Just Like That | Waheeda Rehman: The storied life and legacy of an acting legend - Hindustan Times
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Just Like That | Waheeda Rehman: The storied life and legacy of an acting legend

Sep 30, 2023 05:07 PM IST

The intriguing and lesser-known stories in the life of Waheeda Rehman, an actor par excellence

Can you name the actress who has successfully worked with Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor, the presiding male trinity of Hindi cinema, and who won the National Film Award and three Filmfare Awards for Best Actress, apart from being conferred the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan?

At 85, Waheeda has lost none of her verve PREMIUM
At 85, Waheeda has lost none of her verve

She is none other than Waheeda Rehman, who was recently presented with the 53rd Dadasaheb Phalke Award, the highest accolade of the Indian film industry.

It has long been my view that of the leading actors of her time, including Meena Kumari, Nargis and Madhubala; Waheeda was the most talented and attractive. I know this is a subjective opinion and would be contested by many. But somehow, for me, her dusky complexion, sharp features, effortless grace, cinematic versatility, and beauty give her an abiding edge.

A long fan of hers, I had the opportunity to meet her when I was the Ambassador in Bhutan. I had, in cooperation with Her Majesty, Ashi Sonam Dorji Wangchuck, the Queen Mother of Bhutan and a writer herself, conceived of a literary festival called Mountain Echoes.

Waheeda Rehman had come for one of the editions of the Mountain Echoes Festival, I think in 2011. She was then in her early 70s, her hair had greyed, but her elegance and beauty were intact. During her stay, we had several occasions to talk about her life and films, and she was at her vivacious best. It was truly a fan moment for me. Little did I know then that her association with Bhutan would later become much deeper. Her elder son (she was married to actor Kamaljeet), Sohail Rekhi, married a Bhutanese girl, and the marriage took place in Bhutan, with the Queen Mother especially attending it. It was, by all accounts, a glittering event. In 2006, she had stayed at the very hotel where the marriage was held while shooting for Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue.

The one person who was almost single-handedly responsible for Waheeda’s successful transition from Telugu to Hindi cinema was the iconic actor-director-writer-choreographer, Guru Dutt. Dutt cast her in his crime thriller CID (1956) in a supporting role, where she was immediately noticed. He then worked with her in four all-time greats of Hindi cinema, Pyaasa (1956), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962).

It was speculated that Guru Dutt was in love with Waheeda. He was already married to well-known singer, Geeta Roy, and had three children. His dilemma, it is rumoured, was that he was in love with his wife as well. Dutt’s was an immensely successful but tragic life. He had become a heavy drinker and smoker, and in 1964, at the age of 39, he was found dead in his apartment all alone, because he had separated from his wife Geeta Roy. The likely cause was either an overdose of alcohol and sleeping pills, or suicide, which he had attempted twice before.

Waheeda’s career, however, continued its heady spiral. In 1965, director Vijay Anand cast her as the leading lady in Guide, opposite Dev Anand. The film was a super hit and Waheeda gave a stellar performance, for which she received the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Guide also won the Best National Film Award, and the Filmfare Award in the same category. It went on to be India’s official entry for the Oscars.

For me, there are six other films starring Waheeda which will always be memorable. These are Bees Saal Baad (1962), which was the highest-earning film that year, Kohraa (1964), Teesri Kasam (1966), which did not do well at the box office but got the National Award for Best Feature Film, Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Khamoshi (1970), where her role as the mentally unstable nurse who falls in love with her patient and ends in a mental asylum herself is unforgettable, and Reshma Aur Shera (1971), for which she received the National Film Award for Best Actress.

From 1964 to 1969, Waheeda was the second highest-paid actress in Bollywood. But, as she herself confessed, the highest she was paid for any film was 7 lakhs, a paltry amount compared to what leading actresses get today.

But what she has earned beyond measure is the acclaim of her fans. Forever etched in my mind—and heart as a youngster—was her ethereal and sensual beauty in the songs, Yeh Nayan Da-re Da-re (Kohraa), and Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho, Ya Aaftaab Ho (Chaudhvin Ka Chand), the second being shot in colour. I would strongly recommend that readers view these songs on YouTube.

At 85, Waheeda has lost none of her verve. Congratulations once again to her for the very well-deserved Dada Saheb Phalke Award, and may she live for many, many years more to come.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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