Vyjayanthimala The Most Accomplished
Vyjayanthimala played a college girl in Vazakai (Tamil, 1948, remade in Telegu as Jeevithan, 49) when she was barely 15, later remade in Hindi as Bahar (51) with Karan Dewan as the hero which then became her first official Hindi release though recognition really came with Nagin (which taught her “acting in films was not all fun and frolic”) opposite Pradeep Kumar—it was the biggest hit of 1954. After re-watching Bahar one can say without doubt that it was the most confident debut by any actress on the Indian screen: Her movements, her expressions, eye-movements especially in the song-dance numbers. Writing about the films’ success, she states in her autobiography, Bonding…A Memoir: “It took the entire North by storm…Bahar created history in the sense that owing to my dance I became a national star overnight as ‘southern sensation. The film became a trendsetter paving the way for dance with a definitive form in Hindi cinema…Bahar set the ball rolling and heralded roles showcasing my dance.”
Bimal Roy’s Devdas (55) as Chandramukhi was the immediate result of Nagin success when the original choices Nargis, Bina Rai, Suraiya and Meena Kumari rejected the role, preferring to enact Paro. The success also meant more films with the same hero about whom she wrote: “Working with Dilip saab was a lifetime experience.” An experience that got repeated when she replaced Madhubala in BR Chopra’s Naya Daur (57) which turned out to be the second highest grosser, earning Rs 5.40 crore, the highest earner being Mother India. Incidentally, Ashok Kumar had been the original choice. Subsequently, the two also worked in Madhumati (58), Paigam (59), Gunga Jumna (61), Leader (64), and Sungharsh (68). They were also supposed to do Ram aur Shyam but she was replaced with Waheeda Rahman after the first schedule
Vyjayanthimala feels her performances in Gunga Jumna, “a very special movie for me, and remains my best”, and Amrapali (66) were the high points in her eventful career. About the latter she said: “In hindsight, I can say this film exploited my skills as a classical dancer to the hilt.” Although she does not attach much importance to Sangam as a film yet felt that it “was the most memorable film as far as my foreign trips are concerned, because I never did so much of shooting in distant lands, as I did for Sangam…Playing Radha was the ultimate role in sophistication with a modern theme.” Subsequently, she disdainfully dismissed as “salacious gossip” her physical involvement with Raj Kapoor raking an unnecessary controversy, though the intensity was not the same when she had earlier been linked with Dilip Kumar. Their later parting professionally became a bitter battle of wits, and she accuses him as a great manipulator. She recalls remorsefully: “…for years I did not speak to him, even when we met at parties, I wouldn’t look at him.”
Apart from the three big of mainstream Hindi cinema (she did not think much of Raj Kapoor—Nazrana (61), Sangam (64): “ He was self-centred…as an actor he was very mechanical and did whatever the director asked him to do” and Dev Anand—Amar Deep (58), Jewel Thief , Duniya (67), “there was nothing serious, or any kind of intensity that I could feel in his acting”—as actors, though she pays tributes to the former for his directorial skills). Amongst other leading actors Vyjayanthimala also successfully paired with Kishore Kumar (“he was a prankster, simply hilarious working with him”), in Ladki, and another big hit New Delhi (56) and Aasha (57) in which she plays a South Indian girl in love with a Punjabi; Sunil Dutt “wouldn’t talk much, just do his work” in Sadhna (58) but “his transition from Sadhna to Amrapali (66) was complete.” About Shammi Kapoor (Prince, 67) was “a bit difficult as a co-actor…couldn’t have worked in a realistic film even in his wildest dreams.” About Rajendra Kumar, who was her co-star in Aas ka Panchi (61), Sangam, Zindagi (64), Suraj (66), Saathi (68) and Ganwaar (70), a box office disaster after which she bade goodbye to tinsel town. She found Rajendra Kumar “a very nice person.”
Vyjayanthimala altogether worked in 64 films (1 Bengali, 2 Telegu, 10 Tamil, 51 Hindi). Several filmmakers subsequently tried to lure her back, first by Yash Chopra for Dewaar and then by Manoj Kumar who had been keen to cast her in Kranti, but she steadfastly refused to be carried away. During an eventful career she won three Filmfare Best Actress trophies for her performances in Madhumati, Gunga Jumna, Sangam, and one nomination, Sadhna. She had earlier been awarded the Best Supporting Actress Award for Devdas, which she refused to accept because she felt she hadn’t done the supporting actor role. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
No other female actor of the Indian screen has shown greater versatility post-retirement as Vyjayanthimala has done. An avid golfer, an accomplished Bharat Natyam dancer (for which she received the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1982) who is running an Academy in Chennai, she served as a parliamentarian for two terms. She is also, perhaps, the only one who was twice cast in multilingual films. After Vazakai or Jeevitham or Bahar, it was AVM’s Penn in Tamil co-starring Gemini Ganesh, S Balachandran and Anjali Devi, Sangham (both 1949) in which NT Rama Rao replaced Ganesh, and Ladki (53) in Hindi opposite Bharat Bhushan and Kishore Kumar—all directed by MV Raman. The Hindi and Telegu versions were big hits, Vyjayanthimala dubbing her own dialogue for the Telegu version. In Hindi it was again the second highest grosser of the year.
Born on 13 August 1936 to MD Raman who “quit his job because he had to look after the dates for my shoots as well as stage performances”, and Vasundhra Devi, a leading Tamil actress during the 1940s who groomed her for later life, Vyjayanthimala now lives in and works from her birthplace, Chennai.
By Suresh Kohli