Old is Gold: Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in a still from the classic Madhumati.
It's music CDs and DVDs are hot-sellers. It’s a reference point for today’s generation of filmmakers hooked on mystery movies. It’s the only Hindi film to have been written by the legendary Ritwik Ghatak. Salil Chaudhary could never quite match the ever-hummable melodies he composed for this black-and-white hit directed by the legendary Bimal Roy.
And now Madhumati is 50 years old. Which makes our resident cinephiles at HT Café go foggy-eyed about the classic era and seek out the saucer-eyed girl with huge lacquered hair curls.
Here’s Vyjayanthimala, then, talking down memory lane with Roshmila Bhattacharya
<b1>What kind of memories does Madhumati evoke today?
It’s hard to believe that it was half a century ago. It seems like only yesterday that I was on Bimalda’s (Roy) sets and everything was so wonderfully serene. He was such a quiet man. I never saw him angry. I was given a complete script with every scene already visualised with every word of dialogue. Not a single word was changed.
The film suited me perfectly, a bubbly tribal girl in her long ghagras who transforms into a sari-clad, serious and sophisticated city miss. But I think I carried it off. I could never imagine that I’d look so lovely.
Have you seen Om Shanti Om which had shades of Madhumati?
I’ve heard from friends that the climax was lifted from Madhumati. (Smiles) Just goes to show that even today the film continues to inspire our filmmakers.
Some years after Mahal, Madhumati consolidated the genre of ghost stories. Do you believe in an afterlife?
I believe in reincarnation. Life, death and rebirth is a part of our mythology. I have felt the ‘connection’ on occasions. At times, while dancing on stage, I’ve had this strange feeling that this isn’t me but someone else.. an out-of-the body experience as it were.
Didn’t you almost drown when shooting for the film?
(Laughs) No, that was during shooting for a Tamil film. I fell into the Dal Lake and almost drowned. There was an accident on the Madhumati sets too.While playing the tribal girl I had to dance barefoot on the hills of Nainital. One day I tripped on a stone and fell, hurting myself badly. Bimalda was aghast!
<b2>After that he insisted I wear sandals, even though that made running difficult. We wrapped up the film but the pain persisted. I’d damaged the fibre tissues in the sole of my foot, it hurts even to this day. But I’ve learnt to live with it. (Smiles) When I’m dancing I don’t feel the pain.When I do, well, it reminds me of Madhumati.
Would you want Madumati to be digitally restored and colourised?
No, black-and-white has its own beauty and dramatic impact. The original Madhumati draws full houses even when it’s screened in a ramshackle theatre in some remote gaon. You often see it playing on TV.. even today, it’s not just the older generation but also the youngsters who are mesmerised by it.
A colour version of Naya Daur was released last year. Both Dilip Kumar and you seemed happy with it.
I like what they did with Naya Daur. Ravi (Chopra) took a lot of pains getting it right since the colour version was a tribute to his dad BR Chopra. The colours weren’t jarring, they were muted and natural.
Yes but unlike Mughal-e-Azam, Naya Daur wasn’t a commercial success.
The film had takers. Even in Chennai it was appreciated.
Have you seen Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas?
I haven’t seen the movie but from what little I saw in the promos, I could sense that while Bimalda’s Devdas was very real and faithful to Sarat Chandra’s novel.. the new film was completely changed.
Back in the 1950s, you refused a Best Supporting Actress award for Devdas, insisting you were its heroine. And then you were appeased later with the Best Actress Award for Sadhana.
I wasn’t given the Award for Sadhana because I needed to be appeased. I wasn’t angry or upset in any way over Devdas. When Bimalda had approached me for the film he had clearly told me that it had two parallel heroines, Suchitra Sen as Parvati and Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi. Now if both were parallel roles then we were equal, right? So how could I accept the Best Supporting Actress Award?
<b3>But Madhuri Dixit who played Chandramukhi in Bhansali’s Devdas was also voted Best Supporting Actress and the award was accepted?
Every individual has her own perception of things. I refused the award on principle.
Since we’re in the age of remakes which other films of yours would you want to be remade?
(Laughs) All of them.. Madhumati, Ganga Jumna, Jewel Thief. No, on second thoughts classics should not be tampered with. Old is gold. But may be they can be screened more often. Cinema halls can organise weeks of old classics, so that youngsters will get a chance to feel the magic.
Dilip Kumar and you were a hit pair. But it’s said that during Leader you were not even on speaking terms. True?
I don’t want to think about those days because today we are very much on talking terms.
But recently, Saira Banu had hit out at you in an interview.
That’s also over and forgotten. (Smiles) The hatchet has been buried.
In your autobiography, Bonding.. Memoirs, you dismissed your much-discussed affair with Raj Kapoor as a publicity gimmick fuelled by the PR machinery of RK Films. This was hotly denied by Rishi Kapoor who insisted that the two of you had been in a relationship.
What anyone else says on this subject is irrelevant to me. I have been very candid in my memoirs.
You were running a dancing school in Chennai....
And Mumbai too. They were very successful.
So why have they shut down?
So many of my students have married and moved away. I could pursue my art only because of the support of my grandmother and my husband Dr Chamanlal Bali. I’m still doing shows in Chennai and abroad. I’ve done a lot of research on the temple dance form of India.
What do you think of film choreography today?
Everything moves at such a hurricane speed. The camera dances more than the actual dancer. We did not have the advantage of technology in our time. So every move, every gesture, every expression, had to executed perfectly.
Also, there’s far too much of western influence.. and not much variety. Everything looks the same.. stereo-typed. But if you look at my dances.. Madhumati and Sooraj were different from Jewel Thief and Sangam.We talk about new trends but more often youngsters like dancing to old chartbusters.
Of the new generation of actresses, whom did you like as a dancer?
Madhuri Dixit. A very graceful dancer and a fine actress.
Your son, Suchindra Bali, also aspired to be an actor. But after Aanch nearly five years ago, he disappeared.
He was in a Tamil film Ninai Thale which did well. He’s open to Hindi film offers too but the set-up should be good. Aanch didn’t shape up the way it should have.. so now he’s being more careful.
Would you produce a film for him?
(Laughs)Why should I? I produced a fine young man, didn’t I?
You’ve never been tempted to make a comeback to acting?
There have been plenty of tempting offers but no thanks. I’m happy with my dancing and my travelling.
What about politics, would you be game for another term?
It would be my fourth term. Sure, I’m always there for my Congress party and my country.