It was a private party organised by a film personality some ten-twelve years ago, and few of us journalists were also invited. It was a pointless do where you hang around in the hope of buttonholing somebody for some conversation.
As it happened, Sarath Babu was hanging around, as ever, unobtrusively in a corner with a benign smile underlining his impassive face. The man chatted with us amiably, and at one point the small talk veered towards his own career.
One of our number, inevitably, brought up his roles as the quintessential friend that he did alongside with the two stars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan (Muthu, Velaikkaran, Annamalai, Salangai Oli, Sattam, Nizhal Nijamagiradhu), and suddenly seemed to feel uncomfortable.
"I have done many roles in my career," he said in a voice that suggested some hurt, "but why do you all keep talking about those films only".
After a few moments of unease, Sarath Babu said something to the effect, "see, I am happy with those films and the stars I worked with. But I am not comfortable when most of the interviewers are only interested in me talking about the two stars I worked with. It is as if the rest of my career doesn't mean anything".
His grouse was not unfounded. There is a peculiar tendency among film journos in Tamil Nadu to fill their perspective through reigning stars alone. If they are talking to an older personality from the 70s, their inevitable gambit would be "how was it working with MGR and Sivaji sirs?"
Those from the 80s and 90s, get asked about Rajini and Kamal. And now it is all about Vijay and Ajith.
If Al Pacino were to come to India, you should not be surprised if a Tamil reporter asks him something like, "you may have won the Oscar, but do you regret not working with Sivaji and Kamal?"
(Next day headline: America nadigarin niraiveratha Kollywood kanavugal).
Trapped in urban, suave characters
In a sense, Sarath Babu, who passed away yesterday at the age of 71, was a life-long candidate for being typecast in films. Tall and fair complexioned, the man was forever trapped in the cliched 'urban, suave' characters.
Only in films like Mallum Malarum, which was among his well-known Tamil flicks, offered him some semblance of difference.
It was not as if Sarath Babu was not a capable actor, but filmmakers' lack of imagination and his own limitations (imposed by his physicality and voice) kept him confined to roles that once you scratch their surface offered nothing novel.
Endowed with a face that was not too mobile, Sarath Babu kept his acting simple and straight. And anything with his range, he was impressive and effective.
With him, like in desktop publishing, what you saw is what you got. And his voice, heavy and impressive, was again not too flexible. And in Tamil films, his voice carried some vestiges of Telugu — his mother tongue.
There was special allure to that soft-spoken Tamil where every syllable is spoken with care and caution. But it constricted him from expressing certain emotions.
It was not as if he did not get hero roles, but even in the ones where he was the nominal hero, the riffs were familiar. But what Sarath Babu brought to his roles was a certain dignity and poise that is going out of fashion now.
There was nothing hurried about his persona and the word 'laid back' that sports writers are prone to use on stylish left-handed cricketers fitted Sarath Babu as well.
Sarath Babu got many memorable songs
Last year, when Prathap Pothen, another of those typecast actors passed away, I wrote: "Many people tend to remember actors, who have not been big stars, through the songs that were picturised on them. If there were even half-decent songs on the actor, there is a good chance of him being recalled even more fondly. In that sense Pratap Pothen was lucky".
This is true for Sarath Babu, too. Some memorable songs from the late 70s and the 80s were picturised on the handsome man. The top of the list has to be the hall-of-famer Senthazham Poovil Vanthadum Thendral from Mullum Malarum (1978)
In many Tamil movie fans' imagination, this is the song inside which Sarath Babu will eternally reside. An Ilaiyaraaja beauty in K J Yesudas' voice, this song will ensure that Sarath Babu remains forever in the memory of Tamil film aficionados.
Another brilliant song on him has to be another Ilaiyaraaja classic from the 1981 film Bala Nagamma. The Bilahari ragam beauty, Koonthalile Megam Vandhu again by Yesudas, is an eternal favourite of many.
Sarath Babu, in regal paraphernalia as some king wooing the dainty Sridevi, is, however gawky in the song. He did not have the royal gait in his mien to carry off such roles. It ironically underscored why he was nailed to certain types of characters.
Sticking with Ilaiyaraaja's magic for him, how can we forget Santha Kavigal Paadidum song from Metti (1982), another of Sarath Babu's well known films in Tamil. Sung with verve by that Malayalam singer KP Brahmanandam, the song set in Arabhi ragam, remains hugely popular even today.
It was not just Sarath Babu characters on screen that were stuck in a similar mould, even songs for him had a certain same flavour.
The voice has to be that of Yesudas or Jayachandran, or even SP Balasubramaniyam singing in Yesudas' vein. Like in this song from Kannil Theriyum Kathaigal (1980).
The Naan Unna Nenachen song, by SPB with music by the duo Shankar-Ganesh, was hugely popular on the radio and was among the most asked-for by listeners.
Incidentally, Kannil Theriyum Kathaigal was probably the first Tamil film to have five different music directors for the five different songs in it. The movie also featured that brilliant Naan Oru Ponnoviyam Kanden by the redoubtable Ilaiyaraaja.
Again, this song will be marred by the fact Sarath Babu was picturised in a way that hardly made him look comfortable.
But Ilaiyaraaja seemed most comfortable for Sarath Babu as the Paadi Vaa Thendrale in the 1984 film Mudivilla Arambam in Jayachandran's voice would confirm.
Also, many would remember that the former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's last formal outing in Tamil film was with Sarath Babu. She was an aging diva then. He then an up and coming actor.
The vibes between the lead pair in this 1980 film were clearly missing. But we got a memorably rhythmic song in Thavikkuthu Thayanguthu Oru Manathu. No surprises here: It is Jayachandran's voice again. Even lesser surprise, it is inevitably Ilaiyaraaja's.
However, there is one little known (heard) song that this writer will remember Sarath Babu by. It is from Mangala Nayaki (1980) a Tamil remake of the Hindi hit film Saajan Bina Suhagan. Some of you may recall the popular Yesudas number in it, Madhuban Khushboo Deta Hai.
This song's reprise in Tamil is Kangalal Naan Varainthen. Set to tune by the under-appreciated V Kumar, this is a Yesudas special in the vein of Unnidam Mayangugiren (in the same singer and music director combo). Ignore the visuals. K R Vijaya and Sarath Babu attempting something close to romance is cringe.
But the Kangalal Naan Varainthen song is soft and instantly likable — two descriptions that will also fit Sarath Babu aptly. Always.
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