Yes, he did sing over 40,000 songs, in several languages. And yes, he had one of the most beautiful voices to have ever been borrowed by actors. But the reason it hurts so much to think about him in the past tense is that SPB was not merely a golden voice. He was far, far more than a singer. He was an actor, he was a prankster, he was a role model, and he excelled at everything that he was.
An entire generation has grown up listening to his voice. Many of us fell in love with music hearing him dance over the notes, breathe life into the lyrics, and convince us that it was indeed the hero who had come up with the thoughts, the tunes, and the execution all by himself. Every note and every word were done justice to, and even vacuous lyrics were elevated by the smoothness of his voice.
But in focusing on his career as a playback singer, we often forget what an excellent actor he was, a fact that likely helped him emote as beautifully as he did while behind a microphone.
He usually played fathers, the kind that most people would have loved to have and few people actually do. And he played those characters so naturally that one could not imagine anyone else performing those roles with such elan. An example that springs to mind right away is Keladi Kanmani (1990), in which he strives to raise his daughter as a single parent after the death of his wife. Only a year later, he played almost the same character in Sigaram (1991), except his offspring was an adult son. Yet, he played the two characters so very differently, bringing to each their own idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.
One of the scenes I can never forget from the film Kaadhalan (1994) is of him begging a senior police officer to help his son, who has been framed for a crime. She agrees, on the condition that he hit a prisoner’s feet as hard as he can to make him confess. He does, only to realise that the prisoner he brutalised is his son. His reaction is a study in natural acting. In the same film, he steals the show in a song where he accommodates self-deprecatory jokes about his weight.
In Minsara Kanavu (1997), he is in a similar situation—his son is in love with a woman whose father does not approve of the match. While SPB has fewer scenes in the film, he brings so many dimensions to the character that it’s easy to think he had actually lived the life he portrays.
And then there was his fantastic comic timing, and the dialogue delivery that made his presence in films like Avvai Shanmughi (1996) quite unforgettable.
One of the things that stood out about SPB, even to those who had no personal connection with him, was his generosity. That was always in evidence, whether it was explaining why a flautist missed his cue and giving him a chance to make amends on stage, or being the bigger person in the wake of Ilaiyaraja’s fallout with him.
But he did things few celebrities think to do. When he was hosting a singing competition, he made sure he gave detailed feedback to every contestant, explaining patiently how he had failed to avert certain pitfalls in his own career, and letting them down as gently and encouragingly as he could when their singing was not up to the mark.
Unlike most people in the film industry, he didn’t hold on to his secrets—in an interview, he explained how he had sung Mannil Indha Kaadhal from Keladi Kanmani, which he has often performed on stage. He revealed that although several sections in the song sounded as if they were sung in a single breath, he used little gaps between certain words to draw in quick breaths.
Similarly, he spoke of the techniques he had used to change his voice in various songs, including En Jodi Manja Kuruvi, where he had to adapt to the voice of comedian Janakaraj, who played a castrated dubash in the film Vikram (1986).
While inaugurating the bariatric surgery programme in a hospital, he mentioned that he had undergone the surgery and he believed it was safe, but chose to emphasise the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle that would preclude the need for bariatric surgery rather than encourage people to opt for it as a quick fix.
His generosity with money has often been spoken about, and his humility was apparent not only in the interviews he did, but the manner in which he would behave with the journalists who had come to meet him.
It was hard for me to watch even snatches of the scenes at his home on the day of his death. To see cameramen swarming against the gates to get their photographs and visuals of the remains of a man who was so dignified in life, to see the public break into neighbours’ houses to catch a glimpse of his body, was simply ugly. A man who had radiated warmth and commanded respect for decades was being denied the simple courtesy of privacy at his weakest moment.
The last time we saw him smiling was when he held a thumbs-up for his son to post on social media, from his hospital bed. Although spending over a month in the Intensive Care Unit was not a good sign, we hoped against hope that he would be back home safe, that he might even be able to sing one day.
What is most heart-breaking of all is that his death was entirely preventable. It was no chronic illness, it was no sudden accident, it was the result of a momentary lapse of paranoia. We could have had him and his voice and his warmth for decades, and our association with him has been cut short. We have had to say goodbye to an incredible talent, and an even more incredible human being. How could the loss not be personal?
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
How could we not lose Kashmir?
Nobel for economist, tailspin for economy
Why the Diaspora has so much love to give
Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity
We are choking the earth
The delusionary Indian intellectual
India's culture of worship has to end
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com