Only a few, as insiders, have seen the Indian film industry truly turn 100. No one ever could have seen the whole thing actually, but Waheeda Rehman can certainly tell us a lot about it. At the upcoming Mumbai Film Festival, organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, Rehman will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Vibrant, and with childlike enthusiasm, she speaks to us at her Bandra bungalow, which is behind Galaxy Apartments where Salman Khan and his family live.
Over a cup of ginger tea, the actor goes back in time, recalling her debut and her mentor Guru Dutt, and tells us why she’s glad the
industry has changed.
Indian cinema will celebrate its centenary next year. Take us back to how it was when you first entered the industry.
At that time, very few movies were made. Everybody used to work peacefully. We weren’t in such a hurry. Even then, India was a leading producer of movies, as it is now. Though these days, too many movies are being made.
Technically, we’ve improved a lot. We’ve even started making bold subjects. In our time, there used to be one villain, a vamp, hero and heroine. These days, lead artistes are also ready to do negative roles and the audience is willing to accept them. Thirty-odd years ago, no leading man would have done what Aamir Khan did in Ghajini (2005), when he becomes a killer. These changes are good. The makers, actors and the audience… the film industry has changed for good. They are all thinking people now. Though Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films have always been ahead of their time.
Thirty-odd years ago, no leading man would have done what Aamir Khan did in Ghajini, when he becomes a killer.
You’ve worked in some films in the south...
I began with one dance and a small role as a princess (in Jayasimha, 1955), which is nothing to talk about. But Malayalam movies have produced very bold subjects. Now the Hindi film industry has also started.
Is there any part of the film industry of old that you wish had been retained?
The feeling of a family... it’s gone. I’m not blaming anything, but actors are so busy. In our times, Vyjayanthimala, Asha Parekh and I used to do stage performances as we were classical dancers, but we didn’t perform every day. Now artistes have to be on their toes all the time.
There used to be a lot of bonding back then. Why? Because there were no good make-up rooms! They were horrible, so we’d prefer sitting on the sets, where we’d chat and discuss stories. There were no bathrooms, yet they made great movies like Mughal-E-Azam (1960). Now, after shots these days, everyone goes into their vans.
How and when did you decide you wanted to act?
Oh, that is a long story. I was 16 or 17; I used to dance for the stage. Then I did one dance in a Telugu film, which became a big hit. During the jubilee celebrations tour in Andhra Pradesh, our last stop was Hyderabad. It just so happened, that Mr Guru Dutt was there at that time. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know who he was.
He was in his office, when he noticed the crowd outside. He was sitting with his distributor, who told him, ‘There is a girl who has danced in this movie that they are celebrating. She’s become so popular, that along with the top Telugu stars, the audience keeps calling for her. Her name is Waheeda Rehman’. Guru Dutt said, ‘Waheeda Rehman sounds like a Muslim name. Does she speak Hindi?’ After he was told that I do, he asked the distributor if he could meet me. We eventually met, he spoke just a little to check whether I could speak Hindi fluently and we left.
Then three or four months after I returned to Chennai, someone told me that the gentlemen I met in Hyderabad would like me to come to Bombay for a test.
Had you decided on acting then?
I hadn’t. Ek shauq se kar liya tha, phir dar gaye (I had jumped into it as a hobby, then I got scared). But we eventually met. I didn’t know if I was capable of acting, it was him. He had the confidence and signed me on a salary basis for three movies.
Then C.I.D (1956) became a hit. I was the vamp in that one, but I was too soft looking. The audience liked me in Pyaasa (1957). It was around then Guru Dutt
told me, ‘Those three films you will make with me in any case, but please don’t hesitate to sign any others that are independently offered to you’. He explained to me, ‘The life span of a woman’s career in the film industry is very short. It wouldn’t be fair for me to stop you. As long as you give me preference when it comes to your dates’, which I thought was very fair.
I didn’t know anyone in the industry then. He used to say, ‘If you have a problem, consult us’. Then we would say, ‘
Chalo, kar lijiye’
. He was very kind.
Then you took a long break in the 1990s…
I’m a very realistic person. When I got married and had children, I knew I wasn’t going to get lead roles like Kahaani or The Dirty Picture (2011) in those days. They (filmmakers) still wanted romantic films and wanted me to sing duets. At that age, even I used to feel a little uncomfortable.
The contribution of the character I play in the story is very important. I did Rang De Basanti (2006) and Delhi 6 (2009) because those roles fit the need. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra asked with great persistence and love. Since then, I’ve decided I will wait.
We artistes are like kids and we sometimes get inspired. But it’s also very difficult nowadays. I am very happy for Sridevi. I heard English Vinglish is doing well.
Do you watch films regularly?
I watch quite a few. I liked Barfi! and I last watched OMG! Oh My God. I remember asking Paresh Rawal (actor), ‘Do you think like your character does?’ and he said ‘90 per cent’. And I said, ‘I am exactly like that!’
People like me and Paresh are born into certain religious families, but we are not practicing people. You have to be a good human being, that’s essential. And neither do artistes have a religion and nor do they belong to one community, which is why they have it in themselves to bring those who do, together.