Danseuse extraordinaire, Vyjayanthimala’s greatest legacy to cinema is that today it is de rigeur for every girl who enters the Hindi film industry to be an accomplished dancer.
Yet there was more to light-footed Vyjayanthi than magical moves. True, she became a major star when the crowds repeatedly bought tickets for her Nagin (’54) only to see her sinewy gyrations to the chartbuster ‘Man dole mera tan dole’, before walking out. In film after film, this Terpischore incarnate defied the dull obligations of gravity in performances that established her as the first major dancer-star.
Vyjayanthimala sought, and achieved, histrionic validity too. When director Bimal Roy cast her as the prostitute Paro, in Devdas (’55), he was sneered at by his associates. “Why don’t you take comedian Kishore Kumar as Devdas?”, they argued. But Vyjayanthimala belied these doubts (witness her expression in the scene where Devdas offers her money for her services) and proved her detractors wrong by winning an award. When in 1958 she shone in two title roles, Madhumati and Sadhana, the last vestiges of doubt were removed, as Vyjayanthimala shot to the highest echelons of stardom.
When she played the polymorphous presence singing `Aaja re pardesi’, in Madhumati, Bimal Roy gained his greatest commercial success. Vyjayanthimala’s Ganga Jamuna (’61) and Sangam (’64), broke all previous records for moneyspinners. As a matter of course, she also won best actress awards for both films. The manner in which she divested herself of all her south Indian linguistic mannerisms and imbibed the Bhojpuri dialect in Ganga Jamuna won her respect. Even as the glamour doll in Sangam, she was unforgettable, especially in the sequence from ‘O mere Sanam’ where with her right hand raised from the elbow, those evocative eyes beseeched her husband to forget her past, saying ‘Kuch aur nahin insaan hain hum’, (After all we are all only human).
Magic moments like these made her the premier star, but when she launched into an ill-fated romance with the married Raj Kapoor, the heat of her passion burnt all reason in its path. When it ended, it changed her personality. From the extremely religious, vegetarian Vyjayanthi, under the thumb of her grandmother, Yadugiri Devi, she became arrogant and bitter. She switched her affections to Raj Kapoor’s personal physician, Dr Bali, and spent her last years in the industry waiting for his divorce from his first wife to come through. Meanwhile, she fought with Dilip Kumar, left Ram Aur Shyam in high dudgeon and amazed Vijay Anand with her disinterest during Jewel Thief. Dharmendra remembers how he completed Pyar Hi Pyar as her hero without even being introduced to her. After the commercial crash of her personal favourite, the dancing magnum opus Amrapali, a sorely disappointed Vyjayanthi left films. Thereafter she had a son (Suchi) with Dr Bali, dabbled in various businesses like shrimp fishing and was an MP from Madras for a while in the 80s. But most conclusively, she embraced her first love, dancing.
It was dance that had brought her into films with Bahaar, a unique trilingual hit in Hindi, Tamil ( Vazhkai) and Telugu (Jeevitham). And it was dance that had sustained her right from the early years. Vyjayanthi was the product of a broken marriage. There is an apocryphal story about how her father reached the quayside with a prohibitory court order but was too late to prevent his estranged wife from whisking Vyjayanthimala off to Europe. Hence, at the age of four, she won her first accolades dancing before the Pope.
Today, although the whirring camera and the make-up box have long been abandoned, the sound of her ghungroos still echoes on.