The first time the title track of Chennai Express played on television sets, it tugged at our nostalgic chords. For those of us who grew up in the ’90s, the familiarity made us smile. After all, the melodious voice of SP Balasubramaniam enthralled us through the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially with Salman Khan hits from the films Maine Pyar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, Saajan, Baaghi, Love and so on. Now, music composers Vishal-Shekhar have brought the voice back. Shekhar Ravjiani says, “When we were composing music for Chennai Express, we thought we should have a touch of the South in the songs as well. We are huge fans of Balasubramaniam, and decided to approach him.”
When we ask Balasubramaniam if it took much prompting from the music directors to bring him back to Bollywood, he has a simple answer. “My job is to sing. I don’t need to be prompted at all. If I don’t like the song after going to the recording studio and listening to it, I simply excuse myself. This time, I liked the song and went ahead with it,” says the 67-year-old composer-singer-actor.
Clearly, ever since he last sang for Bollywood, the industry has changed. “Things are different. For instance, I feel technology is overused now. Yet, it is heartening that some wonderful songs are composed even today,” he says.
An engineering student from Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, Balasubramaniam made his playback debut in 1963 after winning a singing contest in Chennai.
The MGR film, Adimai Penn, launched him in 1969. He went on to sing for various Tamil, Kannada and Telugu films. “A good singer is one who, after the basic training, adapts to any style and situation,” says Balasubramaniam. When K Balachander decided to remake his Telugu film Maro Charitra in Hindi as Ek Duuje Ke Liye, with Kamal Haasan and Rati Agnihotri as lead actors, he decided to rope in Balasubramaniam as well. The film became a musical success and Balasubramaniam won many awards. It was then that Balasubramaniam decided to stay back in Bollywood and lent his voice to more actors of the time. Another reason why Balasubramaniam sang Bollywood songs was the quality of composers. “All composers and lyricists had an individual style then. You listened to a song, and you could identify the creator,” he says. It was around this time that Salman Khan was roped in by Sooraj Barjatya to play the lead character in Maine Pyar Kiya. Balasubramaniam was signed on to be the actor’s voice in all his songs thereon. The film was a hit and filmmakers thronged to rope on Balasubramaniam for most of Khan’s films. “I, however, did not put any special effort to sing a song for any actor in a particular way. I act and emote with my voice the rest is in the hands of the artiste, director and the crew to project it successfully on the big screen,” he says.
Balasubramaniam, a successful voice by then, returned to the South during the late ’90s. Was it the change in film music or was it the introduction of new voices that made him quit the Hindi film industry? “I did not quit. There were no offers from Bollywood,” he says humbly. But the South still welcomed him.
“Irrespective of the language, I still record at least one song a day even today,” he says. Over the years, he even turned to composing and acting. However, singing remains his first love. He has no plans of shifting base to Bollywood, nor does he want to avoid singing here. “I never plan anything. I want to give my best today. Tomorrow is another day. I do not have goals and take things as they come. My only wish is to quit when I am not able to do justice to a composition,” he says.