SCREENsavour: The lovely Waheeda Rehman
Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book on Waheeda Rehman captures the history of Hindi cinema down the ages through the career of the legendary actress

Bound scripts were uncommon in the early days…. Many times the scene was given to us on the day of the shoot. On the spot! The assistant director would hand us a bit of paper on which the dialogue was written, and we would start memorising the lines… There were even times when the dialogue was written shot by shot. Even after we had filmed a scene, the director decided to change a line here or there and we had to go for another take.”

This is Waheeda Rehman speaking to London based writer and documentary filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir in her highly acclaimed interview-based book on the much-loved and award-winning legendary heroine of Indian cinema. Starting her Hindi film career in CID in 1956 opposite Dev Anand, a film directed by Raj Khosla and produced by Guru Dutt, Rehman followed it up with Pyaasa and went on to etch a significant career through the decades till she switched to motherly roles in the late ’70s and continued till the first decade of the century. So, to get her to talk about her career is like looking through a kaleidoscope of changing times that define the history of Hindi cinema since the 1950s.

Two things work in favour of the book: first is Rehman’s sharp and vivid recollection of events that she was associated with and her pertinent observations that display her profound understanding of the craft of filmmaking as it evolved through the decades, gained through experiences working with varied directors with their distinctive styles, including the legendary Satyajit Ray; and secondly, Nasreen Munni Kabir’s intelligent questions that stray clear off any kind of gossip or sensationalism — her reported affair with Guru Dutt is relegated to a single functional paragraph; Kabir’s queries are concentrated solely on her career and craft, which is backed by her profound knowledge and understanding of Indian cinema, particularly Hindi films down the ages. 

So, when Kabir observes that Hindi film songs which were ‘the most original aspect of Indian films’ have less purpose in the stories of contemporary times, Rehman replies, “Well, they don’t fit because the stories are often action-based or they have more realistic settings… You can’t expect the hero in The Lunchbox or Paan Singh Tomar to sing a song, can you? How could the character Vidya Balan plays in Kahaani sing? It would look totally wrong… In our times songs were used to express love. But now the couple meet and are hugging and kissing soon enough — where’s the time or opportunity for them to sing a love song?”

She continues in the same vein, “There has to be change. You can’t stick to the same themes like love and tragedy. People are changing in India. The audiences are more educated… In my era, people who watched films were not highly educated. Perhaps that’s why melodramas and weepy loves stories dominated our films… Audiences today have a lot more entertainment. They are far more aware because of the vast number of television channels and the Net. Little kids can teach you a lot.” Unlike others of her generation, her nostalgia for the days gone by don’t dwell on sentimentalism or uncritical admiration; and it is such candid acknowledgment that endears her to the reader.

On asked how she would define the change in heroine’s character since she started working in Hindi films in 1956, she replies, “Every 10 years you can see a distinct change in the role of the heroine. In the 1950s and 1960s, the hero and the heroine had more or less equal importance… In the 1970s, the hero took over and violent action films became popular — that was Amitabh Bachchan’s era. In his time, the girl became a kid of showpiece, that’s all. The heroines had nothing to do. But I think roles for women are getting better again in Indian cinema.

The overriding tone that prevails through the book is her absolute unassuming nature. So when Kabir asks her about her legendary beauty, she laughs and replies in the most unassuming manner, “I promise you no one ever told me: ‘Wow, how beautiful you are!’ They would say: ‘You photograph well.”

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)

Ranjan Das