographer. For Manathil Urudhi Vendum, apart from me, K Balachander didn’t want anyone on the set to have any prior acting experience,” Suhasini recollected as part of an SPB memorial event.

She acted in five to six films with SPB and got him to render my dialogues for Thiruda Thiruda (1993) too.

“While I was watching Manathil Urudhi Vendum as a viewer, I kept wishing Nandini and the doctor unite at the end. It was largely due to SPB’s performance, he was very loveable. From his dialogue delivery to the casualness in how he carried himself, he had the maturity of a full-time actor,” Suhasini added.

“For someone who only acted occasionally, it was surprising to see how he was a natural,” the senior actor said.

She revealed that SPB was the first choice for Prakash Raj’s role in OK Kanmani (2015), too. “Mani Ratnam always has a role for him in mind whenever he writes a script.”

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SPB’s early screen appearances

SP Balasubrahmanyam in Thiruda Thiruda

SP Balasubrahmanyam in ‘Thiruda Thiruda’. (Supplied)

Music was unmistakably a part of SPB’s early screen appearances, from Kallu (1988) and Vivaha Bhojanambu (1988) to Prema (1989). There’s a mischievous glint in his eyes as he plays a cop in Jandhyala’s Vivaha Bhojanambu.

While catching the protagonist, who masquerades as a traffic cop, SPB puts his point across through classical swaras. SPB and Rajendra Prasad’s musical exchanges, bonding over their love stories at a police station, is a testimony to the thespian’s ease in front of the camera.

By the late 80s, there was enough evidence of what SPB could bring to a role as an actor, but it was Vasanth (who assisted Balanchander on Manathil Urudhi Vendum) who took the plunge, by entrusting him with a lead character in Keladi Kanmani.

It was a reluctant yes from the singer, who squeezed the little time between his recordings to play a single father, smitten by a woman. The film’s deserved success brought him much-needed credibility as an actor.

With time (or let’s say the 90s), his acting appearances became frequent. As someone who had already conquered great heights as a singer, composer, and voice artiste by then, acting was a perfect foil for a performer seeking newer avenues to express himself.

Many memorable roles came his way soon—the police officer in Gunaa (1991), the CBI officer in Thiruda Thiruda, and the adorable father figure in Kaadhalan—that set the tone for his acting stint for the next couple of decades.

Filmmaker and author Venkat Siddareddy, terming him an underutilised actor, shares, “Look at his range, from Pakkinti Ammayi to O Papa Lali (1991), Premikudu (1994) and Mithunam (2012).”

He adds, “One of my personal favourites is his CBI officer role in Thiruda Thiruda (Donga Donga in Telugu). The casting is so out of the box. He brings such personality to it, with a wit and sarcasm you don’t associate with such roles. I still believe SPB’s role in Donga Donga inspired Venu Nedumudi’s performance in Indian (1996; Bharatheeyudu in Telugu), it couldn’t have escaped Shankar’s eyes.”

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The on-screen dad everyone loved

with team kadhalan

SPB won hearts as a cool dad in ‘Premikudu’/’Kadhalan’. (X)

One of SPB’s significant contributions as an actor has been the drastic shift he has brought in the portrayal of a father figure.

As a marked departure from the conservative, rigid patriarchs that Telugu and Tamil filmmakers wrote in the 70s and 80s, Balu brought the vulnerabilities and quirks of ageing men to the fore.

From an overbearing personality, the father now was a cool dad, who treated his son/daughter more like a pal—Minsara Kanavu (1997) and Kaadhal Desam say enough.

A majority of his appearances may not boast of vast screen time, but it didn’t stop him from making his presence felt.

Allani Sreedhar, who directed SPB in one of his last releases in Telugu—Chilkur Balaji (2018), is particularly fond of his role in Avvai Shanmughi (Bhamane Satyabhamane).

Still from Maya Bazar

A still from ‘Maya Bazar’. (Supplied)

“It’s a small role, but he’s not just another family doctor; he has a distinct identity with a great screen presence. The scene where he appreciates Kamal Haasan for rescuing his daughter from a fire mishap still lingers in my mind. He matched Kamal’s wit like a veteran.”

Venkat, decoding the X factor that makes SPB—the actor tick, states, “I think, traditionally those who have a great voice, from the likes of Jaggayya to Sai Kumar and SPB, tend to be equally good actors. Additionally, Balu is a terrific voice artiste. It’s impossible to dub for an actor without understanding the nuances of a performance.”

In 2006, another film challenged the performer in SPB—Maya Bazar, a socio-fantasy where he essayed his first mythological role, Kubera.

With his love for Telugu literature and cultural roots, he uttered the film’s chaste dialogues like a dream and his persona suited the part to a T. Additionally, the part presented him a rare opportunity to explore a few hues of grey.

While it’s hard to look at a K Viswanath film without SPB’s renditions, both the legends came together for the first time on screen and donned the grease paint together for Janardhana Maharshi’s Devasthanam (2012; the film was a hat-tip to Viswanath’s O Seeta Katha (1974), exploring the hari katha tradition).

Perhaps, cinema as a medium and audiences deserved this humble tribute to the legends.

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Mithunam, the most cherished gift

A still from Mithunam

SPB played Apparasu in ‘Mithunam’. (Supplied)

His perfect parting gift for a film connoisseur was Mithunam, Tanikella Bharani’s adaptation of Sri Ramana’s novel, where SPB shared screenspace alongside Lakshmi.

His role in the film is a fine extension of his real-life persona. He is Appadasu, a self-sufficient, child-like elderly man, who shares a playful equation with his wife in a sleepy village while waiting to meet his children who’ve settled abroad in their quest for greener pastures.

The sequence where Appadasu can’t resist gulping the freshly made pickles and savouries prepared by his wife and bursts into a song “Avakaya Mana Andaridi…” (which pays an ode to the yesteryear number “Brindavanamadi” from the 1955 cult film Missamma) is alone enough to understand the exuberance that SPB brings to Mithunam. His performances are so evocative that you voluntarily root for him.

Mithunam’s director Tanikella Bharani, in a post-release press meet, shared what SPB had thought about the film. He’d told him, “If someone pens my autobiography, it should be dissected before and after Mithunam.”

Actor-writer Gollapudi Maruthi Rao, at the film’s 50-day celebrations, said, “It’s a film that makes you forget SPB is a singer and you only remember him as Appadasu.”

SPB and Lakshmi’s chemistry in Mithunam is so heart-wrenching and easy on the eyes, reminding us of the same warmth and camaraderie they shared on the small screen for the popular Tamil television sit-com Jannal-Adutha Veetu Kavithai, nearly two decades before they shot for the film.

on Chilkur Balaji sets

Allani Sreedhar with SPB on ‘Chilkur Balaji’ sets. (Supplied)

Beyond the screen, what director Allani Sreedhar remembers more today is SPB’s workmanship. “He has a work ethic that reminds us of NTR (N T Rama Rao) and ANR (Akkineni Nageswara Rao). After shooting a lyric on him, we asked him to rest in the caravan for the time being. All he told us was that he had given us his call sheet that day and sat under the scorching sun waiting for his next shot.”

“SPB slips into his characters with ease; he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal. He treated himself as Tirumala Dasu as long as he was on Chilkur Balaji‘s sets. His performances are not derived from other films but come from his keen observation of life and how people walk, talk, and behave. He interacted with people from various walks of life, was an avid traveller, and his diverse experiences reflected in his performances that are often rooted in reality,” Sreedhar mentions.

As you look back at SPB’s filmography spanning around 70-80 films across Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, one can’t help but ask, “Why couldn’t we see him more as an actor?”

Maybe, we, as a society, needed him to heal our souls, more as a singer!

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