She is my best actress. She has a certain guileless look in her face, a feminine grace and Indianness. Her beauty is something soft... and not easily defined. My greatest influences in acting are Waheeda Rehman and Dilip Kumar." - Amitabh Bachchan. I'd love to do a Summer of '42 opposite her. She is the ultimate combination of talent, beauty and feminine charm." - Abhishek Bachchan
The poet Shakeel Badayuni claimed that he was inspired to pen the lines "Chaudvin Ka Chand ho ya aftaab ho, Jo bhi ho tum Khuda ki Kasam lajawab ho," (Are you the moon at its lustrous best, or are you the sun/ whatever you are, you are without compare) after being blown away by her exquisite looks. You ask her and she blushes, and laughingly says she has heard that too, but may be it is a myth.
Having enthralled generations with her beauty, amazing histrionics, ethereal dancing, a voice that is still nectar sweet, Waheeda Rehman, 40 years later still retains the olde world charm, the grace and elegance that made her perhaps the most adored actress among actors and audience of all ages, to this day.
But life was not a fairy tale for this princess of celluloid and in an exclusive interview, with Little India, Waheeda Rehman goes down memory lane to share her life's story and why her involvement with Pratham (an NGO started in 1994 to eradicate illiteracy among slum dwellers and underprivileged children in India) as their good will ambassador is so important to her.
You are a Tamilian Muslim, who learnt Bharat Natyam and made her debut in Telugu films. In the 1940s and 50s when you came of age, that must have been quite an exception to the rule?
Leave alone a Muslim girl, even Hindu girls were not permitted to learn dance, but my father who was an IAS officer was exceedingly liberal and way ahead of his times. We were four sisters and I was a very sickly child. So when my sisters went to school, I used to be left behind and would often stand in front of the mirror and keep making faces. My father would say to my mother, this girl is going mad since she is at home all the time. Why does she keep on making these faces? What is wrong with her? I told my father, "Look daddy, one day I am going to make people laugh and also make them cry. I am going to be an actress and one day you will see my pictures in the paper."
He obviously didn't take me seriously, and he died when I was only 13, but he did live to see my picture in the papers. You see at that time he was posted in Vishakapatnam and Mr. C. Rajagopalachari, India's first Viceroy came to Vizag. Usually a cultural program would be organized to honor the dignitary, and they were trying to get M.S. Subbulakshmi and Kamlalakshmi to perform, but they received a telegram, which said that Shri Rajagopalchari wanted to see only local talent, and suddenly every one was in a flap, as to who to fetch, what to do. Then daddy's superior said, your daughter is a Bharat natyam dancer why don't you get her to perform? He said she is just learning and is not a professional dancer. They said so what. After all, they want to see local talent. Therefore, daddy asked my sister and me, and we did go on stage and perform. The viceroy was very surprised when he heard the names Waheeda and Saeeda Rehman being announced and said to somebody, these names sound Muslim. He was then introduced to my father, who was the commissioner there. Mr. Rajagopalachari congratulated my father and said it's amazing, I have never ever in my life heard of Muslim girls being exponents of Bharatnatyam and their abhinaya is outstanding. They performed with such astute understanding of the dance form. He came on stage and gave us medals, my picture made it to the front page, and I said to my father, look I told you, my face will be in the papers. That really made news and then I started getting offers from people in the south especially from the Telugu and Tamil film industry, but my father said she is not a baby and at the same time is still too young to be doing lead roles, so what can she really do in a film? In addition, we are not considering this as a profession, just a hobby. After my father passed away, my sisters got married, but I told my mother I didn't want to get married so soon. She said what are you going to do? Around that time, I got an offer to do a dance item in a Telugu film, which became a big hit. And around the same time I met Guru Dutt ji.
And he offered you, of all things, a vamp's role in the film C.I.D.!
Yes, that is right though Guru Dutt ji was considering Madhubala and Nargis for the roles and Dilip Kumar was supposed to be the hero, but there were some date problems so Guru Dutt ji did the hero's role himself and chose Mala Sinha and gave me the vampish Gulabo's role.
Do you remember the first day you faced the camera? Considering you were still in your teens and from a non-filmi background, it must have been baptism by fire!
Yes it was with Dev Anand in C.I.D and I was very excited, since I had been a big fan of his. As a child I had my tonsils removed and someone had teased me that now my voice was ruined forever and that just stuck in my head so I was very self-conscious and would not speak up. I kept saying my voice is bad what can I do, but good or bad I had to speak, and so I did! Dev was very cooperative and friendly. He never made me feel even once that I was a raw newcomer and that was very nice of him. Most people thought the vamp's role didn't go with my personality, and my face was more suited for sensitive, emotional roles, but then simultaneously Pyaasa started, where I played a golden hearted prostitute and that established me as a serious artist, and I started getting really good roles with depth and substance.
Is it true that in the film when you come to know of Guru Dutt's death you were supposed to scream out in grief, but you kept opening your mouth and nothing came out, not even a squeak, much to Guru Dutt's amazement and he had to change the entire shot?
Very true! I tried but there was a mental block still about having a bad voice and I'm not a loud person by nature. Guru Dutt ji said this is amazing. Girls scream at the drop of a hat, so much that you have to ask them to stop and here you are, the first girl who is unable to do just that! His greatest quality as a director was that he never made an actor do anything he or she was uncomfortable with and would come up with an alternative so in the end he told me to just hold the paper and slide down with closed eyes to convey my pain, and I think it worked pretty well.
What are your memories of Guru Dutt?
Gurudutt was truly an actor's director and apart from acting, he had learnt dance in Uday Shankar's school in Almora. He would show me how to emote, but at the same time tell me, don't copy me verbatim, since I'm a man. Both my dance teacher and Guru Dutt would say to me, we can create the skeleton for you, but you are the one who has to put the soul in it. And of course having knowledge of abhinaya thanks to my training in Bharat Natyam made it easy to emote. For example in the song "Jaane Kya Tune kahi," there was no dance but the mischief, the expressions, the seductiveness were easy to portray because of my dance background. But I did find it very difficult to speak dialogues for a while. We didn't have any acting schools in those days and in the early years, I felt my dialogue delivery left much to be desired and that my voice sounded raw and not well modulated Guru Dutt ji was a perfectionist and was willing to do as many retakes as needed to perfect a shot. He would insist that I still come and watch the shooting even if I was not required on the sets. To see people like Mala Sinha, Rehman at one time canning a scene after 55 retakes made me feel a lot better about myself and taught me a lot. You can learn the technique of how to face the camera, how to throw your voice and how to look good, but unless you put the feelings into it, it doesn't count. It is inborn to some extent, but it is also always helpful to watch others. I always thought Gurudutt was a better director than actor and he acted only under pressure. Like in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, he wanted to take Shashi Kapoor for Bhootnath's role but wanted a chunk of dates which he could not get and so he acted in it as a last resort.
Which movies by Guru Dutt stand out in your memory and are there any particular scenes that were tough to perform?
In Pyaasa, I was very raw. I really didn't know what I was doing so the credit for my performance must go to Guru Dutt ji. In Kagaz Ke Phool there was a scene where Guru Dutt ji's daughter played by Naaz, comes to me and says, "Because of you our family is breaking up. I have to tell her, 'Well at least you have a father and a mother even though they are separated and it is not because of me. But I have no body.'" A month and a half before that shoot my mother had passed away too. I was 13 when I lost my father and 19 when I lost my mother and so every time I would say I have no one, I would burst out crying. The cinematographer noticed my anguish and realized what was happening and he spoke to Guru Dutt ji who immediately ordered pack up pretending he had an urgent appointment. I liked my role in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam as well. Here I played a woman who really liked Bhootnath, but didn't know how to express it other than by nagging him constantly.
You attended a Retrospective of Guru Dutt's films in Tokyo. How do you find international audiences?
Their knowledge and interest in Indian films is amazing. At one point of time my daughter and I were squirming in our seats getting bored, but couldn't leave out of courtesy, but the Japanese were glued to their seats and the President of the Festival Committee kept singing Hindi songs at the drop of a hat! It was quite an experience!
You branched out to other directors in the 1960s. Tell me about Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar?
Raj Kapoor was very cooperative, but he always came late. You won't believe this but all throughout Teesri Kasam, which is considered one of our best films, most of the scenes where Raj ji and I are supposed to be together were shot separately, since he would come late or was busy shooting for Sangam or Mera Naam Joker! No body believes me when I tell them that the movie was shot with him missing most of the times.
While I got along with everyone my favorite co-star was Dilip Kumar. He used to take interest in helping other artists and would stay back to offer suggestions and support. We did not have mobile phones to distract us, the make up rooms were lousy, so we used to all sit together and eat together most of the time and talk to each other, narrating stories, sharing thoughts and had a lot of rapport and camaraderie, till pack up was announced. That is sadly missing today.
Khamoshi, the story of a nurse who cures two patients in a mental institution, falling in love with both, and becoming mentally ill herself in the end, was a very unorthodox role to begin with. Did you expect it to be as successful as it was, and how emotionally taxing is it to do roles like that?
I saw the Bengali version with Suchitra Sen and was so moved by it, I would ask all my directors to remake it in Hindi, but they would say you always choose really heavy subjects and a film like will not do well at the box office. One day I asked Hemant Kumar after working with him for Bees Saal Baad, if he would give it a shot. He said if you will do it I will make it and the very next film that he made was Khamoshi. He even retained the same director Ashit Sen who had directed the Bengali version and he was excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed that role, but I was so emotionally involved with it that it really affected me deeply. After Khamoshi was completed I started shooting a movie with Nirupa Roy. We were both considered superb in emotional scenes, but we went through bottles and bottles of glycerin and just couldn't emote. I realized then that the after effects of Khamoshi were still lingering and had drained me out. Unless you feel the pain you cannot show it and both of us were so flat, empty and drained out. She too had been doing several roles that had been emotionally draining. We had to call the shoot off.
I think the toughest scene, and one that took a lot out of me was where Rajesh Khanna keeps banging at the door asking her to open it. She is silent trying to control herself because the doctor has already reprimanded her and told her she cannot get involved with her patients, but deep within her she knows she is already involved and he is involved too and the silent struggle was very very tough to emote.
Guide was another extremely challenging role, that of a married woman who has an extra marital relationship with her tourist guide and breaks tradition to follow her own dreams instead of remaining the self-sacrificing marty. To go for a role like that in the sixties must have been quite a risque thing to do!
I was never image conscious ever. I wanted to explore a variety of situations and do roles that excited me as an actor. In fact Dev Anand was having second thoughts. He said what will this do to my image? I said to Dev what do you mean your image? Its not Waheeda or Dev that are doing this - it's Rosie and Raju. Fortunately R.K. Narayan had already written the story and the characters had been etched very clearly and were already recognized by readers. I was also making Neel Kamal simultaneously and the film director was afraid his film would flop because of my scandalous role in Guide. I told him I can opt out of Neel Kamal, but I'm not willing to give up on Guide. I am really happy at the acclaim it eventually got.
Well I guess you did something right, since you won the Filmfare award for best actress for Neel Kamal. You have been considered one of the most elegant and accomplished dancers on the screen. Yet very few know that you suffered from spondylitis for decades and a lot of those dances were performed under excruciating pain and heavy doses of medication.
Indeed, but what really saved my life when medication stopped working was yoga and I attribute my health totally to yoga and meditation.
Considering your long reign on the screen what made you stand out when there were many actresses who were as beautiful and talented?
Raj Kapoor said there are so many brilliant actors, but there is a thin line between the actor and audience where some actors can walk on screen and just touch the heart of the audience, while others cannot create that chemistry. Why that happens nobody knows. I guess I was fortunate to be able to create that affinity with my audience.
You got married to former actor turned businessman Shashi Rekhi and totally quit the film scene and moved to Bangalore to farming and creating an amazingly successful cereal business. You had acted in a movie called Shagun many years prior to that with him. So was there any chemistry between you two?
No none whatsoever. He later said he was very much in awe since I was such a big star and never approached me then, but that he had always liked me and my work. Later he quit films, moved to Canada, got into business and finally felt brave enough to ask me to marry him. I moved to Bangalore and got busy with my children. I did not want them to be brought up in the filmi atmosphere of Bombay. And yes I also got involved in creating a cereal, which did very well in spite of the advent of Kellogs in India, and after my husband passed away a little over two years ago, I moved back to Bombay. My son wants to be a journalist and my daughter is also writing scripts.
You have said you will only act with directors you are comfortable with. You returned to films with the multi-starrer Om Jai Jagdish, directed by Anupam Kher whom you knew but the film really didn't do justice to your acting skills. What kind of changes do you see in the industry?
Unfortunately the film lost its sense of direction. A lot of time they get a lot of actors together without a proper script. I'm keeping myself open to options but not really looking to do meaningless roles of the "Beta main teri ma hoon" variety.
Technically there has been a tremendous improvement in the quality of films, but its all so mechanical and fast. We used to be so involved in the film, and would stay there long after our own shots were taken, to watch, cue and bond with the other actors. Today people often speak to the empty space in front of them instead of their co actor who is shooting somewhere else and leave themselves for their next shift. I asked Abhishek Bachchan, the other day if I could cue him in to his dialogues and he was feeling shy and saying no auntie it's okay, but when I stayed back and spoke my lines with emotion, his response and performance was that much better.
Let's talk about your current passion, Pratham. How did you get involved in it?
I have always been interested in education. Earlier, there were times I would get fan mail, where someone would write to me and say I need money for higher education and I would promptly send the money, but then one day I got a letter from a shopkeeper telling me about a boy who would come to his shop and say today Waheeda Rehman sent me money for my studies, but I am going to have a party! It was very kind of the shopkeeper to take the trouble to send me that letter, and with that I became smarter and would tell any one who wrote asking for money for school to have a letter sent from their school principal to me, and only then would I reciprocate. Though I had been involved in charitable work of different kinds, I had always wanted, more than anything else, to contribute to the education of underprivileged kids. But then I got married and got busy with my own family. Two years ago as luck would have it I was approached by Pratham to help them in their mission to provide education for underprivileged and slum children. I was asked to be their good will ambassador and I have been doing that for two years, traveling in India as well as abroad. I have helped raise funds as well as met with the children, the teachers and the parents of these underprivileged children. It is so gratifying to see the joy in their eyes when they see their kids actually learn to spell and write words they already know how to speak.
The response from the NRI community has been great. A lot of them have gone and seen for themselves how their dollars are being utilized. Many of them have also gone to India and worked as volunteers for several months and its not just Indians but even Americans who have come and helped out.I have realized that as a celebrity you can use your clout to make things happen. Initially I was hesitant to come forward. I didn't want people to think I am doing this to get publicity for myself but then I was told by some political leaders that when a politician comes to talk to the masses a lot of the time people have been rounded up by local leaders to show up so they have not come there of their own free will, but when a film star comes or a superstar like Sachin Tendulkar comes, the public shows up happily and the message becomes a lot easier to convey. The masses tend to believe you more than they would believe a politician who will be perceived as doing it for votes.... While not every one will become a doctor or an engineer, I feel everyone, rich or poor, able or disabled has the right to education, and to dream of a better life. And I hope if ever you want to make a gift to someone needy, it will be the gift of education.