Finding Rehana Sultan, the 70s ‘Chetna’ Sensation

Remember the daring actress Rehana Sultan who starred in the controversial ‘Chetna’?

5 min read
Rehana Sultan now and then (Photo: Khalid Mohamed) 

“I’m surviving. I’m okay, just about. But please don’t make me out to be a bechari. All I need is work in the movies or television, to make ends meet,” says Rehana Sultan – the sensation of the 1970s who snagged the National Award for Best Actress (Dastak) –when she had just stepped out of her teens.

Rehana Sultan with Sanjeev Kumar in <i>Dastak</i>
Rehana Sultan with Sanjeev Kumar in Dastak

It has been a bit of a chore to trace her phone number, and persuade her to do an interview at her small, neatly maintained Juhu home, which she had acquired, thanks to a suggestion made by the revered lyricist-poet Sahir Ludhianvi.

“The building’s called Parchhaiyan,” she laughs lightly, “which is quite appropriate for someone who’s now living in the shadows.” A gold medallist graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India’s 1968 batch, she’s 66 now and is convinced that she can effortlessly slide into mature roles, even if it’s those of mums and badi bahens.
Rehana Sultan, the 70s sensation
Rehana Sultan, the 70s sensation

A TV serial which focused on her, stopped production midway, because of financial problems. As for the role of Chitrangada Singh’s mother in Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar, she shrugs, “Of my12 to 13 scenes only a couple were retained in the final edit. Actually Sudhir could have dropped all my scenes, the part was quite inconsequential. After that, there have been no acting offers. So here I am twiddling my thumbs.”

She speaks in chaste Urdu diction. Since she belonged to a conservative Baha’i family of Allahabad, the decision to accept writer-director BR Ishara’s Chetna – dealing with the rehabilitation of sex workers – must have required guts.

“Not really,” she ripostes. “Except that I wasn’t quite thrilled with the manner in which Ishara saab called me over to Astoria Hotel for an initial discussion. A hotel meeting sounded shady. So he came over to my place, reclined on the sofa, and to my horror put his feet up on the coffee table. Still, I liked the story and quoted a huge signing amount for those days. He handed over the Rs 5,000 immediately.”
The  daring shot used on the poster of <i>Chetna</i>
The daring shot used on the poster of Chetna
The daring nude scene of Chetna didn’t faze her. Her hairdresser had covered her up with her long-flowing tresses. “More than the camouflaged nudity it was that one shot showing my legs, used in the poster, which continues to be a talking point to this day,” she recalls.

Subsequently she acted in over 30 films, but chose to become lazy --  “aaram farmaane ki buri aadat pad gayee” – after her marriage to Ishara, whose black-and-white photographs cover her apartment walls today.

BR Ishara and Rehana Sultan’s wedding portrait photographs (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)
BR Ishara and Rehana Sultan’s wedding portrait photographs (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

The marriage lasted 27 years right till Ishara passed away four years ago. A paralytic stroke later, it was diagnosed that a terminal illness had set it. Eyes misting, the Chetna of yore narrates, “It must have been the world’s strangest wedding proposal. Ishara saab said, ‘Look I’m not marriage material, maybe you’ll leave me within a year but if you want we can give it a try.’ He wasn’t a typical Bollywood filmmaker. He didn’t believe in saving money, he’d travel in an autorickshaw or taxi, and say that Rehana is my only property.”

As an adolescent, Ishara had run away from Kotli, a small town in Himachal Pradesh. On reaching Bombay, he worked as a film unit’s spotboy, moved on to assisting directors before he was noticed by Nargis Dutt who encouraged him to become an independent director.

Rehana comments, “Saab made so many bold films. But if some of them were bad, like Bazaar Bandh Karo, he would accept my criticism right away. I acted in quite a few of his films including Yeh Sach Hai and Maan Jaaiye which perhaps didn’t get their deserved attention. He often ran into censor trouble but never buckled under such pressure.”

One of BR Ishara’s black and white photos which adorn Rehana Sultan’s wall (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)
One of BR Ishara’s black and white photos which adorn Rehana Sultan’s wall (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

The actress retreated into the fringes. Ishara strived to work till his last breath. “But how could he last?” his widow asks. “He would smoke at least120 cigarettes a day. He was a ticking bomb.”

The Writers’ Association helped the writer-director monetarily through his extended hospital treatment.

“Danny Denzongpa, Shatrughan Sinha and Rajesh Khanna helped out as well,” she informs. “Yet the end was near. Moreover Ishara saab was disillusioned, not only with the sort of writing offers he would get but also with the philosophy of J Krishnamurti whom he had deeply admired.”

Rehana Sultan last made an appearance in Sudhir Mishra’s <i>Inkaar; </i>Seen on the right in a studio portrait photo from the 1970s
Rehana Sultan last made an appearance in Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar; Seen on the right in a studio portrait photo from the 1970s

Ask Rehana Sultan, if Ishara left behind any means of subsistence for her, and she states, “No, saab left nothing for me. I only have this house. Maybe that’s why he didn’t want us to have children. He’d argue, ‘Why bring another machine into this world?’ He did produce some films but he had many so-called friends around him. Both of us were clueless about business matters. There was nothing in the bank. By the time we realised that, it was much too late. Our story was bound to have a sad ending.”

Our afternoon conversation lengthens into evening. Seeing me off at the door, she requests, “If you know of any role which I could do justice to, do tell filmmakers that I’m at Parchhaiyan.”

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)

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