By now, many of you might be well-familiar with the truth that Indian cinema is not one singular entity, nor is it a defining term for ‘Bollywood’. It’s a family of more than 20 film industries spread across the country which are divided by language, cultures, societies, genre preferences, cinematic traditions, but exclusively united by stars. Transdomestic exchanges of talent within the cinematic universes of India has been prevalent since the 1930s and 1940s, however, it was the migration of stars from the southern shores to Bombay (and vice versa) that seemed most apparent, publicised. Indian cinephiles can quickly count more than 15 names of individuals who established their own creative niches outside of their lands of nativity. One such pioneer of this movement was Padmini. While her forte was mostly within Tamil and Telugu cinema, she was one of the earliest individuals to enter the propinquities of the Bombay film industry from the four southern quarters of ravaging talent, and quickly became a significant name both within the industry and the public imaginations of the Hindi-speaking cinemagoers. I consider her role in the Indo-Soviet film, Pardesi (1957), opposite Nargis and Oleg Strizhenov, as the defining point of her career in the Bombay film industry, more because she not only began gaining more momentum and popularity after this film, but also began moving outside of her collaborative circles. By the latter-point, I imply that Padmini’s beginnings in the Bombay film industry were mostly cultivated by her associations with South Indian directors who were making Hindi remakes of their own films (and with whom she had worked before), and it was only after Pardesi that she was pulled within newer circles of mainstream Bombay directors or producers such as Shakti Samanta (Singapore, 1960) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Aashiq, 1962).
Speaking in this direction, nevertheless, Padmini’s collaborations with Raj Kapoor became the greatest highlight of her career. Though clustered only within two films — Jis Desh Main Ganga Behti Hai (1960) and Mera Naam Joker (1970) — these films seemed sufficient to appreciate those poignant nuances of her maturing acting prowess, at least through the limited canon of Hindi films she worked in (and which I’m familiar with). Padmini epitomised a rhythmic, fascinating style of acting that seemed to be inspired from the footprints of vintage local theatre and her experience in the classical dance form, Bharatanātyam. Watch her in Raj Tilak (1958); I’m sure you’ll understand this statement. It only magnifies in Jis Desh Main Ganga Behti Hai, and beyond. Hers was a rather extraordinary mix of charming and delicate performativity . . . never loud or gaudy, but sensitive. Sometimes, even relaxed. It’s almost the same structure that characterises the work of her sisters, too, who were collectively addressed as the Travancore Sisters (Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini). Much like many family groups operating within different industries across India, who specialized in one common interest, like the Mangeshkar sisters (all-singers), the Travancore sisters were actors with a special inclination towards classical dance; Padmini being the most successful amongst the trio, although some might demur to favour Lalitha. Regardless, what’s important is that Padmini turned into an archive of characters and their distinctive journeys, a constellation of cinematic experience. She carried traces of previous performances which mirrored in the next; and while this could have been her strategy to sustain stardom, her star-image/persona was a result of accumulated stardom, much like the ones enjoyed by Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand. In a way, Padmini became one collective memory with a hundred faces.
And while the Bombay film industry might boast of its ravishing female actors, I still deem Padmini the common man’s favourite. There was an unusual, ethereal, indescribable charm about her, and this compelling ability to become relatable to the people of India, yet showing the different stories of India in unreal ways. Her storytelling methods, involving the tenets of classical art, were famous both within India and abroad — this is a reference to her passion for Bharatanātyam, a dance form which she took with her to the United States and opened the Padmini Institute of Fine Arts (1977). Today, Padmini is considered one of the finest proponents of modern Bharatanātyam, and I’m not going to exaggerate, but I think she was always a notch better than the revered Vyjayanthimala Ji. I don’t find myself in a position to pursue a comparative criticism of their dancing faculties; I speak intuitively here. Anyway, what remains significant are the invaluable contributions Padmini made towards multiple Indian film industries. She survives — across the annals of Indian film history — as one of the most beautiful yet sharpest, soothing yet turbulent names India ever witnessed. How else should I describe her?
dedicated to Shubhangi Goyal,
the Padmini in our lives.