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The Immortals of Shambala

Rosie Remembers

An intimate yet lively look at Waheeda Rehman and her times in the film industry.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published:April 26, 2014 4:49 am

Book: Conversations With Waheeda Rehman
Author: Nasreen Munni Kabir
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 227 pages
Price: Rs 499

If you go to YouTube and type ‘Rojulu Marayi’, you will find Waheeda Rehman in her very first screen appearance. It is a song-and-dance sequence in the 1955 Telugu film, and it shows a young, lovely girl twirling around and lighting up the screen. That number was a smash hit, and became a show reel, so to speak, for Rehman’s onward journey to Bombay. It led to a meeting with the legendary Guru Dutt, and a long, successful tryst with Hindi cinema.

The cover of Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Conversations With Waheeda gives us two faces: a black-and-white beauty caught in a timeless filmi pose, and, on the back flap, the much more candid, gracefully ageing, present-day look. In the book, these two personas are revealed in a warm, intimate manner, and you end up knowing much more than you thought you did about the actress and her times in the film industry.

When Kabir told Rehman she wanted to do a book, the latter “smilingly” said no. That was standard practice with Rehman, who always first said no, then thought about it —  it could be a script, or even an outing —  and then, maybe, changed her mind. The two met about 25 times during December 2012 to November 2013, and the outcome is this volume, a lively, informative ramble through Rehman’s early years, the period when she was one of the most popular stars in Bombay films, her subsequent marriage and near retirement in Bangalore, and her move back to Mumbai, and her sporadic return to films and the public gaze.

I always thought that her natural acting style was much more engaging than many of the coquettes who were her contemporaries, including the biggest coquette of them all, Madhubala. How Rehman arrived in Bombay, and her initial days in the movies have been documented before, but we get a lot more detail here about the people and the projects that made it possible. Kabir starts at the very beginning, and gets her subject to open up about her childhood (difficult days riddled with financial troubles after her father’s early death), how she and her sister danced on stage to help ends meet, and how a chance encounter with a film producer changed her life and the family’s fortunes.

Rehman was not one of those who take your breath away because of the greatness of their acting. She stole our hearts because she was so present, so there while she was on the parda. Because she was elegance, beauty and grace personified. Because when she sang Bhanwara bada naadaan hai in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, and made that little face, that was pure love. Because when she swayed in the back of the truck to Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai in Guide, that was pure life.

Her filmography is memorable , and some of her films will always find place in everyone’s Best of Indian Cinema lists. In her Guru Dutt phase, she did CID, Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudvin Ka Chaand and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. She thinks Kaagaz Ke Phool was flawed (“there are many good moments in it, but as a whole I didn’t think it worked”), and Chaudvin Ka Chaand was “lovely”. She talks of how a song from Pyaasa was cut because she was the first to feel it was too “intrusive”; and how she wanted to do a scene in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam with Meena Kumari (they shared a warm relationship off-screen ), but had none . Her best performances came out with the dapper Dev Anand, the dashing Raj Kapoor (she recounts a lovely Raj anecdote after Teesri Kasam released), and the serious, intense Dutt.

Kabir does ask, gently, about Rehman’s relationship with Dutt — “everyone assumed that you were in love with each other”, but is deflected by a sentence that’s beautifully ambiguous. “None of my film colleagues have ever asked me personal questions about our relationship. It was always other people and the press who were curious, and still are, almost sixty years later.” And, “he was caring and protective. But in truth, he looked out for everyone.”

When she first came to Bombay in the mid-1950s at Dutt’s behest, to be signed for CID, director Raj Khosla “got all het up” and told her she would have to drop the surname, as her name was too long. He said, “it is common practice for actors to change their names — Dilip Kumar’s real name is Yusuf Khan, Meena Kumari is Mahajbeen Bano, Madhubala is Mumtaz Jahan and Nargis is Fatima. Everyone changes their name.” Waheeda Rehman said, “I am not everyone.” No, she wasn’t.

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