Actor, dancer & politician
It was in the spring of 1990 that I had set out to interview Vyjayantimala Bali in New Delhi. To be nearer precision at the Kamani Auditorium where she was rehearsing for her solo performance ‘Om Shantih ! Om Shantih ! Om Shantih !’ …It was just a day before the show but she looked rather relaxed …Dressed casually in a cotton shalwar kameez, with her short hair tied firmly back in a pony-tail, her well-manicured hands/fingers fitted with several rings, she talked spontaneously whilst rehearing, checking the music, directing the floor manager and checking the slides. Not the least ruffled, she‘d kept offloading. “Through this form of art, my dance, I want to convey the message of peace … I carry my ‘Om Shantih books, manuscripts on dance, just about everywhere. I am doing research- study on the traditional temple dance forms. I am curious and want every detail explained to me through scholars and pundits.I’m concentrating only on the ancient forms, for why go creating new forms when there are so many of the ancient…I feel there is something very spiritual about Bharatanatyam, otherwise how could it have survived through the ravages of time … I have so many thoughts brimming in my head and time just passes off in a twinkle.”
And with that take off these other details followed — as a shy five years old she had performed Bharatanatyam for the Pope in Rome. As a studious “introvert” class tenth student her dance performance in Madras/Chennai had caught the attention of the producers of AVM production. And her very first film ‘Bahaar’ had left the audience spellbound! Of course, her other 54 or more films continued to do the same, till 1968 when she‘d opted for marriage. As she’d quipped, “ thereafter I did not retire but relinquished films.”
Of course, later she’d made inroads into the political and as an Member of the Parliament she’d represented the South Madras constituency. And with dance remaining one of those constants in her life.
I interviewed her in around March 1990. I must add that thereafter (after 1990) on the couple of occasions when she’d spotted me, she’d made it a point to say a very warm hello and we’d chatted for a while. She came across as cultured and friendly.
Edited Excerpts from the interview •
When you are/were so inclined towards classical dance why did you move towards films and with that gave dance a backseat all through the most creative years of your life?
First of all, even in my films, my dancing — Bharatanatyam – influenced the films and not the other way round. All through my film career, my dancing continued. In fact, after shooting, when I’d returned home I ‘d be in a totally different atmosphere — no filmi stuff but only traditional music and my dance…Also, let me point out that I ‘d never opted for films.It was only incidentally that I’d joined the film industry.I come from a traditional South Indian family and being the only child led a very protective life. My grandmother wanted me to go for further studies, but one of the directors of AVM Productions was a close family friend and when he saw one of my dance performances he’d also coaxed and convinced my grandfather to let me take a role …it wasn’t a romantic role but one of those roles which was centred around dance. In fact, I didn’t even realize what acting was The film was such a hit, that other films followed …
Did you ever repent having joined the film industry?
No, never… The film industry treated me with so much love and affection.
Your name was linked with the RK camp. Comment.
(she’d looked straight at me ; her large expressive eyes had looked all the more expressive) — Gossip! Gossip will always be there. As a film star you are in public eye. All this is a lot of exaggeration especially where the RK camp was concerned. Tell me who isn’t linked with them? In fact, all these ‘links’ are needed to boost the film; publicity gimmicks. Even in the West all the actors are linked with their co-stars for this very purpose.
Which, according to you, have been your most memorable films?
What I consider to be my best are — Ganga Jamuna, Madhumati, Amrapali, New Delhi and Naya Daur.
And your favourite co-stars?
Well, I worked maximum with Dilip Kumar …
When your son Suchindra sees your films how did he react?
(she’d laughed, smiled and laughed) Well, he’s quite appreciative but whilst he is watching one of those films and if I happen to be sitting nearby, he looks at me in wonder and quips, ‘Mummy is it really you who has done all that!’
How do you react when you see yourself doing dance and song sequences?
Well, I’m not different than my son. Even I feel the same way. Really, can’t believe it’s me!
After your marriage you quit films. And even when you were offered roles you refused. Why this rigidity?
See, after my marriage it was a mutual decision (my husband’s and my decision) to relinquish films. And I feel it was a very wise decision because at that time I was at the top …Yes, even now I have been offered roles but I have declined them. Why play character or mothers’ roles!
How would you compare films of your days with today’s?
Though I had been part of the film fraternity but don’t have a clue to today’s film industry. Yes, occasionally I do see some films. Technically, improvement is there and there is plenty of talent but I also see and feel that in today’s films there is a lot of portrayal of violence and obscenity and cruelty. In fact, when I was on the Censor Board I was very particular that violence and vulgarity in films should not be encouraged.
I don’t know why they are making these type of films. They, that is the producers, say that they are depicting real life situations but why depict this!
Today’s youngsters don’t like seeing so much of violence and I had been talking to a cross section of the young and they told me they don’t like seeing so much of violence.
Who are your favourite actors/actresses of today’s cinema?
There are several talented stars — Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff …
Coming to your film career, it’s said that your late husband, Dr Bali, wanted you to quit the film industry and that’s why you did so.
No, it was a mutual decision. He was too gentle and too considerate and suave to ever force his views on me. In fact, he was God sent for me.(at this point she throws up her hands, as though thanking God up there!)
How did you meet him – your husband, the late Dr Bali?
Well, that was the most interesting phase of my life …actually during one of the film shootings in Bombay I wasn’t too well so the director got him to treat me. That’s how it started ….And slowly I realized that when he didn’t come I missed him a lot …That’s how I knew it was love.
How long did it take you to realize you were in love with Dr Bali?
He told me that I realized it much later though he had realized it much earlier …actually I loved his company. He was a very gentle and kind person.
How did you drift towards politics?
Well, my husband thought that I had the makings of a politician, so he wanted me to join politics. In fact, it happened slowly — in the beginning we toured Tamil Nadu and saw the chaos spread around and how funds were being misused and people’s disillusionment with the administration ….Wherever we toured we saw for ourselves another reality: how people loved Mrs Indira Gandhi and so when we visited New Delhi we met Indira Gandhi and told her the state of affairs in Tamil Nadu,and even told her about my own inclination towards joining politics. She’d smiled encouragingly …
But weren’t there any apprehensions — with you being a former film star turning into full-time politician?
People knew I was/I am a very serious person. It wasn’t that I was just about hopping from one profession to another …After all, I quit the film industry in 1968 and I entered politics years later — in the early 1980s …Also, people knew about my integrity. So there was no problem.
It was said that once you were in politics it was your husband who was the guiding force and he didn’t let you make or take any independent decisions. Comment.
That’s wrong. But it is a fact that I never said ‘no’ to whatever he said because I had that faith in him. I knew whatever he was advising me or doing was for my good… Our relationship was very strong…we bonded.
But once you made it in politics did your husband ever show uneasiness or regret – with you being in the very limelight and away from home for days?
We always travelled together. In fact, why should I have travelled alone ! In fact, even on the tennis court or golf course we were always together ….With him I’d changed totally ; earlier I was known to be an introvert but he made me so full of confidence….I‘d developed interest in tennis, golf, and my interest in Bharatanatyam became an obsession because he loved Bharatanatyam …Ours was a very strong relationship…a very strong bonding.”
How did you cope after your husband Dr Bali’s demise?
After his death I thought of leaving everything — dance, politics …but then in the same breath I’d thought that how could I leave because he always wanted me to continue in both these spheres.
After his death, why did you think of setting up Dr.Bali Pharma Foundation?
He died in 1986 because of brain haemorrhage and the unavailability of a life saving drug — glycerol. We needed 10 bottles of glycerol but managed to procure only 1 bottle, because it wasn’t just available at any cost. You can imagine how I must have felt! With all the resources we couldn’t save him because that particular drug wasn’t available. And with this in the backdrop I decided to set up this Trust … so that we could provide life saving drugs to those battling for life.
Some controversy had erupted after your husband’s death about his will — it was contested by his first wife and her sons. How did you deal with that trauma? How did you fight that legal battle?
We — my son and I — won in the Court. After all, truth does prevail. …Unpleasant things keep happening, what to do! But always have faith in yourself and the rest will follow smoothly. I do believe in this line of Shakespeare — ‘This, above all, to thine self be true’.
Comment on this –is it very tough for a woman to survive in politics?
Yes, it is very tough for a woman to survive in politics. It is dominated by men.On all those marches and in those public meetings women are jostled and pushed around…it gets tough.
Crimes against women on the rise. How do you think they be tackled?
I feel that no amount of laws would be enough to tackle this. What you need is severe punishment. Even small countries are tackling this by severest forms of punishment so why can’t we?