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21 January 2018

The Greats: Geeta Bali


1930 – 21.01.1965
Geeta Bali. The name is synonymous with a pair of impish eyes, a retroussé nose, and a smile that lit up the screen. Naturally gifted, spontaneous and with a terrific sense of comic timing, Geeta acted in nearly 70 films before her untimely demise.

Born Harkirtan Kaur in 1930 in Sargodha (pre-partition Punjab), Geeta had done a few small roles in films including The Cobbler and Badnami (1946). It was in Bombay, however, that she would meet Kidar Sharma, soon to be her mentor. Impressed with her verve and exuberance, he offered her the role of the heroine in Suhaag Raat (1948). She was an over-night success, and soon, she was besieged with offers. Perhaps it was the family’s straitened circumstances, but Geeta signed ever film she was offered, even when they were supporting roles (Dulari) or that of the villain’s moll (Baazi). 

Baazi, as Dev Anand said, was a breakthrough film for many people – for Guru Dutt, for Geeta Dutt, for the fledgling Nav Ketan films, for SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi – and for Geeta Bali as well. Now, she was a major star. In fact, Dev Anand has often mentioned how people came repeatedly to watch Geeta Bali dance to Tadbeer se bigdi hui.  

Geeta was a naturally spontaneous actress but barring a handful of films, most of her roles were not worthy of her phenomenal talent or her undeniable screen presence. She wasn’t limited by the genre either, performing tragedy, comedy and drama with the same spirit that made it impossible for the audience to take their eyes off her when she appeared on screen.
There was also her humanism that made her approachable. She didn’t have any starry airs and then-junior actresses like Mala Sinha and Asha Parekh have been vocal in their admiration of her generosity towards them.

She was also the love of Shammi Kapoor’s life (you can listen to him talking about her here) – they met while acting in films like Miss Coca Cola and Coffee House, and fell in love with each other during the shooting of Rangeen Raatein
Geeta had taken a small role in the film (dressed as a man throughout) only because she wanted to visit Kumaon where the film was being shot. Since it was mentor Kidar Sharma’s film, he gave her the brother’s role. (Mala Sinha was the heroine.)

It was Geeta’s desire to do that one memorable role that caused her to produce Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Rano based on his novel, Ek Chhaddar Maili Si. Unfortunately, she contracted small pox during the shooting of the film, and died within a month. She was 35. 

Today, on the occasion of her 53rd death anniversary, I pay my tributes to one of Hindi cinema’s enduring icons by remembering some of my favourite Geeta Bali performances.

Albela (1951)
The film wasn’t anything to write home about, being of the usual family drama variety with much melodrama, but two things stood out: C Ramchandra’s music – and Geeta Bali. Having agreed to act in the film when no other top heroine agreed to act in a romantic lead opposite Bhagwan, Geeta was at her loveliest and vivacious best in this film. The role (of Asha, a theatre actress) didn’t give her much chance to showcase her talents but her presence made up for a lacklustre ‘hero’ and a tear-jerker plot.

Faraar (1955)
This may never show up in any list as one of Geeta’s ‘great’ films, but it is a film and a performance that is one of my favourites. Geeta plays Kitty, a hotel dancer, who falls in love with a man whose past she doesn’t know about, and whose future seems filled with danger. She was both ebullient and a delight towatch in the film’s lighter (I used the word relatively) scenes, and naturally restrained in the more dramatic scenes. One realises just how fine an actress she really was when she unapologetically balances her ‘fallen woman’ persona with that of a woman whose love is repeatedly rejected.

Baazi (1951)
Geeta only had a supporting role in this film, playing villain’s moll. She got the bulk of the songs, though, and danced like a dream, only to die saving the hero. She was so effervescent that it was hard not to be taken in by her sheer screen presence. Given that the heroine was Kalpana Kartik, who had about as much personality as a dying fish, Geeta quite easily walked away with the honours. Her Leena was a woman who was both enterprising and took the initiative, and it is a role that she will be remembered by – Dev Anand, who counted her among his favourite heroines, described her as a ‘sport’. That, she certainly was.

Jaal (192)
Geeta reunited with Dev Anand in Guru Dutt’s Jaal, where she graduated to playing his heroine. As Maria, the vivacious but naïve fisherwoman who falls in love with the roguish Tony (Dev Anand), despite knowing that he is bad through and through, Geeta had a chance to display her histrionics. In one beautifully framed sequence, Maria is on a ferris wheel with her friend Lisa (Purnima) who warns her against Tony. Each turn of the wheel shows Maria’s changing perception of Tony. The rapidly changing expressions on Geeta’s face were a delight to watch. Later, when she’s unable to resist Tony’s siren call, a visibly disturbed Maria struggles against her own innate good sense. That turmoil is not just seen but felt by the viewer as you watch the Ye raat ye chandni phir kahaan sequence.

Milap (1955)
Thanks to Shalini who recommended this film (and watched it along with me – always fun), I was introduced to yet another Dev Anand-Geeta Bali starrer. Directed by Raj Khosla, it was an unusual enough story, and Geeta’s was an unusual character. A lowly dancer, hired by the villain to cheat the hero out of his wealth, Geeta walked the tightrope between a young woman who has her responsibilities to think of, and her love for the man she’s been hired to cheat. The romance between the two of them is both restrained and very real, and I like that the hero doesn’t care if his beloved is flawed. This was definitely not the Sati Savitri type of role that heroines were usually condemned to play; this was a nuanced, multi-faceted role, and Geeta bit into it with relish.

Aji Bas Shukriya (1958)
A cheerfully breezy comedy, Aji Bas Shukriya cast Geeta as a poor, unemployed girl who preferred to sing and dance away her struggles. While a remarkably poker-faced Suresh played the morose hero, Geeta shouldered the film on her able shoulders, assisted by Johnny Walker as her friend, confidante and guide. The narrative depended completely on Geeta’s acting prowess, and she is a delight to watch as she breezes effortlessly through the film.

Baaz (1953)
A totally escapist fare about the Portuguese occupation of the Malabar coast, piracy, princes-in-disguise – the works, the film is watchable purely for Geeta Bali’s able turn as the pirate chief, The Falcon. (And OP Nayyar's music.) As was her wont, she rose above the trite script (by Guru Dutt himself) to provide the necessary gravitas to her role. She was fiesty, courageous, and her never-say-die spirit seemed to be an extension of her real persona.

Raising a toast to a charming, endearing heroine who was way, way better than her films.She is missed.

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