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Geeta Bali: That Amazing Vivaciousness

 Coastweek -- Geeta Bali’s dancing eyes and her animated, expressive face which mirrored her soul were her most outstanding features, writes DINESH RAHEJA.

Yet life was snatched away from this vibrant personality at an achingly young age of 35.

It is some consolation that Geeta crammed a lot into her short life: 70 odd films in a ten-year career.

She was considered one of the more spontaneous and expressive stars of Bollywood in her acting.

True, Geeta’s reputation as an actress rests more on her performances than her roles.

Natural, spontaneous and gifted with a spot-on sense of comic timing, she never really found a vehicle worthy of her talent.

Largely a shade better than the movies she starred in, she frittered away her talents in B-grade films.

 

Coastweek -- Geeta Bali with comedian Bhagwan in the super successful Albela.

Probably the fact that she was born into a family that had to struggle for sheer survival and the fact that she reached the top through sheer grit had Geeta stress on quantity rather than quality.

She started her film career as a child actress, at the age of 12, with the film The Cobbler.

Film lore has it that when mentor filmmaker Kidar Sharma first met Geeta, she was living with her family in somebody’s bathroom!

Geeta was born in the pre-partition Punjab in the city of Sargodha in Pakistan as Harkirtan Kaur in 1930.

Her family lived in Amritsar before 1947.

Her father, Kartar Singh was known as a philosopher. He was a Sikh scholar and kirtan (Sikh devotional music) singer.

Her maternal grandfather, Takhat Singh (1870-1937), was the founder of Sikh Kanya Mahavidyalay - a boarding school for girls and the first of its kind established in 1904 in Ferozepur.

The parents encouraged their daughters, Harkirtan (Geeta Bali) and Hardarshan, to learn classical music and dance, horse riding and gatka fencing (a traditional form of martial arts in Northern India and Pakistan popular amongst Sikhs).

Fundamentalist Sikhs socially boycotted the family as they did not like the girls performing in public and they picketed the theatres.

Her family moved to Mumbai when she started to get breaks in films.

She had done a few small-time dancing roles in pre-Partition Punjab in films like Badnami, before moving to Mumbai.

Impressed by her off-screen vivacity, Sharma cast Geeta in his Suhaag Raat (1948).

Audiences related to her instantly and watched wide-eyed as she nonchalantly tossed her unconscious hero, Bharat Bhushan over her shoulder in a scene.

Soon, Geeta was inundated with contracts (that’s what they called film offers then). She accepted most.

 

Coastweek -- Geeta Bali with husband Shammi Kapoor and children Aditya and Kanchan.

She won raves even in supporting roles like in the 1949 Suraiya starrer Badi Behan and the Madhubala starrer Dulari.

In 1951, she became a major star with Guru Dutt’s first hit, Baazi (she went on to do three other films under his direction).

Geeta played gangster’s moll with a golden heart to Kalpana Kartik’s conventional heroine.

But Geeta played her role with such gay abandon that hero Dev Anand divulges, “People came repeatedly to theatres to see Geeta’s spirited dancing to Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana de.

Geeta proved she could do tragedy (Sharma’s Raj Kapoor starrer Bawre Nain) or and play the lighthearted heroine to comedian Bhagwan in the super successful Albela.

Albela’s swinging C Ramchandra composed songs like Shola jo bhadke and Sham dhale mere khidki tale made front-benchers dance with the stars and even fling coins on screen.

Pug-nosed Geeta was no conventional beauty, but that transparent face and that smile constantly flirting on her lips made sure you couldn’t tear your eyes away from her.

Watch Geeta Bali in the Guru Dutt-directed Jaal (1952), where Dev Anand, a cigarette-smoking smuggler on the run from the police, tries to entice morally upstanding heroine Geeta into his web.

Geeta evocatively communicates her struggle against, and her eventual surrender to, handsome Dev’s seduction call Yeh raat, yeh chaandni phir kahan.

Famously down-to-earth despite her star status, Geeta was the antithesis of the coy 1950s’ heroine.

She often drove herself to her premieres in an open jeep.

Those who knew her claim she was a Samaritan who touched the lives of whoever she met. She is said to have personally groomed Mala Sinha, then a newcomer.

To date, 35 years after her death, her secretary Surinder Kapoor’s (Boney Kapoor’s father) productions begin with a shraddhanjali (homage) to Geeta Bali.

Shammi Kapoor entered her life when they worked in the quaintly named Miss Coca Cola and Coffee House together.

On an impulse, Geeta played a small role of a man in Sharma’s Shammi Kapoor starrer Rangeen Raatein.

While shooting for it in Ranikhet (a hill station) the two spent a lot of time together and soon fell in love.

One of the main reasons they were able to hit it off instantly was the strong similarity in their natures.

“I loved hill stations and the folk music goes on with it. So did Geeta. We had a lot in common. We got to share these mutual admirations of nature,” Shammi once stated in an interview.

 

Coastweek -- The launch of what later became Aar Paar (1954)... At the time it was called Taxi Number BMT 112 and starred Geeta Bali instead of Shyama and was to be co-produced by Geeta Bali’s sister, Haridarshan Kaur (left) along with Guru Dutt (right).

“I can’t point to the exact moment when I fell in love with Geeta.

“I guess it was a small incident involving a tiger that did it. I had been pining away for a tiger that had given me the slip.

“Geeta kept patting my knee and saying, ‘Don’t worry Shammi, you’ll find him.’

“One night, we were returning to our hotel after dinner. Geeta was in a jeep ahead.

“As I turned the corner, I saw her jeep parked midway on a bridge and she was on the bonnet doing a strange sort of jig.

“I ran to her in panic. ‘It’s that tiger, Shammi, your tiger. It just went this way. Get your gun,’ she was yelling out.

“I was speechless. There was a wild tiger on the prowl in the vicinity and this woman was doing a jig on the bonnet of her jeep in celebration.

“She just wasn’t scared. So how could I help it? I fell in love with her. Madly. I still remember the day. It was April 2, 1955.” Shammi recalled.

Shortly after returning to Mumbai, Shammi asked Geeta to tie the knot with him.

However, much to his surprise, she turned down the proposal.

Her reluctance to tie the knot can be attributed to the fact that she was the sole bread earner of her family.

Luckily, for the Brahmachari star, Geeta changed her mind a few months after their first meeting and agreed to marry him.

However, she had one condition. And that was that the marriage had to happen almost immediately.

On the suggestion of his friend Johnny Walker, Shammi decided to get married at a temple.

The lovebirds reached Banganga Temple at night. However, the priest told them that the ceremonies would be performed only after four in the morning.

 

Coastweek -- Dev Anand and Geeta Bali in Jaal (1952)

After the temple reopened, the two became man and wife on August 23, 1955, with producer-director Hari Walia as witness.

Interestingly, the marriage too had a nice filmy touch to it.

According to their son Aditya Raj Kapoor, Shammi put red lipstick rather than sindoor (vermilion) in her maang (parting of the hair).

And hence, began what Shammi once called the best phase of his life.

Geeta had worked with Shammi’s eldest brother, Raj Kapoor in Bawre Nain, and with his father, Prithviraj Kapoor in Anand Math, Shammi was unsure about their reaction to this match.

Geeta continued to work after marriage in a few films like Sohrab Modi’s Jailor (1958), where she won raves as a blind girl.

With Shammi Kapoor turning into a huge star and the birth of her two children, she eased her workload.

The desire to do that one fulfilling role she would be remembered for prompted Geeta to attempt the production of a classic for herself.

She started Rano, based on Rajinder Singh Bedi’s famous novel, Ek Chaddar Maili Si, based on a widow’s remarriage to her brother-in-law.

Upcoming star Dharmendra played her hero.

Her husband Shammi Kapoor agreed to give her the money to produce the film.

She rushed off to Moga, a little village in Punjab, with their two children. Shammi was aghast.

It was extremely cold in November and December, 1964 to film and had asked her to wait a few months until the weather was warmer.

But Geeta was enjoying herself too much. The film was shaping up well.

She had hosted a party for the unit on January 9, and she was her usual fun-loving self.

The next day, she had a severe headache, then fever.

Shammi brought her home.

Geeta, who had not been vaccinated for small pox, contacted the dreaded disease while shooting the film.

By the 17th the pox had not only ravaged her looks but infected her eyes.

The fever which racked her had shot up to 107 degrees. She was kept on ice for two days.

Her doctor saw a picture by his patient’s bedside and asked who the pretty lady was.

The disease had so wracked Geeta’s frail frame that he didn’t recognise her as the same person !

For a fortnight her condition was critical. On January 21, her fever dropped suddenly. She came out of the coma and opened her eyes.

She looked around dazed. Five minutes later, she died on January 21, 1965 in her husband’s arms.

She was only 34, leaving behind eight-year-old Aditya and three-year-old Kanchan in the care of a devastated Shammi Kapoor.

Ironically, she was cremated in Banganga, not far from where she was married.

Geeta Bali had a short and sweet life span, but she gave a lot of happiness to millions of cine goers and critics of art.

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