Vyjayanthimala – Interview (2012)
In a career spanning just over two decades, the veteran acted in 65 films. Working with the topmost heroes of the era, she was a coveted leading lady. And though she quit films four decades ago, a compilation of four of her films — Madhumati, Devdas, Sangam and Naya Daur — has just been put in the market by Shemaroo. It’s truly nostalgia time.
Dressed in a bright red silk sari and a smile that makes her eyes twinkle, Vyjayanthimala is the epitome of elegance when she walks into the living room of her suite at a suburban hotel. Two minutes with her and you can’t help but liken her to the late veteran Dev Anand. The same palpable energy and joie de vivre… Yet, unlike Dev saab who used to be totally focused on the future, she’s game to revisit the past.
“Dancing Toes” is what her grandmother nicknamed her while she was a toddler; the actress gave one of her first public performances in front of the Pope when she was five.
“I wasn’t a trained dancer then,” she smiles. Vyjayanthimala’s entry into films was by “sheer accident”. She learnt dance at a young age and offers to act in films were a natural progression but her mother was against the idea. She wanted her daughter to excel at academics. But fate willed otherwise. Director M.V. Raman, a family friend, helped the family overcome their misgivings about a minor taking to acting. She was 13 when she first faced the camera for the Tamil film Vazhkai (1949), later remade as Jeevitham in Telugu and Bahar (1951) in Hindi with her in the lead.
“Bahar took the North by storm because till then they hadn’t seen real dance in films. All the actors did was sway to the music. There was no footwork, mudras (hand gestures) or facial expressions. My dances went down well with the audiences in the North. I became an all India star overnight,” she recalls. Surely, adulation at such a tender age would be enough to turn anyone’s head. Shaking her head, she says, “I was happy. But it didn’t go to my head. Right from the beginning I was taught not to get too excited or depressed. Just to keep a head on my shoulders.”
After the release of Bahar, Vyjayanthimala returned to Chennai as she was on a five-year contract with AVM and so couldn’t sign films in Mumbai. “They never realized I would get so many offers up North,” she states. She kept busy with dance shows down South before signing S. Mukherjee’s Nagin (1954). The set-up in Mumbai was big and it took her a while to settle down. “AVM had a homely atmosphere but here things were different. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was doing well. I stuck to the director’s instructions. I played a tribal girl. This film too was a hit.” Followed several other films including Anjaam, Ladki, Nagin but the defining moment in her career came with Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955).
“That was my big opening,” she recollects with a smile. “Bimalda gave me the wonderful role of Chandramukhi. I proved that I was not only a good dancer but could act too. The audience loved my transformation from a dancing girl to a pious and gentle, woman who makes no demands on Devdas. Bimalda was wonderful to work with. I was in awe of my co-star Dilip Kumarji, who I was working with for the first time. We shared a wonderful action-reaction on camera. We did several films together including Naya Daur, Madhumati and Gunga Jumna.”
Ask her why she refused the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award for her role of Chandramukhi in Devdas and she laughs, “That became a big story. A lot of controversy surrounded it. It wasn’t arrogance or my acting uppity that made me refuse it. When Bimalda signed me for the film he mentioned that there were two parallel roles. Paro and Chandramukhi were the two heroines of the film. So where did the supporting tag come from? It was a matter of principle which was mistaken for so many other things. This incident turned things topsy turvy between Filmfare and me but it was just a passing phase, we made up. I won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for Sadhana (1958), Ganga Jumna (1961) and Sangam (1964). Each of my trophies is nicely displayed at my home in Chennai.”
The actress married Dr. Chamanlal Bali on March 10, 1968, quit films and moved to Chennai. She explains, “My husband and I mutually decided that I should give up films. Looking after the house and family is also a profession. You have to be true to whatever you do. I felt I couldn’t divide my time between films and home. I’d had my innings, worked with the best in the industry. The industry gave me so much of love, name, fame and respect. I was at the peak and felt it was the best time to give up. It’s heartening that people still remember me with affection. The younger generation that has seen my movies as reruns on television also knows me.”
What also kept her busy was dance. While initially it was her grandmother who stood rock solid behind her as she learnt Bharat Natyam, after marriage Dr. Bali provided similar support. She continued with stage performances and does so to date. At 75, she is the senior-most performing Bharat Natyam artiste. Wistfully she says, “I’ve been performing all over India and abroad but I’d like to perform one last time in Mumbai. It’s been a long time.”
The erstwhile actress is also into research about rare and forgotten ancient Indian temple dance forms. “Some of them I learnt from my guru Tanjore Chittapah Pillai. I learnt bhaav and abhinaya from Gauri Amma. I’m a traditional purist at heart and aim to continue the Bharat Natyam dance form without polluting it,” she volunteers. Her two dance schools in Mumbai, were shut after she shifted base to Chennai. “My students were in tears when I told them I was leaving,” she narrates misty-eyed.
Today her dance dramas concentrate on solo presentations and are based on thematic subjects. Her latest has been the Valmiki Ramayan and depicts the three separations of Ram and Sita. “I enact all the characters. I’ve performed in Delhi and Kolkata but it’s been a while since I danced in Mumbai. What I’d love to revive is my Sant Sakhu group dance drama which was successful. It’s in Marathi with music by Vasant Desai. The abhangs are sung by Vani Jairam.”
She terms her entry into politics ‘an accident too’. The late Rajiv Gandhi met her at a gathering in Chennai and asked whether she’d like to contest the elections on a Congress Party ticket. Taken aback, she mumbled, “Whatever you say.” Dr Bali was keen that she join politics, calling it social service. “Isn’t art a service too?” she countered. Dr Bali reasoned that through politics she could address issues related to the common man. Though she didn’t know the ‘P’ of politics, her husband’s support and guidance plus the fact that she was once close to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi swung the scale in favor of contesting elections from Chennai South. She worked hard for her constituency and proved her credibility. In 1984 she won by 48,000 votes and in 1989 by 1.25 lakh votes.
Dr Bali passed away in 1986 and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to continue in politics but Rajiv Gandhi insisted that as a sitting member, she should contest. In 1993 she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. She attributes her success in politics to her ability to work on a project with single-minded devotion. However things changed after Rajiv Gandhi passed away and in 1999 she quit politics.”
Did she ever think of returning to acting after that? Firmly she shakes her head and smiles, “I have no regrets whatsoever. I’m very happy with whatever I’m doing. I’m constantly busy, on the move. Apart from dancing, I’m also involved in so many other cultural activities where I’m asked to preside, inaugurate. And then there’s my research and my home. That’s definitely where the heart is now that son Suchindra and daughter-in-law Nandini have presented her with her first grandchild, Swara who was born last October.
Vyjayanthimala was once a keen golfer too. But once again, this is something she no longer can find time for. Harking back, she remembers, “I don’t think I’ve swung a club for the last seven years. I’m sports oriented and do feel bad about it but what to do? I even played table tennis and badminton when I was young and participated in tournaments. I even enjoyed riding. My husband introduced me to golf. I started off as a keen golfer and was fairly good at the game. I won trophies in Delhi and Chennai. I hope I can catch up with the game once again.”
Her autobiography, Bonding, was released a couple of years ago in Delhi by P. Chidambaram. Says she, “It’s not a literary classic, it’s candid and simple.” Ask her whether she’s been honest in her narration and she’s quick to add, “It was written because I wanted to clarify certain things which I could only do by penning down my own thoughts and feelings.” (Vyjayanthimala interviewed by Meera Joshi in 2012).