Grandma Fayazi, my educator in movie matters, had a thing about Vyjayanthimala. So one wintry afternoon, she’d bundled me up in a topi, muffler and woollies galore, to catch a re-run of Bahar.
Now, why was grandma obsessing over this 1950s family drama for the umpteenth time, clapping, sighing, singing along , guffawing, the works? “This Vyjayanthi is the best,” she thumped my head to drum in the superlative. “How she dances, kills with her saucer eyes and those kiss curls on her forehead. She’s so different from the roti surat heroines.”
Grandma also had a parallel yen for the Bahar hero, Karan Dewan (with a toothbrush moustache), and of course for Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. She wanted Vyjayanthi to pair up with them pronto. Maybe granny was just a wannabe casting director.
If grandma were alive today, she would have surely dispatched a jungle-sized bouquet to Vyjayanthimala, who turns a year older today today. Clearly, the age group of 13 to 30, in the majority, doesn’t go gaga over the mention of her name, but her appeal has captivated at least three generations. I’d place my grandparents, parents and at this moment, middle-aged moviegoers like myself, in this privileged V-club.
No hyperbole that.
Vyjayanthimala was in the right place at the right time. After all, the 1950s have been justly acknowledged as the golden years of Hindi cinema, thanks to stories of superior quality, pioneering directors and actors who oozed charisma.
Born in Triplicane, Madras, to Vasundhara Devi and M D Raman, after two Tamil films, Vyjayanthimala sparked the trend of South Indian heroines striking gold in Bombay. Think Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi and Jaya Prada. Like Vyjayanthimala, the other heroines – but for Sridevi – have also made forays into national politics.
Shut up, I can imagine grandma Fayazi hectoring me. Just rave about dear Vyju today. Right then. Clearly, grandma’s favourite possessed that rare quality of alloying dancing skills to an emotive chutzpah.
Check out Vyjayanthimala’s best dances (and I’m spoilt for choice here): Mann dole mera tann dole (Nagin), Eena meena deeka (Aasha), Bakkad bam bam (Kathputli), Chadh gayo paapi bichhua (Madhumati), O chhaliya re (Gunga Jumna), Budha mil gaya (Sangam), Honthon pe aisi baat (Jewel Thief), Kaise samjhaoon (Suraj), not to omit the set pieces of Raj Tilak and Amrapali performed to semi-classical music.
It’s in her mid-career, that she evolved as an actress, abetted by scripts which assigned her roles of strong texture. Her Hindustani diction was devoid of an accent. Plus her fluid body language and expressive eyes allowed her to be versatile. Ergo, she was equally at home, incarnating village belles, courtesans and urban sophisticates. Not surprisingly, she struck up tremendous screen chemistry with Dilip Kumar (sole exception: Sunghursh since they weren’t on talking terms) and Raj Kapoor.
Best Performances: Devdas, Sadhna, Madhumati, Gunga Jumna, Sangam, Amrapali, Sunghursh, Hatey Bazarey.
Not the sort to suffer arbitrariness gladly, Vyjayanthimala was the first awardee to refuse the Filmfare trophy. Her contention: she was as much of a heroine in the role of Chandramukhi as Suchitra Sen was as Paro in Bimal Roy’s Devdas. A Supporting Actress statuette, no thank you! Not the sort to be cussed either, she did accept the Filmfare Best Actress Awards for Sadhna, Gunga Jumna and Sangam.
Alas, Vyjayanthimala’s memoir, Bonding (2007), is bereft of frank speak vis-à-vis her tempestuous liaisons with Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. The claim that the showman was “just a friend” was hotly rebutted by Rishi Kapoor.
The break-up of Raj Kapoor and his Sangam amour, was a foregone conclusion, as was her marriage to their common physician Dr Chamanlal Bali. Which meant nixing Sapno ka Saudagar with RK, thus facilitating the entry of her replacement Hema Malini.
Two years after marriage, she quit movie nicotine, became an avid golfer and famously thumbed down lucrative offers for grey-haired roles in Gulzar’s Aandhi, Yash Chopra’s Deewar, Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, and the Tamil movie Mappillai in which she was to play Rajinikanth’s Cruella de Vil-style mother-in-law.
Incidentally, I met Vyjayanthimala Bali for a video interview for the TV serial Baje Payal on Bollywood dances. She wouldn’t go beyond stating that it was all wonderful while it lasted. More concerned that the crew partake of the high tea served by her Jeeves at her government-allotted bungalow, she packed up the leftovers for us.
Grandma had one look at my photograph clicked with her and groused, “You’re looking like an ullu. Why didn’t you wear a suit?”
The second occasion was in New Delhi too. Agenda: to request her to accept the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. Cakes, sandwiches again, and a “Yes, sure. But don’t ask me to perform a dance at your function.”
This time I’d worn a suit but no photograph was clicked. Because grandma was no more. Stuttered I, “Vyjayathi ji, my grandma biggest fan of yours….” before I could complete the sentence, she smiled ruefully, “I suppose only old people remember me nowadays. Do thank her.”
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 13 August 2016. It is now being republished to mark Vyjayanthimala Bali’s birthday)