In the late 1940s, Sri AV Meiyappa Chettiar of AVM Productions and Sri MV Raman, the producer-director, went to the Gokhale Hall in Madras (now Chennai) to watch the performance of a young Bharatnatyam dancer. Little did they know they would find the fresh face they were hunting for their next film (Vaazhkai, 1949). That 13-year-old dancer was none other than the diva of the Indian cinema — Vyjayanthimala. The actor, who was in the right place at the right time, captivated at least three generations with her charm, beauty, glamour and elegance.
Beginning her cinematic journey from Tamil cinema, she swiftly transitioned to Hindi cinema and dominated the 50s and 60s when Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nargis, Suchitra Sen, Waheeda Rehman, Mala Sinha and Nutan were ruling the hearts. Unfazed by the competition, she had her priorities clear and never let her acting career overpower the classical dancer in her.
She oozed charisma on the screen and captivated the audience with her sparkling eyes which could express multiple emotions. She played a village belle in Ganga Jamuna (1961) with as much finesse as she played a courtesan in Amrapali (1966) or an urban sophisticate in Sangam (1964). To get a glimpse of her perfection, watch her in her dance numbers “Man dole mera tan dole…”, “Main kaa karun ram mujhe buddha mil gaya…”, “Hothon pe aisi baat…”, and “Udde jab jab zulfein teri…“.
Amrapali and Prince’s director, Lekh Tandon, found her to be a director’s delight. He spoke highly of her during an interview with The Hindu: “Vyjayanthimala’s forte was becoming a character rather than acting out a character. If ‘Amrapali’ is a cult film, it is thanks largely to Vyjayanthimala who brought the courtesan alive with her phenomenal talent.”
Given her dancing prowess, filmmakers ensured that their films had many dance numbers when casting her. She was so good with her hand gestures and so light on her feet that she earned the nickname of ‘Twinkle Toes’. But, she couldn’t add much to her repertoire during the initial days of her career, since she was reduced to just a “dancing doll”, as Vyjayanthimala herself said.
Though Nagin allowed her to showcase her dancing talent on the celluloid, (how can one ignore her mesmerising performance on “Man dole mera tan dole…”) the film had nothing more to offer. In the absence of a good screenplay, it felt more like a stage show with Hemant Kumar’s melodies and Vyjayanthimala’s effortless dancing.
Also, the film’s director Nandlal Jaswantlal reduced the young actor to tears by commenting on her body weight. He would tell her (as she recounted in her memoir ‘Bonding’), “You are too plump and still have a lot of baby fat. You have such a round face, that it fills the whole screen. Don’t look like an idli.” As the filmmaker would tease Vyjayanthimala in front of the entire crew, she would “have tears shimmering in my eyes, all set to roll down.”
But then her metamorphosis came in Bimal Roy’s 1955 cult classic, Devdas. “Playing Chandramukhi in Devdas was my metamorphosis from a dancer to an emoting actress,” the actor wrote in ‘Bonding’. She added, “Till Devdas happened, the critics kept harping that I was a dancer, not an actress. But after its release, I received terrific reviews. It worked wonders for me. Critical acclaim elicited worthwhile offers. I earned my reputation and got accepted in the mainstream.”
Devdas also became the first in a series of seven hits she delivered with Dilip Kumar: Naya Daur (1957), Madhumati (1958), Paigham (1959), Gunga Jumna (1961), Leader (1964) and Sunghursh (1968). Their on-screen chemistry led to many rumours about their off-screen romance, which both denied. However, their relationship went sour, for which Vyjayanthimala blamed the professional rivalry between Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. “The dates for Leader clashed with Sangam. Both wanted massive dates… It was a professional rivalry. I was caught in the crossfire,” wrote Vyjayanthi in her biography. This rivalry reached the sets of Kumar’s Ram Aur Shyam and Vyjayanthi was replaced by Waheeda Rehman after shooting for eight days. She was blamed for “unprofessional behaviour and throwing tantrums”.
The incident didn’t go down well with Vyjayanthi, who with the help of her husband Dr Bali, sued the makers of Ram Aur Shyam due to which the film’s shoot came to a halt. Eventually, the film’s producer apologised to the actor and paid her the remaining dues. However, this strained her bond with Dilip Kumar, and the two didn’t talk on the set of Sunghusrh, which was being shot simultaneously. For years, they remained distant until Kumar’s wife Saira Banu intervened and ensured peace. “These things happen. It’s good to forget the controversies. I just remember the wonderful times we had working together,” Vyjayanthimala said in a Filmfare interview.
Not just Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala found Shammi Kapoor and Nargis “arrogant” and “condescending”. She said about Shammi in her memoir, “He was a bit difficult as co-actor, though a past master in song and dance sequences with all his twists and turns. I had my own way, and he had his own way. But he was full of himself and behaved in a peculiar manner.” She even recalled being at the receiving end of her “curt attitude” and being called a “tree” by Nargis at an event because of her height.
Despite all the challenges, Vyjayanthimala continued delivering one electrifying performance after another. She got paired opposite stalwarts like Kishore Kumar (New Delhi), Dev Anand (Jewel Thief) and Dharmendra (Pyar Hi Pyar). Kishore found her to be one of his finest co-stars because of her knowledge of taal (rhythm). “Aapke saath to sab taal mein hota hai, baaki sab betaali hai. (With you, it is all in rhythm; rest everyone is out of rhythm),” he would tell her.
Born in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin Iyengar family in Chennai, Vyjayanthimala didn’t let her south Indian lineage come in her way of acing her characters in Hindi films. Her Hindi and Urdu diction was honed thanks to her training at Hindi Prachar Sabha as a child, that she never needed to dub her dialogues. She also impressed with her Bhojpuri diction in Gunga Jamuna with the help of Kumar. With her success story, she paved the way for south Indian actresses like Hema Malini, Jaya Prada and Sridevi in Hindi cinema. But none could own the silver screen like Vyjayanthimala as she simultaneously ruled Hindi, Tamil and Telugu cinema and rightfully got tagged as the ‘first female superstar’ of Indian cinema.
As distinct as her personality was on the screen, she was as precise off-screen too. She rejected the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for Devdas as she believed she was the second lead in the film and not a supporting actor. She always spoke her mind without thinking about the consequences. Such as when writing about not prolonging her film career, she wrote: “…there’s so much nostalgia for yesteryears, whether people talk of Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Nutan or Mala Sinha. They were actresses of stature. We had certain amount of discretion, a certain dignity the way we performed and conducted ourselves in the public. Now that respect has been replaced by this syndrome of fifteen-minute fame; and that seems to be the most common affliction.”
“Everybody is a dancer now. Dances are like exercises, aerobics or even acrobatics. I abhor the manner in which male and female actors stoop to crude gestures. It’s appalling.”
Her grandmother (Yadugiri Devi) had a lot of pull on the actor. Since childhood, Yagamma, as Vyajayanthimala addressed her, controlled her life. She was a hard taskmaster who would never let her indulge in any sports activity. She told her quite early, “Don’t play so much…You should dance and sing…You’re going to be a beautiful girl. Why must you play rough games, and make your arms and legs ugly with scars? No tennis for you — you could develop a tennis elbow. No swimming for you — how can you have bulging muscles for a dancer?” She was not allowed to drink coffee or tea as that would have “spoiled my complexion” and when Nagin director Nandlal commented on her body weight, Yadugiri put her on a strict diet. “She wouldn’t stop telling me, ‘You have to maintain the figure, no roly-poly business,'” the actor recalled in her book.
Yadugiri had a great influence on the films that Vyjayanthimala signed. Raj Kapoor had to put in a lot of effort to convince the actor’s grandmother, who believed he was a lady’s man, to let Vyjayanthimala star in Sangam and wear a swimsuit on the screen for the first time. “He would sit at her feet, hold her hands, look at her imploringly and plead, ‘Ammaji, ammaji’. That way in real life he was a much better actor. My God, he would do anything for his films. If he wanted to get a scene done in a particular manner, he knew how to get around. ‘Amma ji, it would be fine since she would be in the water. It would be all in a long shot, and the rest would be through a duplicate’,” Vyajyantimala wrote.
However, despite being under the strict watch of her grandmother, rumours of an affair with the already-married Raj caused a huge rift in the Kapoor household. But Vyjayanthimala maintained it was just a publicity stunt on the part of RK as he was “far too enamoured of getting publicity and grabbing the headlines.” Her statement didn’t go down well with Raj Kapoor’s son, the late actor Rishi Kapoor, who addressed this in his memoir ‘Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored’. Rishi shared that during his father’s alleged affair with Vyjayanthimala, his mother had moved out of the house. “I do remember moving into the Natraj Hotel on Marine Drive with my mom during the time Papa was involved with Vyjayanthimala,” he had written.
But Vyjayanthimala stuck to her stance and said she would not have fallen in love with Kapoor’s family doctor, Dr Chamanlal Bali, had she been in love with Kapoor. She married Dr Bali in 1968 despite resistance from her grandmother and also bid a graceful adieu to her film career, while she continued with her dance shows. She performed at the United Nation’s 20th anniversary celebrations of the Human Rights Day in 1969. She also performed before the first President of India, S. Radhakrishnan, Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Queen of England, the Duke of Edinburgh and President Eisenhower.
The actor has no regrets about leaving the celluloid at the peak of her career. In fact, she said on the talk show, Jeena Issi Ka Naam Hai, “I made the wisest decision of my life, I left the films at the right time. I have no regrets because I worked with some of the best.” She added in her book that for her marriage was more “sacred” and she now wanted to dedicate her life to building a good life with her husband and son.
Vyjayanthimala wanted people to fondly remember her and “retain that vibrant image in their minds.”
Today on her 87th birthday, as we look back at her life and work, she definitely has achieved what she desired, and her contributions to Indian cinema continue to bring joy to the audience.