Nasreen Munni Kabir talks about the making of her book of conversations with Waheeda Rehman.

Nasreen Munni Kabir talks to people. She has had conversations with Lata Mangeshkar, Javed Akhtar, Gulzar and A.R. Rahman. And most recently with Waheeda Rehman, the star of films like Guide and Mujhe Jeene Do. The conversation lasted a long time and resulted in a new book, Conversations with Waheeda Rehman. Excerpts from a chat with Kabir about the making of the book:

Why Waheeda Rehman?

I have always been very keen to document first hand from the history makers of Indian cinema. People whose work and contribution have actually changed the course of Indian cinema in some way. As I read somewhere recently, time curates classics. Cinema is seductive; you see a film that is entertaining and you think it is great. But will you continue to think so 10 years later? You need time and reflection. And Waheedaji is just like Lata Mangeshkar or Gulzar, Javed Akhtar or A.R. Rahman, who started when he was very young. These are people who have the most to tell; the people I am interested in.

Was it difficult getting a hold of her?

Yes. I had met her first in the 1980s — I was doing a documentary on Guru Dutt and she kindly agreed to be interviewed. She was not very keen to talk at great length since she is a very private person. I kept meeting her for 20 years after that. And then finally, just very recently, she said okay, saying ‘Maine kaafi taal diya, Nasreen ko!’

How did she get into films?

Her father died when she was just 13 — he was a district collector — and the money died with him. Her sister and she had learned classical dance, so they gave performances on stage. A producer saw her and offered her a role in a Telugu film. She was seen in a dance number and Guru Dutt heard about her, and signed her for three years!

With Waheeda Rehman, was there stuff that people didn’t know, which you found out about in these conversations?

I think people knew most of it, but not in her voice, from her point of view. And my work is really to record that point of view. There are some extraordinary filmmakers like K. Asif, Balraj Sahni, Mehmood saab, Bimal Roy… there are no first-hand accounts of how they saw their life or how they did their work. And to me personally — whether people like it or not — that is the most important aspect of an artiste; recording them in their own voice. It is done in Hollywood. But if you wanted to find an in-depth interview with Kedar Sharma, for instance, you can’t. That is a terrible shame. Take people like Guru Dutt or Mehboob saab or Bimal Roy… They died in the 1960s when there were filmed interviews and books being written, but somehow Indian cinema was mainly based in journalism rather than in accounts of filmmakers. Raj Kapoor has two documentaries on him and two or three books. But not the generation before him.

What was the most difficult part of talking to Waheeda Rehman?

To be honest, if you ask interesting questions, you get great conversation. These are people who are used to interviews, to the public eye. If you do not surprise them or push them to look carefully at their work and selves, I don’t think you get much out of them. You have to give them something too — your research and your line of inquiry. If that excites them, you get more.

How do you go about collecting conversations?

First, you do some research about their work and their films, and then you decide how you will structure the conversation. You have at least 20-25 session with them over a year because it is tiring to be so intense — about two hours or more each time. Sometimes you can be freewheeling, talk about everything; at other times you can focus and say, for instance, “Today we are just going to talk about Guide.” And then you try and delve into it. What you want to achieve is layering of information, opening out of the personality.

When you talk to someone, don’t you get the sanitised version?

Certain things are given in this format. They decide how open and honest they want to be. And if you are asking them a question about their craft, they often get very excited. Forget about celebrities — if you asked a carpenter how he makes a table, he will get very involved and tell you. I am interested primarily in the work these people do, because that is what touches me. Their personal life doesn’t affect me or the aam janta emotionally. What affected so many was one scene in Guide, two scenes in Teesri Kasam, four scenes in Pyaasa.

The common perception is that Waheeda Rehman did a lot of the quiet, introspective, rona-dhona kinds of roles….

I don’t see many examples of her very melodramatic roles. She was not very good in them, if you ask me. Rona-dhona was much less than most. Her acting style was very modern; the way she used her voice was very natural. The way she dressed was not filmi. In films like Teesri Kasam or Mujhe Jeene Do or Pyaasa, she is very much in the character. She did not have the melodrama of Meena Kumari, or the feisty, bold, strong character of Nargis. She felt that her dialogue delivery was not strong like Meena Kumari or Dilip Kumar but because of her dancing experience, she had a good command over expression through silent gesture, her eyes. This kind of acting — silence rather than dialogues — is very well suited to modern cinema.

Why did Waheeda Rehman stop acting?

I think she got married and wanted children. Don’t forget that Indian cinema is not that open to older women. Now it is a little different. I think Waheedaji is quite satisfied with her life. She had a good life, was associated with at least five classics of Indian cinema, which is enormous.

She does pop up occasionally sometimes…

Rarely, but in well chosen roles, like in Rang De Basanti or Delhi 6. Even mother roles are disappearing in Indian cinema, so the older woman has even less to do today. Through her career, she chose roles that would have been difficult — well, not easy, at least. She was a prostitute, a courtesan, a modern woman… there were lots of roles that not all other actors would have accepted at the time. She was actually always taking on roles that were atypical. In today’s cinema Waheedaji would have done roles that Vidya Balan or Kangna Ranaut does.

Waheedaji stood equal to the man in her films. For instance, she played the second heroine in Pyaasa, after Mala Sinha, but people think of her, not of Mala. In Kagaz ke Phool there is Veena, while in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, the lead is Meena Kumari. But Waheeda Rehman is remembered. I always think of her performance as more of a whisper than a shout.

How does she think back on her career?

She says that she has been very lucky, that she was in the right place at the right time and met the right people. She believes that Guru Dutt was an extraordinary mentor, encouraging her to understand the path of filmmaking and how to act. He also encouraged her to do films like Guide.