Waheeda Rehman combined the classic Tamil-Islamic beauty with an extraordinary grace, talent and a truly transcendent appeal that rank her amongst the pantheon of Bollywood’s elite actresses
An actress who can claim to have had a most fulfilling career from seventeen to seventy, Waheeda Rehman has since dominated Indian cinema and come to be recognised as the most versatile actor ever. Although her debut film was supposedly Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (1955), it was with her song-and-dance number, almost simultaneously, in Rojulu Marayi that she caught the eye of film-maker Guru Dutt, opening newer vistas in the bad, mad world of Bollywood. But, paradoxically, she worked not as the leading lady but as a vamp in the Dev Anand-Shakila starrer, CID (1956) directed by Raj Khosla for his mentor, Guru Dutt. And there never has been, but for a self-inflicted hiatus, a moment to look back. It has been the proverbial case of moving from one triumph to another, though suffering in the process because Indian cinema provides too short a career span to its leading ladies. Most of them, unlike in the West, go into an eclipse at the turn of an eyelid. From being a leading lady to being mother of the same hero in the next, so quick is the transition.
Waheeda did not have to wait for long to showcase her infinite talent, as was evident from her performance as a golden-hearted prostitute in Pyaasa (1956), a film that has achieved an iconic status since then. She is the only Indian actress who has romanced all the big stars of three successive generations: Dev Anand (as many as seven—CID, Tu Roop ki Rani meain Choron ka Raja, Solva Saal, Baat ek Raat Ki, Kala Bazaar, Guide, Prem Pujari ), Guru Dutt (five—Pyaasa, 12 O’Clock, Kaagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvian ka Chand, Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam), Dilip Kumar (four—Dil Diya Dard Liya, Aadmi, Ram aur Shyam, Mashaal ), Raj Kapoor (two—Ek Dil Sau Afsane, Teesari Kasam ), Sunil Dutt (five—Ek Phool Char Kante, Meri Bhabi, Darpan, Mujhe Jene Do, Reshma aur Shera, winning National Best Actress Award), Rajendra Kumar (three—Palki, Dharti, Shatranj ), Manoj Kumar (Pathar ke Sanam), Dharmendra (three—Man ki Aankhen, Baazi, Phagun), Rajesh Khanna (Khamoshi)—the biggest hit of her career opposite a rank newcomer—before shifting to character roles.
Some of her other big hits with power-packed performances as leading lady include Neelkamal (Raaj Kumar), Bees Saal Baad, Kohra (Biswajeet), Rakhi, Trishul, Namak Halaal. She received 8 Filmfare Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations but won two—Guide and Neelkamal for Best Actress. But despite a string of sterling performances, the role that will remain perennially etched in viewing public mind is that of Rosie in Guide—a film that provided her with a dream role, full of range and variety of emotions. One of the few Hindi film actresses honoured with the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement trophy 1994 Waheeda Rehman received the coveted Padma Bhushan Award in 2011 for her contribution to cinema, and public life.
If the performance in Pyaasa is even recalled today for its underplay of emotions, especially in the scene as she follows the poet goes up the stairs with efficacious strains of SD Burman number Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo, so also her work in some other films. The grapevine had it that it was at this very juncture that Guru Dutt flipped for his ‘discovery’ even though wife Geeta Dutt was dubbing the song, though in ultimate rating her act as an actor in Kaagaz ke Phool (Waqt ne kiya kya hasi safar), dancer in Guide (Kantoon se kheench key eh aanchal, and singer–dancer in Teesari Kasam (Paan khaye siyan hamaro) were no less gratifying. And, of course, she was also absolutely stunning in Chaudhvin ka Chand.
Meanwhile as if to endorse her versatility, Satyajit Ray cast her as Gulabo (she was Gulabi in Pyaasa) in Abhijan but, unfortunately, the spark seemed to be missing with the famed film-maker himself out of sort with his script. She recently confessed in an interview that her decision to essay the role of Rosie in Guide was against the advise of her well-wishers who felt a role with negative shades might affect her box office draw but she had followed the courage of her convictions because until then, and even later she never got an opportunity to show her potential as a classical dancer, especially in the snake dance sequence.
Whether consciously, or otherwise and reacting to destiny’s call, her own intuition, she worked in a film Shagun opposite an unknown actor called Kamaljit (Shashi Rekhi) in 1974, a businessman from Bangalore whom she eventually married, and from whom has a son and a daughter. After her husband’s death she engaged herself with marketing her brand of breakfast cereal and leading a contented life on her farmhouse far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. She made a comeback of sorts, now as a character artiste in the very early nineties with a Yash Chopra-directed film called, Lamhe, Chandini (with whom she had earlier done Kabhi Kabhie opposite Amitabh Bachchan with whom she had also worked in Aadalat and Mahaan).
A versatile and dependable in any character, in the third phase of her distinguished career she worked with younger directors in films like Rang de Basanti, Water, 15 Park Avenue,Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara, Delhi 6. She has altogether worked in 84 movies including 36 as the leading lady. A Tamilian Muslim, born and brought up in Chingalpatam she was initially dubbed a Telegu lady because she spoke Urdu. Actually, it was while celebrating the success of Rojolu Marayi—a Gemini Ganesh movie in Hyderabad—“and Guru Dutt happened to be there. He was on a lookout for new faces and heard that I could speak in Urdu. It is because he spotted me in Hyderabad that people assume I was born there,” said Waheeda in an interview to set at least one fact about her life correctly. Later she went back to star in two more Telegu films—Bangare Kalalu (74) and Simhasanam (86).
Born on February 3, 1936, she has been amongst the very few actors whose personal life has remained unblemished, and the intensity or otherwise of her relationship with mentor Guru Dutt remains buried with him. Waheeda Rehman has steadfastly refused to comment on the relationship. An important fact that has evaded the scrutiny of both Waheeda and Guru Dutt’s llife and wasted on precious newsprint from speculation: Why did Guru Dutt cast Mala Sinha and not Waheeda Rehman in his last production, Baharein Phir Bhi Aayegi directed by Shahid Lateef which was later completed with Dharmendra replacing the producer-director-actor.
By Suresh Kohli