By Tirthankar Mitra
If a week is a long time in politics, six decades and few years more can be stated to be too long a timespan for an inarguably thespian to be bestowed with a lifetime achievement award. But epitome of grace that Waheeda Rehman is, she will never voice a breath of complaint on being chosen to be the recipient of Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the nation’s highest filmhonour so late at the age of 85.
Taking the rough with the smooth but not hesitating to protest when she felt it should be made, have marked her journey as a teenager from Hyderabad to the film capital of India, Bombay as it was called then. Rehman’s reign as a heroine had been long but never languid as actresses worth their salt had breathed down her neck.
Nargis may have been on her way out of the silver screen and towards domesticity when Rehman was making her debut. But there were Nutan, Nanda, Vyjayantimala, Saira Banu to name a few to give Waheeda a run for her money.
She was aware of it and continued to face trials of life and vagaries of competition with vim and vigour. It was typical of Waheeda after having enacted the role of Amitabh Bacchan’s wife in Kabhie Kabhie, accept the role of a single mother of her previous film’s hero in Trishul. Her performance in both the films were memorable to say the least. Waheeda’s acting is all the more commendable in Trishul as she had been pitted against Sanjeev Kumar, an actors’ actor.
Waheeda Rehman had taken on the Bombay filmdom swimmingly. And more often than not, she had to swim against the tide having no fixed hero or Godfather. Her roles in Tamil films in the 1950s including Rojulu Marayi had given her the first exposure before the movie cameras. But working in Bombay filmdom was another ball game altogether.
Though rightly choosy in picking her roles when she was on a stronger footing in her career, Rehman was game doing vamp’s role in her debut in CID. Directed by Guru Dutt, it had Dev Anand as it’s hero, a twin association which would help her reboot her career.
These two men one with whom her name was emotionally linked and the other whom Rehman called ‘a gentleman flirt” would be launching her into a trajectory of roles showcasing her talent in mainstream and arthouse cinema. A pattern emerged in these roles as she always enacted the role of a woman of substance.
Roles of strong women seemed to fit Waheeda like a glove throughout her acting career. And by her own admission, she is not done with it as yet.
Be it Gulabo, the sex worker in Dutt’s Pyasa or as Rosy in Guide in which she is seen living together with Dev Anand, a state of affairs which used to be quaintly described in the ’60s as living in sin, Rehman came out as a woman with stiff spine. She was a woman of beauty and grace in these films but not one who can be described as a member of the weaker sex.
It was none other than Satyajit Ray who picked his films’ protagonists only if they fitted into the character they will be have to enact, chose Rehman for the lead female role Gulabi in Abhijan. Penned by redoubtable author Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, it was no cakewalk storyline with light and dark shades.
Beside, Ray’s favourite actor Soumitra Chattopadhyay was in the male lead role. Incidentally, both Rehman and Chattopadhayay spoke their lines in broken Bengali. The duo along with the film came out with flying colours. Waheeda Rehman mesmerized the Bengalee audience.
If Kagaz Ki Phoolin which Dutt directed Rehman and acted with her despite being a classic in its genre failed at the box office, the duo’s Chaudhvin Ki Chand earned a much needed commercial success. In Solva Saal with Dev Anand, Sahib Bibi Golam with Dutt and of course with Meena Kumari in a meatier role, Ram Aur Shyam with Dilip Kumar and Teesri Kasam with Raj Kapoor, the dancer-actress more than held her own.
Waheeda Rehman, it seemed had reached the crest of her career. But she had a pleasant surprise for her fans as she refused to walk into the sunset. In not a single film Rehman acted in when she was long past her hey days did she appear to be ridiculous or out of place. Her acting persona was always at sync whether she was cast in the role of Anil Kapoor’s love interest in Lamhe or as Abhishek Bachchan’s grandmother.
For Rehman was always acting her age and mouthing dialogues which had freshness of a spring morning and the wisdom of her silver hair. Not for her the roles of society ladies in lipstick and rouge speaking inanities. Waheeda Rehman never changed her name. In this aspect she stood apart from some of her contemporaries like Madhubala and Meena Kumari.
An epitome of beauty, dignity and inner strength, her histrionics were always restrained, a trait which made her Ray’s choice in Abhijan. The characters she enacted on screen became later day trail blazers and her performance as Rosy in Guide first springs to mind.
Doing Radha’s role in Khamoshi in which Rehman enacts the role of a nurse in a mental home feigning love to an inmate to cure him and then going to pieces when jilted together with that of Reshma in Reshma Aur Shera in which she has to marry a man who would have been her brother-in-law underscore her acting range. She was at the height of her acting prowess when she essayed these roles.
Waheeda Rehman could very well have walked away from her silver screen career. But a characteristic curiosity egged her though she was aware that it could very well turn into a downhill journey.
By a happy quirk of fate, Waheeda Rehman had been awarded the highest state honour to an actor on the 100th birth anniversary of Dev Anand arguably one of her favourite heros. Any guess what Dev as he insisted Waheeda address her would say from the place where all good boys go? “Atta girl”. (IPA Service)