Remembering SPB and the Art of Playback Singing

Hosa Jeevana (New Life) is a 1990 Kannada movie (a remake of Tamil movie Pudhea Paadhai) starring the late Shankar Nag. It follows the story (and ultimate transformation) of an outcast who has been shunned and ignored by society all his life – including his parents who left him in a dumpster at birth. He grows up fostering a great contempt for everyone around him, actively rejecting the morals and values of the society that pushed him down through its cracks. A grown man now, he lives his life in a rundown ‘house’ and makes money by extorting people on the streets on a whim – in addition to the contract killings and kidnappings he carries out for the local politician (whom he only half-mockingly calls ‘Chairman’). Almost nihilistic in his outlook, his belief in his own world view is absolute: I care about myself, and the world can, and probably should, go to hell.

How do you introduce such a character – in a way that perfectly captures the rage, crass attitude, disregard for society, and absolute contempt for anyone other than himself?

When you have an actor of Shankar Nag’s caliber and a composer/lyricist such as Hamsalekha, you do so by opening the movie with a song consisting of some real in-your-face lyrics and music. I mean, the chorus of this opening song literally translates to this:

The knife, and the chain are

My left hand, my right hand

My bastard body

The blade, and the bottle are

My two younger brothers

Let the hooch flow

To die and to kill

I am ever ready

Needless to say, the translation does zero justice to the impact the words have when spoken in colloquial Kannada, but you get the idea.

So you have one of the best actors of the time playing the outcast, and the best music director composing the music and the lyrics. That combination in itself is quite potent. But you still need that one magical ingredient that makes the song transcend into the art form that conveys all one needs to know about the outcast.

Enter SP Balasubrahmanyam.

Playback singing is not an easy art form. The artist has to completely internalize the character and/or the circumstances of the movie he/she is singing for – to fully capture the soul of the song. And here, SPB practically becomes the outcast. His voice conveys everything you need to know about Shankar Nag’s character – the rage, contempt and his nihilistic world view.

The intimidating punch with which he delivers the first words of the song – “Ei! NinnaaLe Ei!”* – is equivalent to being slapped awake to take notice. In fact, Shankar Nag does as much to every other character around him – slapping or abusing them in various forms and demanding their undivided attention to his presence.

To me, perhaps, the moment in the song that perfectly encapsulates SPB’s talent and absolute commitment to playback singing is, in fact, not when he is singing at all. It comes towards the end of the song after Shankar Nag has made his statement to the world, and it takes the form of a wicked, wicked laugh (at 3:48 in the video) that should send chills down yours spine if you are ever at the receiving end of such a character. (Listen to the song once without the video – just focusing on his voice, and you will know what I am talking about).

Ultimately, SPB channels that rage, nihilism, and contempt so well in his singing, and Shankar Nag portrays the outcast with an uncharacteristic grace (that swagger in his walk!), that at the end of the song you will already be rooting for the outcast – without regard to his sins and vices.

And THAT, to me, is what SPB stood for – a true artist who made you feel emotions that you were likely never even aware of – just with his voice. There are hundreds of his songs that are probably infinitely more melodious and famous than this one with such crass lyrics. But no matter what the character, circumstances, story line or language, SPB took it all to a higher plane like only few others have. And the impressions he has left along the way on more than a billion people can never truly be characterized.

Fact is, I will never know exactly how big of an influence he was on my growing up. All I know is that he was the hook that carried so many of my cultural reference points during my childhood and adult life.

And he will be sorely missed.

*******************************

*I truly have no idea how to translate the crass slang of “NinnaaLe” into English. But just know that this song would have never made it to radio or TV back in the 90’s (and I would have likely been kicked out of my home if I was caught using that phrase). And the way SPB delivers those lines, he practically made sure of that.

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