Vyjayanthimala was the first South Indian actress who made it as a national star and was one of the biggest ever Hindi Film female stars in a career lasting almost two decades. Besides her ability as an actress, which was considerable, her greatest legacy to Indian Cinema perhaps is that it has become a must for any aspiring actress in Indian Cinema to be an accomplished dancer. Vyjayanthimala has always had the mandatory dance sequence in practically every film of hers evoking ‘classical art’ associations.
Born on August 13, 1933, she was a natural performer who danced for the pope at the age of four. She started in films under MV Raman’s direction at AVM with Vazhkai/Jeevitham (1949), a bilingual film in Tamil and Telugu. The immensely popular film was later adapted as Bahar (1951), which was AVM and Vyjayanthimala’s initial foray into Hindi Films. Vyjayanthimala’s role was undemanding, the focus clearly being on her dances and not on her acting. It was left to a weepy Pandari Bai to take care of the ‘histrionic’ department. Happily for all, Bahar was a major success and Vyjayanthimala was on her way.
Her early Hindi films like Ladki (1953) were no different. Again, she had to mainly sing and dance while Anjali Devi wept and suffered. But Vyjayanthimala finally broke through and became an A-star with Filmistan’s Nagin (1954). Crowd’s thronged in repeatedly to see her snaky gyrations to that evergreen Lata Mangeshkar hit – Man Dole, Mera Man Dole. But here too she was saddled with an undemanding role and the film, a light entertainer, was filled with numerous song sequences, mainly to show off her dancing skills.
It was finally with Devdas (1955), under Bimal Roy’s able direction that Vyjayanthimala, playing the dancing girl Chandramukhi, proved herself to be an actress of considerable merit. There was a till now unexplored depth in her characterization of the otherwise stereotypical prostitute with the heart of gold. Her silent expression in the scene where Devdas offers her money for her services was award worthy and indeed she did win the Filmfare Award for Devdas as Supporting Actress. She, however, refused the award on the grounds of her role being equally important as the other heroine, Suchitra Sen, who played Paro, and that both were leading roles. Controversy aside, on the positive side, she began to be taken seriously as an actress now.
Things began to move rapidly for Vyjayanthimala following Devdas. She replaced Madhubala in Naya Daur (1957), one of her biggest hits and shot right to the top with Bimal Roy’s reincarnation suspense drama, Madhumati (1958), perhaps her most popular film ever, while her sensitive depiction of a prostitute in BR Chopra’s Sadhna (1958) fetched her the Filmfare Award for Best Actress, her first. She was clearly one of the biggest stars of Hindi cinema now. In this period she also returned to her roots in the South the South to do big Tamil films opposite stars MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan in films like Baghdad Tirudan (1960), Raja Bhakthi (1960) and Then Nivalu (1961) respectively.
Gunga Jumna (1961) saw another flawless performance from her. It is to her credit that in spite of her South-Indian upbringing, her Bhojpuri dialect in the film is near perfect and fetched her another Filmfare Award for Best Actress.
Vyjayanthimala got her third Filmfare Best Actress Award for Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964), one of the best triangles in Indian Cinema. She was spot on as the woman who loves Rajendra Kumar but who is married to Raj Kapoor. She tries to be the perfect wife and succeeds too till a letter from her past catches up with her and almost wrecks her marriage. While doing Sangam, it is said, she got involved in an ill-fated romance with Raj Kapoor. Vyjayanthimala denied the romance completely in her recently released autobiography but Raj Kapoor’s son Rishi Kapoor insists the truth was something else. When they ‘broke off’, it is said Vyjayanthimala was a changed person having turned bitter by the experience. The flopping of the dancing magnum opus Amrapali (1966) with her in the title role didn’t help, despite it being one of her finest films. Having ‘fought’ with Dilip Kumar, she left Ram Aur Shyam (1967) after having shot some scenes for it and was replaced by Waheeda Rehman. Though she completed Sangharsh (1968) with Dilip Kumar, the two hardly spoke to one another throughout the making of the film!
Also after Sangam, barring Amrapali and Tapan Sinha’s Bengali venture, Hatey Bazaarey (1967), most of her later films were again pretty lightweight and made no challenges on her as an actress. She has her moments in Vijay Anand’s Jewel Thief (1967) though. Her dancing in the cult song Hoton Pe Aisi Baat is brilliant; it is a song with elaborate dance movements, long and complex shot taking with both character movement and camera movement but Vyjayanthimala effortlessly sailed through the song and that too it is said with minimum rehearsals. But it was clear she was losing interest in films now. Her co-star of Pyar hi Pyar (1969), Dharmendra, remembers he completed the whole film with her without even being introduced to her! Her last Hindi film was the uneventful Ganwar (1970) opposite Rajendra Kumar.
Vyjayanathimala got married to Raj Kapoor’s personal physician Dr Bali and left the film Industry. She has since had a son Suchindra, dabbled in various businesses like shrimp farming, and even stood for elections and was a Member of Parliament in the 1980s, besides concentrating on her first love – dancing.
Her son, Suchindra, entered the Tamil Film Industry to try and make it as an actor but did not see much success.