May 22nd, 2011

Vanmala – Profile

Vanmala

Vanmala

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Prithviraj used to call her Diana the Moon Goddess. The lyrical Pahari Sanyal used to call her “Mala”. Motilal was more-down-to-earth and called her just plain “Bright Eyes”. In fact, it was her eyes that got her the role of Ruksana and it put her in the front rank of Indian film stars with the suc­cess of “Sikandar”. It was one of the early suc­cesses of Minerva Movietone and it has made film history in India.

The limpid blue-green eyes of the sea had always enchanted me even before I had travelled to the west coast of India or flown over the Mediterranean. As a child, I used to often sit fascinated before my sister, Vanmala Devi— Taisaheb to me—watching the flitting hues in her eyes as they changed with the lighting. Our home was the Gwalior of the thirties when both of us lived under the canopy of princely splendor and in mortal fear of a father, Colonel Sardar Rao Bahadur Bapurao Powar Murataz‑ in-ud-Daulah. He was a democratic minister against whose dictates there was no appeal – either for us or for anybody else. Oddly enough even we addressed him as “Malik”.

I was entranced once again by those blue green eyes set into a face of chiselled ivory, topped a by flaxen-grey hair playing truant with a protective ‘pallav’ of soft white voile, when I interviewed Vanmala. Only, now there was sandal-wood paste between the eyebrows under the lifelong exclamation mark of vermilion. I read a much more in those large, silently expressive eyes and gathered more from their lively placidity than I had ever done before.

Perhaps, I have become more perceptive. More likely, my sister, Vanmala Devi, has arrived at a more meaningful equation in life over the years of scholarly effort, professional success and meditation in retreat.

“My life”, she said, “has been like a leaf in the storm.” This was the beginning of a string of quotations and philosophical digressions into which Vanmala Devi strays in everyday conversation. Profoundly spiritual-minded and sensitive, Vanmala Devi attributes her yearning for education and expression to her birth in Ujjain (Avantika) of which the immortal Sanskrit poet, Kalidasa has said: “If thou has not visited Avantika, thou in vain hast been.”

At 21, Vanmala Devi, was a double graduate and a teacher in the progressive Agarkar High School of Poona. She felt she had a mission in life. Did she find what she was seeking? It is anybody’s guess but teaching was a first try and then she went on to films to find expres­sion for her irrepressible talent

There was a wrench. Vanrnala tore herself away from the forbidding regulations of a tra­ditional Maratha family ruled by her father and the devotional orthodoxy handed down to her by her mother along with a love for nature and literature. Vanmala sought to reconcile the irreconcilables with the firm belief that, down the ages, all expressions of art in India were developed and presented by way of a sacred duty.

That was why, when neces­sary, she did not hesitate to turn her back on lucrative film assignments to appear on the Marathi stage. In fact, she work­ed gratis for the building fund of the Marathi Sahitya Sangh at Bombay. Her lead role in the Marathi version of “Taming of the Shrew” is memorable. That was in the early forties.

Those were the pioneering days of the Indian film industry when it was difficult to find stars with even a modicum of education, beauty and the poise of a finishing school. Originally, V. Shantaram had suggested that Vanmala should assist him in script-writing and direc­tion when he was discussing his film with Acharya Atre in her presence. Possibly, it was a dis­creet feeler, for films were not the field for upper class ladies.

But, on the other hand, they alone could take films in their stride in an age when even viewing films was frowned on. Vanmala took the plunge and the next thing anybody knew she was a film star. The leaf was carried by the storm.

The first film was “Lapandav” in Marathi in which she played the role of an uninhibited social sophisticate who could ride a horse, play tennis or appear in a swimming suit. Van­mala did not need a double for she had been doing all this since her childhood. Her performance brought her the offer to play the lead role of Ruksana opposite Prithviraj Kapoor in the title role of “Sikandar”. It was a well-matched team and they never stopped admiring each other’s talent.

Years later, I still remember Prithviraj coaxing Vanmala Devi to act opposite him as a heroine in plays produced by Prithvi Theatres when she had turned her back on the stage and screen to meditate to the rhythm of the moving beads of her rosary.

Prithviraj used to call her Diana the Moon Goddess. The lyrical Pahari Sanyal used to call her “Mala”. Motilal was more-down-to-earth and called her just plain “Bright Eyes”. In fact, it was her eyes that got her the role of Ruksana and it put her in the front rank of Indian film stars with the suc­cess of “Sikandar”. It was one of the early suc­cesses of Minerva Movietone and it has made film history in India.

Ulhas and Vanmala in Parbat Pe Apna Dera (1944)

Ulhas and Vanmala in Parbat Pe Apna Dera (1944)

The eyes that got Vanmala Devi the lead role of Ruksana in “Sikandar” had soon to be “disowned” in her next picture. In “Parbat Pe Apna Dera”, Van­mala Devi played the role of a blind girl with great effect. First Ulhas was seen, stick in hand, or rather his legs and the lower part of the stick. Then came Vanmala’s dainty feet taking each cautious step. Finally, the camera turned up­wards to feature her full figure. She later told me that she was so involved with the role that she actually felt blinded. Once, she had to blink her eyes before she could focus them and look at V. Shantaram who was try­ing to draw her attention.

Her other film was “Kadambari”. She was acting with Shanta Apte and Pahari Sanyal. Seeing the buxom Shanta Ante and the slim, petite Vanmala Devi, Shantaram remarked that one was a “kadambari” (nove­lette) and the other a “diction­ary”.  Then there was “Parinday” with Surendra, Ezra Mir’s “Beete Din” and “Muskurahat” with Motilal. Motilal and Vanmala both sophisticated per­sons and polished artistes made a popular pair in those days. There was also Wadia Movietone’s “Sharabati Aankhen” and of course, “Angaarey” in which Vanmala plays the role of Nargis’ mother.

Among the earlier pictures was “Vasantsena” simultaneous­ly released in Marathi and Hindi versions by Chitra Mandir, which was jointly owned by Vanmala and Acharya Atre. She considers it her best film. She played the role of a courtesan who falls in love with a talented but penniless man, Charudatta. She had, naturally, the Hindu woman’s inherent anxiety to please and submit and the in­grained loyalty of an aristocratic lady who never assesses people on the basis of their assets. Van­mala also had the additional advantage of being able to dance though on a more restricted scale than the cabaret artistes of today. Incidentally, “Vasant­sena” takes us back to Ujjain (Avantika) where the Sanskrit poet Kalidas wrote the play and where Vanmala Devi was born.

Vanmala in Marathi film, "Pyachi Dasi"

Vanmala in Marathi film, "Pyachi Dasi"

Another picture was “Pyachi Dasi”  in Marathi which was also released in Hindi as “Charano ki Dasi”. Vanmala played the role of a tortured daughter-in-law with Durga Khote as her mother-in-law. Vanmala’s acting was astoundingly natural and it was perhaps because she had always wanted a home, however un­comfortable. She used to say: “The house must have some books… The garden some flowers.”

Eventually she did build a bungalow at Khandala and rent­ed out a flat by the sea in Bombay which she furnished with taste and equipped with a selective library. But that still didn’t make a “home”. The nearest she got to it could be when she settled down in Gwalior to look after our ailing father. Perhaps, she had almost arrived at a “home” when she bought over a studio and became the first woman to own one.

Vanmala met her next chal­lenge in the role of a self- denying, pious mother in “Shyam­chi Aai” in which she almost  copied the life-style of our mother. The film was awarded the first President’s Gold Medal and is even now considered a classic. But as Vanmala lived this new role, her thoughts turned elsewhere. Today, one can see her plucking dew drenched flowers in her father’s garden to the tune of softly- hummed hymns while rustling leaves and cooing birds provide the accompaniment.

Vanmala Devi’s retirement from films was no surprise to her friends. She had realized that the crusading zeal and aesthetic values of the pioneering days were giving place to new norms of success. She found that filmdom could not afford her the avenue for expression which she wanted— or needed. She sublimated all her yearnings for expression in the worship of Lord Krishna at Vrindavan and later in the ser­vice of our father.

As we reviewed her career, there were a lot of questions unanswered as to why she did or did not do certain things. For instance, why did she not enter politics? A staunch nation­alist, she had sheltered many a freedom-fighter in her house in­cluding Aruna Asaf Ali and Achyut Patwardhan. She used to call them “Jovial Ghosts” be­cause they could vanish with a laugh. Once she had to swap clothes with Aruna Asaf Ali to help her escape.

It is symptomatic of Vanmala Devi’s idealism that she should now welcome the ban on sex and crime in films. According to her, romance can be sublime or sordid. She feels that all films —like the ones made by her­ – should have a meaningful mes­sage deftly conveyed. She was emphatic that the Indian film industry which draws so largely on Indian culture should plough back a part of their “easy money” into the preservation and development of our culture. “It is not the monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Ajanta­ Ellora Caves which are import­ant but a cultured society that made them possible,” she said. She is very sure that even a little thing like location shoot­ing can help subsidise our rural life or our pilgrim centres.

I asked whether she did not miss the glamour of filmdom and whether she had found a medium for expression. She just smiled. Apparently, she had overcome the need for such things: pain when the harp is being tuned is forgotten when the music begins. Her life to­day is straight and simple like a flute of reed which the Lord fills with divine music. (As told by her sister Sumatidevi Dhanwatey in 1976)

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