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.
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 continued…