The best of S.P. Bala!

The Best of… S.P. Balasubrahmanyam

Dept. of Polymaths and Prodigies


The legendary S.P. Balasubrahmanyam died on Friday. He was one of the greatest playback singers in the history of Indian cinema. Over his career, S.P. Bala had sung over 40,000 songs in as many as 16 different languages. He was an actor. He was a voice over artist, often standing in for Kamal Hassan whenever his movies were dubbed into Telugu. He was one of the most versatile artistes on the planet.

I grew up with the songs of S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. His voice firmly and forever fixed into my cultural consciousness. No matter who I was watching on screen, whether it was MGR or Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Hassan, or Rajinikanth, or Arjun, it was his voice I would hear whenever they broke out into song. Whether singing in joy or crooning in sorrow, whether trying to describe the burgeoning of a new love or in expressing the anguish of an aching heart, it was always his voice. It was always S.P. Bala.

The man... the legend...

There is an S.P. Balasubrahmanyam song for every occasion. If you grew up in any way Indian, his music was an essential part of the soundtrack to your life. You played உன்ன நெனச்சேன் பாட்டு படிச்சேன் (Unna Nenachen Pattu Padichen) on repeat while wallowing under the covers after your first heartbreak. Alone in your room, you rocked out with Rajini and Rakkamma, shaking your hips, and clapping your hands. You felt yearning every time you heard நிலவே வா (Nilave Vaa). You wept while mouthing the words to तेरे मेरे बीच में (Tere Mere Beech Mein).

Pulling together this list was hard. Not just because it sent me down a musical (and cinematic) rabbit hole that I only emerged from some 48 hours later, but also because it left me with an impossible question to answer. How can one even begin to abridge a career such as his? Let alone in a listicle of 10 or so songs. How do you pick the best from a body of work so large and so varied?

You can’t.

Which is why I decided instead, to just give you a list of my favourite S.P. Bala songs. They may not be his most accomplished arrangements, or even his most recognisable, but these are the tunes that have meant something to me.

So here they are, in no particular order…

10. என் வீட்டு தோட்டத்தில் (En Veetu Thotathil)

This duet between S.P. Bala and Sujatha feels fresh and innocent, but is full of intimation and innuendo. There’s a playfulness in the way the both of them shift between singing about என் வீட்டு (en veetu – “my home”) and உன் வீட்டு (un veetu – “your home”), and how everything from the flowers in their gardens to the bars on their windows are calling out their names.

This one is from the 1993 action movie Gentleman and marked the first collaboration between A. R. Rahman and director S. Shankar. The movie is a swashbuckling, Robin Hood inspired tale that centres around a respected businessman (Arjun) who moonlights as a thief, stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor.

9. ஜூலை மாதம் (July Matham)

A delightful number about two people falling in love, “July Matham” is a great example of the kind of understated numbers that bulked up S.P. Bala’s impressive oeuvre. The softness of his voice was just perfect for this sort of song and dance.

“July Matham” is from the movie புதிய முகம் (Pudhiya Mugam) which tells the story of an assassin who undergoes plastic surgery in order to run away from his past and start anew. The movie, which tackles the notion that human beings are ultimately flawed but redeemable creatures, was a remake of the American miniseries Twist of Fate.

8. ராக்கம்மா கைய தட்டி (Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu)

The first big set piece from தளபதி (Thalapathi), “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu” was the perfect counterpoint to the brutality of Rajinikanth’s introduction. It is a soaring number that does so much work to break the tension and lighten the mood of the movie. And then, five minutes into it, the entire pulse of the song shifts into thevaram, as Shobana is introduced. It is breathtaking. “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu” was named the fourth most popular song in a worldwide poll conducted by the BBC World Service in 2002

தளபதி (Thalapathi) remains, hands down, Rajinikanth’s best performance as an actor. Stealing from the pages of the Mahabharata, the movie takes the legendary friendship between Duryodhana and Karna and sets it within the context of a gangster movie. The movie also marked the last collaboration between composer and music maestro Ilaiyaraaja and director Mani Ratnam.

7. எடுத்த அந்த சூரிய மேளம் (Eduda Antha Sooria Melam)

This one’s just a whole load of fun!

புதிய மன்னர்கள் (Pudhiya Mannargal) was a movie ahead of its time. Indian cinema has always taken great glee in tearing down their politicians, and here, director Vikraman shows us a world in which college students with high ideals are more interested in saving society than falling in love.

6. காலகாலமாக வாழும் (Kalakalamaagha Vaazhum)

S.P. Balasubrahmanyam channels his pop jazz sensibilities into this joyous and pacey tune. (Am I crazy in thinking that the opening bars to this song sound remarkably similar to Deep Purple’s Strange Kind of Woman?)

புன்னகை மன்னன் (Punnagai Mannan), written and directed by K. Balachander, tells the story of Kamal Hassan’s Sethu who struggles to live and love after a failed suicide attempt in which his lover dies, but he survives. Heavy stuff.

5. நிலவே வா (Nilave Vaa)

A song from one of my favourite Tamil romances, “Nilave Vaa” is yet another incredibly controlled yet heartbreaking performance from S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. He isn’t showy or ostentatious in any way. It is measured, almost matter-of-fact. It is subtle in its intensity. It is wonderful.

மௌன ராகம் (Mouna Raagam) narrates the life of Divya (Revathi), a woman who is forced into an arranged marriage by her family after her former lover is shot and killed. The movie, which chronicles Divya’s struggle to move on from her past while trying to come to terms with her present, ranks as one of director Mani Ratnam’s best works.

4. காதல் ரோஜாவே (Kaadhal Rojave)

This might be one of the greatest love songs ever. Period. And S.P. Balasubrahmanyam brings it to life in his signature style, effortlessly channeling the pain of separation that Rishikumar (Arvind Swami) feels in being apart from the love of his life, Roja (Madhoo).

Besides being a beautifully shot romance, Mani Ratnam’s ரோஜா (Roja) is also remarkable for being the brilliant debut of a young composer called A.R. Rahman.

3. வெற்றி நிச்சயம் (Vetri Nichayam)

Listen, there was no way I was putting together a list of my favourite S.P. Balasubrahmanyam songs and not have one from one of my favourite Tamil movies of all time. Here, S.P. Bala, by way of Rajinikanth, croons his way through the montage of Annaamalai’s rise from a lowly milkman, cheated of everything he has, to one of Madras’ wealthiest hoteliers. It is emotional. It is headstrong. And it’ll put you in a fighting mood.

அண்ணாமலை (Annaamalai), which was in cinemas for a whopping 175 days, was the highest-grossing Tamil movie until 1995 when the record was broken by பாட்ஷா (Baashha). This was the movie that kicked off Rajinikanth’s meteoric rise at the box office.

2. என் காதலே (En Kadhale)

I’m not sure how best to explain the raw emotional impact of this song. Except to urge you to watch this video, an excerpt from Season 5 of the Super Singer Junior singing competition, and just observe how the audience reacts as S.P. Bala quavers and lilts his way through this magnificent A.R. Rahman composition. That should tell you everything you need to know.

டூயட் (Duet), writer/director K. Balachander’s take on Cyrano de Bergerac, is the story of two brothers, Guna and Siva, who find themselves in love with the same woman. The movie was a commercial failure, but “En Kadhale,” along with the rest of the soundtrack, remain a high-water mark in A.R. Rahman’s career.

1. மண்ணில் இந்த காதல் (Mannil Intha Kadhal)

How could any list not have this song? This is the one in which S.P. Balasubrahmanyam sings an entire stanza without taking a breath. That’s 26 whole seconds. It’s an incredible show of singing prowess. And one that will leave you just as breathless.

Vasanth’s directorial debut, கேளடி கண்மணி (Keladi Kanmani), was pretty unique for focussing on the love story of two mature characters. This was also S.P Balasubrahmanyam’s first movie as a lead actor.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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