Two weeks after Waheeda Rehman became the first person to be conferred the Centenary film personality award, a tribute to an under-appreciated but haunting film, one where she communicated through her silence

Poet-lyricist Shakeel Badayuni gave her the sobriquet shaayar ka khwab [a poet’s dream]. OK it was for Jameela, her character in chaudhvin ka chand. But Waheeda Rehman was surely product of some seasoned poet’s sublime imagination, in reel as well as real life. In terms of the grace, the charm and the unassuming demeanour she exuded, none could parallel her.

It came as a delight to know that she was the first person to be conferred the Centenary award for film personality of the year at International Film Festival of India (IFFI) two weeks ago.

In a career spanning more than six decades, she has given many memorable performances. However, one performance etched firmly in my memory is that where she communicated without many dialogues. Where she spoke through her silence.

Khamoshi, released in 1969, was a rather low-key film. It was special because it was so low-key.

Its strength is the mood, the ambience created. To punctuate the silence that accompanies the mood, we have Gulzar sa’ab’s abstract poetry and Hemant Kumar’s haunting music. Yes Bees saal baad and Kohra also had equally haunting music compositions by him. But those were of the horror genre, in its commercialised form.

Contrastingly, Khamoshi is an unassuming mood film which keeps you spellbound till the end and much later. One of the films whose pathos linger in your mind for long, making you want to watch it again. Yes the film takes time to grow on you. However, rather than being a weakness, this trait is its strength, adding a dimension.

It is mesmerising because it is slow. Minimal dialogues; music and lyrics as active characters; superb black and white cinematography; and the overall mood created make sure that the film enters your subconscious and stays there, long after you’ve finished watching it.

Each sequence allows you to absorb it completely before seguing into the next. The silence, the camerawork, the music leave you transfixed.

Even the performances - completely subordinated to the script - are appealing because they are unpretentious. There is an un-self-conscious Rajesh Khanna, a few years before he attained superstardom; a splendid Deven Verma in a cameo; a usually maudlin Nasir Hussain in the sober role of a imaginative psychiatrist.

Even Dharmendra, by then well-known, is present because of his absence. His performance is not filmed, it is choreographed. His face - one of his biggest selling points - is not shown.

In such a situation, to allow your performance to blend with the film, yet get noticed, though at a subconscious level, is something Waheeda does with ease.

Rehab chronicles

The film opens in a rehabilitation centre, perhaps an asylum. Through a long shot, the viewer, from his ‘normal high’, is invited to stare into the netherland. Slowly, we come to grips with the humanity behind the mask of insanity. The inmates there are the condemned ones, many of them with too personal a tale to tell.

There lives a lady, a nurse. She takes care of the patients as one would take care of one’s family members. She has lost someone. The asylum has lost someone. Number 24. Someone who the outside world has gained.

But she can’t communicate her predicament to anyone. Surely not to her mentor, who gave her the 'assignment', one that metamorphoses into an affliction.

As the titles progress, the nurse sees a chair see-sawing. It is giving gentle nods, telling her that yes, it can hear her silence. In the background, we have Hemant Kumar’s whistling pulling us in.

The one she has lost is Dev (Dharmendra) - one who only shows his back to her thereon.

The institution's chief psychiatrist is a consummate Freudian - That was a time for psychologists/psychiatrists to be Freudian. He sees a Madonna in Radha, someone who, with the right kind of care, can ‘cure’ a patient having acute mania. She has done it once. She can do it again. But has remained a Madonna in the process of healing the earlier patient? Does the ‘cured’ patient still mean someone who once occupied ‘ward no. 24’ to her? Or has she, perhaps, lost a bit of her self to him?

The reality is, though she transforms herself into a Madonna, she, unwittingly, gets transmogrified into a Juliet instead. A Juliet with unrequited love, one who’s not able to communicate her pain, her anguish because, well, she is a nurse. She is supposed to “act” the matron. She is supposed to provide support to a disturbed, perhaps deranged individual who has loved and suffered, has loved and lost. But her 'job' ends there. Unlike him, she cannot love and lose. She is not allowed to.

She has performed the Madonna for Dev. She’s about to become the Juliet for a cured Dev when she realises that now that he is out of his illness, he yearns for his ‘saner’ past. As if his life has been recalibrated to remove the tinge of mania in between. As if the splotch in his mind has been erased. But the eternal sunshine - Radha - that erased it is now on a sticky wicket herself.

In one of the best poetic moments - there are several but then, one doesn’t expect anything less when the writing department counts Gulzar as among the creators and curators - she has Kalidas’ Meghdoot firmly in her grasp, waiting for Dev’s attention. She expects to use the edition to convey a message. Anxious but excited, she is about to climb up the stairs leading to Dev’s room - with the Meghdoot pointing out rather than in.

At this moment, Dev’s parents give her a shattering piece of news: Dev has recalibrated his senses, his memories and his emotions. She merits no more than a passing mention in his memory.

Her hold over Meghdoot becomes stronger. Then begins the spell of magic. Dev sings tum pukar lo, croons of his longing for the eternal sunshine.

But It is not for Radha. Hoping against hope, she climbs up, slowly. Creeps into into Dev’s room. Dev is too busy philosophising, staring into the vicinity, with his back to the door.

He is not in the mood to listen to the silence of his erstwhile matron. He intends to look forward. Throughout the song, we see Dev (Dharmendra) lost in the pull of his own poetry. Too busy to listen to the Radha’s quiet amble.

She wants to give him the Meghdoot. She holds back. Perhaps Dev doesn’t need it. In a happy twist of tale for him, perhaps, he has got his Paro. He doesn’t need his Chandramukhi anymore.

An encore that consumes her

She knows that her next tryst with ward no. 24, her Madonna-patient episode is going to end in a deux ex machina. Arun (Rajesh Khanna) is another betrayed lover with acute mania. Yet Radha decides to step in. Perhaps playing Madonna is her calling? But has she been to get Dev out of her system completely?

A while later, she plays the humne dekhi hai in aankhon ki mahakti khushboo song. Doesn't the song reflect more of her inner contradictions - her struggle to give 'name' to a relationship that has crossed its 'brief - than the crooning of Arun, who wrote it?

She gets involved in treating Arun. It would be a matter of time before her therapy brings him out of his episode. But does she feel Arun while treating him? Or is it Dev?

The inevitable happens. Arun gets cured. It is a triumph for Radha’s therapy once again. However, this time, she doesn’t want to see him. It is rather inexplicable since Arun is ready to embrace her. She has perhaps not overcome the trauma of losing Dev. She is perhaps having a certain identity crisis of her own.

She has becomes the perpetrator as well as the victim of her own repressed emotions. In the process of internalising the patient’s psyche, she has got transmogrified into a patient herself. She is lost, unconsolable, shattered. She is silent. She doesn’t take the case for any more patients with acute mania who get admitted to ward no. 24. Now she has become an occupant of ward no. 24. A victim of her own Madonna therapy. Fallen silent, perhaps permanently.