Woman of her time, and yet timeless
In an age when stars would be chaperoned by entourages, Waheeda Rehman was pretty much her own woman
In conferring this year’s Dadasaheb Phalke Lifetime Achievement Award on Waheeda Rehman, the government of India has honoured one of the most extraordinary careers in Indian cinema. Rehman made her film debut as a 17-year-old in the Telugu film “Rojulu Marayi” in 1955. As is well-documented, actor-director-producer Guru Dutt who saw that film was captivated by Rehman’s eyes, and offered her a role in “CID”. Waheeda Rehman dancing to “Kahin Pe Nigahen, Kahin Pe Nishana” was an instant hit. Her beauty captivated not just Guru Dutt – she was his muse -- but a host of other directors from Satyajit Ray to Vijay Anand.
The 1950s and 60s were a period of Hindi cinema’s efflorescence. Some of the finest actors, directors and music directors worked together to create a cinematic idiom that would shape the young nation. Rehman benefitted from working with directors and actors such as Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Vijay Anand, the trinity of Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar, and from being given playback by Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum. But there was something else that made her distinct. It was her exemplary professionalism. As an orphaned young woman, work was her only ticket to a life of dignity. In an age when stars would be chaperoned by entourages, Waheeda Rehman was pretty much her own woman. Some of this spirit segued into her choice of films as well. Quite early in her career, she stopped playing the coquette—and even where she played them, the performance would be layered with more complex nuance as in “Teesri Kasam”. In subsequent films such as “Guide”, “Mujhe Jeene Do” and “Khamoshi”, she played women of ambition and wilfulness, with her grace and dignity only serving to amplify the complexity of the protagonists she played. In that, she signalled the arrival of the modern woman in Hindi cinema.