She is known to be the first female superstar of Indian cinema. Big stars like Dilip Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand waited for months to get her dates so that they could be her co-star. She is the original Chandramukhi of Bollywood, one who mesmerised us for decades with her fabulous acting and astonishing dancing skills. Yes, I am talking about Vyjayanthimala Bali.
You all know her as a charming actress but to me, Vyjayanthimala is family. She is my mami (my mother’s cousin brother, Dr Chamanlal Bali’s wife) whom we each time meet with stars in our eyes. And recently, it was the same when the 82-year-young diva performed Bharatanatyam at Kamani auditorium in New Delhi for the Pandit Chaturlal Memorial Society in celebration of the 90th birth anniversary of the tabla wizard.
She was the first female star to completely change the standard and style of dancing in Indian cinema. It was because of her that Indian film actresses later on were expected to know classical dance. She was the first Indian actress from south of India to become a Hindi film star and carved the way for other south Indian actresses to foray into Bollywood. Also known as the Madhumati of Bollywood Vyjayanthimala who is an accomplished dancer who introduced semi-classical dance to Bollywood. She danced with so much gusto, energy and charm that her dedication won her the title of “twinkle toes”.
Hoto pe aaise baat mein daba ke chali aayee, the classic and legendary dance number in Jewel Thief with Dev Anand is a lesson for not just choreographers and dancers but also for cinematographers and dress designers. She exudes innocence when she danced to the song, Saiyyan dil mein aana re, aake phir na jaana re in Bahar and showed her sensual side in the song, Bol Radha bol sangam hoga ki nahin from Sangam. Her puppet like dance on the song, Bol re kathputli dori kaun sang bandhe from Kathputli to her most hypnotising moves in Amrapali still rules our minds and hearts.
Not many people know that Vyjayanthimala at the age of five performed Bharatanatyam for Pope Pius XII when her mother, Vasundhara Devi, was at the Vatican. Whenever she was or is praised for her dance and her dancing skills, she always says, “I never dance. It is the goddess of mine who make me dance and it is this other me who attempts the movements.”
Though she gave up acting after her marriage, Vyjayanthimala Bali continues performing Bharatanatyam and researching old texts on the traditional dance form.
Recently, dressed in a classic Kanjeevaram when Vyjayanthimala Bali was asked to look straight at the camera for a photo, her ever-so speaking kohl-rimmed eyes widened. She looked at the cameraman, smiled and said, “Main dancer hoon, meri aankhein bolti hain, agar tum na samjoh toh main kya karoon (I am a dancer, my eyes speak, if you don’t understand, what can I do?)
She announced her arrival in tinsel town when she danced down the hill on Mera mann dole, mera tann dole from Naagin to composer Hemant Kumar’s famous piece on a snake charmer’s been. There has been no looking back for this charmer ever since. She always spoke her mind and expressed her heart without mincing words. Some anecdotes from my recent interaction with my mamiji.
As a newcomer in the industry, you refused the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) opposite Dilip Kumar. And it became the biggest new ever isn’t it?
I gave it all I had to the character of Chandramukhi. It was the role of a lifetime. I still believe Devdas had two main lead actresses — Suchitra Sen (Paro) and me. And Chandramukhi was not a supporting role.
We all want to see you on screen but you refused some iconic role in films like Deewar, Aandhi, Sapno Ka Saudagar, Kranti and many more. Why are you depriving your fans?
It is not about depriving them. I did not want to play an Indira Gandhi-inspired role in Aandhi nor wanted to be a mother to Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar. I am a heroine and I want to be known as a heroine.
Bharatanatyam is your first love. What does it really mean to you?
To me, Bharatanatyam is the dance of the devdasis. When I present my dance, I like to do it in its purest form, without frills and flounces.
Your views on today’s new-age dancers…
I am sorry but I cannot stand the concepts of fusion. To me, fusion is total confusion.
Vyjayanthimala learnt dance under some of the finest gurus including KP Kittappa Pillai and Mylapore Gowri Amma. And I wonder if you all know but she never went back to school after her first film and that happened at the age of 16. But today, she is an accomplished actress, a Bharatanatyam dancer, a Carnatic singer, a researcher, a scholar, a choreographer and a parliamentarian who served two terms in Lok Sabha and one in Rajya Sabha but parted ways with Congress in 1999 which she joined in 1984 to join the Bharatiya Janata Party. At present, she spends her day in libraries, researching old texts on Bharatanatyam, besides doing riyaaz in her Chennai home.
Sandip Soparrkar is a World Book Record holder, a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with two National Excellence awards and one National Achievement Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on [email protected]