Waheeda: Far from the madding crowds

  • Roshmila Bhattacharya, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
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  • Updated: Jan 30, 2011 15:26 IST
This year her name is back in the list of Padma honours. Not screaming for attention but quietly dignified. After being felicitated with the Padma Shri in 1972, Waheeda Rahman’s cinematic histrionics have been recognised again with a Padma Bhushan. And her Raju Guide is thrilled. Surrounded by piles of paperwork in his makeshift Khar office, Dev Anand beams, “It was high time. I feel as honoured as her."

Dev saab rewinds to their first films together, CID, 55 years ago. Director Guru Dutt and his writer friend Abrar Alvi, during a trip to Hyderabad, had been urged by their Nizam distributor to catch a show of the Telugu film, Rojulu Marayi, whose dancing girl had become the rage. They met her briefly and Guru Dutt left without saying a single word. Six months later, a man was sent to Hyderabad to invite her to Mumbai where she was screen tested and signed her first Hindi movie.

She played Kamini in CID, the gangster’s moll, and Dev saab remembers her as a “shy, young girl who followed my instructions obediently”. They went on to do Solva Saal (1958), Kala Bazaar (1960) and the path-breaking Guide (1965).

Waheedaji admits that filmmakers were aghast when she agreed to play the ambitious and adulterous Rosy. It was a bold role, admits Dev saab, and credits his younger brother Goldie (the film’s director Vijay Anand) for convincing her. “I miss him. The only time I cried was when Goldie died,” he says emotionally.

No limitations
Waheedaji had once confided that when her Neel Kamal (1968) director, Ram Maheshwari, heard that she was doing Guide, he was shell-shocked: “How can you play Rosy when you are playing Sita in my film? You are ruining your career and my film!” But she was firm. She didn’t want to limit herself to playing Sati-Savitri all her life and was ready to take the risk. Interestingly, both films won her Best Actress awards.

Then, like Rosy, Waheedaji followed her heart. When her Shagun (1964) co-star, Kamaljit Singh, proposed after a decade of bumping into each other at Yash Johar’s house where he stayed when in Mumbai, she married him in ’74. And retired to in a
farmhouse on the outskirts of Bangalore. There she was content to watch her children and flowers grow.

It was a life away from the studio lights and the spotlight… A world where awards happened to other people. I recall the mid ’90s, when my editor had gone to Bangalore to coax her into accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, her immediate reaction had been, “Why me? What have I done?”

The modesty is innate and unaffected. Almost a decade later, another editor had to spend hours cajoling her to agree to be the chairperson of the jury for another awards. She finally consented on the condition that she would not be invited on stage to give a speech, as was the tradition, on the big night.

“I may not even come for the show,” she warned. She did eventually, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the crowds. But in her elegant sari and salt-and-pepper coiffure, she was a reluctant eye-catcher.

‘Why me?’
During those weeks leading up to the awards, through almost everyday movie screenings, when nominees were being short-listed and winners decided, her calming smile helped cool rising tempers. One late night, as we sat in her living room, collating the nominee list, she suddenly walked in. It was close to midnight, she had changed into a nightie, her face was slathered in cream. She looked every inch a star… And also someone you could run to set your topsy-turvy world right when the Titanic rocked. For the world Raju was the guide, for me it was always Rosy!

I’m waiting to see her back in the spotlight. This time she can’t refuse to go up on stage. But knowing Waheedaji, if anyone were to ask her about the Padma Bhushan she would probably say, “Why me? What have I done?”

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