Almost every viewer of Cinema can tell you about some cinematic moments which though seen years ago are stuck with them ever since. One may forget the film, the actors, the lines but the impact of those cinematic visuals remain intact. One such visual for me was to see the ten-headed Ravan in a dilemma, trying to decide about what to do next after Sita-Haran while interacting with his nine heads, each representing a different positive or negative emotion. It was such a classic scene that it left an everlasting impression on my mind. Years later I could not recollect anything about the film apart from that scene and a faint image of the tall man who played Ravan. Early this year I happened to watch a film called Sampoorna Ramayana (1961) on one of the TV channels and there he was, the tall actor, with an orotund voice, expressive eyes, sharp features and distinct acting style, in that same classic scene. He was the veteran actor B M Vyas (बी एम व्यास).
B M Vyas as Dashanan Ravan
I looked for more films featuring him and with each performance he left me intrigued, wanting to see more. Mostly playing bad guys in mythological, historical and fantasy films, he was a one-of-a-kind actor. A few months ago I found that Vyas ji, currently in his 90s, lives in Mumbai. On 22 September, I spoke to Vyas ji for the first time with the help of writer and filmographer Shishir Krishna Sharma. It never felt like it was the first time I was speaking with this senior actor; he was so forthcoming and wonderful! On 29 September, my dream came true when I met him at his residence. It’s amusing how he can instantly connect with people about one-third his age. The two hours I spent with him are part of my cherished memories. I have been in touch with him since. This blog is all about the memories he shared.
The Journey Thus Far
Vyas ji was born as Brijmohan Vyas (बृजमोहन व्यास) on Vijayadashami (22 October) day of 1920 in Churu, Rajasthan. He is the younger brother of the well-known poet and lyricist, Bharat Vyas. He was married at the age of 17 when his wife, Jamna was just 11. They had 71 years of marital bliss before Jamna ji passed away in 2008. They had six daughters and a son. After acting in over 200 films in various languages, Vyas ji quit acting in the early 1990s. Two years ago he moved to his current residence in Kalyan. Having seen various shades of life, Vyas ji is living a content life with his children and grandchildren. His spirit can be felt from the sparkle in his eyes when he recites the following couplet he has written based on a famous song –
|“Zinda Hoon Is Tarah Ki, Jiye Ja Raha Hoon Main
Jalta Hua Diya Hoon, Timtima Raha Hoon Main”
Being part of Prithvi Theatre’s first play, “Shakuntala”
On 15 January, 1944, actor Prithviraj Kapoor realised his dream when Prithvi Theatre, his own drama company came into being. Mahakavi Kalidas’ classic Shakuntala was chosen to be their first performance. The play’s cast included Uzra Mumtaz (younger sister of Zohra Segal) to play Shakuntala, Prithviraj Kapoor to play Dhushyant, K N Singh was cast as Rishi Kanva, Shakuntala’s foster father, Sati Devi (Bijoya Ray’s sister, Ruma Guha Thakurta’s mother) as Gautami, caretaker of Kanva Ashram who raises Shakuntala, and Hemavati (Daya Kishan Sapru’s wife) to play Shakuntala’s friend Priyamvada, among others. A young, 24 years old, B M Vyas was recruited as singer by the drama company to sing songs in their play at a monthly salary of 75 Rupees.
Once when rehearsals for their maiden show were in progress and Vyas ji was done with his singing rehearsals, he was watching rehearsals of the cast. One of his songs for the play was “Bitiya Rani Kahan Kahan Tapasvi Log, Milna Julna Rehgaya Nadi Naav Sanjog”. The cast was rehearsing for a scene which needed Rishi Kanva to recite a mantra in Sanskrit, but actor K N Singh was having trouble reciting it. Prithviraj ji was trying to help him but was also faltering in saying it perfectly. Vyas ji, an expert in Hindi and Sanskrit, having immense knowledge of Ved Mantra was witnessing the proceedings for two days. He says it was possibly the blessing of Goddess Saraswati that inspired him to say the mantra aloud. On hearing him intone the mantra with such Brahminical precision, Prithviraj ji was very impressed and asked him to help K N Singh in saying the mantra correctly. But soon K N Singh informed Prithviraj ji that he will not be able to speak Devbhasha (Sanskrit) and that he should look for another artist for the role. Prithviraj ji asked Prithvi Theatre’s manager Ramesh Saigal to approach Vyas ji for the role. Vyas ji, who had already acted in a Rajasthani play Ramu Chanana earlier, readily agreed and stepped into the role and thus started his journey as an actor.
While the rehearsals were still on, Vyas ji suffered a personal tragedy and had to go back home in Bikaner, Rajasthan. There he fell sick with typhoid. Here rehearsals were in full swing as the play was to premiere on 9 March, 1945 at the Royal Opera House. The final date was about a month away so Prithviraj ji asked him to come back as soon as possible. Vyas ji returned with his wife though he was still unwell. On the day he resumed his rehearsals he couldn’t do much due to frequent blackouts. The medication he was on did not seem to help him much. He still fondly remembers the doctor from Kalbadevi who treated him for free; with his medication Vyas ji’s health improved considerably in just three days.
The final round of rehearsals was done and finally the day of Prithvi Theatre’s first play to be staged, arrived. For the first performance of Shakuntala, many known names of the film industry were present at Royal Opera House. In the scene where Rishi Kanva makes an entry on stage he was required to raise his hands for blessing but Vyas ji was still weak and his hands started shaking. He tried a lot to control them but to no avail. He then remembered that he had seen many old people whose hands and head would involuntary shake, so he started to shake his head too. The end result was so effective that during the play’s interval Prithviraj ji came and hugged him. He asked him how he developed that body language, Vyas ji told him about his genuine problem. Prithiviraj ji told him that he did a wonderful job and should continue with the same every time the play was staged.
B M Vyas in various roles
Vyas ji had a long association with Prithvi Theatre, from 1944 to 1955. During this period he toured with the group to various cities and got an opportunity to showcase his singing and acting skills in various plays like – Deewar, Pathan, Aahuthi, Gaddar, Kalaakar, etc. The dedication with which this iconic actor prepared for his roles can be observed from the fact that he can still mouth dialogs from plays he participated in over six decades ago.
Singing, A Passion
Vyas ji was interested in music since childhood. He is a self-taught singer. They had a Harmonium at home which Vyas ji learnt to play on his own. He liked to be around musically inclined people. He would listen carefully and learn. He fondly remembers the blind musician from his home town who would give him a free hand to play the various musical instruments he had. He never really had a Guru he could learn from but he says he learnt the art of teaching singing. He gave music tuitions when he was in Bikaner before moving to Mumbai.
Talented Brothers: B M Vyas & Bharat Vyas
(left pic) played Gopi & Shri Krishna respectively in a local play, Krishna-Sudama
In the early 1940s Bharat Vyas ji called his younger brother to Mumbai. Soon Vyas ji got the opportunity to act and sing as many as twenty songs for the Rajasthani play Ramu Chanana written by Bharat ji. Music Director Naushad Sahab’s assistant Ghulam Muhammad who hailed from Rajasthan was very impressed when he heard Vyas ji’s voice in the play. He took him to meet Naushad Sahab who was working on the soundtrack of the film Pehle Aap (1944). Vyas ji got an opportunity to sing a group song “Hindustan Ke Hum Hain, Hindustan Hamara; Hindu Muslim Dono Ki Aakhon Ka Tara” with established singers G. M. Durrani and Shyam Kumar along with a new singer Mohammed Rafi. Since this song was supposed to be sung by soldiers onscreen, Vyas ji and Rafi Sahab had to wear heavy boots and do a rhythmic march while singing to give an effect of an army troop. Such effects could not be added to a song with the technology available then; it all had to be done in real time. However the first ever song Vyas ji sang for a film was “Alakh Niranjan, Jai Jai Jai Manaranjan” from Bhartrihari (1944) which was picturized on Arun Ahuja (Govinda’s father).
|“Hindustan Ke Hum Hain, Hindustan Hamara”, from Pehle Aap (1944)
Singers: B M Vyas, Mohammed Rafi, G. M. Durrani, Shyam Kumar
After Vyas ji joined Prithvi Theatre as a singer, he had to do regular raiyaz at home. A music teacher who often heard him sing once asked if he would be willing to give music tuitions. Since his monthly salary was 75 Rupees then, Vyas ji agreed as this would give him additional income. The teacher took him to meet Jaichand Kapoor and soon Vyas ji started giving music tuitions to his elder son, Brijmohan. However his younger brother seemed more inclined and started learning music from Vyas ji. This youngster was none other than our legendary playback singer, Mahendra Kapoor who always acknowledged that B M Vyas was his first Guru.
Vyas ji gave playback in four films – Bhartrihari (1944, MD: Khemchand Prakash), Pehle Aap (1944, MD: Naushad), Maharana Pratap (1946, MD: Ram Ganguli) and Naulakha Haar (MD: R C Boral) before destiny took him on a different path. He remembers meeting Rafi Sahab years later who sweetly said “Pandit ji you changed our line (singing)” to which Vyas ji admitted that he did not see much of a future for himself in singing and hence switched to acting.
B M Vyas in various roles
Film Career, A Journey
After Prithvi Theatre’s first play Shakuntala was staged, Devika Rani (owner of Bombay Talkies) was keen to know who played Rishi Kanva. When she saw the 24 yrs old Vyas ji she was surprised, she never expected to see such a young man. She offered him a role in a Bombay Talkies film to be directed by actor Jairaj but the film was never made.
When Ramesh Saigal moved away from Prithvi Theatre, he joined Chetan Anand’s company India Pictures as Production Manager. They were working on their next film Neecha Nagar (1946) when Ramesh Saigal offered Vyas ji a small role (protagonist’s elder brother) in the film. Prithvi Theatre never laid any restrictions on their actors; they could take outside work while working in their plays. Vyas ji was eager to face the camera and accepted the role with open arms. He is credited as ‘Vyas’ in this film. Soon he played a small role in Raj Kapoor‘s Aag (1948) where he is credited as ‘Brijmohan’. But the role that gave him recognition in the film industry was in Barsaat (1949) where he played actress Nargis’ father. For this film he is credited as ‘B. M. Vyas’. Thus Vyas ji’s film career took off and he never looked back.
He has had a long and very successful career of more than four decades and has been part of many memorable classics. He has always been a character artist who started his career with portraying old characters. His last film most probably was Maa (1991).
Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957)
Vyas ji was very keen to work with the great filmmaker V Shantaram and approached him for work. Shantaram ji was planning Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957) and was busy casting actors to play six prisoners in the film. He did not tell him that he is Bharat ji’s younger brother who was the lyricist of the film. When Vyas ji approached him, Shantaram ji was initially a bit apprehensive due to his height but soon cast him as one of the prisoners, Jalia Nai. They had a month long schedule in Kolhapur. When the reels were sent to Rajkamal Studios for processing, it was found that due to dirt particles on the lens there were lines all across the frame in all the reels and the whole month’s hard work had gone to waste. They had to re-shoot the entire thing. Vyas ji says he had a tough time managing schedules due to this re-shoot as he had other films in hand too. My favourite scene of this film is where Jalia comes with an intention to kill the Jailor played by Shantaram ji himself. That scene showcases Vyas ji’s ability as a performer, his entire body language, facial expressions, use of eyes and voice in this scene is a class act, beyond words.
Sampoorna Ramayan (1961)
I could not help but ask Vyas ji about the classic scene from Sampoorna Ramayan (1961) which eventually lead to our meeting. Vyas ji said when he was offered the role of Ravan he was thrilled, being Shastri in Sanskrit he had read so much about this mythological character. Hence he was really keen to play the part but Ravan is expected to have a powerful physique while Vyas ji had a lean frame. To overcome this hurdle he got cotton padded clothing made for the role to look fuller. The rising temperature due to lights in addition to studio heat, he would sweat profusely in those cotton padded cloths but he did not let it hinder his performance. That innovative scene where Ravan is interacting with his nine heads was a collective brainchild of Babubhai Mistry and Homi Wadia. Vyas ji had to enact from a fixed position in front of a stationary camera for fifteen days but the end result was very effective.
Memorable Moment, Shokhian (1951)
On being asked about the most memorable and satisfying moment from his entire career Vyas ji narrated this incident. Prithvi Theatre’s play Gaddar was being staged in which he was playing the role of Maulana. Once filmmaker Kidar Sharma came to see the play, and was very impressed with his dialog delivery in Urdu. He asked Vyas ji to meet him. Sharma ji was working on his next film Shokhian (1951) and was looking for an actor to play the role of Baba Ghani. He gave Vyas ji a long dialog written in Urdu which Baba Ghani had to say to inspire the soldiers who are running away from the battle field to come back. Vyas ji said that he can’t read Urdu. Sharma ji was surprised and asked then how he played the role of Maulana in Gaddar. He said he rehearsed his lines written in Devnagri script and played the part. He asked Sharma ji to get the dialog written in Devnagri, and promised to prepare and say them the next day.
Next day he said the lines with such perfection that Sharma ji gave him a small Silver Coin as token of appreciation. After that Sharma ji would often ask him to say the lines whenever important people came to meet him. Once actor Dilip Kumar came and he was asked to say the lines in front of him as well. Dilip Sahab was very impressed and remembered that he had heard this voice before. Vyas ji told him that he may have seen Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949) where he played actress Nargis’ father. Dilip Sahab then recommended Vyas ji’s name to play actress Naseem’s father in the film Baaghi (1953), produced by his brother Ayyub Khan. Fortunately copies of Shokhian (1951) are available and this scene is here for all of us to see. It was heartening to see Vyas ji recite the same dialogs with such enthusiasm even today, almost sixty years later.
|Vyas ji’s recitation of the dialog when I met him|
Meeting a persona like Vyas ji who has seen eras change, come and go, gives one a fulfilling experience. The conversations with him are filled with recitations of dialogs/songs from plays/films he spoke/sang in decades ago, snippets of poems written by him or his brother Bharat ji, various mantra in Sanskrit with meaning, etc. His eyes, which have seen the changing times, from struggle for freedom to struggle against corruption, from silent to talkie, from black & white to colour, from Prithviraj Kapoor to his great grandson Ranbir Kapoor, literally sparkle when he narrates an incident.
In this blog I wanted to soak-in as much as I could from all I gained from him: B M Vyas ji as a person, as an accomplished artiste, as an icon. We hope he will give all of us his wisdom and blessings for years to come.
Vyas ji left for a better world on 11 March, 2013. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family. I was fortunate that destiny gave me the opportunity to meet you Vyas ji, rest in peace. We miss you.
– Maitri Manthan
* The information provided in this blog is to the best of our knowledge, if any discrepancies are found please let us know. Thank you.