There was a time when stars in Telugu were evaluated primarily by how "versatile" they were: ANR was great because he played Arjuna in Maya Bazaar and Devdas; NTR played Krishna, Karna and Duryodhana all in the same film. By this metric, SPB was some kind of emperor, not just of song, but of the act of vocalising itself. His voice was everywhere, and seemed to do everything. Not only did he embody the machismo of Rajnikanth's Nen Autowadni, the break-dancing energy of Chiranjeevi's Bangaru Kodi Petta and the lilting melody of Jaamu Rathiri in song; he was also Kamal Hassan's voice in Telugu dubs, the host of Paadutha Theeyaga, a singing reality show that was a staple in Telugu households, and a frequent presence in multiple films.
For someone born in 1995, Ilaiyaraaja's Geethanjali is an album that seems like it has always been around, in audio cassettes, on TV, and in people's fond recollections. Revisiting it after news of his death, I realised that the album contains so many shades of SPB that listening to it feels like tracing the contours of his voice.
There's 'Jagada Jagada' — the opener, significant for having started the trend of the Hero Introduction Song. But like with any trendsetter, there's more to it than to the formula that succeeded it.
Songs like 'Jagadame' in Pokiri verbalise the hero's attitude towards life, his machismo; but with 'Jagada Jagada', there's a catch — this machismo doesn't last long: at the end of the song, Prakash (Nagarjuna) meets with an accident, and is then diagnosed with a terminal illness. Veturi's tongue-twisting lyrics are filled with delicious irony— marala marala maranam mingestham (we will devour death) — and this is where SPB soars — his voice suggests the bravado of an Icarus flying too close to the sun. The ease with which he moves through the tongue-twisting lines that seem to have too many syllables packed in (suggesting the restlessness of youth, the desire to do too many things in too little time) is barely noticeable in the orgasmic build-up to the crashing end.
Icarus' wings burn, and he crashes to earth. 'Aamani' is the song he sings while tending to his wounds. The song is a play on 'Suhana Safar', and there's a hint of Rafi in the way he stretches the Manchu Thaaki Koyala line, but this is a signature SPB ballad in the way that listening to it, you can picture his crystal clear voice as a stream running through the landscape he is singing about.
Then there's Thriller-esque 'Nandikonda', the duet with KS Chithra where SPB pushes his 'Marana Mass'-like machismo to the point of farce: he is singing to Nagarjuna play acting as Count Dracula after all, and you can feel his range — both vocally, and in terms of the amount of character he can infuse into the song. His typically mellifluous voice becomes gruff — he growls with an ironically distanced menace. The machismo in 'Jagada Jagada' and 'Nandikonda' is much more prominent in other hits like the title song of Gang Leader and Balapam Patti, but here, it's worked into the dramatic context of the film, like it would be again in 'Kattu Kuyilu', ('Singarala' in Telugu) from the last of the Mani Ratnam-Ilaiyaraaja collaborations, Thalapathy.
'Om Namaha', the polar-opposite of 'Nandikonda' — finds SPB at his most restrained, the subdued eroticism of the song calls for this sort of barebones vocalisation of the melody. But SPB's voice doesn't suggest eroticism: while there is irreverence in the lyrics' appeal to the religious sanction of eroticism, his rendition of them is completely sincere, giving the song a transcendental quality — taking its sexuality into the realm of the spiritual.
The opening notes to 'O Priya Priya' find SPB at his most haunting. There's something in the way he sings the Needo Lokam, Naado Lokam line that captures the sadness at the core of the movie — a solitary, personal void through which Prakash tries to reach out to Geetha (Girija Shettar). While the scale of this song is epic — a melodrama in the desert — the singing is always personal and intimate.
Geethanjali's reputation as a "tragedy" is something that has always puzzled me: most of it plays as a romcom, and its ending is as hopeful as it can be, given its premise of terminally ill lovers. But then there's 'O Papa Lali'. I often wonder how it would've been to watch the film on the big screen in 1989 — there was nothing quite like it in Telugu cinema, and by the time 'O Papa Lali' comes along, we don't really know if Geetha will live till the end of the film. This is a lover's lullaby, and SPB is gentle and sad in the lulling. But when he asks the cloud to not roar, and when he describes a dark room in the heart where music cannot penetrate, I wonder if the song is really about Prakash coming to terms with death — Geetha's death, even if it is sometime in the future.
The most memorable scene from Geethanjali, after all, is the one where Geetha tells Prakash she doesn't think much of the fact that she is terminally ill: Everything and everyone around me will die someday, I'm just going to die a little sooner, she says. We know it's not as simple as this, (as she discovers later too), but as Prakash discovers, some things fill life with life, things that make it worth cherishing. SPB's voice, for many I think, will count among these.