It was dark and bitterly cold as only a December night in the Punjab can be. Out of the shadows of Lahore’s side-streets emerged groups of Sikhs, hostility writ large on their heavily bearded faces.
They gathered tightly around the central figures in an open-air act and demanded that the nine-year-old girl, Harkirtan Kaur, and her elder sister, Hardarshan, should not again appear publicly on the stage.
The reason advanced by the quietly determined puritans was that it lowered the girls in the estimation of the community and detracted from the high reputation of their revered missionary preacher, Pandit Kartar Singh, whose daughters they were.
Their septuagenarian father argued in vain with the angry mob, for he did not share the inhibitions of his followers in the matter.
Sweet reason did not prevail, the crowd destroyed the pandal in which the company was to stage their act, threatened death to the Pandit and his son, Digvijay, and vowed to kidnap Harkirtan if she appeared in public again.
COURAGE TO FOREFRONT
Nine years later Harkirtan Kaur returned to the bright lights—as Geeta Bali.
The incident is important in that it highlights the inborn courage of a girl who could defy a martial community and rise to stardom along the roughest road.
Driven off the stage, she persevered with her dancing and singing under the tuition of her sister Hardarshan and brother Digvijay. In 1940 she walked alone into the office of the Station Director of A.I.R. in Lahore to emerge with a regular contract to sing.
That she was unequipped with the advantages of a formal education–because she traveled continuously with her missionary father through Malaya, Burma and Ceylon— did not deter her. She passed the sixth standard while at school in Colombo and that was the last she saw of the inside of an educational institution.
One day at the A.I.R. studios she won an introduction to Pandit Gyan Shanker, the famous dance-director of Punjabi films. With her winsome charm she persuaded him to cast her as a chorus girl in Shorey Pictures’ documentary “The Cobbler”. Her first appearance before a movie-camera moved her so much that she spent the entire thirty rupees she was paid for that part on distributing sweets to the studio-staff.
She had talent and showed it, and Roop K. Shorey soon portrayed her in a solo dance in his full-length feature “Badnami”. She quickly established a reputation in Lahore’s film world as a skillful dancer. But nobody would believe that she could act.
Geeta Bali, however, retained faith in herself and spent restless hours seated before a mirror, copying the moods and expressions of her favorites—Rita Hayworth and Dorothy Lamour. It was a form of artistic homework to her.
BROUGHT TO BOMBAY
At that time the great actor, the late Mazhar Khan, happened to visit Lahore for the release of his directorial success “Pahli Nazar”. He searched the studios for fresh talent for the film he planned. He saw Geeta Bali and signed her up for three years.
He brought her and her entire family to Bombay and housed them in the “Palms”, a building on Dada Phalke Road, Dadar, ill-omened as the “cemetery” of many a kinematic dream. Ezra Mir’s Awaz Film Corporation was wiped out by the winds that whip the “Palms”. There Jwala Prasad Tiwari and Makhanlal Jain floated the big M. & T. Films, to part. There also the veteran Mazhar Khan performed the “muhurat” of his Mazhar Arts’ “Guest House” with Geeta Bali.
But Geeta Bali lived to rise immune to fortune’s and financier’s whims as “Guest House” crashed. At the “muhurat” she met Kidar Sharma, the talented director of Indian films. On her 13th day in the “Palms” she signed up for her first big role with Kidar Sharma, as leading lady of “Sohag Raat”. The picture proved a smash hit and Geeta Bali was overnight acclaimed Personality Girl of 1948. And unlucky 13 again proved lucky for her, for her till now greatest picture, “Baazi”, was her thirteenth release.
After that producers vied with each other for her work with ever-increasing offers. She has appeared in more than 15 pictures released till now.
Her performances in Kidar Sharma’s “Bawre Nain”, Navketan’s “Baazi” and Bhagwan’s “Albela” have elevated her to the upper reaches of stardom. Today she ranks amongst the foremost of the leading ladies of the Indian screen. At this moment she is working in nine pictures simultaneously. These include Filmistan’s Tamil-Hindi “Anand Math”, Film Arts’ “Jaal”, her own “Raag Rang”, Paul Zil’s “Zalzala” and Mohan Sinha’s “Jalpari”. Her “pro rata” charges for a shooting shift are more than what the Home Minister of a first class state collects in a month.
Geeta Bali’s heart is young and gay, success has left her unaffected and she is among the most co-operative stars on the sets. When she is at work even that dullest period—the tricky crane shot—comes to life. Strangers, however, find her more reserved than a Marwari bride.
In the gold rush of 1951 she did not discriminate between those who clamored for her services. Inexperienced directors follow her advice on the sets and she has often directed, albeit critically, her own work. Experience so gained has been of immeasurable help to her and she is now herself a producer in association with her sister Hardarshan.
The two sisters have floated a film concern of their own named Bali Sisters and its maiden picture “Raag Rang”, written and directed by their brother Digvijay, awaits release.
A full-work schedule allows Geeta Bali little time for the social graces, or offstage relaxation. With her parents, brother, sisters and sister-in-law she lives in “Gulistan,” her own bungalow at Versova, sheltered by the peace and isolation that that sea-swept shore can provide.
Out early, she returns home from the studios with the speed of a homing-pigeon to bask in the domestic felicity to be found in a happy home. There her blind father dilates on metaphysics and philosophy to the occasional visitor. There her mother, a strict disciplinarian, lords over the hearth. There her elder sister, held in respect as “Bibaji”, arranges shooting dates and collects fees. There her secretary, a Jodhpur lad, answers her fan-mail, often 100 letters per day. Theirs is a lightly integrated social unit with everyone making an individual contribution.
To let you into a secret: Geeta Bali does no cooking, but she can, when driven, prepare an omelette or switch up a salad. Other secrets: her favorite dish is “murg mussallum” (spiced roasted chicken); her favorite scent is “Mischief”; her favorite home-garb is bright linen slacks and a tunic.
Each November 30 she invites selected friends over to celebrate her birthday and it is one of the moments when everything has to stop to allow for the party. Rummy occasionally intrudes into the quieter moments of her private life. But if she can be said to entertain strong likes and dislikes, it is to change her cars, which she does about every second month. The speed limit is to her a not greatly respected statute and she has been warned more than once for contravening the 30-mile-an-hour limit.
The 22-year-old star gets all her exercise from dancing and running around with an Alsatian, the six month-old pet of her little sister. She is an early riser and puts on a half hour dance before leaving home at 8-30 each morning for the studios. Work is not play, even for a star, for she has often to stay up far into the night—and that on many a night.
In the field of the application of her likes and dislikes to her fellowmen, Kidar Sharma not unnaturally occupies a particular niche. He is to her a guru, and one who has set her along the path to fame. On the family level she has an abiding faith in the talents of her brother, Digvijay, who, she feels, is cast to be a great writer and director.
Her sister-in-law, Sudha Bali, has also joined the films and it looks at the moment that their own concern, the Bali Sisters, will not have much trouble in finding suitable star material.
It is possible that the romances conjured up on the floor of the studio have made her, like other leading ladies, immune to thrills which ordinary men and women call Love.
It does not appear to have entered into her life.
Her explanation is possibly to be found in the statement: “I want to act as well as produce pictures” (This interview was conducted in 1952).