Waheeda Rehman rewinds to times when Guru Dutt called the shots and Dev Anand was the repository of romance.

If grace and elegance ever require a brand ambassador, Waheeda Rehman will be on the top of the list. The actress, who redefined Hindi film heroine by breaking away from the theatrics of 40s and 50s, and all through opted for roles which were much more than the appealing shadows of the heroes, Rehman continues to be the poster girl of anybody who wants to make an impact against the tide.

“I was not exactly the first one as before me Nargisji and Geeta Baliji also broke free from the theatrical style. My acting was not stylised. I always underplayed maybe because I never learnt acting. I thought the best way is to feel it and do it. And when you feel it, the emotions come out naturally. Gulabo (‘Pyaasa’) was liked by people and I started getting roles. If I liked a story my attitude used to be this is the scene, this is the character and I have to do it. I never thought about the repercussions of doing a character,” says Rehman who was in Delhi to participate in the ongoing Habitat Film Festival where a retrospective of her films were shown. From “Pyaasa” and “Guide” to “Mujhe Jeene Do” and “Teesri Kasam”, the bouquet of films captured the fragrance of Rehman’s stellar performances.

From an Andhra girl who speaks Urdu to a Muslim girl who is adept in Bharatanatyam, Rehman says she faced all kinds of stereotypes. “My point was a good artist should be able to portray any kind of role. ‘Guide’ is closest to my heart because Rosie was a very mature character. She is married to Marco and yet decides to go in for a live in relationship with Raju. Many producers saw it as a negative role, a wrong step at that stage of my career and advised me not to do it but to me a role was a role. But sometimes personalities do come in the way. For instance If you had asked Meena Kumari to do the role of Rosie, she would have given it a try considering the great actress she was but it would not have suited her. Similarly if somebody asked me to do the role in ‘Manoranjan’ (Zeenat Aman), I would not have been able to do it. I wanted to play Bibi in ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’ but Guru Duttji found me too young for the role,” says Rehman who got a complement from none other than R.K. Narayan for bringing alive ‘his’ Rosie.

Rehman agrees her dancing skills were noticed a little late. “Many people didn’t know it because they felt I don’t behave like a dancer. So when ‘Guide’ came my way, I told Dev (Anand) that chop my dialogues but don’t cut my dance sequences and he agreed! My favourite is ‘Piya Tose Naina Lage Re’ because of the way Vijay Anand established the whole sequence. After Guru Dutt he was a master at shooting songs.” Then is “Teesri Kasam”, where again she played a character which was situated somewhere between what is perceived as moral and immoral, the entire story progresses through songs. “I liked the story. Rajji (Kapoor) suggested changing the ending. He wanted it to end it with a sequence where Hiraman gets Hirabai but Shailendraji said this won’t justify the title. Hiraman has to take the third vow. The commercial value might have increased but you never know.”

But her all time favourite dance number is “Raat Bhi Hai Kuch Bhigi Bhigi, Chand Bhi Hai Kuch Maddham Maddham” from Sunil Dutt’s “Mujhe Jeene Do”. “It came after Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were done with their dacoit films but it was no less powerful and I think the most realistic one on the subject.”

Talking about the directors, who shaped her as an actor, Rehman says “It is not that everybody shaped me. In the beginning it was Guru Duttji. If I was not able to do something he used to show because at that time I didn’t know how to face the camera, the technicalities of close up and long shot. Since I was a dancer and he was a dancer too, facial expressions came easy. I took time in learning dialogue delivery. There were no acting schools at that time and I learnt by trial and error. He was a very sensitive director. In “Pyaasa” there is a scene where I have to cry after reading the news of hero’s death in a newspaper and I couldn’t scream. Initially he was surprised that a girl can’t scream but then he said, ok, you crush the newspaper, close your eyes and slide down. It had an equally powerful impact. Then Asit Sen taught me how to pay attention to the voice. At that time there was no concept of bound scripts. Scenes were written on the sets. Years later when Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra talked about things like workshops and reading of dialogues before shooting, I was surprised. It took me time to get used to the new style.”

Rehman has also played a role in shaping the two of the biggest stars of our times. One of them passed away recently. “ ‘Khamoshi’ was already made in Bangla and I wanted it to be remade in Hindi. I asked Hemant Kumar (producer-composer) but he said no established hero would like to work in this heroine-oriented film and he was right as all the big names said no. Then I said why don’t you try Rajesh Khanna? I had just seen ‘Aakhri Khat’ and I found her eyes quite expressive. Hemant da said but he is so new. I said once upon a time I was also new and I made my debut in a Dev Anand film. That’s how Rajesh Khanna was selected. As for Amitabh Bachchan, I worked with him in ‘Reshma Aur Shera’ where he played a dumb character. While shooting I noticed that he expresses a lot through his eyes. Around the same time he did a commentary for ‘Bhuvan Shome’. I felt this boy is amazing. He has got both the traits required for being a good actor: voice and expression. I told Sunil Dutt this boy will go a long way.”

Film historians call 50s and 60s as the golden age of cinema but for Rehman today we are at the cusp of a golden age. Impressed by films like “Vicky Donor” and “Paan Singh Tomar”, she praises Vidya Balan for her choice of roles. On the diminishing elegance on screen, Rehman says cinema is a product of society. “You look around you the way woman dress up for parties is no longer the same.” But when it comes to profanities, she has her reservations. “Kaano ko kharab lagta hai.”

And the media? “There was not much media when I young. Aaj kal aap log bahut sawaal karte hain, ” Rehman signs off with a smile that has unmistakably floored many of us for generations.