“I think I am most like Rosie. She’s a straightforward woman who knows her own mind and stands by what she believes in.” It took many years for Nasreen Munni Kabir to get Waheeda Rehman to agree to have a conversation with her, but when she did, over the course of 25 meetings, each lasting about two hours, the lot held over almost a year, this book was created. Like her chats with playback singer Lata Mangeshkar, poet Gulzar, musician A.R. Rahman and others, this one too is a reflection of the personality who has enchanted the world for years with her craft. “It takes her time and a sense of trust and ease to open up,” the author says about her subject, “but when she does, she comes alive.” The writer found the actor to be “a feisty lady” with an “Intuitive understanding of right and wrong” who “has a natural gift for storytelling” and a “great memory”, who “gets so involved in evoking the past that her eyes sparkle”. And over the course of her work with the senior actor, Kabir discovered a woman who is “truly as lovely in real life as she is on the screen”.
The story began in 1955. Waheeda was about 17 years old. Her father, a district collector, had passed away four years earlier and with him had gone the lifestyle, the social status and the money. She and her sister had learned dance, and started performing on stage to bring in some income.
And most unexpectedly, film offers followed. “Producer CV Ramakrishma Prasad, who had known my father, called out of the blue and offered me a dancing role in the Telugu film Rojulu Marayi.” When she heard about this, Waheeda “jumped with joy and told my mother: ‘It is God’s wish! Please let me do it.’”
It took some persuasion, but finally her mother agreed. And a career that is now part of the annals of Hindi film history began. The young actor moved from the South to Mumbai and made it big as a heroine with class, becoming known for her elegant beauty, her restrained demeanour, her very modern acting style and her temperament. She invariably said ‘No’ to a film offer when it was made to her, and then had to be persuaded to do it. She was groomed by Guru Dutt, and did a series of films with him, including CID (1956), Pyaasa (1957), Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
She was atypical for a heroine of the time and added a certain magic to the many films she did with Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Raj Kapoor, among others. In 1970 she was the female lead in Khamoshi, a huge hit, in which she was paired with Rajesh Khanna. And then came Phagun (1973), in which she played mother to Jaya Bhaduri. This was perhaps a bad move because at just 35, she started getting slotted firmly into maternal roles, especially when the film flopped. A year later, in 1974, she married Shashi Rekhi; her son and daughter were born soon after and her husband passed away in 2000. But she acted through those years, in smaller roles, as memorable characters in films that may not have done too well.
Waheeda Rehman talked to the author about all this and more. She is not just a treasure that Indian cinemagoers have been fortunate enough to watch on screen, but from her conversations, a delightful person to know with a memory that is rich and varied. She talks to Kabir about how her face was the differentiating factor — not her beauty, but her command over bhava, or expression, something that came from her extensive training in Bharatanatyam. As her guru TMS Pillai told her, “Your facial expressions are the most important thing and that is where your soul is visible.” Waheeda agrees, “I know you have to put that little bit of soul into your performance … You have to change yourself to become another character, but you do need to add your own emotions and personality.”
This is a readable record of question-answer sessions, especially for fans of the lovely Waheedaji. It would perhaps have been even better if there were more pictures, as well as a timeline of the actor’s life, not just a filmography. But would that come up in conversation?
CONVERSATIONS WITH WAHEEDA REHMAN: Nasreen Munni Kabir; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.