Saturday, January 27, 2024

Apsara descending: In praise of Vyjayanthimala

(Wrote this tribute piece a while back. Money Control published it yesterday after Vyjayanthimala was given a Padma Vibhushan)

The first time I really noticed Vyjayanthimala was during a 1980s family getaway in Ludhiana when some of the older people insisted on watching Naya Daur on videocassette. I was 11 and not too interested in much of the film, even the exciting climactic race, but I registered the pretty heroine singing “Maang ke saath tumhara” to Dilip Kumar on the horse-cart – seemingly the epitome of demure non-urban Indian womanhood of the 1950s.

I didn’t realise it then, but it came as a shock when I did realise it, maybe a few months later: this sweet-looking village belle was the same actress in Raj Kapoor’s opus Sangam, all chic and modern – and sexually desirous – in the “Budha Mil Gaya” song; and in a swimsuit in “Bol Radha Bol”.

Naya Daur and Sangam were made only six or seven years apart, and there is a small similarity in Vyjayanthimala’s function in them – in both, she is the object of desire for two friends, which causes some emotional friction – but in my mind the two films barely occupied the same universe. And for a long time, as I became sporadically exposed to old Hindi cinema, this remained the Vyjayanthimala dichotomy in my head: the old-world version in a black and white film, and the bolder, more assertive version from a bright colour movie just a few years later. The examples changed over the years – Devdas versus Jewel Thief, Madhumati versus Prince – but the dichotomy remained.

However, despite her relatively “modern” look in films like Sangam and Prince, and her ability to be convincing in such set-ups and costumes, on the whole Vyjayanthimala still feels like a denizen of an older time in cinema – compared to some of her contemporaries. There are two reasons for this. One is, simply, that she retired very early. Hard as it is to believe, her last film – Ganwaar – was released in 1970, more than half a century ago.

In comparison, actresses like Nutan and Waheeda Rehman continued to work in the 1970s and 1980s, even opposite younger leading men like Amitabh Bachchan – before going on to play mother to those same heroes. That never happened with Vyjayanthimala (though this may be a good place to remember that she was offered the role of the soon-to-be-iconic mother in Deewaar). If she began her career very young – as a teenager in the early 1950s – she was still youthful, barely in her mid-thirties, when she ended it. And so, in the mind’s eye, she is permanently located in the 1950s and 1960s.

The other reason why Vyjayanthimala seems to belong to a more distant past than some of her peers is her acting style, which was rooted in the mannerisms of a classical dancer, and in the expression of bhava and rasa. This is something that fans of naturalistic screen acting often have little patience with; it represents a different sort of prowess from the one showed by, again, Nutan and Waheeda Rehman – who are the two go-to names when one speaks of great Hindi-film actresses of that era. The ones deemed “natural” and “restrained”.

In fact, around the time that I reluctantly watched Naya Daur as a 1980s child, I was a fan of – and had a slight crush on – Meenakshi Seshadri, without ever realising how much of a Vyjayanthimala “type” she was. Though Seshadri – like Vyjayanthimala – was capable of subtle performances when directed accordingly, in her default mode her eyes always seemed to be moving even when she was doing straight “prose” scenes (and even in a video interview I once saw with candid footage of her playing with children outside her building). They were both very attractive and sensual, but also mannered and theatrical in the way that performers trained in classical dance sometimes were.

Perhaps this is one reason why there was something so intense and interesting – even poignant – about Vyjayanthimala’s pairing with Dilip Kumar, the determinedly understated actor who had brought a modern, non-theatrical sensibility to Hindi cinema. They were such different types, yet they made for one of our finest romantic teams ever, working well together in a number of varied films, their mutual affection always palpable. In Gunga Jumna, speaking in the Awadhi dialect, they both also got to operate outside their comfort zones. The tempestuousness of their
work in that film (including the scene where Kumar’s Gunga inadvertently strikes Vyjayanthimala’s Dhanno as she tries to remove a bullet from his shoulder) makes for a fine contrast with their gentle banter in Paigham, which includes the beautifully performed scene where Kumar tries to make Vyjayanthimala jealous by talking about one of his past romances.

And then there is the 1968 Sunghursh, loosely adapted from a Mahasweta Devi novel which centred on the courtesan Laila-e-Aasmaan – the character who would be played by Vyjayanthimala in the film. The screen version drastically reduced Laila’s importance, which creates a strange narrative tension within the film: this is one of Vyjayanthimala’s most intriguing performances, Sunghursh feels most alive when she is on screen, her character is the story’s moral centre, a mirror reflecting what is going on around her. And yet her screen time is limited and fragmented, and the film ties itself up in knots by focussing on macho feuds, with much showy posturing by a large male cast including Dilip and Sanjeev Kumar, and Balraj Sahni.

Two years earlier, though, Vyjayanthimala had played another courtesan in a film where she was allowed a bigger stage to herself – the title role in the period epic Amrapali – and this is probably my favourite of her performances. It is a gorgeous-looking film (available in very good prints), she looks lovely in it, and the nature of the role and the ancient setting provide the perfect stage for her to show off her range as a classical dancer. Much like Vyjayanthimala herself, Amrapali is an emancipated performer who dances for the pleasure of others as well as for self-expression. There are wonderfully choreographed and shot sequences like the dance challenge that ends with Amrapali being anointed nagarvadhu or royal courtesan; or "Neel Gagan ki Chhaon Mein", where the mood and tempo of the scene moves from sorrow to exhilaration.

Vyjayanthimala at her best seemed of another world, well-suited to playing an apsara in a celestial court, expressing desire openly, unconstrained by societal dictates. She gets to do all of that in this film, and it is not surprising that its commercial failure is usually seen as the big disappointment that led her to end her movie career early, much like a Menaka heading back to Indra’s kingdom after briefly gracing the world of humans.

1 comment:

  1. Such a wonderful analysis of her school of performances. Amrapali is a criminally under-watched, under-rated, under-appreciated, etc. She is a scene stealer in every frame she is in! Shankar Jaikishen's music is ethereal (Lata drips sensuality in Tadap yeh din raat ki like she has never). The "Jao re jogi tum jao re" is in the album but no video exists. Hoping someone unearths the video someday. Along with Meenakshi, Sridevi comes to mind who is close enough to her school of acting and dance-acting. Happy to stumble upon another Vyjayanthimala fan.