SPB – Thank you!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 26th Sep 2020. It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/why-spb-special-everyone-radio-smartphone-generation-133954

It must be around the mid ‘70s. On Sundays, our whole family used to crowd around the radio and tune into All India Radio, Trichy, after lunch by 1 pm sharp.  Between 1 to 2 pm, the station played the latest Tamil film songs and at the time, it was the only opportunity to catch up with newly released songs. I remember vividly that in that period, for many weeks, almost all of the 10 songs being played were sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, and that too for different music directors. If our growing up was cheerful and with verve, SPB had a role in it.

Between the ‘70s and ‘90s in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, if budding male singers had an inspiration, it was only SPB. Almost all the orchestras of those days had one singer who tried to sing SPB’s songs in his voice. So “his” voice was all over the air. For all of them, SPB was a role model not just for the music but also for the way he conducted himself with utmost humility. This probably came from the belief SPB had, that he was indeed blessed and gifted.

By his own admission, SPB was not a trained singer. As a child, he did not learn any form of classical music, though he had the opportunity to learn from his father, who was a Harikatha exponent. So, genes did play a role in shaping SPB as a singer. But unless told so, anyone who had the opportunity to listen to the thousands of songs he sang will never believe that he did not have a classical music background and that all his singing was self-made.

Though there are many, if I have to pick one album of SPB to demonstrate his variety and versatility, it will be Payanangal Mudivathillai, a film with a singer as the protagonist.  I must add here that Payanangal Mudivathillai is also a film that showcases Ilaiyaraaja’s range as a composer, and it is with him that SPB had the best of partnerships.

Just listen to the songs in that album. On one end, you have the song ‘Raaga Deepam’, a classical number based on the raga Hamsanandi with a grand aalaap right at the beginning. At the other end, you have a song like ‘ ‘Hey Aatha Aathorama’ which falls in the genre of a typical dappankuthu song. In between, you have the evergreen classic ‘Ilaya Nila Pozhigirathu’ which is a melody in the western classical mould. And other gems like ‘Thogai Ilamayil’, ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’, ‘Saalai Oram Solai’ and finally the pathos filled song —  ‘Vaigaraiyil Vaigaikariyal’.

All these songs in the album — of which some are solo acts — are of SPB. Not just in terms of genre, even the emotions conveyed in each of the songs are different. The texture of SPB’s voice for each of these songs is different. If one were to use millennial lingo, SPB kills it. To me, Sankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982 were landmarks in SPB’s career which elevated him from being called a good singer till then, to a great singer.

SPB’s voice may not have been very unique, but his voice quality was. His voice would never waver no matter what pitch he sang in. In live shows, SPB used to do his own improvisations at the end of the song to end with a flourish. In the beginning, I used to have my heart in my mouth when he, on his own, took the song to higher octaves, only to land safely back with the pitch intact, much to my awe. And I am certain that SPB was improvising spontaneously on stage as every time he would do it, he would do so differently even for the same song. Just listen to his different renditions of ‘Sundari Kannal Oru Seydhi’ in stage shows.

Kamban veetu kattu thariyum kavi paadum” goes a popular saying, meaning “In Kamban’s house, even a loom will pen a poem”. Similarly, SPB paadara paatula irumalum thaala kattukkul irukkum. In SPB’s songs, even his coughing (Remember the songs ‘Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva’ or ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’) will be on beat and within the time signature. So precise was his singing that he hardly skipped a beat or distorted the pitch.

That SPB could maintain his voice timbre intact for over five decades is a marvel! Even after crossing 70, he could sing romantic duets for stars a third of his age. If there was a silver lining in his passing, it is this. That till he breathed his last, his voice never gave way and remained one that was energetic, mellifluous and more importantly, youthful.

I come back to the emotion. That as a singer, SPB had a great voice is well known. But, inside him there was a great actor too. Probably it’s got to do with his dad’s genes again. Harikatha is one form where the performer needs to sing and act on stage.  This was what helped him shape the emotions while singing songs of different moods – from a peppy ‘Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali’ to a lullaby-like ‘Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella’ with equal elan.

SPB probably loved acting. I heard from one of my friends in the Kavithalayaa unit that director K Balachander used to say, ‘Avan oru bayangara nadigan da’, referring to SPB.  Not surprising that KB regularly gave him breaks in films and TV serials, whether it was the hero role in his own production Sigaram, or a doctor’s role in Manathil Uruthi Vendum. The actor in SPB also manifested when he was dubbing for Kamal in Telugu films in the beginning. If actor Kitty’s ‘pasu thol porthiya puli’ type villain portrayal in the film Sathya became a big hit, half the credit goes to SPB, who dubbed for him. Eventually, his acting skills enhanced his style of singing.

Getting the essence of the emotion of the song and delivering it with a pitch-perfect voice consistently, that too cutting across genres, is what made SPB the versatile singer he was. That’s also why he endeared himself from the radio generation to today’s mobile phone generation.

Just the other day, I was watching a clip that was circulating on WhatsApp groups where SPB as a guest in a reality show was holding his own with that peach of a melody song ‘En Kadhale’ from Duet. At the end of the song, almost everyone onstage was in tears, including the celebrity judges, participants and the audience. But, SPB himself, while making everyone else cry, was smiling all through the singing. A similar feeling has dawned today. A whole generation of people feeling sad today on his passing but SPB himself, the happy-go-lucky-type person he was, will be cheerful wherever he is.

Musicians are blessed. They don’t go away. They stay with us through their renderings. So will SPB, who will be with us through ‘Malare Mounama’, through ‘Sankara Nada Sareera’, through ‘Ithu Oru Pon Malai Pozhuthu’, through ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’, through the many other hits he has belted.

Should we mourn SPB’s death? Maybe, we should just celebrate. Celebrate his music.  The forty thousand-plus long list means a celebration that goes on for long, for us and for many generations to come. For now, thank you SPB, from the bottom of our hearts. For the music and for being the human you were.

The Social Media monster!

What is common between CU Soon and The Social Dilemma that have hit the OTT platforms in September in the space of few weeks in India?

CU Soon is a Malayalam feature film that is streaming on Prime Video. The film has opened to positive reviews for its novel screen based way of presenting a thriller. In the film, most of the time what we see is characters talking to us through chats and video calls. The film poses as a love story but is essentially a thriller revolving around illegal flesh trade.

On the other hand, The Social Dilemma is an English documentary film which is streaming on Netflix now.  The film traces the evolution of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the likes from being “useful” tools in the beginning to becoming the “monsters” they are today! The film talks through a bunch of people who were associated with these social media platforms in the past but now horrified to see the monster they have let loose into the society.

Coming back to the question of what is common in these seemingly disparate films, it is the feeling you get once you have finished watching them.

In CU Soon, Fahadh Fazil who is the one who helps in cracking the mystery of this mysterious girl, is actually a software geek. Just by spending hours and hours in front of his computer screen and by tracking the digital foot print of people concerned in various platforms.  When the film is over, you get a frightening sense of the digital footprint one leaves behind these days! In the chase for likes, comments and shares there is a whole trail of personal happenings, dates, pictures, videos, check ins, check outs, our personal likes, dislikes, dispositions, our political leanings that we leave behind for anyone to track.

In The Social Dilemma, we are told how we are manipulated without us being aware. That social media platforms use our habits and preferences to monetise, is now a well-known fact. But what is chilling is when these come out as insider accounts as a well thought out strategy.  Of how these companies which started off well with noble and pious intentions of “Connecting people” have gradually moved away to “making us the product”. Of how they simultaneously straddle between “utopia” (doing good things, bringing people together, connecting in times of crisis and so on) and “Dystopia” (pushing selective stories and fake news that feed off your preferences)

“It’s a disinformation for profit business model” says one of the interviewees referring to the social media behemoths. “It’s a marketplace that trades in human futures” indicts another. Being a documentary, the narrative is in the format of many interviews where the interviewees deliver many “Shock and Awe” moments through quotable quotes like these. And at the end of which all, you get a sense of betrayal and a bitter taste in the mouth.

After watching these, how many of us would shut down our social media accounts after knowing well the ills?

 How much of social media is too much?

I don’t think there is too much of a problem if Facebook props up ads of stuff we would like to buy based on our preferences we have professed through our likes and comments. After all, advertising has been a source for revenue in conventional media as well and we are used to that. Of course the digital platforms allow for customised, targeted advertising based on our profiles. And ultimately purchasing something after watching an ad is a personal choice.

However, the recent increase in the angst against social media platforms I believe, has got to do with how they have taken the role in shaping the political destinies of nations. As it is shown in the documentary, these platforms push stories without realising if they are fake or genuine by just feeding into our beliefs and choices. As it is, psychologists say that humans suffer from “Confirmation bias” and as per dictionary it refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. For a platform like Facebook or Google, it becomes very easy to sense one’s leanings and feed appropriate stories to build in on this confirmation bias. The stories could be fake as well.

The traditional media like TV, Radio or Newspapers also feed stories by way of opinion pieces, news clippings and so on which also play a role in influencing our thought process. But the key difference is, here it is a one way process. In social media vehicles, it is a two way process. Meaning, everything happens in a customised fashion based on our likes and dislikes on what we transmit. As per those Ex-team members who were interviewed as part of “The Social Dilemma”, in social media platforms, manipulation is by design and not by default.

What is the way out? As mentioned in the documentary, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But I do believe if nations come together with a political will, these platforms can be made to stay away from politics. And as social media users, it will keep us in good stead if we ourselves do not depend on these platforms for consuming political news and stop sharing anything and everything of politics that come our way without putting our own fact check filters.  The positives of social media have been well documented. Now those are being overtaken by the negatives, it appears.  The bottom line is, the Lakshmana rekha needs to be drawn by us for ourselves.

Now that I have watched this documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I have just received a mail from Netflix prompting me to watch “The Great Hack” – another documentary that unravels the manipulative power of social media!

The New Age Circus!

Circus – as we know it traditionally as a form of entertainment, may be on the decline. But a new age Circus has taken centre stage now and is threatening to overtake all forms of entertainment on offer. And that’s the TV News media circus.  Ever since the explosion of satellite and cable TV in India, there has been an explosion of TV channels in India in general and the News variety, in particular. A Wiki entry says that there are 400+ TV channels just for News in India presently, all clamouring for a share of the viewership pie.

With that kind of competition, survival needed a re-engineering of the News broadcast model. And that’s when most of the channels modelled their News programming to present wholesome entertainment. Today, if there are different options in channels like GEC (General Entertainment Category), Sports, Children entertainment, Religion & Spirituality and so on, for the grown up man, (I am not being sexist here. Just that I believe more than women, men tend to relish the entertainment on offer on News channels) News channels are a new category of entertainment that can be called as NEC (News Entertainment Category).

For the past several weeks now, this category has been buzzing with activity after the unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Much has been written about how the goal posts in this case have shifted from suicide to abetment of suicide to murder to financial fraud to nepotism to drug consumption with the latest being Bollywood’s connection with the drug mafia. This unravelling of the story has been partly driven by a vigilante TV media which is conducting its own trial every night during prime time. It’s unfortunate that the TV media and not the investigating agencies has been in the forefront of setting the agenda of this case and every turn has been a result of some expose or other by the TV media.

As a result, what we see today is a competition among channels through orchestrated leaks and PR stunts to set the agenda for investigation.  Today, the Rajput case which was just pursued by one channel or media house in the beginning has now become an obsession for most channels/media houses. The result is a full blown war among channels, media houses and its star anchors and them taking sides depending upon what suits them and their TRPs. So, when Rhea Chakraborty gives interviews to a few channels, the other channels label it as a PR stunt to extricate herself from the case. And when Kangana Ranaut talks to few channels on nepotism, other channels label it as a distraction exercise and so on.

There are those who are integral part of the media but not part of the Rajput saga who have been critical of the tamasha going on in News channels. And they have also blamed the viewers of their choices which as per them is responsible for the degeneration of TV News channels. As per me, they only reflect the “these grapes are sour” sentiment. If they had got an opportunity to be part of the saga, the commentary would have been different.

There is no doubt that the Rajput case has heightened interest on TV news for many in India, going by the BARC statistics before and during the Rajput saga. A channel like Republic Bharat has managed to become Number 1 in Hindi News category dislodging Aajtak just during the Rajput saga! I do not watch Republic TV these days. But many do. And that’s why it is the leader in English News category by far. As kids, we liked watching a Circus. And as adults, many enjoy watching TV News which is increasingly resembling a Circus.

In this News age Circus, the reporters are like the poor animals which are paraded to perform certain items in front of the crowd. Today, the reporters are pushed by their bosses to get sound bites and capture sensational visuals which are put on a loop on TV.  Some of the guests in debates are akin to Jokers or buffoons in a Circus who are there to provide comedy relief.  At times from across the border. They are routinely insulted and howled upon. The spokespersons of the parties are according to me like the trapeze artists in a Circus.  They do the fine balancing act irrespective of the situation, swinging from one position to another as per the need and continue to “hang in there” during the heated debates.  The anchor is the ring master who is often seeing cracking the whip.

What I am trying to say is, as viewers we have long before concluded that News is another form of entertainment and is consumed as such. So, if a particular channel or show is high on ratings, it is because it is considered more entertaining than others. This doesn’t mean that we like that style of journalism. For consuming actual News or for high quality journalistic insights we have our own other sources in the media.

TV channels are sustained by TRPs – Tamasha Rating Points, I mean. And in every genre, the clamour for TRPs has brought in a big shift in programming content. In General Entertainment, from sober family value serials to “Saas Bahu” sagas and Big Boss shows, in Cricket from classical test/One day matches to T20s, in Children entertainment genre from pious Tom & Jerry cartoon types to High Octane adventure shows, in Music category from concerts to Reality shows filled with drama. The genre of News is not an exception. Hence the change from staid reporting of events of the day with visuals to noisy and sensational shouting and screaming matches around events.

The traditional Circus may be on the wane and struggling. But the New Age Media Circus is alive and kicking. And you get to watch that every day, 24*7 that too from the couch of your drawing room. And as a viewer do not have any other pretense about it.

Nate Silver, an American writer and editor famously said, “A lot of news is just Entertainment masquerading as News”.

How wrong he was!

All News is just Entertainment masquerading as nothing!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya