The Saturday Interview: Waheeda Rehman is remembered as much for her acting as for her choice of roles. She speaks about Guru Dutt, Guide and Bollywood today
Waheeda Rehman continues to be the brand ambassador of grace and elegance. The veteran actor redefined the Hindi film heroine by breaking away from the theatrical style prevalent in the 1940s and early 1950s. From a girl who worked in Telugu films but spoke chaste Urdu to a Muslim girl adept at Bharatanatyam, Waheeda says she managed to break a lot of myths about the Hindi film heroine, thanks to her mentor Guru Dutt. She often played characters which were situated somewhere between our perception of the moral and the immoral. And the fact that we still identify with Gulabo, Rosie and Hirabai, says a lot about the choices she made. Waheeda opted for roles which were much more than just the appealing shadows of the male stars of the times and went on to become an icon. Recently, New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre organised a retrospective of her films. Excerpts from an interview:
You were among the first ones to break free from the theatrical style prevalent in the days when you entered the film industry.
I was not exactly the first one, as before me Nargis and Geeta Bali also broke free from the theatrical style. Yes, 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 different 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.
Many characters that you played were not considered ‘safe’ in those days…
My point was a good artiste 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 , 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 Dutt found me too young for the role. I even did a photo shoot in the costume but realised that he was right. Then director Abrar Alvi came with the offer to play Jabba. I liked that as well. Guru Dutt pointed out that it was a second lead but I didn’t listen to him. And all said and done Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is remembered as much for Jabba as Chhoti Bahu.
Do you think the industry did justice to your dancing skills?
It was noticed a little late. Many people didn’t know that I am a trained dancer because they felt I didn’t behave like one. So when Guide came my way, I told Dev (Anand), that if you want 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 could create a whole song around a bed or a car — he was a master at shooting songs. Then came Teesri Kasam, where the entire story progresses through songs.
Tell us about the directors who shaped you as an actor.
In the beginning it was Guru Dutt. If I was not able to do something he used to show it 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 the hero’s death in a newspaper and I couldn’t scream. Initially he was surprised that I couldn’t scream but then he said, okay, 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.
You played a significant role in the making of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan.
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 his eyes quite expressive. Hemant Kumar 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 mute 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 was 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.
How do you see the recent developments in Bollywood?
In those days the heroes and heroines had to play characters, which were essentially good. Now there is no such compulsion. And it is a good thing. I like the choices Vidya Balan has made. People say mine was the golden age of cinema. I think we are on the threshold of another golden period.
How do you see the diminishing elegance on celluloid?
Cinema is a product of society. You look around you, the way women dress up for parties is no longer the same.
And the use of profanities?
In this case I have my reservations. Kaano ko kharab lagta hai.
And the media…
There was not much media in my days. Aaj kal aap log bahut sawaal karte hain!