Actress, trained Bharatha Natyam dancer and Carnatic singer, Vasundhara Devi is known for her work in Tamil cinema. She has to her credit films such as Natya Rani (1949), Mangama Sabatham (1943) which made her a household name, and Rishyashringar (1941). She was known as the glamour girl of the South Indian art world. She is the mother of popular dancer-actress, Vyjayanthimala.
Born in 1917 in erstwhile Madras, her regal looks would catch the attention of lawyer-turned-filmmaker T G Raghavachari, better known as Acharya. She debuted in his directorial Rishyashringar (1941). She played the female lead Maya in the film, which also starred Ranjan as Rishyashringar, and G Pattu Iyer as Vibhandaka.
Two years later, she starred in Mangama Sabatham, also written and directed Acharya. It was the first major Gemini Studios-S S Vasan production made on a mammoth scale, which became the hallmark of a Gemini-Vasan product. It was only after this film, that the word ‘colossal’ would come to be used by critics and audiences for a Madras-made hit movie.
Creating a sensation all over South India, both Vasundhara and Ranjan became stars with this film. Vasundhara’s exotic dances were particularly appreciated in this early box-office bonanza of producer S S Vasan. Based on a popular folktale, the film revolved around a feisty village girl, Mangamma, who, when insulted by a woman-chasing crown prince, vows to take revenge; hence, the title ‘Mangamma’s Vow’. She has a child through him and later, makes the child whip the father in court. The salacious prince also takes a vow to marry her and has her imprisoned in a lonely palace. How she builds an underground tunnel from her gilded cage to her village home, outwits her husband and has a son without his knowing her identity and the son then trapping his father, forms the rest of the film story, with a screenplay that had a modern touch.
Vasundhara sported a glamorous look in the film, where she comes disguised as a sultry gypsy to seduce her husband with her song and dance and make him spend the night with her. Vasundhara was guided and driven hard by Acharya to meet his expectations; she did so by delivering an excellent performance in the title role. Her song and dance sequences in the film were also inspired by those of Hollywood singer-actress Carmen Miranda; Acharya was a known devotee of American cinema. Vasundhara’s song-dance sequences echoed Miranda’s hit numbers such as I…I…I... like you very much, Mama ye quero and Down Argentine way. The subtle touches of eroticism of these sequences rocked the moviegoers of the 1940s.
Mangamma Sapatham is also considered Vasundhara’s last hit. Her career declined fast and the few films she did thereafter, did not help.
In Udayanan Vasavadatta (1947), directed and produced by T R Raghunath, she essayed the character of Vasavadatta, featuring alongside G N Balasubramaniam and M S Saroja with D Balasubramaniam, K Sarangapani and Kali N Rathnam playing supporting roles. The plot revolved around Udayanan, the king of Vatsa, and Vasavadatta, who fall in love, and the many hurdles and crises that they face, before they are happily reunited.
Wiring for The Hindu, film critic and historian Randor Guy noted that the film was memorable for “GNB's captivating songs, Vasundhara's dances and excellent cinematography.” It did not succeed at the box office.
In 1949, she featured in Natya Rani directed by B Narayan Rao, also starring B S Saroja, and T S Balaiah. She essayed the part of Shakuntala in the first part of the dance film. It revolved around a young girl, Shakuntala who, watching a swami (hermit) teaching the fine arts like music and dance to students at his ashram, dreams of achieving fame as a dancer, her subsequent involvement with a king, and the resulting consequences.
The 1959 comedy-drama film Paigham directed by S S Vasan saw her play mother onscreen to her real-life daughter Vyjayanthimala, in the film which starred Dilip Kumar. The film traces the lives of the family of a widowed lady, her two sons and daughter.
She reprised her role in the Tamil remake of Paigham - Irumbu Thirai (1960). The story revolves around the two brothers Manikam and Kondamuthu and their mill owner. Directed by S S Vasan, it starred Saroja Devi B, Shivaji Ganesan, and S V Ranga Rao.
However, she was caught in a series of domestic problems, and court cases, with many reportedly of her own making.
Married to M D Raman, her daughter Vyjayanthimala would go on to become a leading actress of her times in the South as well as the Hindi film industry.
Vasundhara Devi passed away in 1988.
Image courtesy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SVNH5lZU8s