Vyjayanthimala Bali was an aced classical dancer since a very young age. A chance performance in Chennai landed her up on the silver screen. Cherished equally in north as well as south India, Vyjayanthimala is the first female superstar of the Indian film industry
Wrapped in a colourful traditional dress is a thirteen-year-old damsel dancing to the tunes of classical Indian music with a dash of elegance. While she is busy grooving, in the audience is sitting a famous south Indian director MV Raman who was mesmerised by her swift dance movements and graceful expressions that could put words to shame. It didn’t take him long to offer the talented girl a lead role in his upcoming cinematic venture Vazhkai (1949) in Tamil. And thus began the story of the first female superstar of the Indian cinema, Vyjayanthimala Bali.
What would have been music to any girl’s ear, the offer, instead, led to a series of conflicts back at Bali’s place. The idea of women even working was alien to the Indian society, let alone acting on the silver screen which was considered a disgrace. As the society, still recovering from the shockwaves of the partition, was not ready to accept Vyjayanthimala’s decision, her family stood up and accepted the offer shackling the grip of patriarchy.
“I was 15 then. Girls from good families were not allowed to appear on the screen. It was difficult. Some of my family members were against my decision but my grandmother, who had an interest in arts and classical music, was supportive,” she once said in an interview.
The film was a super hit. The audience was amazed to watch a woman equally skilled in acting as well as dance. They could enjoy a classical performance for the first time on the silver screen. Streets of Chennai were flooded with her posters and Bali became a household name. With this hysteric success, Bollywood was no far. Soon offers from numerous Hindi film directors started pouring in. It was Bahar (1951) that marked Bali’s entry in the Hindi film industry. Bali was the first south Indian actress to work in a Hindi film. With her began a trend of south Indian beauties heading to and trying their luck in Hindi cinema. “Bahar took the north by storm because till then they hadn’t seen real dance in films. All the actors did was sway to the music. There was no footwork, mudras (hand gestures) or facial expressions. My dances went down well with the audiences in the north. I became an all India star overnight,” she once told the media.
However, bound by Raman’s five-year contract, she couldn’t take any other offers. While she continued delivering varied roles in Raman’s films, it was the role of Chandramukhi, a hooker with a heart of gold, in Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) that escalated her career. She was awarded Filmfare Award for the best supporting role, which she refused to accept; for her Chandramukhi wasn’t a supporting character, she had a story of her own. Bali was the first person to refuse a Filmfare. Her legendary performance in the film is laurelled till date.
Whatever role Bali played, she put her heart and soul into it. Her unparalleled dance performances in the films were a beautiful add-on besides her impeccable dialogue delivery. She was praised for maintaining this balance and keeping the traditional dance form alive on the screen. According to her, “You don’t act the character. You live and breathe it. Practising Bharatanatyam (a traditional Indian dance form) helped me with expressions.”
With a career spanning over two decades, Bali continued delivering several hit films such as Sadhna (1958), Madhumati (1958), Ganga Jamuna (1961) and Sunghursh (1968).
The timeless beauty, however, decided to quit acting after tying the knot. Even though she was offered hefty amounts for taking up the roles, for Bali, it was no turning back. After her husband’s demise, she did not shy from taking up parliamentarian roles besides the plethora of social works that she was already doing. However, after a political career of fifteen years, she gave up politics too.
While her stint with acting and politics has come to an end, the actress has continued to dance till date. Known as beauty with brains to many, she has worked a lot in the field of Bharatnatyam and is even working for preserving the dance form.
Currently, she has a dance research institute of her own where she has documented and performed some of the rare Tanjore Quartet compositions, made a ragam tanam pallavi dance which is the sine-quo-non of a sabha concert in music and also some solo thematic presentations like Sita Visleshatrayam (thrice separated Sita) and others. Bali is a recipient of more than fifty regional, national as well as international awards including Sangeet Natak Academy Award and Padma Shree.
An aced dancer, an excellent actor, a skilled golfer, a dedicated politician and a woman of strong opinions, she, for sure, is a role model for many.