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Khalid Mohamed recalls the golden era when Vyjayanthimala was queen of all she surveyed.

Grandma Fayazi, my educator in movie matters, had a thing about Vyjayanthimala. So one January afternoon, she’d bundled me up in a ‘topi’, muffler and woollies galore, to catch a re-run of Bahar (1951).


A retread of the Tamil-Telugu bilingual Vazhkai and Jeevitham directed by M V Raman, its producer A.V Meiyappan of AVM Productions planned a remake in Hindi. Vyjayanthimala, its heroine, would repeat her act, marking her entry into Hindi language cinema. She learnt the language from the Hindi Prachar Sabha.


The music score was assigned to lyricist Rajendra Krishen and composer S.D.Burman, whose collaboration yielded the chartbusting Qasoor Aapka (rendered by Kishore Kumar) and Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re (by Shamshad Begum)


Now, why was grandma obsessing over this 1950s family drama for the umpteenth time, clapping, sighing, singing along and guffawing? “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, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. She wanted Vyjayanthi to pair up with them, pronto. Maybe granny was just a wannabe casting director. Bahar was followed by the passable Ladki; her ticket to all-time fame was achieved with that trend-setting snake-charmer of a movie Nagin co-featuring Pradeep Kumar.


Its songs, composed by Hemant Kumar,  Mann dolay mera tann dolay and Mera dil yeh pukaray became anthemic. The theme music, it's lored, would draw real snakes into the auditoria of small towns. The ‘been’ for the music was played by Kalyanji who was in the Hemant Kumar orchestra then. He went on to form a long-lasting music director duo with Anandji.


Be that as it may, Vyjayanthimala was in Bombay cinema as its highest-paid heroine to stay on for a lengthy innings. This in an era, when there were formidable actresses, some of them being Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan and Waheeda Rehman.


In the black-and-white films, like most heroines but for Nutan, Vyjayanthimala did excessively depend on make-up. With colour taking over in the ‘60s, the pancake was barely perceptible.


 If grandma were alive today, she would have surely couriered a jungle-sized bouquet to Vyjayanthimala, when she turned 90 on August 13, last year. As a Bharatnatyam dancer, she still performs occasionally on stage.


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,  the post-Independence born moviegoers of the 1950s like myself, in this privileged V-club.


Vyjayanthimala & Dev Anand in Jewel Thief(1967)

No hyperbole that. Vyjayanthimala was at 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 and dialogue 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 --  also made forays into national politics.


Shut up, I can imagine grandma Fayazi hectoring me. Just rave about dear Vyju.  Right. Grandma’s favourite possessed that rare quality of alloying dancing skills to screen charisma. She was a multi-purpose star, the first go-to heroine if a film required dances as an essential ingredient.


Check out Vyjayanthimala’s Best Dances (and I’m spoilt for choice here): Mann dolay...(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),  Muqabla hamse na karo (Prince) not to omit the set pieces of Raj Tilak and Amrapali performed to semi-classical music.


Vyjayanthimala & Dilip Kumar in Devdas (1955)

Arguably I think her best performances were in Devdas, Sadhna, Madhumati, Gunga Jumna, Sangam, Amrapali, Sunghursh and Hatey Bazarey, a remake in Hindi by Tapan Sinha of his own Bengali film.


Through time, she evolved as an actress of substance,  abetted by scripts, and directors who 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 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 cussedly rigid either, she did accept the Filmfare Best Actress Awards for Sadhna, Gunga Jumna and Sangam.


Vyjayanthimala & Raj Kapoor in Sangam (1964)

Not surprisingly, she struck up tremendous chemistry with Dilip Kumar (sole exception: during the shoot of Sunghursh since they weren’t on talking terms). And with Raj Kapoor in a weepie titled Nazrana and then of course Sangam with which she became RK’s archetypal woman in white. Their liaison became the not-so-hushed whisper of the town. This despite the fact that every move of hers had been monitored for decades by a vigilante-like grandmother Yadugiri Devi.



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 on the rebound to their common physician Dr Chamanlal Bali.  Which meant nixing Sapno ka Saudagar with RK, thus facilitating the entry of her replacement Hema Malini.


Of her last stock of films, Chhotisi Mulaqat with Uttam Kumar, Saathi, Duniya, Pyar hi Pyar and Ganwaar, none of them showed the actress off at her best. She seemed to be doing a competent, professional job and that’s it.


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 Rajanikanth’s Cruella de Vil-style mother-in-law.


Incidentally, she was a Congress member of the Lok Sabha from 1984 until 1991 and of the Rajya Sabha from 1993 until 1999. Tables in politics are never steady though. Subsequently, she became a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, though she was elected to the parliament as a member of the Indian National Congress.


 I met Vyjayanthimala Bali, when she was a Congress Delhi, vis-a-vis a video interview for the Asha Parekh-helmed Doordarshan TV serial Baaje 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, “Vyjayathiji, my grandma was the  biggest fan of yours….” Before I could complete the sentence, she smiled ruefully, “I suppose only old people remember me nowadays. Do thank her.”



Khalid Mohamed is a Mumbai based film critic, screenwriter, producer & filmmaker.

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