An ageless icon

Last Updated 06 November 2017, 07:04 IST
She is a pioneer in many ways. Vyjayanthimala was the first female actor to be known so much for her dances in Hindi films. Though there were some female actors from the South who did Hindi films even in her time, she was the biggest among them. She was the first South female actor to reach the numero uno position, and at her peak worked in the home productions of three big names - Dev Anand (Jewel Thief), Raj Kapoor (Sangam) and Dilip Kumar (Gunga Jumna) - as well as with Rajendra Kumar (Ganwaar) in her last film. For good measure, there was also Bengal titan Uttam Kumar's Hindi debut and production Chhoti Si Mulaqat.

Across industries

Her career also spanned films in Tamil and Telugu and one Bengali film, Tapan Sinha's Hatey Bazarey. But her real achievements were a bevy and more of other Hindi hits like Bahar (her Hindi debut with mentor producer A V Meiyyappan and his banner AVM Productions, which was a Hindi remake of Vaazhkai), Ladki, Nagin (the biggest hit of 1954), Naya Daur, New Delhi, Kathputhli, Amar Deep, Aasha, Sadhana, Madhumati, Paigham, Aas Ka Panchhi, Nazrana, Zindagi, Suraj and Jewel Thief.

Two more films did not do well but became cult movies later, each with an unforgettable character - Bimal Roy's Devdas (as Chandramukhi) and Lekh Tandon's Amrapali. Whichever way we look at it, and long before the term was coined for popular use in Hindi cinema, Vyjayanthimala was a superstar. Thanks majorly to her dances, she even got the best songs, including cult classics like 'Man Dole Mera Tan Dole' (Nagin), 'Honthon Mein Aisi Baat' (Jewel Thief), 'Aaja Re Pardesi' (Madhumati), 'Do Hanson Ka Joda' (Gunga Jumna), 'Tumhein Yaad Karte Karte' (Amrapali) and even 'Titli Udi'. It is a fact that from her earliest film, her bharatanatyam-oriented dances became huge hits in North India for their sheer exotic novelty.

Catching up with the ageless diva took some effort, as the lady does not reside in Mumbai. Luckily, her son Suchindra Bali co-ordinated, and after a brief personal meeting at a Mumbai event just so that we would not be anonymous voices on phone, we managed a nice conversation after she was back home in Chennai.

We begin with the pre-eminent topic of her music, as she also won the Lata Mangeshkar Award for her contribution to the arts some months back. The singer has rendered an overwhelming majority of her songs. 
"I hold Lataji in tremendous esteem," 
she says.

Recounting a memorable incident from her life, even before she made her Hindi debut, she says, "My first film was Vaazhkai in Tamil in 1949. After its release, my producer A V Meiyyappan brought Lataji to my home in Chennai as he felt that I sang fairly well. She heard and complimented me. The best part is that over the decades, she and I are still close."

She denies being among the heroines who, in their contracts, insisted that only Lataji would sing for them, but does not deny that Lata's songs for her were timeless creations. But apart from the language, why did she herself not sing in films, as she was trained in music as well as dance?

"My era was more about semi-classical and folk songs, but I do not think I was a great singer," she says. "My director Tapan Sinha persuaded me to sing in his Bengali Hatey Bazarey though. I may have sung tillana (tarana) once or twice. I was keener on dance. But in our times, the co-star, director and great music were so important for a star's progress and standing. Also, they wanted to ensure a situation where I could have at least one solo dance in a film even when it was not on or about dance."

Amrapali remains a special film for her in this respect. "The legendary Gopikrishnaji was the dance director," says the actor. "However, I got to work with the best - P L Rajji, Sohanlalji and others in my career." Adding a contemporary touch, she notes, "I have worked with Saroj Khan too - she was assisting Sohanlalji."

How did her love for dance originate? "My maternal grandmother Yadugiri Devi had a great passion for classical dance and music. My inclinations are deeply rooted from there. She would stress on the importance of gestures - the mudras and the footwork. But she came from a conservative family," she says.

However, her grandmother and actor-mother Vasundhara Devi (who she called akka or elder sister as there was only a difference of 16 years between them!) had the vision to sense her potential. They encouraged her, did not care what society would say, and so the actor even danced at the age of  five at the Vatican in front of the Pope!

Enchanting moves

Vyjayanthimala learnt dance under K P Kittappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Amma, and Carnatic music from Manakkal Sivaraja Iyer, while her icon for music was Pattammal. At 13, just after her arangetram, she was offered Vaazhkai, and life changed for her instantly. "I never went back to school after that," recalls the actor.

Her leading men included the best and biggest from the 40s, including her first Hindi co-star Karan Dewan, who was a big name then. But she herself feels that she teamed very well with Dilip Kumar. "We made a good team, and even Saira Banu (Dilip Kumar's wife) says so." She rates their first film Devdas high among their collaborations. "Until that film, I was only considered a great dancer and an ordinary actor. My role as Chandramukhi decisively changed all that," she says.
However, Vyjayanthimala has great memories of fun times with Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Rajendra Kumar. The actor recalls her youngest co-star Dharmendra very fondly. "I came to know that he signed the film because he wanted to work with me. By that time, I was married to Dr Bali and was quitting films," she says. "He was such a shy and charming man who respected me hugely. I even helped him with a step or two for the song 'Tu Mera Main Teri, Duniya Jale To Jale', and he was a quick learner."

Shatrughan Sinha also had a negative cameo in the film, while Sanjeev Kumar was cast in a negative role in her Sunghursh. These actors were the youngest heroes she worked with. She missed a chance to work with Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan by turning down their mother's role in Deewaar!

As directors, she rates Bimal Roy (Devdas, Madhumati) high apart from Raj Kapoor (Sangam), Vijay Anand (Jewel Thief), B R Chopra (Naya Daur, Sadhana) and Amiya Chakravarty (Kathputhli). "They were all visionaries," she states simply.

Chairperson of the 48th National Film Awards, Lok Sabha member for two terms and Rajya Sabha member for one, her joining the BJP after 19 years with the Congress, and a fan following of rare magnitude, Vyjayanthimala Bali is known for much more than just her performances. Her autobiography some years back made news as she came clean on her alleged affair with Raj Kapoor. And even today at 81, Vyjayanthimala's dance performances continue to make waves by drawing crowds globally.

In fact, yesterday, today or tomorrow, Vyjayanthimala is a born iconic star who makes news as naturally as the sun shines.

(Published 04 November 2017, 10:22 IST)

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