Geeta Bali outclassed the movies she starred in.
Easily one of the five best actresses ever to grace the Hindi screen, she unfortunately never found a vehicle worthy of her prodigious talents. Gifted with effervescent naturalism and a delightfully dead-on sense of comic timing, Geeta, however, frittered away her talents in a multitude of B-grade films. In her 10-year-long career she did around 70 films, once even becoming famous for having three premieres on the same day.
The reasons for Geeta’s profligacy with her talents may lie in her roots in extreme poverty which saw her fighting the demons of financial insecurity. Born into a subsistence-level family, she was the daughter of an itinerant Sikh missionary. Geeta did a few inconsequential, dancing roles in pre-partition Punjab, in films like Badnaami, before moving to Bombay, where Kidar Sharma discovered her living en famille in somebody’s bathroom!
Sharma cast her in his Suhaag Raat (’48) where Geeta’s acting was a revelation! Moving through her scenes like an exquisite paper knife, she cut though convention — in one scene even tossing her unconscious hero, Bharat Bhushan, onto her shoulder. Audiences delighted in her sheer joie de vivre and Geeta grabbed every role that came her way including that of Suraiya’s wayward younger sister in the hit Badi Bahen (’49).
In 1951, she unexpectedly found herself at the zenith of her career. Through sheer force of will, she triumphed with two films despite the dice being loaded against her. In Baazi she was only the gangster’s moll. Yet, hero Dev Anand concedes, “People would come repeatedly to the theatres only to see Geeta dancing to `Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le’”. In Albela, Geeta’s hero was Bhagwan, a comedian whom no other heroine would have been willing to star opposite. Yet, Geeta worked her alchemy and the film is today a cult favorite. The most enduring images are that of the lead couple’s dancing and of Geeta’s face, a pool perpetually rippled by her feelings.
Geeta was not a traditional beauty. None of her features were individually stunning; but her face added up to more than just the sum of its parts, especially when awash with her archetypal vibrancy. Her appeal lay in her personality. Unpretentious even after stardom, Geeta shunned the coy act of the 50s heroines. Stories of her largesse are legend — she did four films with Jaswant because he was her brother-in-law, she sportingly played a small role of a man in Sharma’s Rangeen Raatein and this rebel thought nothing of driving herself to premieres in an open jeep. Her love for life captivated Shammi Kapoor and in 1955, Geeta sidelined her career to marry the as-yet-unsuccessful Shammi in an impromptu midnight wedding.
Their marriage withstood the upheavals wrought by Shammi’s stardom but the creative urge within Geeta cried for expression. She rued the fact that she had never crossed paths with a true classic and decided to produce and act in Rano a cinematic expression of the potent theme of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s classic novel on widow remarriage — Ek Chaddar Maili Si.
However, tragedy struck when on an outdoor shooting in Punjab, Geeta contracted smallpox. Rushed back to Bombay, her temperature soared to 107°F and she had to be put on ice. Pointing to a picture of Geeta, the doctor had asked, ‘Who is she?’ — so completely had the shadow of death triumphed over one so fond of life. Ironically, even after her father had been blinded by small pox, Geeta had refused all vaccinations. In death, as in life, Geeta remained recklessly trusting.
In the winter of 1965, the 36-year-old body of one of our most vivacious actresses, Geeta Bali, was cremated at Banganga, close to the temple where she had married Shammi Kapoor.