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Waheeda Rehman — the ‘chaudhvin ka chand’ of Indian cinema who never believed in her beauty

Although Waheeda Rehman began her career at 17, she created her own boundaries and made independent decisions. It reflected in the characters she played.

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I promise, no one ever told me, wow, how beautiful you are… They would say, you photograph well. Therefore, compliments were directed at the photographer of the make-up artist,” Waheeda Rehman was quoted as saying in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s ‘Conversations with Waheeda Rehman’. She adds, “I have never thought of myself as beautiful… I have never thought I looked like Aishwarya Rai or Hema Malini… People look at them and say wow. I didn’t think I had a wow personality”. 

It is the same Waheeda, who, as Jameela in the 1960 movie Chaudhvin Ka Chand, lifted her eyelids softly on Guru Dutt saying: ‘Aankhe hai jaise may ke payaale bhare hue’’ (your eyes are like goblets), made the song iconic. People became fans of her subtle yet enchanting beauty and her natural acting style.

Rosie, Gulaabo, Shanti — many of the characters played by Waheeda in films such as Guide (1965), Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) — are difficult to imagine without her. Her subtle style of acting, charming screen presence and phenomenal dancing skills was a rare combination — all of which made her one of the most sought-after and successful actresses in the ’50s and ’60s. Her five-decade-long career, during which she worked with filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray and Basu Bhattacharya, is also a testimony to her talent. Her film Pyaasa, which was only her second Hindi film, has been featured in Time Magazine’s list of 100 greatest films ever made.

What made this 17-year-old debutant, with no acting school training and no connection to the film industry, rule the hearts of Hindi cinema-goers? Waheeda Rehman calls it destiny, but no one can deny the unmatched talent, discipline and devotion she had for the craft.

Also read: Teesri Kasam: When Raj Kapoor played perfect foil to Waheeda Rehman’s heartbreaking grace

Dance opened doors for the actress

Born on 3 February 1936 in Chengalpattu, nearly sixty kilometres from Chennai, to an IAS officer, no one would have thought in their distant dream that this young woman would, one day, be hailed as the glorious queen of Indian cinema — the ‘chaudhvin ka chand’. Waheeda started training for Bharatnatyam when she was just nine. Interestingly, she gave her first stage performance in front of Independent India’s first governor-general C. Rajagopalachari. She is fluent in Tamil and Telugu apart from Hindi, English, and Urdu.

Her father’s early death led to difficulties in her life and when she was offered the role of a dancer in a Telugu film, she thought of it seriously.

“When I turned 17, my mother became worried about my future and thought if I were to get married, I might have a more secure life. I didn’t want to get married and preferred the idea of working. But what could I do? I didn’t have much of an education, so how was I supposed to find a job? It was around that time that the producer CV Ramakrishna Prasad, who had known my father, called out of the blue and offered me a dancing role in the Telugu film Rojulu Marayi (1955). When I heard about this offer, I jumped with joy and told my mother, it is God’s wish! Please let me know,” she told Nasreen Kabir in the book. 

Perhaps it was indeed divine intervention that took the 17-year-old teenager on an unconventional path. The rest, as they say, is history. But when has it ever been easy for a woman determined to carve her own path? Waheeda had her own obstacles. Her mother’s initial disapproval was one of them. It took many days of persuasion and the offer to accompany Waheeda on film sets that earned her mother’s approval.

It was the success of the dance sequence in that Telugu film that made people notice her. Guru Dutt was one of them. “I am a great believer in destiny, even though Guru Dutt ji did not have the faintest idea of who I was, he asked to meet me — a newcomer. It felt like something out of the ordinary — it had to be destiny.” 

A partnership began and both Waheeda Rehman and Guru Dutt became each other’s muse. The partnership continued as they worked together in five films — Pyaasa (1957), 12’O clock (1958), Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). She was also rumoured to be Guru Dutt’s love interest in real life, but Waheeda always fiercely protected her personal life. She once said: “I think a director has to be a little in love with his leading actress so he will project her as the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Also read: Kaagaz Ke Phool is Guru Dutt’s masterclass in filmmaking and heartbreak

Waheeda Rehman’s atypical choices

Although Waheeda started quite young, she set boundaries for herself and made independent decisions. For her first film contract, she refused to change her name and said that she will only wear costumes that were approved by her. “I may wear a swimsuit later in films, but for now I will wear clothes that seem fine to me,” she had said.

Her decision-making is also reflected in the films she chose. Her characters were not stereotypical. In Guide, she was seen as a woman who leaves her husband because she is not happy in the marriage. In Darpan (1970), she played a prostitute, while in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan (1962), she played a free-spirited woman. Her humble persona and calm demeanour made her different from the rest.

Speaking of her greatest films, she once said: “They’re classics. I’ve made no contribution towards them… I just happened to be part of his great films – Pyaasa, Kagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Guru Dutt ji spoke little. He’d just observe. But he was extremely sensitive. If I had difficulty saying the lines, he’d ask writer Abrar Alvi to change it. He believed no matter how beautiful the lines, the actor should be able to say it”. It is probably because of her groundedness that Waheeda Rehman has been able to comfortably live a life away from glamour, and not miss it.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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