Waheeda Rehman is the embodiment of classic beauty with a truly transcendental appeal and also one of the greatest actresses that Indian cinema has ever seen.
Born on February 3rd, 1938 in Chingleput in South India, she was a skilled dancer, trained in Bharatnatyam. It was thanks to this training that she entered films first as a dancer. Her early films include the MGR – P Bhanumathi starrer Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (1955) where the popular song Salaam Babu was picturized on her. Her dance number, Eruvaka Sagaloi, in the Telugu film Rojulu Marayi (1955), was one of the primary reasons behind the huge success of the film. Incidentally, SD Burman used the same tune later in Bambai ka Babu (1960) for the song Dekhne Mein Bhola Hai Dil Ka Salona.
Guru Dutt heard about the success of Rojulu Marayi and her dance when he was on a visit to Hyderbad. He met her and a few months later brought her to Bombay and cast her as the vamp in his production, CID (1956), directed by his protege, Raj Khosla. With CID, Waheeda made a stunning debut in Hindi cinema. The song Kahin Pe Nigahen Kahin Pe Nishana as she tries to seduce the villain and allow the hero to escape reveal her extraordinary facial mobility and dancer’s grace. Many felt that she stole a march over the film’s main heroine, Shakila.
Waheeda really broke through the following year with Guru Dutt’s masterpiece Pyaasa in the role of the prostitute with the heart of gold. It is an absolutely brilliant performance that has held up beautifully till date. The way she blends nuances of love, desire and despair as she follows Guru Dutt up the stairs to the terrace to the strains of Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo is simply amazing. During the making of Pyaasa, it is said that Guru Dutt fell for her. And it was ironic that his wife Geeta Dutt’s voice was used on Waheeda Rehman the actress as she romanced Guru Dutt on screen.
Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) is said to be the most autobiographical of all Guru Dutt films. In the film Guru Dutt plays a film director alienated from his family and who falls for his muse, played by Waheeda. The film was a box office disaster even though some of the poetic moments in the film (the Waqt Ne Kiya song) see Guru Dutt do the best work of his life but the inconsistent and weak screenplay and the morbid mood of the film did not go down with viewers. Waheeda of course was brilliant in the film and received unanimous plaudits from critics and cinegoers.
Guru Dutt recovered lost ground with his next production Chaudhvin ka Chand (1960), one of the best love triangles in Hindi cinema, played out against a Muslim-Social background. In fact, the film was his biggest commercial success. Waheeda has never looked better than in this film. She is simply ethereal. You know exactly what Guru Dutt feels as he sings Chaudhavin ka Chand Ho Ya Aftab Ho, Jo Bhi Ho Khuda ki Kasam Tum Lajawab Ho to her.
By now it was said she too had responded to Guru Dutt’s feelings for her but Guru Dutt’s marital status and her success in films outside his caused them to drift apart. In fact, unit members say that Waheeda Rehman completed Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) under some strain . She and Guru Dutt broke away from each other prefessionally as she did not renew her contract with him after the film’s indifferent reception at the Berlin Film Festival in 1963 even though it was much acclaimed in India and even won the President’s Silver Medal. But to be fair to Waheeda, for all that has been written about her relationship with Guru Dutt, she has always maintained an enigmatic and dignified silence over the entire ‘affair’ not saying anything even after Guru Dutt’s death in 1964.
Meanwhile, Waheeda worked with Satyajit Ray in Abhijan (1962), which unfortunately for her was one of the great director’s weakest films and consolidated her position as a top star in the Bollywood Film Industry with Bees Saal Baad (1962), a huge hit based on th classic Sherlock Holmes tale, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Strong performances in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), a dacoit drama and Kohra (1964), a re-make of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) followed.
With Guide (1965), Waheeda reached the peak of her career. Though the novelist RK Narayan on whose book it was based, disowned the film, he had absolutely no complaints with Waheeda’s strong performance as Rosie. It was a daring role to play then – that of a woman who goes against the grain of being a typical ‘Bharatiya nari’ and leaves her stifling impotent husband to live in with her lover, a guide who helps her in her ambitions to become a famous dancer. It is to Waheeda’s credit that she is able to humanize Rosie to get the viewer’s sympathy with her in spite of the so-called negative shades to her character. Whether breaking the metamorphic pot of patriarchy or dancing perilously over a ledge in keeping with her new found freedom, Waheeda is, to put it simply, outstanding and the life and soul of the film. It is one of the most iconic performances by an actress in Indian cinema history and remains unforgettable even today.
After Guide, Waheeda’s career graph was strange to say the least. Her commercial successes, Ram Aur Shyam (1967) and Patthar ke Sanam (1967), hardly challenged her histrionic ability and the films that did so – Teesri Kasam (1966), Khamoshi (1969), Reshma aur Shera (1971)and Zindagi Zindagi (1972), where she too responded with splendid performances – did dismally at the box-office. She even won the National Award for Best Actress for Reshma Aur Shera, a fine Romeo and Juliet drama set amidst warring Thakur families in Rajasthan.
In 1974 having more or less reached the end of her career as a leading lady, Waheeda married Kamaljeet, a businessman, who had tried his luck in films in the 1960s – in fact, he had co-starred opposite Waheeda in Shagoon (1964) – and failed, and moved to Bangalore. She turned to character roles, often playing Amitabh Bachchan’s mother (Bachchan has always cited her to be his favourite actress) but in the 1980s and 90s, she gradually cut down on film work, busying herself with marketing her brand of breakfast cereal while leading a contented life on her farmhouse in Bangalore.
Her last film in this period was Lamhe (1991) although a long delayed old film Ulfat ki Nayi Manzilen made it to the theatres in 1994. In Lamhe, director Yash Chopra paid her the ultimate tribute by getting her to dance to her Guide hit Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna Hai! After that she took a break from acting.
Eleven years later, Waheeda came back, a picture of elegant dignity, playing mother to Anil Kapoor, Fardeen Khan and Abhishek Bachchan in Anupam Kher’s Do Raaste (1969) rehash, Om Jai Jadgish (2002). She was then seen in Aparna Sen’s 15 Park Avenue (2005), Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) and Rakeysh Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006). Her performance in Rang de Basanti is absolutely rivetting. As the mother of the air force pilot killed, just see her as she fights between maintaining her composure and giving vent to her grief at his funeral or the gamut of emotions that flit across her face when she accepts the Indian flag or goes through the belongings of her dead son. She brings much grace, poignancy and dignity to her role.
Today, having shifted back to Mumbai following her husband’s death, Waheeda continues to do the odd film that interests her. Among the last films she has done is Delhi-6 (2009), re-uniting her with her Rang De Basanti director, Rakeysh Mehra, and Anup Singh’s The Song Of Scorpions (2017).
In 2023, Waheeda Rehman was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for her contribution to Indian cinema.