Chadvin ka Chand
The legendary Waheeda Rehman is still lajawab.
She is my best actress. She has a certain guileless look in her face, a feminine grace and Indianness. Her beauty is something soft… and not easily defined. My greatest influences in acting are Waheeda Rehman and Dilip Kumar.” – Amitabh Bachchan. I’d love to do a Summer of ’42 opposite her. She is the ultimate combination of talent, beauty and feminine charm.” – Abhishek Bachchan
The poet Shakeel Badayuni claimed that he was inspired to pen the lines “Chaudvin Ka Chand ho ya aftaab ho, Jo bhi ho tum Khuda ki Kasam lajawab ho,” (Are you the moon at its lustrous best, or are you the sun/ whatever you are, you are without compare) after being blown away by her exquisite looks. You ask her and she blushes, and laughingly says she has heard that too, but may be it is a myth.
Having enthralled generations with her beauty, amazing histrionics, ethereal dancing, a voice that is still nectar sweet, Waheeda Rehman, 40 years later still retains the olde world charm, the grace and elegance that made her perhaps the most adored actress among actors and audience of all ages, to this day.
But life was not a fairy tale for this princess of celluloid and in an exclusive interview, with Little India, Waheeda Rehman goes down memory lane to share her life’s story and why her involvement with Pratham (an NGO started in 1994 to eradicate illiteracy among slum dwellers and underprivileged children in India) as their good will ambassador is so important to her.
You are a Tamilian Muslim, who learnt Bharat Natyam and made her debut in Telugu films. In the 1940s and 50s when you came of age, that must have been quite an exception to the rule?
Leave alone a Muslim girl, even Hindu girls were not permitted to learn dance, but my father who was an IAS officer was exceedingly liberal and way ahead of his times. We were four sisters and I was a very sickly child. So when my sisters went to school, I used to be left behind and would often stand in front of the mirror and keep making faces. My father would say to my mother, this girl is going mad since she is at home all the time. Why does she keep on making these faces? What is wrong with her? I told my father, “Look daddy, one day I am going to make people laugh and also make them cry. I am going to be an actress and one day you will see my pictures in the paper.”
He obviously didn’t take me seriously, and he died when I was only 13, but he did live to see my picture in the papers. You see at that time he was posted in Vishakapatnam and Mr. C. Rajagopalachari, India’s first Viceroy came to Vizag. Usually a cultural program would be organized to honor the dignitary, and they were trying to get M.S. Subbulakshmi and Kamlalakshmi to perform, but they received a telegram, which said that Shri Rajagopalchari wanted to see only local talent, and suddenly every one was in a flap, as to who to fetch, what to do. Then daddy’s superior said, your daughter is a Bharat natyam dancer why don’t you get her to perform? He said she is just learning and is not a professional dancer. They said so what. After all, they want to see local talent. Therefore, daddy asked my sister and me, and we did go on stage and perform. The viceroy was very surprised when he heard the names Waheeda and Saeeda Rehman being announced and said to somebody, these names sound Muslim. He was then introduced to my father, who was the commissioner there. Mr. Rajagopalachari congratulated my father and said it’s amazing, I have never ever in my life heard of Muslim girls being exponents of Bharatnatyam and their abhinaya is outstanding. They performed with such astute understanding of the dance form. He came on stage and gave us medals, my picture made it to the front page, and I said to my father, look I told you, my face will be in the papers. That really made news and then I started getting offers from people in the south especially from the Telugu and Tamil film industry, but my father said she is not a baby and at the same time is still too young to be doing lead roles, so what can she really do in a film? In addition, we are not considering this as a profession, just a hobby. After my father passed away, my sisters got married, but I told my mother I didn’t want to get married so soon. She said what are you going to do? Around that time, I got an offer to do a dance item in a Telugu film, which became a big hit. And around the same time I met Guru Dutt ji.
And he offered you, of all things, a vamp’s role in the film C.I.D.!
Do you remember the first day you faced the camera? Considering you were still in your teens and from a non-filmi background, it must have been baptism by fire!
Yes it was with Dev Anand in C.I.D and I was very excited, since I had been a big fan of his. As a child I had my tonsils removed and someone had teased me that now my voice was ruined forever and that just stuck in my head so I was very self-conscious and would not speak up. I kept saying my voice is bad what can I do, but good or bad I had to speak, and so I did! Dev was very cooperative and friendly. He never made me feel even once that I was a raw newcomer and that was very nice of him. Most people thought the vamp’s role didn’t go with my personality, and my face was more suited for sensitive, emotional roles, but then simultaneously Pyaasa started, where I played a golden hearted prostitute and that established me as a serious artist, and I started getting really good roles with depth and substance.
Is it true that in the film when you come to know of Guru Dutt’s death you were supposed to scream out in grief, but you kept opening your mouth and nothing came out, not even a squeak, much to Guru Dutt’s amazement and he had to change the entire shot?
What are your memories of Guru Dutt?
Which movies by Guru Dutt stand out in your memory and are there any particular scenes that were tough to perform?
You attended a Retrospective of Guru Dutt’s films in Tokyo. How do you find international audiences?
You branched out to other directors in the 1960s. Tell me about Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar?
While I got along with everyone my favorite co-star was Dilip Kumar. He used to take interest in helping other artists and would stay back to offer suggestions and support. We did not have mobile phones to distract us, the make up rooms were lousy, so we used to all sit together and eat together most of the time and talk to each other, narrating stories, sharing thoughts and had a lot of rapport and camaraderie, till pack up was announced. That is sadly missing today.
Khamoshi, the story of a nurse who cures two patients in a mental institution, falling in love with both, and becoming mentally ill herself in the end, was a very unorthodox role to begin with. Did you expect it to be as successful as it was, and how emotionally taxing is it to do roles like that?
I think the toughest scene, and one that took a lot out of me was where Rajesh Khanna keeps banging at the door asking her to open it. She is silent trying to control herself because the doctor has already reprimanded her and told her she cannot get involved with her patients, but deep within her she knows she is already involved and he is involved too and the silent struggle was very very tough to emote.
Guide was another extremely challenging role, that of a married woman who has an extra marital relationship with her tourist guide and breaks tradition to follow her own dreams instead of remaining the self-sacrificing marty. To go for a role like that in the sixties must have been quite a risque thing to do!
Well I guess you did something right, since you won the Filmfare award for best actress for Neel Kamal. You have been considered one of the most elegant and accomplished dancers on the screen. Yet very few know that you suffered from spondylitis for decades and a lot of those dances were performed under excruciating pain and heavy doses of medication.
Considering your long reign on the screen what made you stand out when there were many actresses who were as beautiful and talented?
Raj Kapoor said there are so many brilliant actors, but there is a thin line between the actor and audience where some actors can walk on screen and just touch the heart of the audience, while others cannot create that chemistry. Why that happens nobody knows. I guess I was fortunate to be able to create that affinity with my audience.
You got married to former actor turned businessman Shashi Rekhi and totally quit the film scene and moved to Bangalore to farming and creating an amazingly successful cereal business. You had acted in a movie called Shagun many years prior to that with him. So was there any chemistry between you two?
You have said you will only act with directors you are comfortable with. You returned to films with the multi-starrer Om Jai Jagdish, directed by Anupam Kher whom you knew but the film really didn’t do justice to your acting skills. What kind of changes do you see in the industry?
Technically there has been a tremendous improvement in the quality of films, but its all so mechanical and fast. We used to be so involved in the film, and would stay there long after our own shots were taken, to watch, cue and bond with the other actors. Today people often speak to the empty space in front of them instead of their co actor who is shooting somewhere else and leave themselves for their next shift. I asked Abhishek Bachchan, the other day if I could cue him in to his dialogues and he was feeling shy and saying no auntie it’s okay, but when I stayed back and spoke my lines with emotion, his response and performance was that much better.
Let’s talk about your current passion, Pratham. How did you get involved in it?
The response from the NRI community has been great. A lot of them have gone and seen for themselves how their dollars are being utilized. Many of them have also gone to India and worked as volunteers for several months and its not just Indians but even Americans who have come and helped out.I have realized that as a celebrity you can use your clout to make things happen. Initially I was hesitant to come forward. I didn’t want people to think I am doing this to get publicity for myself but then I was told by some political leaders that when a politician comes to talk to the masses a lot of the time people have been rounded up by local leaders to show up so they have not come there of their own free will, but when a film star comes or a superstar like Sachin Tendulkar comes, the public shows up happily and the message becomes a lot easier to convey. The masses tend to believe you more than they would believe a politician who will be perceived as doing it for votes…. While not every one will become a doctor or an engineer, I feel everyone, rich or poor, able or disabled has the right to education, and to dream of a better life. And I hope if ever you want to make a gift to someone needy, it will be the gift of education.