Waheeda Rehman, the soft-spoken and graceful actor with a remarkable three-decade film career behind her, was all of 17 when she signed a three-year contract with Guru Dutt, who introduced her to Hindi cinema. At the meeting, where she was accompanied only by her widowed mother, she politely rebuffed filmmaker Raj Khosla when he suggested that she should change her name as it was “too long”, just as everyone had, including Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari. “I am not everyone,” Rehman said.
This anecdote from Nasreen Munni Kabir’s latest book, Conversations with Waheeda Rehman (Penguin), allows a rare glimpse into Rehman, who has mostly chosen to stay away from the limelight over the years.
“Nothing dates like performance,” points out Kabir, who considers Rehman’s acting in the ’50s and ’60s very modern — subtle and without hysterics. “I place her in the category of natural actors such as Balraj Sahni and Nargis. And if you look at Waheedaji’s roles, they could be characters from present-day cinema, be it the free-spirited Rosie in Guide or the golden-hearted prostitute Gulabo in Pyaasa,” she says, when we meet her at her Bandra apartment in Mumbai.
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Kabir first met Rehman when she was making a documentary on Guru Dutt, one of her earliest works. Some of Rehman’s most remarkable performances were in films she did with Dutt, including Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
“It’s said that time curates classics, not people, and I am interested in chronicling just those people who made or are making history. Hindi cinema has been my obsession since childhood,” says Kabir.
Born in Hyderabad, the 64-year-old moved to London with her parents and five sisters when she was three years old, and her connection with India was chiefly through cinema, especially Hindi film songs. “For any family that’s settled abroad, the idea of homeland — rather than homeland itself, because the homeland keeps changing — comes from religion, language, food and cinema, and more importantly, film music.”
Kabir decided early on that she would be working on films, but it took a while before she figured out that recording cinematic history is where her interest lay. “Cinema also creates a bridge between people from across cultures. So if I am in Moscow or Turkey, people will find it easier to connect with me because they know Raj Kapoor,” says Kabir.
Meanwhile, she did her Master’s in cinema studies, and moved to Paris, where, over 19 years, she worked with noted filmmaker Robert Bresson as his third assistant, trained in several departments of filmmaking and was a consultant with Pompidou Centre, where she also organised two Indian film festivals. It was an opportunity to programme Indian films and then direct a docu-series on Indian cinema, Movie Mahal, for the newly-launched Channel 4 that brought her back to London in the early ’80s.
Among the first films Channel 4 aired was Sholay, which got a million views. Once, the channel received a letter from an Englishwoman who had been born in India. Her Indian ayah used to sing her a song, which she could no longer remember. Her Indian friends were also not of much help. “Then, one day, the song played on an episode of Movie Mahal. It was Aayega aanewala from Mahal (1949),” says Kabir.
By then, Kabir had found her calling — to record a slice of Indian cinema’s history. In the bargain, however, she had to let go of her thesis on “Four masters of Hindi cinema” — Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt. But today, she can be easily called an archivist of the history of Indian cinema. Over the last 30 years, Kabir has authored 15 books on cinema and directed several documentaries, including her near-definitive work on Dutt.
Kabir says it isn’t always easy to convince people to talk about their past. “Waheedaji avoided the idea of a biography all this while because she didn’t want to offend anyone. The industry’s a small world and anything remotely negative will get frozen in time, which can create tension. That’s one of the reasons why biographies aren’t a popular genre in India,” she explains. Another reason, Kabir adds, is that people don’t consider preservation of memory or history important, especially their own, even though they may consider themselves important in the here-and-now.
Kabir only touches upon gossip, never pressing for it, although she is aware that it can help sell more copies. Her interest lies is exploring the artistes’ craft, and through that, understanding the person and his/her technique. For example, she talks to Rehman about the expressions the actor learnt during her training in Bharatnatyam — something that helped her acting immensely. “Silent expressions would go unnoticed in theatre, but are perfect for cinema.
Because of close-up shots, the face needs to convey the actor’s feelings,” says Kabir. A section of In Search of Guru Dutt dwells on Dutt’s lighting technique and shadow play, based on veteran cinematographer VK Murthy’s anecdotes. That, along with his use of 75mm or 100mm lens, came to be known as “Guru Dutt’s style” in the industry. Kabir’s works, therefore, provide an insight into the industry during the era the actor was working, besides exploring his or her personality.
The format — conversational biography — was inspired by Cameron Crowe’s book Conversations with Wilder, where the subject’s story was told in his own voice over several interview sessions. “I prefer it because it leaves no room for the author to interpret or steer the story in a direction other than what the subject provides,” says Kabir.
Her first book in this format was Talking Films: Conversations on Hindi Cinema with Javed Akhtar (1999). She first met Akhtar for an episode of Movie Mahal, and was taken in by his wit and his ability to place cinema in the context of its time. “He called Indian films a separate state of the country with its own culture,” says Kabir, who has also worked with Gulzar and A R Rahman.
One of Kabir’s most cherished works is the 2013 diary that she worked on for Penguin, where every alternate page has an illustration representing something iconic from the Hindi film industry, in a way, depicting its 100-year history. For the book, she tracked rare material, including Naushad’s notebook with numbers of playback singers of his time, songs handwritten by Shailendra in his notebook, unseen pictures of Devika Rani and Dutt’s passport.
Though Kabir has been working on archiving Indian cinema through documentaries and books for over three decades now, she is aware that it doesn’t yet have a market. “The value of this material will be known years from now,” she says, adding that she regrets not having been able to chronicle the work and lives of Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Vijay Anand.
Living between her London home and Bandra apartment, she has allowed her passion for Hindi cinema to take over her life. “Woody Allen once said that work is a great distraction from life. If I had to choose between having a life experience and recording one, I would any day choose the latter,” she says, with a laugh.