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Thursday, April 19, 2001

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Bali uncensored


As an actress, dancer and politician, Vyjayanthimala Bali reached the pinnacle of success. She talks to SUDHA UMASHANKER about her continued passion for dance, her social work and much more...

SIXTY PLUS, ramrod straight and elegant as always, Vyjayanthimala Bali has donned many roles with remarkable ease. Sitting in her spartan office amid terracotta Ganeshas, bronze Hanumans, plenty of memorabilia and a huge portrait of her husband, Dr. Bali, her kohl-lined eyes and slender hands speaking a language of their own, Vyjayanthimala begins to piece together the story of her life with a gesture that is both moving and revealing - by prostrating before her husband's picture.

"I come from a very conservative family. My grandmother, Yadhugiri Devi, was instrumental in putting me into a disciplined routine right from my childhood. My early education was at Presentation Convent, Church Park. Academically, I was doing well but I was also interested in sport and arts. I started learning Bharatanatyam from Guru Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai and Carnatic music from Manakkal Sivaraja Iyer. I was not forced to learn dance, in fact, I had a flair for it. But I used to shirk music classes and would wait to see my master leave. I had my arangetram at the age of 13 and started performing all over Tamil Nadu. My education did not get affected till I joined films.

My first film offer was AVM's "Vazhkai". I was spotted by A. V. Meiyappa Chettiar and director M. V. Raman during one of my dance performances. My mother, Vasundhara, had acted in one or two films but my grandmother was apprehensive about my joining films as she felt it would come in the way of my education and dance. However, Raman convinced my grandmother. He would affectionately call me 'Paapukutty' and at AVM, the atmosphere was homely and I was pampered.

"Vazhkai" opened up a new vazhkai (life) for me. There was no looking back after this film in which I played a college girl. After its release, I felt my friends would tease me and stopped attending college. But I started getting telephone calls from them complimenting me on my performance in the film. I enjoyed the first taste of success, thanks to God. AVM remade "Vazhkai" in Telugu - "Jeevitham", which was also a big hit. I spoke my own lines because my father knew Telugu well and helped me. Subsequently, AVM made their first Hindi film, "Bahar". The film was a super success and made me a national star. I was the only artiste from the South who didn't dub her dialogue. I had studied Hindi at the Hindi Prachar Sabha. After "Bahar" came Filmalaya's "Nagin". The film's beautiful music and the snake dance created a sensation.

I signed on more Hindi films and most of them were huge success - B. R. Chopra's "Naya Daur" and "Sadhana", Raj Kapoor's "Sangam," "Madhumati", "Ganga Jamuna", "New Delhi", "Amrapali", "Jewel Thief", "Sanghursh,,' "Leader" etc.

Bimal Roy's "Devdas" proved my acting talent. "Sangam" was a modern theme and a trendsetter of sorts. A song like "Budda mil gaya" was beautifully conceptualised and effectively fitted into the script. And it became a rage. But my personal favourite is "Ganga Jamuna". My role in it had a lot of depth and I really enjoyed doing it.

I did "Penn" with AVM again, which was made in five languages. Those days, actors would take up only a few films at a time. To keep in touch with Tamil movies, I worked in "Parthiban Kanavu," "Irumbuthirai", "Vanji Kottai Valiban" etc.

Amidst the hectic shooting schedules, my grandmother ensured that my dance performances never stopped. Meanwhile, I started learning from Guru Dandayuthapani Pillai because I wanted to learn a more pristine form with strict lines and posture. So, I started from the basics again. Sometimes my guru would come to the studio and teach me a new item for my dance performances. Such was my interest in dance.

I also loved doing dance dramas. Being a Vaishnavite, I wanted to do something on Andal. I was the first artiste to dance to Andal's Tiruppavai and subsequently, I also did a dance drama on the life of Andal. Recently, I have done a thematic presentation on the universality of religions called "Sangamam". While doing these dance dramas, I keep in mind the traditional framework and basic structure of the dance form.

Even in films those days, the purity of dance was never diluted the way it is now being done. That is why people still prefer to hear old film songs for their haunting music and soul-stirring lyrics.

I quit films in 1968, when Dr. Bali and I decided to get married. There were many offers after that but I have absolutely no regrets about quitting films. On the contrary, I feel it was right to leave when I was at the top.

I met Dr. Bali when he came to treat me when I had an attack of viral fever. Later, I met with a serious accident while shooting in Kashmir. I fell into the lake and nearly lost my life as I didn't know swimming.

I was down with pneumonia and was taken to Dr. Bali in Bombay for treatment. During that phase, we became close. It wasn't love at first sight. We started knowing and understanding each other gradually. Like my grandmother, he was conservative, had clear thoughts and was very intelligent.My joining politics was incidental. My husband was keen that I enter politics. As I was close to Panditji and Indiraji, I joined the Congress and Indiraji was very happy. I didn't work like an average politician. I didn't promise things I couldn't do. My work on the Thirusulam station, MGR's Badalasakkadai scheme, the cleaning up of Tiruvallikeni temple tank etc. are my achievements as an MP. I was elected twice to the Lok Sabha and was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha.

After marriage, I quit films but my dancing continued and I performed in India and abroad. I was the first to dance at the United Nation's 20th anniversary celebrations of the Human Rights Day in 1969, I have also had the distinction of performing before the first President of India, S. Radhakrishnan, Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Queen of England, the Duke of Edinburgh and President Eisenhower.

Today, I spend a lot of time researching on ancient dance forms such as Nava Sandhi Kauthwams, Melaprapti, Todaya Mangalam, Sooladi, Prabhandams and Tayams. I also participate in lecture- demonstrations on dance.

I believe in the purity of art. I think you have to be pure at heart to depict divinity.

Art has now become less spiritual because of the attempts to modernise it. I don't believe in fusion. East is East and West is West. I plan to continue dancing and doing social service.

My son Suchindra has now signed his first Hindi film. We are the best of friends. We confide in each other, fight and then make up. I am very young at heart and never think of age. What has age got to do with looks. One is as young as one feels.

My best award is what the people have given me in addition to the Padmashri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Lifetime Achievement award from Filmfare among others. I am basically an emotional person. Otherwise, I wouldn't be an artiste. I always speak from my heart and that's the way I like to be."

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