Geeta Bali – Brave New Heroine
I DO not know whether the girl originally called Harikirtan Kaur changed her name to Geeta because it was catchy or because she wanted to link it with the Song Celestial. Anyway, it gave her a lift.
I have known Geeta since she was a pixy little thing at Lahore. Geeta’s mother was unaffectedly natural, her father was a rebel who invited the ire of his community by allowing Geeta’s elder sister to dance in public too. The family reeled under the blows and there was a recession. Then Geeta’s pent-up anger overflowed and smashed the dykes. She showed up again and again at film studios. During those days, it was even harder than today for a girl to make her way in films. Geeta did bit roles and made the best of whatever snippets of dialogue were given her. But those films remained a precarious business for Geeta until she caught the eye of the great character-actor, Mazhar Khan, who brought her to Bombay.
Bombay was a world much larger than Lahore and more competitive. The great divide between the accepted and the waiting-for-acceptance continued. Geeta was restlessly waiting to prove her mettle. Her great handicap was lack of formal education. She knew, with honest doubts, that she could do better than most stars and yet was held back.
She finally made up her mind. She would educate herself. She studied English besides her native Urdu, and acquired proficiency in dancing. The roles she was offered were as small and circumscribed as the makers of the movies themselves. She had no choice. She could do light roles as well as serious ones. Characters from literature were her forte, though she had hardly any literary background.
Then came “Sohag Raat.” The long night’s journey into day began with that film. I admired her ability to portray the most subtle emotion on the screen with ease. Her range was wide and she could shuttle between the sublime and the ridiculous with rare poise. I cherished a desire to write for her but when the opportunity came, in my film “Garm Coat,” she declined to work in it.
When I wrote my novelette “Ek Chadar Maili si,” I had not even the vaguest idea that my rather unconventional story would be made into a film. It was left to my friend C. L. Dheer to suggest it. He has the temperament of an artist.
Came the day when Geeta was with him, excited and impatient: She wanted me to read out the novel to her personally. She was looking like a soul, tormented and restless, waiting for a body which she found in the character of Rano. She decided to live the role, should anyone have the courage to film the unusual story.
“Rano finds her husband dead. She shrieks, runs inside, runs out and again runs inside…”
Geeta is listening, petrified.
I continue: “Rano opens her rickety closet: there is her bridal dress, her jewellery. She begins to think of wearing the dress and bedecking herself with ornaments…”
This is too much for Geeta. She ejaculates a puzzled “Yes… No”. Yes, because she has an unreasoning faith in me — No, because it defies all understanding. How can Rano, widowed so gruesomely, ever think of wearing her bridal clothes and jewellery when her husband is lying outside, murdered?
I try to explain. It is a moment of iniquity and Rano has lost all reason. We see her torn by conflicting emotions. I quote Shakespeare and look as if I am quoting scripture. I try to help Geeta out of the moonshine of sob-stories and dwell on the different, the rugged, the quaint. I try to explain that inside man’s mind there is Hell as well as Heaven.
Geeta begins to understand. The color returns to her face rather slowly. I am relieved at my own ability to communicate and Geeta goes home, electrified. But, she returns the next day saying, “But, how?” and the whole thing starts, all over again.
There was no question of Geeta’s identifying herself with Rano, the heroine of the novel, for she herself was Rano, every inch.
Both hail from the land of five rivers; like Rano she is the never-say-die heroine of the novel of life.
Geeta had started living Rano. Everything else became secondary to her. If Rano was passionate, she too would be passionate in the film. Even a birthday card she sent me was signed “Rano.” She would brush aside all inhibitions and live the role in the earthy image of life.
Geeta believed that real art came from culture one had absorbed in childhood. She wanted to project her beloved Punjab to the outside world. Her enthusiasm won over Mrs. Durga Rani who offered to produce the film.
Geeta and Director Dheer went to the Punjab to hunt locations. It was Banga, a small kasbah in Jullundur District they selected finally. There was the temple which figures prominently in the story, the railway station, the ekkas — the place had everything. She found the people, the artists, the mothers, the aunts, elders — all cast in the image of God.
She knew them and they answered the description in the novel. They had powerful lines on their faces which no make-up man could have etched, emotions in the eyes which no glycerine could bring out. Men and women came out to help, for Geeta had an immeasurable charm for them. A house was found answering to the description in the novel: It is now referred to as Rano’s house by the men and women of Banga.
Geeta is an extremely sensitive soul; even a breath of wind affects her and yet she has the toughness “to walk through a salt- mine, with peeled-off skin.” She has an eye which misses nothing. She may not say a word but she knows. She knows how to extract the best out of a person. I remember the day when she had me admitted in a hospital “for health reasons,” and that is how I completed the dialogue of “Rano”!
Geeta is a perfect hostess. At her home, she looks to every detail and attends to each guest individually. The colors in her house are ideally matched: Even her coiffure seems part of the decor. If you find any negligence of dress, you can be sure it is for deliberate effect. Look out, for Geeta is trying something, maybe on you. These days she is Rano, every inch (This article was written in 1964 by Rajinder Singh Bedi).