SEASONS IN THE SUN
Remember Waheeda Rehman? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. Who could forget Rosy of Guide, Jabba of Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam, Gulabo of Pyaasa, Daima of Lamhe? She may not be in heady limelight now, but her dignity and sense of poise is still intact
Who could forget Rosy of Guide, Jabba of Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam, Gulabo of Pyaasa, Daima of Lamhe? Waheeda Rehman may not be in heady limelight now, but her dignity and sense of poise is still intact. Here’s a November 1992 Society interview with the true diva.
Yesterday, a matinee idol. Today, a matronly mama and manufacturer of a breakfast cereal. Not many can make the transition gracefully, but Waheeda Rehman’s matchless dignity and unruffled composure has seen her through. Here, for Waheeda-watchers, a full-blooded nostalgia trip that travels with the actress from her obscure origins in a small town to her ascent as one of Bollywood’s all-time greats, and back again to relative obscurity—each role performed with the perfect poise of a superlative actress. The Waheeda Rehman legacy is an enduring one. Anyone who’s seen her in her early films, particularly under Guru Dutt’s brilliant direction, would have been less than human had they not caught their very breaths in wonder at her overwhelming beauty and freshness. And the enchantment of her smile! It’s a subject worthy of a thesis, that smile. Brilliant, open, all-encompassing, sudden, it flits across her face like a kingfisher skimming through the air, and the effect on the viewer is just the same—a sense of gratitude at having witnessed one of nature’s phenomena. Later, through her long innings in the film industry, that youth and charm settled into a more mellow dignity, that kinetic physique took on more matronly proportions. The enchantment she had once woven around her viewers melted away into a more enduring respect for her womanliness. She was no longer a flaming beauty, but even in her dignity and unruffled composure, she stood out from the rest. For, that was the time when film stars were loved, coveted, adored—but seldom respected.
Today, as a housewife settled in Bangalore, and a businesswoman running a flourishing breakfast cereal venture, that same sense of dignity and womanliness continues to distinguish her, and it is easy to see that it is the possession of these qualities that has carried her gracefully through her transition from the high voltage lifestyle of an actress, to the more intimate demands of a household. Her house, Gharounda, is situated in the outskirts of Bangalore. A sprawling garden aglow with bright-hued flowers and well-fed lawns encase the attractive, prosperous looking house. As you try to attune the house and the garden with the persona of the actress, there she is, in person. Those same darkly picturesque eyes appraise you, that smile, oh, that smile, slightly shy at first, breaks gradually into a warmer one. She still sports the ubiquitious chignon, you note, but age, on the whole, has glided gracefully over her—the odd wrinkle or grey strand of hair merely emphasising her matchless dignity.
She’s ill at ease even as we exchange pleasantries, so we decide to break the ice with a photo session. She smiles apologetically as she leads the way into the garden, but her transformation from awkwardness to confidence before the camera is almost instantaneous. The shoulders arch back automatically, the face swings to exhibit the best angle, and the hands adjust the folds of her turquoise blue crepe silk. The actress within her, it is obvious, is not quite dead. Which is the cue to hark back to where it all began. In a quiet corner of South India, in a low profile town called Vishakapatnam, excitement was rife. The viceroy of India, C Rajagopalachari, was paying a ceremonial visit, and the little town was leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to furnish the dignitary with suitable entertainment. Came a notice from protocol that he aspired to witness local talent. Overnight, the officials landed at a novice 12-year-old’s doorstep. And, thus it was that Waheeda Rehman took her first step towards a career that lasted 30 years and sparked her as one of the film industry’s all-time greats. “It was in my destiny. I am a great believer in fate. It’s amazing how people meet when they are destined to do so,” she exclaims. And you can’t help nodding at the divinity that shaped her ends. “Just the viceroy coming to Vishakapatnam, we (my sister and I) being approached to dance, instead of a troupe of well-known dancers. It’s amazing. Our programme made news at that time, the newspapers praised our performances, and published our photographs with the viceroy. As a consequence, I got offers for Telugu and Tamil movies, but my father refused. Not because he was narrow-minded, but I was at a difficult age. I could neither be a child artiste nor a leading lady. My father used to maintain that no profession by itself was bad, it was how you conducted yourself that earned the profession its reputation. I have always made sure that no matter what I do, I always conduct myself with dignity.” Spot on. Her father passed away, and, she continues, “I started getting offers once again. I begged my mother to allow me to act, pleading loneliness, as my older sisters were married. Mum was reluctant since it was a major decision and she was scared to agree. Eventually, a producer who happened to be a family friend, managed to convince my mother to let me perform at least a dance sequence in his film. The Telugu movie, Rudramaray, went on to become a blockbuster. The song sequence by itself was considered one of the highlights of the movie.” She stops to take a breath. “You know, I had a very strong gut feeling that I was going to make it big,” she confesses. “After the film completed 100 days, we went from place to place in Andhra Pradesh for the premier and wherever I went, the audience would clamour for me. The director was very clever. He would hold back for a while and then push me, with a ‘Now, go.’” Her voice is charged with the euphoric confidence the young adolescent must have experienced. A 16-year-old Waheeda was still living on the laurels of her maiden film, and was in Hyderabad to attend its silver jubilee. The renowned Guru Dutt happened to be in the same city. Intrigued by the surging crowd chasing a car, he made inquires with
“It was in my destiny. I’m a great believer in fate. It’s amazing how people meet when they are destined to do so.”
his distributor, and that’s how the pair that created movie magic on screen, first came to hear of each other. When Guru Dutt heard that the popular actress was an Urdu speaking Muslim, he insisted on meeting her. Recalls Waheeda. “I was given a call, and naturally, I agreed, because I was anxious to do Hindi movies, especially since Urdu was my mother tongue. Being young, I was nervous about going to Bombay on my own, and asked for time to consider the offer. Six months later, he sent his manager again and this time we went to Bombay.” She continues her roller coaster ride down memory lane. “When my mum and I were down in Bombay, initially, I was fascinated by the Victorias. I used to pester my mum to take me, arguing that I was still unknown, so we ought to enjoy the anonymity before I became too popular. My mother was so wild with me. She was very upset at my overconfidence. Do you know, she refused to talk to me for one week? That experience left such an indelible mark that I never became arrogant, even during my peak days.”
The year 1955, the film CID. A thin veil partly camouflaging her face, the camera slowly pans on her face, as the eyes, darkly picturesque, peep out of the shelter, ostensibly to look at the hero, Dev Anand. Waheeda, in a cameo role, played the saucy-eyed but street smart gangster’s moll, who eventually sees the light when she falls in love with CID, Dev Anand, and sacrifices her life for him. “I was thrilled to be working with Dev, being a fan of his. I was not camera conscious, having worked in a movie before. But, I had a lot of problems with my voice, which I felt was not very good.” She has point there, for her initial movies betray an inexperience in voice modulation, perhaps the only trace of her provincial background. “Otherwise,” she continues. “Most of my roles were unique. Normally, the heroine’s role is so predictable. Either she falls in love and discloses it to her parents, or she elopes with her lover. Not a definite character you could identify with. In my movies, the circumstances were different, the situations were different.” She speaks the truth. Who can forget the slavishly devoted nurse of Khamoshi who falls in love with a mentally disturbed Dharmendra, and nurses him back to sanity, only to be handed over an invitation card to his wedding? The second time over, she falls in love with Rajesh Khanna, to be met with the same fate. The last scene shows a distraught and emotionally dehydrated Waheeda, pitifully clutching the barbed wires of the asylum window, her hands moving “You know, I had a very strong gut feeling that I was going to make it big. After the film completed 100 days, we went from place to place in Andhra Pradesh for the premier, and wherever I went, the audience would clamour for me.” down in clawing motion, her face streaked with tears, despair in her eyes. She readily admits to basking under the halo of popularity and glamour. “I enjoyed it. It felt great. And though I was so sure of making it big, still when it did happened, it was like, ‘Oh my god, how did this happen?’
Not all was beer and skittles, though. “One thing I didn’t like was being touched by them. I mean, why push and touch? Talk to us, but don’t push, I didn’t like that,” she asserts, wrinkling her nose in distance. She continues, “At shooting, we sometimes invited bystanders to participate in a scene. There was this guy who came and stood next to me. ‘Waheedaji, you don’t recognise me?’ he said later. I said I’m sorry. I don’t recollect having met you. ‘You came to Delhi for a premier of one of your films and attended a party for five hundred people. I was one of them.’ I apologised for my poor memory, but he started threatening me. ‘If you don’t recognise me, I will jump into the sea after pack up.’ I got a little worked up and confided to David Abraham, who was a well-known character artiste in those days, and who was a part of that scene with me. David saab marched across to where I was and told him, ‘Make sure you tie a stone to yourself so that you don’t come up.” Like all beautiful actresses, she has had many ardent admirers and has received several proposals of marriage. One even addressed her as his wife in one of his letters. “Oh, that was really funny,” she laughs, plunging headlong into yet another human comedy. “One night, an army major tried to forcibly get in and was restrained by my retainers. He told them I was his wife, that he had written to me and was waiting to see me. He created such a scene that finally
we had to call the police, because he became very aggressive and dramatically announced, ‘I will kill you. You are not allowing me to go to my wife.’”
Such are the perils of enchantment. Yet, despite all the glamour and glitter of her existence, she remained resolutely down-to-earth. Says she, “After all, we are as human as you. It’s the public which places us on a pedestal, creates supernatural specimens out of us, associates mystery and unapproachability with us. Why do you forget we are normal as you are? We are allowed no privacy. We are self-conscious all the time. We have our fair share of sycophants who flatter us into projecting an air of superiority. We are expected to be perfect, we are expected to be polite, we are expected to be smiling, it’s an unnatural life.” She continues, “Several times, I have revolted against the norms, I would dress up exactly the way I desired, even after I became a star. My hair would be dressed in two pigtails, my dress code was unstarry. Initially, a lot of people would be outraged, but I would retaliate with, ‘I know I’m a star, but I’m human too. I dress for my satisfaction and my happiness. My fans happiness does matter, but I think I owe myself some personal joy, too.’” At that time, in the entire industry, only Nargisji and I would be seen around in cotton saris. It is a difficult material to maintain, since it tends to get creased, because I was particular about not looking untidy. Otherwise, I was very comfortable in a cotton sari, be it for my afternoon shots, or shopping trips. My formal saris, I would reserve for evening parties.” Starry parties, on the whole, left her cold. “Of course, the one compulsive engagement on my diary was the New Year party at Dutt saab and Nargisji’s place. Normally, our parties were very intimate gatherings of close friends like Nanda, Jabeen and Shakila, and their families, along with mine. Those days were real fun. We would go out on picnics together and once a year, I would take time off to travel. I love travelling by car and my family and I would travel to Anjanta, Ellora, Hyderabad, practically all over the south, and I’d love it if the car broke down.” She stops for suspense. “Because I had a very convenient excuse to reach Bombay late.” Even as we chuckle over this, she breaks in with a lengthy narrative. “Once, I had gone to Kodaikanal for a holiday with Nanda, her brother, my sisters, niece, nephew and myself. One day, we visited Munnar, a tea estate, which was 90 kilometres away. It was so beautiful, we decided to stay back for the night. The caretaker of the lodge was a very dark guy, in spotless white. He was eerie. Nanda had once exclaimed, ‘I wish I could drink chilled “I was thrilled to be working with Dev (Anand), being a fan of his. I was not camera conscious, having worked in a movie before. But, I had a lot of problems with my voice, which I felt was not very good.” Thums Up, and lo, the caretaker came in with just that, along with English tea. When we requested him for rooms, he agreed on one condition. The men with us would be boarded in an annexe away from the main building. Nanda got really suspicious. “He’s a scary dark man in stark white dhoti kurta, we didn’t ask him for Thums Up. How did he know? In those days, Gumnaam had just released and Nanda was very influenced by it. I just dismissed her fears, and after she had dozed off, I opened the windows. Suddenly, she jumped up with a scream. ‘Why have you left the window open? She shouted. That dark fellow, first of all. After seeing Gumnaam, how can you keep the window open?’” she giggles uncontrollably. Well, we ddin’t sleep too well that night, but I just can’t get over Nanda’s ‘How can you forget Gumnaam, one man killed 10 people.’” With Nanda, her bosom buddy, she shares a genuine friendship, time tested over decades. Her elation over Nanda’s engagement to Mammohan Desai is no artifice, but a full-blooded emotion. “If she is happy, then I am happy.”
Waheeda admits to sharing an easy going camaraderie with all her male co-stars, particularly Dev Anand and Sunil Dutt. “I acted in two of Sunil’s home productions, Reshma Aur Shera and Mujhe Jeene Do. I would tell him, ‘Sunil, your body is okay, but look at your face. You look like a Glaxo baby.’ He would pretend to get very annoyed. ‘Waheeda, don’t tell me that. Don’t forget I’m playing a dacoit now.’” No account of Waheeda Rehman would be complete without the mention of the irresistible WaheedaGuru Dutt combination, the tuning of a fine actress and a sensitive filmmaker, a professional chemistry that spelt
magic on screen. That the magic continued offscreen is well known, but Waheeda, with characteristic reticence, refuses to be drawn into discussing the subject. Nevertheless, some of her most unforgettable films and moments are owed to him. Who can forget Gulabo’s wordless seduction of Vijay, the ghazal singer, whom she wills up to her room by the mere use of her eyes?
Waheeda takes up the narrative thread once more. You see, when I joined as an actress, I was too young to distinguish between a good director and a bad director. And besides, he was too serious and intense a person. Both CID and Pyaasa were being shot at the same time, so I was both scared and shy of Raj Khosla and Guru Dutt. What was most commendable about Guru Dutt was that despite his seriousness, he could make a light movie like Mr & Mrs 55. His movies by themselves were so vastly different from one another, be it, Kagaz Ke Phool, or Pyaasa. In fact, I recently saw Pyaasa, and couldn’t help admiring his genius. Now that I have mastered a few technical details, I realised that he had brought in zoom effect when there were no zoom lenses available. He was very fond of taking close-ups, because he felt you could convey so much more through facial expressions, and I like that because I hated lengthy dialogues, thanks to my inhibition about my voice. I think his genius was truly recognised only after his death. Even to this day, he influences directors. What I’m most grateful to him about is that despite my miniscule roles in the movies, people still remember and compliment me.” Phagun proved to be a costly miscalculation that augmented her downward slide as the leading lady, when she stubbornly stuck to her decision to play Jaya’s mother in the movie. She reflects, “Change is an inevitable part of life.”
How did she find the shift from a star to living the life of an ordinary mortal? “I always like to face reality. That’s why I found it easy to accept this new phase of life. And I feel there’s nothing wrong in growing old gracefully. Ageing is a natural process, you can’t stop time from ticking, I think my innings got over a little too fast, from ’71 onwards. What I did feel a little bad about was, the moment I did a mother’s role in Phagun, everybody jumped to the conclusion that I had shifted to character roles just because I played mother to another actress. In fact, well-wishers advised me to do a double role—but I was adamant about not doing it.” So immersed was she in career building and growth that marriage caught up with her at the relatively advanced age of 34. “Well, I was searching for the right person. When you are in a profession like acting, it really takes time to know the person. My husband was an ex-actor with whom I worked in Shagun. His screen name was Kanwaljeet. He acted in a few movies, but they did not click, so he migrated to Canada, and started his business there. Once every couple of years, when he visited Bombay, he would drop in to say hello to me. But we were not even good friends,” she attempts to convince me. “So, like usual, he came over to see me in ’74. This time, he came down for six months, and he mentioned that he had something important to discuss with me. “Well,” her tone takes a dramatic air, “I didn’t suspect anything, you see. He was very friendly with my nephew, who is also in the garment business like him, so I presumed he wanted to discuss some technical details with me, but I must confess that in my sub-conscious mind, I had decided that if he were to propose, then I would accept it…” Ah, ah, out came the confession. Why, you blurt out. “I always felt that he was a nice, decent, sober Punjabi and I sensed that he was,” she pauses for effect, “very fond of me. In fact, he admitted it later, that he admired me for my down-to-earth simplicity. We had a small wedding, with 55 people to be precise, because I don’t like too much of shor and hungamma.” “In fact, I started working in Kabhi Kabhi only after my marriage. At that time, we were planning to settle abroad. But, only after I completed my assignment. Since I got married suddenly, I had already signed Yashji’s Kabhi Kabhi, and he insisted on me doing the movie. Similarly, the producer of the Amitabh-starrer Adalat refused
“With Nanda, her bosom buddy, she shares a genuine friendship, time tested over decades.”
“I feel there’s nothing wrong in growing old gracefully. Ageing is a natural process, you can’t stop time from ticking, I think my innings got over a little too fast, from ’71 onwards.” to let me go. So, the transition from films was a gradual one. In time, my priority shifted towards starting a family, since I was getting on in years. The very next year, my child was born. Late motherhood makes you more patient. You understand the psychology of the child better. Once, my three-year-old son picked up an obscene word from the building boys and repeated it, probably for shock value. At first, I pretended I didn’t hear it, so he repeated it to gauge my reaction. I said, ‘ Beta, it’s not very nice,’” she crinkles her nose. ‘It’s bad. Good children don’t use such words.’ He probably expected me to yell at him, so he was rather disappointed. Once, he spilt a cold drink on our sofa while we had guests. He literally shuddered with fear. I said nothing, and he later asked me, ‘Mummy, why didn’t you get angry “The transition from films was a gradual one. In time, my priority shifted towards starting a family, since I was getting on in years. The very next year, my child was born.”
with me?’ I said, ‘You did not do it on purpose. It was a mistake.’ He hugged me tight.” The maternal glow brings a warm flush to her face. “We are friends with our kids. I always tell them you can feel free to discuss anything with me. That is the kind of relationship we have always aspired for.” I expected the kids to rush out any moment, but no, I am told the kids are studying at Kodaikanal International School. “My son is doing his school finals and he most probably will leave for the States to do his MBA. My daughter is in her 10th. She hasn’t decided as yet, but I’d like her to take up environmental sciences. It does get a little lonely without them, so I go to Kodai practically every month to see them,” she admits with a sheepish smile. She may miss her kids, but time doesn’t exactly lie idle on her hands. For, she has a flourishing business, manufacturing Farmhouse breakfast cereal, a venture she started four years ago. “In India, we don’t have much variety for breakfast. Further, with both spouses working, nobody has the time to prepare elaborate morning meals like parathas, idlis and dosas. And breakfast must be a nutritious and fulfilling meal since it is the first of the day. So, my partner Ashrafa and I experimented with this formula which is very much like Swiss muesli. We tried out a variety of recipes, gave them to our friends to test, and solicited feedback on what they liked and disliked. Then, we took the sample to Mysore University, and had the food value analysed by consultant experts; finally, we packaged them in plastic jars.” How was it received? “Oh, it’s doing very well. It’s tasty, nourishing. It has dry fruits and cereal. The whole family can enjoy it and women love the plastic containers. Later on, a lot of ladies pointed out that though they were thrilled with the jars, they were getting too numerous to collect. At any rate, I was always anxious to convert to cartons, which are lighter, and easier to carry. We have a tiny factory close by, and we have somehow ended up employing women. Though it involves a lot of hard work, it is simple procedure, and we felt it was a nice way to encourage women. I supervise only during my partner’s absence. It is not possible for me to do so everyday. Besides, I am away for eight months with the kids at Kodai. However, I do keep myself informed of the day-today activities. Right now, we distribute it over the country—Bombay, Madras, Delhi, Chandigarh, Calcutta, Bihar, and Kerala, as also the interior regions of the south. After a little while, I want to expand further in the same line, though,” she very enthusiastically explains. Today, Waheeda divides her time between her family, her business, and another love, gardening. “It takes a lot of my time since I have a big garden.” Does she talk to her plants, I ask her. She’s embarrassed but shyly admits to doing so. “People think I’m mad but it is said that the sound waves facilitate quick growth. I believe even music helps in the same manner…” she giggles. She’s the quintessence of normality, the very picture of a contented housewife, preoccupied with her home and family. Fate has been more than kind to her. After elevating her to fame and greatness, it went one step further and deposited her back gently to earth, safe, sound and intact. Wish that the trauma-ridden heroines whose predicaments she captured so evocatively were half so lucky.
26th July, 1974—wedded bliss
Three is a company: New Year’s party at Nargis’ house with the hostess and Nanda
A celebration of life in MujheJeeneDo
The earthly goddess–in BaatEkRaatKi