Vyjayantimala Bali, actor-dancer, talks about cinema, dance and singing

A true trailblazer, Vyjayantimala Bali gave a new direction and meaning to dance in Indian cinema. Before she made her presence dance in films was simply cavorting to preset tunes.

After her advent dance became an inevitable prerequisite for an Indian film heroine. The first South Indian actress to make it big in Hindi cinema, Vyjayantimala virtually ruled the screen for nearly two decades with a string of successful movies and some scintillating dances. She gave an unprecedented boost to the classical dance form. Even after 40 years and more since she bid a premature adieu to films, Vyjayantimala is still remembered for her memorable roles.

For some time she dabbled in politics. Now Vyjayantimala is engrossed in Bharatanatyam, research into the forgotten temple art forms, her family and golf. In the city to perform at the Dharani Kalotsav, Vyjayantimala took some time off to speak about her dance and other passions. Excerpts from the chat.

Dance in cinema today

In my days dance in cinema was dignified. It was a blend of tradition and some modernity. They were complete dances. We had to dance in one take. If someone made a mistake it went all over again. Today there is so much technological help. Everything is cut and paste, even dance. That's why you see girls, who are not dancers, seemingly dancing so well. Dance seems to have lost its soul.

Innovations in classical dance

There are so many variations, so many styles. Dancers do innovate, create. There's a lot of fusion, a lot of borrowing from the West. They demand a space. I can't understand this talk about not been given the space. For me space is in your heart. Gimmicks will not do. I don't believe in innovation for the sake of it. There's so much ‘newness' in our classical dance forms. The roopam (form) is there, it has endless possibilities. It depends on how one presents it.

Her singing career

With all my research and dance, singing has taken a back seat. But I have not dropped it. I was fortunate to be trained by masters like D. K. Pattammal and K. V. Narayanaswamy. I do have a few gramophone recordings of non-film songs, mostly devotionals. Music is an integral part of dance; they go hand-in-hand. I used to be a regular at the Thiruvaiyyaru music festival, still sing for my lec-dems but I have not performed individual concerts of late. Despite dubbing on my own in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films no one thought of giving me a chance to sing. Strangely, I have sung in a Bengali film.

Grandmother's impact

My grandmother (Yadugiri Devi) was my guide, my inspiration. She did what was right for me, guiding my career. She also designed my costumes in many of my early films. She understood what looked good on me. Speaking at the release of my book ‘Bonding' Mr. P. Chidambaram said that there were two heroines in the book, me and my grandmother. That said everything.

Acting with her mother

Yes, we acted in only one film, ‘Irumbu Thirai' (Tamil) that was later made into Hindi as ‘Paigham.' She (Vasundhara Devi) played my mother. It was a unique experience. We were not acting. (laughs)

Bharatanatyam and other dance forms

I have been dancing since the age of eight. And when it came to films I did not find it tough. My Bharatanatyam training with my guru Kittappa Pillai helped. Not just Bharatanatyam, I performed so many other dance forms, including folk and even Western forms in films. In ‘New Delhi' I did a Bhangra which was a big hit, there were those rock n' roll sequences like in ‘Pyar Hi Pyar' or ‘Prince' and the purely classical in most of my films.

Kathakali

I came down to Kerala Kalamandalam with my husband and trained for a week under Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair Asan. There I saw a ‘purappad' by five boys and I was stunned by their movements, grace. Asan told me that he did not teach women. I pleaded and he agreed. Later I even did a ‘purappad' in a dance sequence in a film, I think it was ‘Prince.'