The actress was in her teens when she made her transition from the South to Hindi cinema, becoming one of the industry's top stars with several notable roles.
70 years of Bahar, Vyjayanthimala’s confident Hindi debut
Mumbai - 26 Oct 2021 14:48 IST
The graceful actress Vyjayanthimala made her acting debut with AVM Productions’ Tamil film Vazhkai (1949). The producers had grand plans for the film and released it in Telugu as Jeevitham (1950) and in Hindi as Bahar (1951). All three versions of the film were filmed in Madras. Only Vyjayanthimala remained for the Hindi film, which was released on this day 70 years ago.
Produced by AV Meiyappan and directed by MV Raman, Bahar featured dialogues and lyrics by Rajinder Krishan. The music for the film was provided by SD Burman who uniquely used Shamshad Begum as Vyjayanthimala’s voice.
The young actress, who was just a teenager, played college student Lata. In her autobiography Bonding, co-written with Jyoti Sabarwal, she recalled, ‘Karan Dewan replaced Ramachandran and my uncle's role was played by Pran, while Om Prakash took over the reins as my father. He was very sweet, as he would say, "Achcha chalo bachchi aa jao [Come along, little one...]." The only time I got scared was when Pran came close to me and looked into my eyes. I simply forgot my lines. But the best part was that I was comfortable with the language. I picked up Hindi very well.’
The Hindi feature thrust Vyjayanthimala into the national spotlight, though she had little to do in the film apart from showcasing her dancing. The film also introduced Pandari Bai to Hindi cinema, though she was credited as Padmini for this feature. Pandari as the village belle Malti had the more dramatic arc as she falls prey to city slicker Shekhar’s (Pran's) charms and becomes an unwed mother after he abandons her.
Vyjayanthimala’s Lata, as a privileged, wealthy young woman, performs frequently on stage at her college and has an on-off relationship with a writer named Kumar (Karan Dewan) whose pen name is Ashok. Lata admires his prize-winning writings for Bahar Weekly, and once it is discovered that their fathers were friends, it is understood that their marriage is a given.
The actress, who didn't have to dub her dialogues, is almost electric in her dance performances. In one song 'O Pardesiya', she dances against herself. In her autobiography, she wrote, ‘Bahar created history in the sense that owing to my dance I became a national star overnight as 'Southern sensation'. This film became a trendsetter, paving the way for dance with a definitive form in Hindi cinema. Until then, by and large, it seemed to connote some Westernized shake-shake, or wiggling of the hips.’
SD Burman’s music added flair to the otherwise dull storytelling. With Om Prakash as Lata’s jovial, progressive father, Sunder and baby Tabassum, comedy scenes were aplenty and added to the film’s two hour 44 minute runtime.
Vyjayanthimala didn’t get much scope to show off her acting here, but she argued that 'dance has been the most crucial component in my evolving as an actress. My dance has lived on' in her book. While on a three-year contract with AVM, the offers began to pour in for Vyjayanthimala from Bombay.
After Ladki (1953), another AVM Production, she landed the lead opposite Pradeep Kumar in Nagin (1954), which went on to become the year's biggest hit. Soon, she was landing key lead roles in films like Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955) as Chandramukhi, an unusual choice back then. She turned down the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress as she felt her performance was on a par with Suchitra Sen’s Paro.
With New Delhi (1956), Naya Daur (1957) and Sadhna (1958), she firmly established herself as one of the biggest female stars of the 1950s. While most films like Amrapali (1966) and Jewel Thief (1967) took advantage of her dancing skills, she won the Filmfare Best Actress award thrice for her performances in Sadhna (1958), Gunga Jumna (1961) and Sangam (1964).
After her marriage in 1968, Vyjayanthimala wound up her pending films and retired. The actress, who is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer and began dancing when she was a child, continued performing on stage.
Upperstall's Karan Bali writes, “Besides her ability as an actress, which was considerable, her greatest legacy to Indian cinema, perhaps, is that it has become a must today for any aspiring actress in Indian cinema to be an accomplished dancer. She also set the stage for other actresses from the South like Padmini, Hema Malini, Rekha and Sridevi to enjoy successful careers in Hindi filmdom.”
The actress told The Hindu newspaper in a 2016 interview: "I never found acting a challenge because as a dancer there is so much of abhinaya to fulfil. The very word Natyam means dance, song and drama.
"From here, there was no looking back. I had a variety of roles, each of which had an etched character that remained in audience memory for years unlike the present-day movie roles. I had excellent co-stars, directors and musicians to work with. Every film was a learning experience rather than [just] an income-generating vocation."