One can’t help but feel awestruck in the presence of Vyjayanthimala Bali, the 77-year-old artiste, as she gracefully delineates her journey as a dancer, actress and sports lover. Bali was in the city to be felicitated by the Bangalore Club for Kathakali and the Arts, for her contribution to art and culture when City Express caught up with her for a candid conversation. She has been associated with the group since its inception and had also performed at its inaugural function.
“I think I was born to dance,” says Bali. “That’s what my grandmother told me. So it was always in my system,” she adds.
The actor grew up in a deeply religious atmosphere, entrenched in the south Indian cultural scene at the time. “I was surrounded by dance, music and religious chants, so it was that kind of a mood. Our family was very culturally-minded, especially my grandmother. She was also quite the disciplinarian. She made sure I practised daily for hours,” Bali says.
“But first I was made to learn music, because music and dance go together. You can sing, but you can’t dance without music, can you?” she asks.
She performed her first arangetram when she was thirteen, quickly gaining recognition in Bharatanatyam circles. But she was also a great sports enthusiast, which clashed with her love for dance. “My grandmother hated it that I loved sports. She was always scared that I’d hurt myself and then I wouldn’t be able to dance,” says Bali.
There used to be a huge tennis lawn behind their house and Bali enjoyed many a game there. But one day, a family friend pointed out to her grandmother that Bali could develop a tennis elbow if she continued playing regularly. Her grandmother immediately panicked and ordered the tennis lawn to be closed. Films happened to Bali by sheer accident and not intent. “We came from a conservative family, many of whom had never even gone to school. But I was sent to a convent and everyone was very proud that I was educated. So once while I was performing in Madras, a director from AVM studios spotted me. They were looking for a fresh face and they immediately wanted to cast me, and my grandmother grudgingly accepted.
“I was cast as a college girl and that wasn’t really hard to play as I was very young then. I was treated as a child on the sets. When the movies finally hit the theatres, all the newspapers carried reviews that said, ‘What natural acting,’” she laughs.
It was only time that the Mumbai film industry too sat up and took notice. Bahaar was my first Bollywood film. And although my contract with AVM wouldn’t let me work with anyone else for five years, they couldn’t refuse as this was Bollywood. Bahaar was a super hit and soon enough everyone wanted to sign me. I became a star overnight,” she smiles proudly.
What about co-stars? “I think I’ve made most films with Dilipsaab. And all our films were super hits, like Ganga Jamuna, Madhumita, Sangharsh, and more. Other memorable pairings happened with Raj Kapoor for Sangam, and then Dev saab for Jewel Thief,” she says.
She says she was the only south Indian actress who could speak Hindi without a South Indian accent, at the time. But her most challenging role perhaps came with Ganga Jamuna, where she had to play a Bhojpuri lass, complete with village girl mannerisms, which took some time to get used to. “There were no acting schools or workshops then. What came naturally to you, is all you had. But Bharatanatyam taught me everything,” she explains.
“If Bharatanatyam helped my movies, I cannot say the same about films helping my Bharatanatyam,” she says. Her most memorable performances were dancing at the UN where she was one of the first persons to be invitedand her at the Sydney Opera.
She hopes to go back to sports by picking up golfing again. She was first introduced to the sport by her husband and she has also played at the National Golf Championships.