Songs are an integral part of Indian cinema. They provide films the added value required to sell them. Many films have been runaway hits mainly because of songs — ‘musical hits’, as they are called. A series of musical hits has even made an actor a superstar. That has happened in Tamil cinema, and late singer SP Balasubrahmanyam had a big role in the star’s success.
It was the 1980s — the decade considered to be the most colourful for Kollywood, when directors such as Bharathiraja, K Bhagyaraj, and R Sundarrajan experimented with a wide variety of themes and varied scripts, when music composer Ilayaraja cemented his reputation as a maestro, when actors such as Vijayakant and Sathyaraj proved to be bankable besides Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth.
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Along came a relatively unknown name, Mohan, who gave all the established stars a run for their money through just his “musical hits”. An import from Kannada films, he didn’t use his own voice for dialogues for almost 10 years. If there was one voice people associated him with, then it was that of SPB.
Almost all of the songs that Mohan mouth-synced on screen were sung by SPB. In most films, Mohan would appear as a singer holding a microphone in his hand, because of which he is often referred to as ‘Mike’ Mohan.
Most songs of SPB-Mohan combo reflected the pain of love failure, becoming the favourites of many love-lorn youths till the late 90s. Songs such as Illaya Nila (Payanangal Mudivadhillai), Vaa vennila (Mella thiranthathu kathavu), Sangeetha megam (Udaya Geetham) and Nilaave Vaa (Mouna Raagam) are considered evergreen hits.
Many think that SPB sang for Mohan only after the actor’s entry in Tamil cinema. But their association had started in 1979 itself, when Mohan starred in the Telugu film Toorpu Belle Railu, a remake of the Tamil film Kizhakkey Pogum Rail. SPB had scored the music for the Telugu film and had sung all the songs for Mohan.
There were, in fact, two voices behind Mohan’s success. While SPB sang his songs, an artiste called SN Surendran dubbed the dialogues for him. That was because Mohan’s Tamil was not good during his early days as he came from a Kannada background. Surendran is the uncle of actor Vijay. The voiceover artist still whines that Mohan has never spoken to him even though he has been the voice of the actor in 74 films.
It was, however, the voice of SPB that played a major part in Mohan’s success. His musical hits earned him titles such as ‘Silver Jubilee Star’ (because most of his films would celebrate silver jubilee) and ‘Rajendra Kumar of Tamil Cinema’.
Most of his films were produced by Kovaithambi of Motherland Pictures and directed by R Sundarrajan. The Kovaithambi-Sundarrajan-Ilayaraja-SPB-Mohan team became one of the most successful teams of the decade.
Mohan made his debut in films with Kokila (1977) in Kannada. It was also the debut directorial venture for cinematographer-turned-director Balu Mahendra. In the film, Mohan acted alongside Kamal, who was already a star then. The film ran 100 days and Mohan came to be identified as ‘Kokila’ Mohan. It was said then that producers used to line up at Mohan’s house if they couldn’t get the call sheets of Kamal for their next film. He was the only actor then who was equated with Kamal because of his underplay in acting.
Mohan was introduced to Tamil cinema by Balu Mahendra with the film Moodu Pani, released in November 1980. The very next month Nenjathai Killathey, again directed by Mahendran, also got released. Both these films made Mohan a recognisable face in Tamil cinema.
Between 1980 and 1989 — the year in which he started delivering dialogues in his own voice starting with the film Sondham 16 — most of the films he starred became huge hits at box office. Mouna Ragam (1986) directed by Mani Ratnam is considered to be his best. His portrayal of a charming, gentle husband made many young women yearn for a partner like him.
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“It’s a black day for the music world,” an emotional Mohan said on hearing the news of SPB’s death. “I am searching for words. There was a time when we had radios in every house. When I was in school, we used to stand and listen whenever and wherever we heard his voice. It was like hearing Suprabhatham. There was no tiredness in his voice. He was a genius. Above all, he was an extraordinary human being,” he said. “I was fortunate that I got to act to his voice.”