Screen, stage and beyond
Vyjayanthimala Bali is as charming as ever as she tells ANJANA RAJAN about her artistic journey so far
PHOTO: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH
OF MANY FEATHERS Vyjayanthimala Bali
Some people can knock down stereotypes with a feather. Somebody like Vyjayanthimala Bali. Fiery film star of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s; pristine Bharatanatyam dancer who defies age and has taken the turn of the century in her dainty stride; former Rajya Sabha MP. With all these high-flying occupations, she might be arrogance on two feet. But that charming smile whisks away the stereotype, and the full-throated laughter scatters any remnants.
When she appeared in Hindi blockbusters such as Bahar and Sangam, she was the reigning queen of the medium. Who can forget her Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy's Devdas, with Dilip Kumar in the title role? Or the triple role in Madhumati? And when she scorched the Tamil and Telugu screens, there was no stopping her. But when she ascended the stage to give a Bharatanatyam performance, not the most conservative of audiences could have accused her of diluting the classical purity of the medium. So much for film influences.
Born and brought up in an orthodox Tamil family where the women were not even sent out for schooling, how did this woman break out of the mould? It was thanks to another woman, says the veteran: her grandmother Yadugiri Devi. Blessed with a tremendous vision, her heart's desire was to see her granddaughter well educated, and she realised the arts were a rich source to expand the mind. She oversaw Vyjayanthimala's training in Bharatanatyam and music, and she allowed her to enter films.
"My getting into films was an accident," recalls Vyjayanthimala. Tamil film director M.V. Raman of AVM Studios, on the lookout for a new face for his production Vazhkai, saw her perform Bharatanatyam in Chennai's Gokhale Hall. "He told my grandmother, `I want your Papakutty'. Everyone used to call me Papa (little child)," she laughs. "At AVM, I would wander about in all the sections. I had no fear and they all treated me like a favourite child."
The film was a "roaring success." Made in Telugu as Jeevitham and in Hindi as Bahar, it "opened the door" for a stint of decades. "I spoke my own dialogue in Hindi and Telugu," recalls the star.
"I was learning Hindi from the Hindi Prachar Sabha."
The conservatives of the family were hard to convince. "Some people stopped talking to my grandmother," she recalls. Yet the feisty matriarch knew what she was about. "She made me understand that Bharatanatyam was what would open up my life." Dance lessons and performances continued regularly. Dances in films those days were not what they are today, she remarks, musing, "I can't say what they are."
Take a dance sequence out of one film and interpolate it into another, and none would be the wiser, she challenges.
Singing playback for the dances in her first film were celebrated classical singers M. L. Vasanthakumari, and D. K. Pattamal, who was Vyjayanthimala's music guru. "What a blessing!" exclaims the dancer.Yadugiri Devi even had a hand in finding choreographers for her films. "Hira Lal and Sohan Lal were well trained in Kathak. My grandmother brought them over from Bangalore."
Bharatanatyam helped her emote better on screen, she feels. But for a stage artiste to perform for cinema, with its innumerable retakes and cut shots, can be trying. "It is difficult to cut a movement and start again, because you have to remember where you left off and start exactly from the same place," she says.
"MGR talked about this beautifully at the World Tamil Conference, when he made me a State Artiste of Tamil Nadu. We were working on Baghdad Tirudan (Thief of Baghdad) at the time. He said, `I was at the editing table, and it was so easy to join the cuts, because the movements just flowed into each other'."
It is a compliment the multiple Filmfare Award winner cherishes. But nothing, she says, can draw her back to films. She took the decision to opt out of films and continue with Bharatanatyam back in 1968, and has never regretted it. "Bharatanatyam has taken me round the world, which I never did as a film star, except perhaps to receive awards."
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