Phalke laureate Waheeda Rehman: The actress and the person



Poise and grace are second nature to Waheeda Rehman, this year’s Dadasaheb Phalke laureate, probably because she was a product of the 1950s. She always balanced her career between regular mainstream and the more meaty commercial Hindi films along with some offbeat as well as regional cinema, like Satyajit Ray’s Abhijaan and also some other Bengali and Telugu films.

With Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam, Guide, Teesri Kasam and Khamoshi she proved herself an actress nonpareil, and she was also a star of substance through hits like Solva Saal, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Ram Aur Shyam, Patthar Ke Sanam, Neel Kamal and Bees Saal Baad.

Looking at least a decade younger than she was when I had met her in 2010, Waheeda had revealed that her secret was not gyms or even diets. “I had my own small tricks for remaining fit and looking good!” she told me with a smile. “The camera magnifies flaws ten-fold and I always had to be careful. I also practice Yoga. But I do not really put restrictions on my diet.” Today, she does not look anywhere near 85!

With Kamal Haasan and Pooja in Vishwaroop. Photo: Tree-Shul Media

Still at it (Skater Girl, Vishwaroopam, Song of Scorpions), she has mostly done small cameos or roles. Her reply to this then (she had done Rang De Basanti, Om Jai Jagadish and others) was, “In the past, I would be asked why I did so many Hindi films down South, but they made their films fast and paid better money than the Mumbai producers! I enjoy doing all these films.”

She had summed up, “I did not look at it that way. I was getting a good role. I wanted to be known as a versatile actress who could do any kind of role well. Later, I would look for scope to dance in my films too, but that took time. I had some scope in my film Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, but the real opportunity came only with those lovely dances in Guide in 1965.”

The beginnings

After first doing three Telugu films in small roles, Jayasimha, Rojulu Marayi and Alibabhavum Narpathu Thirudargalum (all in 1955), she came to Mumbai at Guru Dutt’s behest, for he had spotted her. Waheeda Rehman was the first major star to start her career with a negative role—in Guru Dutt-Raj Khosla’s C.I.D. (1956), a gutsy career move wherein she stole the show from heroine Shakila.

(Since she was by convention a shade darker, O.P. Nayyar had condescendingly asked Guru Dutt, “Where did you get this ayah (maid) from?” We do not know if that was the reason why none of Waheeda’s subsequent films had Nayyar’s music!)

With Dev Anand in her debut film, C.I.D. (1956). Photo: Publicity Photo

She fondly remembered her first hero, frequent co-star and loyal producer, Dev Anand, as someone who, when she first addressed him as Anand-saab or Dev-saab, told her to call him only “Dev”. “He felt that the suffix ‘saab’ made him feel like a teacher!” she smiled. It took Waheeda some time to do that, however!

She added, “We later were to do so many films, and contrary to what many people think, I must say that Dev was a decent director in Prem Pujari, our last film together.”

Waheeda had a special place in her life for Guru Dutt, with whom she was also romantically linked. “He was my mentor and also my teacher. The feeling was of a student towards her guru. He was a far better director than a co-star,” she declared about the association that got her some of her finest films—Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool and his later productions, Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam  and Chaudhvin Ka Chand.


Going down memory lane, she reminisced, “With Dilip (Kumar)-saab, there was an overall comfort level. I was also very close to Sunil Dutt and Nargis. I remember the great time we had in the Rajasthan dunes during the long schedule for Reshma Aur Shera.”

Reportedly, Amitabh Bachchan, who was her crazy fan, tried spending as much time as possible with her on the sets. Waheeda smiled indulgently at this and answered, “Is that so? Well, our equation has always been very nice, but we could never be friends, though we were even paired romantically in Kabhi Kabhie, Adalat and Mahaan. He played my son too in many films, like these latter two in which he had a dual and a triple role respectively, as well as in Trishul, Namak Halaal and Coolie. He is still as respectful as he was then.”

About the Kapoors, she said, “Raj Kapoor-saab was very cooperative, and despite being a brilliant filmmaker, he would never interfere with his directors. ‘My job here is to act’, he would tell me if I asked him why he did not voice out his ideas on the sets. But I was not lucky with Shammi Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor. I did a record five films with Shashi (Kabhie Kabhie, Trishul, Sawaal, Namak Halaal, Ghungroo), but without a romantic angle in any of them! Guru Dutt wanted Shashi Kapoor to do Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam but he could not allot bulk dates. Ramesh Sippy had offered me Andaz with Shammi Kapoor, but I could not do the film. But I was touched by the fact that when we had to make cameos in the song John Jani Janardhan in Naseeb, Shammi requested Manmohan Desai that we make our entry together because we had never done a film together!”

She has fond memories also of Manoj Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Dharmendra and Rajendra Kumar too. “Manoj was so good as a writer that directors would frequently ask him to write scenes. Sanjeev was very sweet, and Dharam very soft-spoken and simple. But since none of my films with these last three heroes did well, except for Trishul with Sanjeev, we were not paired often.”

Waheeda was a rare actress in her generation who did a lot of films with other heroines without any ego-issues or conflicts. On this, she said, “I worked with so many actresses from Meena Kumari and Mala Sinha to Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz and younger artistes. I was confident of my roles and my directors, so why should I not work with other actresses? I got along well with all of them too, especially with Raakhee and Sadhana. My focus was on doing my best. When I became a character artiste, I also worked with many younger actresses.”

Her Kala Bazar co-star Nanda was also her best friend. “It is all about a common wavelength. We are frequently in touch and remained so even when I was married and was living in Bangalore. We share the same basic values like honesty and sincerity and a faith in God that no one can take away what is destined for you. We even exchanged films, that is, we recommended each other to filmmakers when we thought that the roles they were offering me could be better done by Nanda, or vice-versa.”

Like most of her generation of actresses, Waheeda got great songs. Singling out composer S.D. Burman, she replied, “Yes, S.D. Burman always gave me superb songs, like in Guide, Prem Pujari and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool. I had lovely songs too in Teesri Kasam, Mujhe Jeene Do, Bees Saal Baad, Kohraa, Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam, Patthar Ke Sanam, Khamoshi and so many others.”

Waheeda Rehman’s Hits and Successes (As character artiste: *)

Adalat*, Bees Saal Baad, C.I.D., Chandni*, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Coolie*, Ek Dil Sau Afsane, Ek Phool Char Kaante, Guide, Himmatwala*, Jyoti Bane Jwala*, Kabhi Kabhie, Kala Bazar, Lamhe*, Maqsad*, Mujhe Jeene Do, Namak Halaal*, Naseeb (Cameo as herself), Neel Kamal, Patthar Ke Sanam, Pyaasa, Rakhi, Ram Aur Shyam, Rang De Basanti*, Solva Saal, Trishul

Iconic Songs of Waheeda Rehman

Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai—Guide / Lata Mangeshkar / S.D. Burman / Shailendra

Bhanwra bada nadaan—Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam / Asha Bhosle / Hemant Kumar /  Shakeel Badayuni

Kahin deep jale kahin dil—Bees Saal Baad / Lata Mangeshkar / Hemant Kumar / Shakeel Badayuni

Paan khaaye saiyyan hamaro—Teesri Kasam / Asha Bhosle / Shankar-Jaikishan / Shailendra

Raat bhi hai kuch bheegi bheegi—Mujhe Jeene Do / Lata Mangeshkar / Jaidev / Sahir Ludhianvi

Waqt ne kiya—Kagaz Ke Phool / Geeta Dutt / S.D. Burman / Kaifi Azmi



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here