Conferring the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke award to veteran actress Waheeda Rehman (born 1938) for her distinctive contribution to Indian Cinema will gladden the hearts of her vast fan following, which spans many generations of film lovers in the extended Indian sub-continent. I am in the 70-plus septuagenarian basket.
My personal 'fan' recall is being part of a group of mofussil (small-town) boys who were appearing for the NDA SSB interview in Bangalore, in the winter of 1965 and accidentally watching a Hindi film – Guide. We walked out giddy and totally mesmerised by the enchanting Waheeda Rehman and the special chemistry she shared with co-star Dev Anand (whose birth centenary was celebrated on 26 September).
Predictably, I was back at the cinema hall for two consecutive days – waiting with bated breath for the liberated Rosie (Waheeda) to break into a song from atop a haystack in a camel-cart.
Aaj phir jine ka tamanna ranks as my most favourite song in the ocean of Hindi film songs that Bollywood has created over the decades and the joyous verve that the actor brings to the scene remains exhilarating.
Popular and Niche Films: Waheeda Ji Straddled Bothways
Rosie the dancer, who breaks out of an unhappy marriage and finds a heady mix of freedom, joy, love, and disappointment in her tour guide Raju (Dev Anand) is portrayed by Waheeda with rare empathy. The infectious spontaneity in that particular song sequence stayed with me as I boarded the train back to Visakhapatnam – and I had become one more ardent fan of a gifted actress.
From her 1955 debut in a Telugu film (Rojulu Marayi) when she was spotted by director Guru Dutt who enabled her to move to Bombay to her most recent 2021 sports drama (Skater Girl), Waheeda Rehman evolved as a consummate actress whose versatility straddled both popular cinema and the more off-beat art films of the 1960’s.
In the 90-odd films that comprise her filmography, a few stand out for the impact they created when released.
Her first Hindi film CID (1956) brought the vivacious Kamini to film audiences who loved her in that role – and it turned out to be the highest revenue-generating film of that year. Guru Dutt had indeed spotted a rare talent in the young Waheeda.
Melodious songs with deep import in the lyrics were a hallmark of that period and Waheeda in CID is still remembered for the lilting number ‘kahin pay nigahen, kahin pay nishana’ – that is hummed even today – thanks to YouTube and its variants that allow such nostalgic detours.
An Enviable Range of Skills
For me, Teesri Kasam (1966) remains a jewel of a film – which alas did not receive box-office support, leading to the tragic death of producer-lyricist Shailendra. Released soon after Guide, here Waheeda is Heera Bai – the nautanki dancer – who is paired with a rustic Hiraman played with aplomb by the charismatic Raj Kapoor.
A trained Bharatanatyam dancer, Waheeda’s elegance in the dance sequences is at its coquettish best in the evergreen song malmal kay kurte pay cheent lalna with its mischievous lyrics leavened with a touch of the rural turn of phrase.
The transmutation from Rosie who presents the classical dance form in packed urban auditoriums to Heera Bai titillating rural crowds in the Gangetic cow belt, who gaze spellbound at the ‘company bai’ (a name given to the traveling dancers of the time) is testimony to Waheeda’s acting skills.
Sensuality but With a Hint of Modesty..
The first time I saw the film, I had involuntarily joined Hiraman and his friends – gazing adoringly at the dancer and internalising the multi-layered lyrics, which frame flirtatiousness and gender vulnerability through the metaphor of a pinjre wali muniya – the caged bird.
The refined sensuality, laced with the dignity of a professional artist that Hirabai is, comes through in a nuanced manner in the dance sequence, which is devoid of any coarse gesture.
Sensuousness anchored in an innate ambiance of rectitude and modesty was the defining characteristic that Waheeda brought to the fore in her film roles and I personally cherish this trait in her vast body of work.
Guru Dutt brought out the kaleidoscopic range of acting skills that Waheeda was able to bring to celluloid and her roles in Pyaasa, Kagaz kay phool, and Chaudvin ka chand are illustrative of that.
The song again burnishes Waheeda’s films in an evocative manner – and none more than the title song of ‘Chaudvin ka chand’. This vignette of a Waheeda who has fallen asleep while Guru Dutt eulogises her moonlike beauty is among the most tender and romantic scenes in Hindi cinema and given the constraints of technology – the innovative use of light by legendary camera maestro VK Murthy adds to the magic of the mise-en-scene.
Journey Not a Bed of Roses
Reflecting on a film star whom one has held on a high pedestal for decades with a Pavlovian mix of adoration and veneration, what can one dwell on as a fan? To me, Waheeda who demonstrated enormous grit and resolve after losing her father at an early age and moving to Bombay and the mercurial film world as a young woman, is a commendable profile of courage, competence, and grace.
In a domain where many a celebrity Bollywood actress has skidded on different banana peels, Waheeda Rehman has navigated her professional and personal life with some core traits associated with the different characters she represented on the silver screen: a vulnerable young woman seeking to realise her aspirations even while grappling with the vagaries of life with resolve, dignity, elegance, empathy and a luminous vitality.
The Phalke Award is a fitting accolade to one of India’s most loved and admired actors and for septuagenarian fans like me, memorable reminiscences of aaj phir jine ki tamanna hai and malmal kay kurte.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)