Vyjayanthimala Bali reenacts a scene from a yesteryear performance

Dubai: As I waited to interview Vyjayanthimala Bali at her nephew’s villa in Dubai last Thursday, I expected to meet an elderly woman, slightly slow on the uptake. After all, the yesteryear actress from Bollywood was now a grand old lady, well into her eighties.

But the woman I came face-to-face with was far from what I had imagined. Slim, slick and stunning, she had an enviable spring in her step. Hindi cinema’s “first female superstar” still exuded a singular charm, her wide-eyed beauty just as intact.

Last performance

Asked how she kept herself so fit, the ace Bharatanatyam dancer said, “Well, from eight-plus to 80-plus, I have been dancing all my life.”

What about acting? When was the last time she performed as an actor? “As recently as December 23 last year,” she said.

But no, it wasn’t cinema she was referring to.

“Every time I take to the stage to dance, I act. Bharatanatyam involves a lot of acting - from getting the timing, rhythm and character right to mastering hand and foot gestures, even thinking,” said Vyjayanthimala, adding that she gave up cinema when she got married to Dr Chamanlal Bali.

The veteran actress, who has acted in over 75 Hindi films in 20 years, recalled how she made her screen debut in 1949 with the AVM Tamil production Valke. “The movie was remade in Telugu and Hindi. All three were huge hits because I brought something new to the screen with my dance.”

Matter of principle

After Nagin, her first Hindi original, Vyjayanthimala went on to deliver many blockbusters, including New Delhi, Naya Daur, Aasha, Sadhna, Madhumati and Ganga Jamuna. When she was recognised as the Best Supporting Actress for her role as a hooker in Devdas, she refused the award.

“It was very clear that the film had two parallel heroines. There was no question of my being a supporting actress. So I refused the award as a matter of principle,” said the former parliamentarian.

The spirited actress shared fond memories of a “beautiful” era that had now given way to technology-driven times. “Unlike in the earlier days, the camera now does more tricks than the actors, making them dance, fight or what have you. Roles are more repetitive.”

Besides being an active dancer, Vyjayanthimala is also an active golfer. “She did five putts in a row on the practice mat at my place the night she arrived,” said her nephew Raj Janardhan. He said she watched the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and played a round of 18 holes at Emirates Golf Club with him during her stay. “I have been playing golf for a long time. My husband introduced me to the sport. In my younger days, I enjoyed horse riding and also played table tennis and badminton,” said Vyjayanthimala.

So what is the one advice the multi-talented actress would like to give her fans? “Respect elders and stay humble. It will hold you in good stead.”