31 July 2012

Fan Club Deptt: Waheeda’s elegance transcended Bombay cinema, now charms Delhi

From my Sunday Guardian column.

One correction before we begin," announced Mukul Kesavan to a packed house at the India Habitat Centre. "Waheedaji is not 'one of the best' actresses we've had in Hindi cinema — she is the best actress we've had."

The orange curtains of the Stein Auditorium had just gone up, and a visibly excited Kesavan — columnist, writer and a history professor at Jamia — was about to begin his conversation with the actress Waheeda Rehman. It was the inaugural evening of the seventh edition of the Habitat Film Festival, which included a retrospective of films of the 70-something Rehman who had already been described that evening (by a 70-something IHC director RMS Liberhan) as "the ultimate symbol of grace and beauty".

Rehman has always tended to evoke superlatives; she is clearly used to them. Whether it's the virtual certificate from Amitabh Bachchan, who has always said she's his favourite actress, or the usually sharp Kesavan, who gushed at the privilege of speaking to her ("Like most of you in the audience, this is something we would fight to do..."), she accepts the praise with her quiet grace — somehow neither embarrassed nor coy.

Perhaps some of the chief guest's innate tehzeeb has rubbed off on the Delhi audience that evening — there are no ushers or 'Reserved' signs, but an informal self-censorship of the anonymously civilised leaves the front row free for assorted dignitaries. By the time the crowd has settled in, the first seat on the right contains a bespectacled Sharmila Tagore, so unostentatiously dressed that the lady to my left feels the need to confirm with me who she is. When Liberhan insists on mentioning Tagore in his welcome address, I see the actress spread out her right hand in a helpless gesture. The auditorium breaks into applause.

It's that sort of evening. Kesavan, whose writing and public appearances are always in English, declares that with the permission of the audience, he is going to conduct this conversation "in Hindi" or "at least in a sort of khichdi". One of his first questions to Rehman is about language, too: she grew up in Madras, but the language spoken at home: was it Urdu? It was Urdu, she says. (It is fascinating how Kesavan refers to the language he is speaking as 'Hindi' and the language in which Rehman responds as 'Urdu'.)

Her fluency in what was still the language of Hindi cinema seems to have been crucial to Rehman's career. It was why Guru Dutt, stumbling upon a function in Hyderabad celebrating a Telugu film called Rojulu Maraayi, became interested in casting the lovely-looking girl who'd done a much-talked about folk dance number for it. The daughter of a district commissioner who had grown up in south India — and most unusually for a Muslim girl in the '50s , learnt Bharatanatyam — Rehman says she forgot about her meeting with Dutt until a few months later when she received a message saying that he had asked her to come to Bombay.

"Mere walid sahab ka intehkaal ho gaya thha," says Rehman, remembering both her own excitement and her mother's fears about sending her to a strange city. But she finally went, and Dutt told her she would star in CID, opposite the already iconic Dev Anand. The 17-year-old Rehman couldn't believe her luck. Fans of Bombay cinema have never got over theirs.

Right from those early years, Rehman alternated with great success between the tragic intensity of films like Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) and later Chaudhvin ka Chand (1961) and more lighthearted romantic ones opposite Dev Anand — CID (1956), Raj Khosla's Solva Saal (1958), which contains Hai apna dil toh awara, and Kala Bazar (1960) — or Sunil Dutt (Ek Phool Chaar Kaante, 1960). By 1965, Rehman had even starred in a Satyajit Ray film (Abhijaan, 1962). She was confident enough to take on the unconventional character of Rosie in Guide (1965) – a devadasi's daughter, a married woman who falls in love with a guide and sets out to fulfill her dreams as a dancer.

R.K. Narayan, whose celebrated novel Guide drew on, later wrote a hilariously scathing piece about how the filmmakers rejected all the real locations he showed them (which, as he points out, would have been free) in favour of expensive sets created in Rajasthan, and how the performances of his small-town "exponent of the strictly classical tradition of... Bharatanatyam" became "an extravaganza in delirious, fruity colours and costumes".

Watching Guide today, there is no getting away from its posturing and corniness and desire for spectacle. Dev Anand, as always, walks some line between ridiculous and devotion-worthy that only a Bombay star could have figured out, and Rehman's passionate dances are Hindi movie classics precisely because they are no Bharatanatyam pieces. And yet there is something true that emerges from all this. That something even Narayan recognised when he apparently said to Rehman, "I saw my Rosie in you." We see her still.

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