“My Amma (Granny) ‘ghost writes’ for me. She is my faithful chronicler. She is more than my Boswell. She needs no tip from me to write the details . .
“Her memory is extraordinarily retentive.
I do not keep a diary…have not kept any in all my career. But my Amma (Granny) keeps it for me. In a sense, she “Ghost writes” for me.
She is my faithful chronicler. Or, shall I say, she is more than my “Boswell.” She needs no tip from me to write the details. She has lived through them. She is more thorough, more accurate, more punctilious than I could ever be. Her memory is extraordinarily retentive.
I do not know how much I owe to Amma. But for her, I would perhaps be wandering in the wilderness instead of being in films and being a dancer.
Whenever I look back or think of the past, my recollections about my childhood and early career are vague and scanty. But Amma reels off leaf after leaf from that good, little book relating to me—her memory. And how pleasant it is to listen to her!
My Amma recites things with pride, with joy and sometimes, inevitably, with embarrassment. Has not a great writer said somewhere:
“The virtues and foibles of youth become, O Sage.
“The much-vaunted experience of age!”?
Yes, every diary is a friendly guide. It records one’s virtues and failings. It is also a teacher, in the sense that it helps one to correct oneself.
And so about myself …
I AM “Papa” to my parents and close friends, A “Mala” to those less intimate and “Vyjayanthimala” to those who meet me on the screen. My life has been a run of exciting events, below which the undercurrent of an ambition to make one’s contribution to the arts of the stage, screen and journalism (I consider that one of the arts, too) has wound its way.
Few start their childhood in a foreign land. This, however, has been my good luck (or, has it been misfortune?) for when I was four years old my granny and my parents whisked me off to Europe on a nine-month dance tour of the Continent.
Curiously enough, my first contact with filmdom was in London. I met the internationally famous director, Alexander Korda, when he was making “The Thief of Baghdad” starring Sabu, and Mr. Korda left work on the set to meet us. He was so fascinated by my long wavy hair that he beamed and said to my Granny, “Look, not if the heavens fall, should you meddle with Papa’s hair!”
Years later, when Sir Alexander met me in Bombay, his joy knew no bounds as he exclaimed, “Is this the little kid I met at Elstree in 1939?” He did not fail to show himself pleased with Amma for not having cut or bobbed my hair!
It is perhaps sheer coincidence that I cull these pages from my Granny’s memory-book while acting a role in the Southern Movies’ Tamil production, “Thief of Baghdad”, and, every time I go on the sets for this picture, I am reminded of my first meeting with the great film maestro.
At that time my passion (and it is so even today) was dancing, and I hardly thought I would ever go into films, much less be the leading lady in a film with the same title as the one Sir Alexander Korda was making.
Let me now dig up something about what I call my “Triplicane Days.”
Triplicane, where we first lived, is a middle-class stronghold of Madras city. I am of respected Brahmin Vaishnavite stock and our family comes from the little town of Mandya in Mysore.
We Brahmins frown on the cinema, and especially dislike girls entering the film profession as actresses. I did so myself but the credit goes to my Amma who fought hard to make me what I am today!
We lived in a small, neatly-built house facing the towering Sri Parthasarathi Temple, a setting largely responsible for making me a god-fearing person.
Mimicry was one of my hobbies as a child. I used to imitate everyone I knew. Once, while imitating a monkey, I fell and rolled down a staircase thirty feet long. My parents were struck with horror, but I was able to stop myself at the last stair, sit calmly there and wave to my father and mother.
It relieved them of their fright, and it was then that my grandmother called me by a boy’s name. The name was Prahlad which means The Cheerful One.
I am told I began talking at two, and knew no other language besides Tamil, my mother-tongue, until I was four years old. At about this time, I began to learn dancing, with my granny supervising my training. Then I was taken to Europe.
My habit of mimicking perhaps endeared me most to the people we met on the Continent. My Amma says it was my eyes. But, whatever it was everyone was fond of me. Whenever I danced, in Paris, London, Venice and Naples, I was forced to give encores and encores.
My most memorable performance was when I appeared before the Pope, dancing by His Holiness’s command as the Castel Gondolfo, his summer residence.
My performance was hardly that of a seasoned artist, but His Holiness liked my dancing and presented me with a medal made of gold.
I should say that it was the Pope’s good wishes and blessing which encouraged me to study dancing more assiduously on my return home. Granny arranged everything, and I attended school at the Good Shepherd Convent.
Before I finished my schooling, I had completed my training as a dancer. My teacher was Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai. Table tennis was my hobby, and in my final year I won an inter-school championship.
My schooling ended with my passing the matriculation examination, though I had thought of doing the Senior Cambridge Examination and going on to college to study Law and become a woman advocate. But my dancer’s love of the art triumphed and I went on a dance tour instead.
Early in 1947 I appeared at the Gokhale Hall in Madras. An excited audience cheered and cheered. After the show Mr. M. V. Raman, the film director (a family friend of ours). unfolded his plan—and determination, if I can put it that way—to make me a dancing star of the screen.
I was thrilled at the thought of it, but at home there were objections. However, as always, the way was won for me by my Amma and I came to films as the “Behar” girl.
Believe it or not, I was as much at home inside a film studio as on the stage…though I must say I was slightly nervous the first day they were shooting. But, as we progressed with the three versions (Tamil, Telugu and Hindi) of Producer A. V. Meiyappan’s film, I found the whole thing easy.
One thing I found difficult at first was shedding tears to order. But I soon learnt to turn my eyes into brimming founts, when the occasion demanded.
The three versions of this film each have memories and significance for me. The Tamil film was titled “Life.” To an artist on the threshold of a career it was auspicious. The Hindi version brought me country-wide fame overnight, producers of Hindi films vying with one another to secure the use of my talent for their productions. The Telugu version showed that popularity can also be burdensome to one.
At Tenali, a town in Andhra where the Telugu version of Mr. Meiyappan’s film was released, I appeared on the stage to perform as a dancer. After the show, I had to lock myself in from the crowd surging outside the theatre and waiting to greet me on my coming out.
Finally, bruised and battered, I managed to struggle into my motor-car. The entire crowd of “fans” milled round it and we could not move an inch. Eventually, it took a squad of police to rescue me from my predicament.
My fans love me, and in return I love them. But manifestations of this sort can be exasperating.
I had a similar experience recently when we were on location at Bhopal for Producer B. R. Chopra’s “Naya Daur.” But things there were not as bad as they were at Tenali.
Producer Meiyappan’s film gained me fans in countries like Burma and only the other day I came to know that I have a distinguished Burmese fan in Prime Minister U Nu.
Our own Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru, told me this. He said, “Don’t you know that U Nu is one of your great fans?”
I met Burma’s Prime Minister at Raj Shaven, Madras, when he came to India for the 2,500th anniversary celebrations of the birth of the Buddha and he complimented me on my dancing in “Life”. He said Mr. Meiyappan’s was the first Tamil film he had seen and he expressed the hope that I would one day give a series of dance recitals in Burma. I have promised to do so.
A big event is the lunch we had with Pandit Nehru. Panditji is always a busy man, but he found time to invite us to have lunch with him. I shall always cherish my memory of it.
We sat down to lunch with Panditji shortly before the Soviet Premier, Mr. Bulganin, and Mr. Khrushchev were due to arrive at the airport. Panditji was the perfect host, unhurried in manner, and himself cut a melon and placed the slices on our plates.
It was not our first meeting with Panditji, for in 1951 I had the honor of dancing before him at Bangalore. I remember the date very well. It was July 15th.
AND, now, back to the screen and Bombay! It begins with my return to dancing on the stage, my technique as a Bharat Natyam performer perfected under my tutor, K. N. Dandayudapani Pillai, who organized our “Mala Tarang” troupe of dancers. We performed in all the leading Indian cities and included Ceylon in our itinerary. The title of the show was “Dances of India.”
It was one hectic round, responding to encores and getting mobbed outside the theater. I quite enjoyed it, and I suppose it is because I am somewhat partial to dancing. When I am on the stage, I feel people are closer and their reactions thrill when I dance.
My introduction to Bombay took place at a tea party which the veteran producer Mr. V. M. Vyas gave in my honor at the Radio Club. According to the film press, it helped to settle the controversy over the pairing of “only popular and front rank stars.” I had just then signed to play opposite Prem Nath in Mr. Vyas’s “Anjam,” my second film venture in a Hindi production.
After that a series of films, ranging from the successful “Nagin” to “Jashan,” tell the rest of the story of my climb to screen stardom.
I have been cast with every top-ranking Hindi actor, except Raj Kapoor, while I have acted in the South in Tamil pictures opposite all the leading male artists excepting Shivaji Ganesan. It could be called a record, and I now have the confidence to handle all varieties of roles.
Till last year, it was almost all the time Bombay for me. I made air dashes to Madras now and then to fulfill assignments there. This year, however, I shall remain at Madras and go to Bombay by air whenever necessary.
I have many film assignments in Madras, including one for the Hindi film titled “Sitaron Se Aagey,” in which I co-star with Ashok Kumar.
I owe all my success to Anjaneya (Hanuman), the God of Strength, whose devotee I am. I shall tell you how my special devotion for the god started.
Sometime ago, when we were stopping at a hotel in Bangalore, a vendor of religious images came to the hotel. My Amma was buying an image of Anjaneya, but somehow I did not fancy it and told Amma so. We did not buy the image.
That night I had a dream, in which the God Anjaneya bade me buy the image. I paid heed to the dream. In the morning we looked for the vendor and bought the image.
From that day I have become a devotee of the god, and I hope he will help me to fulfill my life’s ambition.
This is to visit the capitals of the world with my dancers and appear myself as a dancer performing the ancient classical dances of India (This interview was conducted in 1957).