If Raj Khosla had had his way, there might never have been a star called Waheeda Rehman. At the meeting where the debutante actress was to sign her contract with Guru Dutt Films, Khosla — the director of CID (1956), her first Hindi film — declared that her name was too long. But the quiet 17-year-old was no pushover. “My parents have given me this name and I like it,” she answered. “I won’t change it.” Khosla, Rehman remembers, “got all het up” (“He was a Punjabi, you know, and they can get all excited.”) When he pointed out that ‘everyone’ had changed their names, from Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan) to Nargis (Fatima Rashid), Meena Kumari (Mahjabeen Bano) to Madhubala (Mumtaz Jahan), she was adamant: “I am not everyone.”

The name stayed. On February 3 this year, the bearer of the name turned 78.

Sixty years after CID, it is impossible to imagine Hindi cinema without Waheeda Rehman. The innate self-possessed quality that helped her resist a filmi naamkaran also gave her the confidence to venture happily into roles more timid heroines might have run from. She seems to have had no compunctions starting out as a vamp (CID’s Kamini is the villain's moll, though she has a change of heart), or later, accepting the role of Rosie in Guide — a woman who leaves her neglectful husband for another man and a life as a dancer, and later leaves the lover too — or playing the mother of Amitabh Bachchan in Trishul (1978) when she played his wife in Kabhie Kabhie just two years earlier. (It’s also remarkable that in both these films, her characters are unwed mothers.)

Yet the reticent actor has never spent much time impressing the undeniable fact of her ‘difference’ upon us. The documentary filmmaker and writer Nasreen Munni Kabir took nearly a decade to persuade her to be interviewed. Although Kabir asks no tough or critical questions, the book that resulted — Conversations with Waheeda Rehman (2014) — is charming and thoughtful. Rehman firmly refuses, as she has done all her life, to speak of her relationship with Guru Dutt — whom she refers to throughout as ‘Guruduttji’, using the first half of his formal name, Gurudutt Padukone. But about almost everything else, she is quietly candid, turning a considered eye upon the industry as it once was. Her starting salary from Guru Dutt Productions was ₹2000 a month, later increased to ₹3500. “For Solva Saal, my first film as a freelancer, I received ₹30,000. The highest I ever earned in my career was 7 lakh for a film.”

One of her recurring subjects is her relationship with dance. She started to learn Bharatanatyam as a nine-year-old in Rajahmundry. An asthmatic child, Rehman's first guru said dancing might help her lungs expand, and her mother “started regarding the dance lessons as a kind of treatment”. Her father, a government employee, not only disregarded the criticism of relatives who felt dance was not an appropriate activity for Muslim girls, but in fact encouraged the young Rehman and her sister Sayeeda to take the stage at for an official function in honour of Governor General C Rajagopalachari, just after Indian independence.

Rehman’s recall of how films were made in her time, especially of song-picturisations, is sharp: the innovative tracks created for the camera to film the circular shot at the end of her famous ‘snake dance’ in Guide, or the re-shoot of the ‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’ song in new colour technology, during which she had to dip chamois leather in an ice bucket and dab it on her face to keep the studio lights from burning her skin. She also makes striking general observations: the fact that male actors weren’t really required to dance in her time, or how film dances were often a melange of styles, with movements tailored to suit the frame.

There are several interesting accounts of male colleagues’ protectiveness: Rehman (the character actor) in the post-Pyaasa phase, ushering her and her mother out of parties where people were likely to drink till late; Raj Kapoor at the end of the Teesri Kasam shoot angering an assembled crowd at Bina Station by refusing to let them see Rehman, because “Why should they look at a woman anyway?”; senior lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri telling her she shouldn’t have taken a taxi alone all the way to Madh Island. Rehman does not say it in so many words, but the safeguarding of virtue was clearly crucial to a suitable public persona. Almost all her mentions of costumes, for instance, have to do with not wearing something inappropriately revealing.

Female colleagues appear as close friends. Nargis is seen in several of her personal photographs, including a remarkable one with her and Sunil Dutt at the Berlin Film festival, 1973, beaming as they sit on either side of Satyajit Ray — the same Ray Nargis criticised in 1980 as having grown famous by showcasing India’s poverty to the world. In more recent holiday pictures, we see the oft-discussed Bollywood girl gang which has sadly lost two members since the book’s release — Asha Parekh, Sadhana, Shammi, Helen, Nanda and Waheeda Rehman herself.

Kabir’s book-length interview suggests many possible follow-up conversations. It would be a joy if Rehman were persuaded to have them.

Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi; @chhotahazri

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