Waheeda Rehman’s Subtle Elegance and the Golden Age of Bollywood

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At last, the award committee vested with the responsibility has chosen just the right person for the Dadasaheb Phalke Life Achievement Award for contribution to Indian cinema. Waheeda Rehman has proven her worth not only as an actor but also with her lifestyle and her choices that she is indeed, an empowered woman who has set an example for all women to emulate, be inspired by and follow.

Born in Chingleput near Madras (Chennai), Waheeda Rehman’s birthday falls on February 3, 1939. The youngest of three sisters, Waheeda was born into a respectable Muslim family. Her father was a municipal collector. Music and dance fascinated her from childhood. She began learning Bharat Natyam when she was nine and by sixteen, she was a proficient dancer. Her first film Raghu Marai, was in Telugu. She then became the leading lady in Jaisimha in Tamil and Telugu. When her father passed away in 1951, Waheeda decided to concentrate on a film career.

Guru Dutt introduced Waheeda in C.I.D. where she had a very small role but played it well. This was followed by a plum role in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. The sensitive artistry with which she performed the role of the fallen girl put her among the top rankers. A string of films followed– Kaagaz Ke Phool, Kala Bazar, Solva Saal, Mujhe Jeene Do, Raakhee, Ek Phool Char Kaante, Bees Saal Baad, Majboor, Kohra, Ek Dil Sau Afsane, Shagun, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Dil Diya Dard Liya. A high point in her career was when Satyajit Ray cast her in Abhijaan as Gulabi and also made her sing her own song.

Kaagaz Ke Phool offered a challenging role to Waheeda.

Her proficiency in dance was rarely explored perhaps because she was an actress par excellence and invariably got challenging roles that demanded a high degree of skill. Vijay Anand’s Guide is the only film that demanded from her both excellence in dance and in acting. There were contemporary actresses who were good dancers but probably were not as good as she was in dramaturgy. As Rosie, the protagonist of Guide she uses dance not only as a performing art of great skill, endurance and dedication, but also as her ‘voice’ – of self-expression, or protest, of anger, of hurt, as her chosen lifestyle where her love for Raju is sidetracked by her love for dance.

Kaala Bazaar is still known for its amazing picturisation of Rhim Jhim ke Tarane Leke Aayi Barsat with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. The film’s two lead characters, Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, meet at a bus stop in the rain after a fairly long time. They share an umbrella as they walk towards their home. Shared past experiences at different times and locations come flooding back and happy memories are superimposed over flowing shots of the present in the monsoon.
The hallmark of her performance is an element of dignity and respect that she brings to any character she plays, be it Rosie, the daughter of a devdasi, or Jaba, the impish Brahmo girl living within a feudal set-up who falls in love with the naïve Bhootnath in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, or a prostitute who loves poetry in Pyaasa or the once-successful film star in Kaagaz Ke Phool who loses all sense of reason when she discovers that the man she loved fails/refuses to vocalize his feelings for her. She played a sixteen-year-old girl who runs away with a diabolic man out to con her in Solva Saal. She is subtle, always in control and tends to underplay.

Guru Dutt introduced Waheeda in C.I.D. where she had a very small role but played it well. This was followed by a plum role in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. The sensitive artistry with which she performed the role of the fallen girl put her among the top rankers. A string of films followed

In Kohra, an Indian adaptation of the famous Daphne Du Maurier classic Rebecca, her portrayal of a young bride haunted by the ghost of her husband’s first wife is unforgettable. In Bees Saal Baad, she plays the beautiful daughter of the caretaker of a palatial mansion in a remote place. She is coerced by her scheming father to frighten the young heir when he arrives from the city. She falls in love with the man and finds herself hopelessly sandwiched between her loyalty to her father and love for her man.

Waheeda Rehman could easily display an entire range of emotions through a slight twitch of an eyebrow here or a brief smile there. She retired to Bangalore after marriage but came back often to do senior roles in films that now starred younger stars in the lead. In Yash Chopra’s Lamhe she partly re-performed a dance sequence from Guide. She won the Filmfare Best Actress Award for Guide and the same award at the Chicago Film Festival. She recently shot an English film directed by Aparna Sen called 15, Park Avenue in which she plays mother to Shabana Azmi and Konkona Sen Sharma. She won the National Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a Dehati woman in Sunil Dutt’s period film Reshma Aur Shera. But she could have won the same award several times over later for equally brilliant performances.

Her films are also famous for the wonderful song numbers in the films in which she performed. Guide alone has songs that are still popular over YouTube and other music channels. Aaj phir jeena kee tamanna hai (Guide), paan khaye sainyan hamaro (Teesri Kasam), Kahin pe nigahen kahin pe nishana (C.I.D.), Jaane Kya Tune Kahi (Pyaasa), Waqt ne kiya (Kaagaz Ke Phool), Rimjhim Ke Taraane (Kala Bazaar), Rangeela Re (Prem Pujari) and many many more immortal songs from the golden era of Hindi cinema were shot o Waheeda Rehman.

still from Guide

Before stepping into Hindi films, though very new and young, Waheeda placed two conditions on the directors of her films. One, she would never wear revealing clothes “which will make me feel so uncomfortable that it will take away from my performance” and two, “I will retain my original name given to me by my parents, Waheeda Rehman and will not assume a screen name” which she stuck to right through her career. When she began to age, not only did she refuse to dye her hair, but also pushed her close friends in the industry not to dye theirs and she prides on her white mane along with her friends Asha Parekh and Helen. When Nanda, a close friend, passed away suddenly, Waheeda was so heart-broken that she cancelled all her appointments in Kolkata and took the next flight to Mumbai.

Waheeda no longer acts in films but keeps herself busy in adventure sports like snorkeling, going on jungle safaris and engaging in wildlife photography. That is Waheeda Rehman for you. If she does not deserve the Dadasaheb Phalke Lifetime Achievement Award, I do not know who does.

Images courtesy: Shoma A Chatterji & Flickr

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