‘Waheeda Rehman: An Epitome of Humanness’

22 Dec
‘Waheeda Rehman: An Epitome of Humanness’

By Dr. Rashmin Tamhne

When Shyam Uttarwar told me to “come online for a chat” in the early hours some weeks ago, I didn’t have any inkling as to what it was about; when he asked me if I would be willing to write an introduction to SKS’s Living Legend feature on Waheeda Rehman, I felt a surge of joyous delight passing through every molecule of mine! “Yes, of course!” I told him; how could I miss an opportunity to write about one of my most favourite of actresses (Nutan being the other) to an erudite and discerning audience, with their high ‘critique-ity’ index?!

sasural gendha phool

The euphoria soon turned into apprehension, however, as I discovered how much was already written about Waheeda! What was going to add that was ‘new’?! But as I dwelt deeper into ‘my subject’, I realised that there was more to the septuagenarian Waheeda than her universally acknowledged ‘ethereal beauty’ and ‘natural elegance’ – or even the legendary dancing and acting prowess she has wowed us with for almost six decades – would have suggested!

I looked through Waheeda’s life-journey through the prism of ‘emotions’, and the way she responded to the varied challenges encountered at some points, using information gleaned from a variety of sources, including her TV and newspaper interviews and published articles. I was also lucky to have a ‘close-up’ personal view of Waheeda Rehman from Rama Bharti, a friend of mine who had recently met her in Delhi, during a films-related function.

The brimming enthusiasm in Rama’s voice, as she narrated her once-in-a lifetime encounter with the charismatic 76-year-old, is just the same as my own feeling of being awe-struck by this remarkable human being, not having even met her! So here it is, a multi-layered portrayal of the vastly, and multiply, talented, actress in the Indian film industry.

portrait by ajit chitale

portrait by ajit chitale

It begins with the most-admired, and visible, aspect of Waheeda – her ‘on-screen presence’, the graceful beauty and elegance she exudes, the emotions she evokes amongst her fans and colleagues alike!

It is a ‘lyrical tour’ of some of the most memorable songs with a focus on Waheeda Rehman, with a view to illustrating her career-trajectory that culminated in her reaching the iconic status.

Waheeda: ‘A Symbiosis of Beauty and Emotional Expressivity’

The first of the clips ( from a Telugu film ‘Rojulu Marayi’ (1955) where a 18-19 yr old Waheeda grabs the attention of the audience, whether or not they understood Telugu, with her vivacious dance-performance , exuding a joyous feeling through each and every movement of hers! Her total involvement in the dance-scene lifted the impact of the entire movie, making it a popular hit, which in turn, paved the way for her being ‘noticed’ by Guru Dutt who happened to be in the audience watching her dance at a celebratory function in Hyderabad.

The next thing was Waheeda’s appearance in her first Hindi movie, CID (1956), in which she performed as a seductress in this alluring song.. “Kahin pei nigahe, kahi pei nishana..”, The poise and allure that a 19-yr old Waheeda displays as she performs the ‘free’, uninhibited dance movements, is most remarkable, and an indication of the shape of a career in the offing!

Waheeda’s classic beauty was to blossom further, reaching its pinnacle in the movie, Chaudhavi ka Chand (1960).Mohammad Rafi’s title song provides, through Poet Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics, an exquisitely refined description of female beauty:

“Zulfe hai jaise kaandhe pe baadal jhuke hue,
Aankhe hai jaise may ke payaale bhare hue
Masti hai jisame pyaar ki tum, wo sharaab ho”
“Cheharaa hai jaise jhil me khilataa huaa kaval
Yaa zindagi ke saaj pe chhedi hui ghazal
Jaane bahaar tum kisi shaayar kaa khwaab ho”

Waheeda’s classic beauty is an example where a poet’s most dreamily romantic imagination finds its match in real life! Interestingly, this was the song that helped ‘convince’ Waheeda herself that she was, after all, a very beautiful woman! (Ref: Waheeda speaking with Simi Garewal).

Other lyricists were similarly enamoured, as shown by Hasrat Jaipuri’s lyrics in the ‘Ek Dil Sau Afsane’ (1963) song ‘Kuchh sher sunata hun’:

“Haathon ki loch ras bhari, shaakhon ki daastaan
Naazuk hatheliyon pe woh, mehandi ka gulsitaan
Pad jaaye tumpe dhoop to, sanwlaaye goraa tan
Makhmal pe tum chalo to, chhilen paaon gulbadan
Kitni bhi taareef karoon, rukti nahin zubaan..”

waheeda with sisters

As Hasrat Jaipuri, the doyen of romantic lyrics himself concedes, it is hard to stop once you start describing the supremely beautiful Waheeda Rehman!

But Waheeda isn’t just beautiful; she is also an actress who possesses an uncanny ability to give ‘visible expression’ to one’s innermost feelings through the entire spectrum of emotions. Her stature as an actress grew rapidly, thanks to the mentoring by Guru Dutt, her friend, and an astute and highly creative Director.

The song ‘Waqt ne kiya, kya haseen sitam” in the Guru Dutt movie, Kagaz Ke Phool (1959) gives a measure of the progress Waheeda had made as an actress.

It’s her best song by her own reckoning (Simi Garewal Interview), and most people would agree! The superb acting by the screen pair of Waheeda and Guru Dutt, deeply in love as they were, expressing their intense despair and helplessness through an exchange of pain-filled stares upon encountering the harsh reality of their non-union; the way Waheeda makes her heart’s anguish patently obvious on the face, with her slow-closing of eyelids, ‘silent tears’, gaze-dropping on being unable to withstand the accusatory glance of Guru Dutt! The song achieves a most dramatic cinematic impact without a word being spoken!

Could anyone have imagined this while watching with admiration a happy-go-lucky bright spark of a Waheeda performing in those preceding clips?!

My own ‘Waheeda-favourite’ is the Rafi-Suman song from Shagoon (1963).
”Parabato ke pedo par, shaam ka basera hai..” penned by Sahir Ludhianvi. The song underscores yet another dimension of Waheeda’s expressivity: a visual display of contentedness and mutual fulfillment in love – through her ‘look’; the gentle ‘head-nods of approval’; the beaming face; the day-dreaming!

Two songs from ‘Guide’ (1965), and one from Reshma and Shera (1970), further illustrate Waheeda’s expressivity range:

“Kaanto se khinch ke ye aanchal..”
“Mose chhal kiye jaye, haye re haye dekho..”

The first, ‘Kanto se khinch ke’, is an ostentatious display of the intense joy of a woman – the character of Rosie – who is ‘just liberated’ from the shackles of a love-less, fun-devoid marriage; the risk-taking behaviour that follows would be a natural consequence of feeling such an overwhelming experience of unfettered freedom, and the strength of Waheeda’s acting prowess is on display yet again!

In the second ‘Guide’ song (‘Mose chhal kiye jaye’) Waheeda, through her dance, displays the opposite emotion: one of an extreme anger, repugnance and disillusionment directed at Raju, her fallen idol. It’s yet another gripping performance by Waheeda, with a consistent acting display in every frame, remaining faithful to the song’s theme of Rosie’s foul mood.

Finally, a clip from ‘Reshma and Shera’ song, ‘Tu chanda mai chandni’ that always brings tears of joy in my eyes! To me, it’s the ultimate expression of divinity of love, and it’s Waheeda’s acting in the main, that makes the feeling tangible!

Having explored Waheeda’s screen persona, and her unique symbiosis of beauty and emotional expressivity, leading up to the pinnacle of her acting performance, I would like to raise the question:

‘How did the ‘Waheeda Phenomenon’ come about’?

Is it merely the case of an ‘exceptional sculpting’ of face during the crucial early fetal period (approx 14-15 weeks of gestation) the consequence of which was to create an exceptionally beautiful human being?! In other words, was it just a ‘natural, if happy, ‘freak occurrence’ which, by creating an exceptionally beautiful individual, underpinned her success?

‘Or is there more to the ‘total circumstances’ of her life – personal, family-based, environmental – which ultimately helped shape her destiny towards becoming the Icon that she is’?

Exploring Waheeda’s real-life journey would help one’s understanding.


Waheeda: ‘An Embodiment of Equanimity’

Chengalpattu (literal meaning ‘Town of Red Lotuses’) is a thriving, modern town in Tamil Nadu, India, being situated off Coromande coast, of the Bay of Bengal, about 35-miles south-west of its big neighbour, Chennai. Its current bustle of modernity belies an ancient origin, and a chequered history that dates back to 2nd century BC when the town was founded by the Chola dynasty of Tamil Hindus. The region was invaded by successive waves of ‘foreign’ armies, especially from mid-2nd millennium onwards, each army bringing its own ‘culture’, and leaving its legacy even after defeat. The Vijayanagars (1336 – 1565), a Hindu dynasty, created conditions of creative productivity (together with an emphasis on Sanskrit-based literacy), which gave way to the occupation by Muslim Sultanates in 1640. This was followed by the victory in 1752 of Robert Clive of the East India Company, heralding the onset of British colonialism that was to last until Indian independence in 1947.

Despite such apparent historical upheavals, Chengalpattu has managed to maintain its relative tranquil, as can be expected from the ‘Lotuses in a pond’; it has absorbed, and assimilated successive cultural influences, thereby creating a uniquely diverse, and rich cultural milieu for its citizens.

The equanimity symbolised in Chengalpattu’s ‘historically-moulded’ character was to be echoed in the psyche of a girl born on 14th May 1936 into a Tamil Muslim family living in the town. She was one of the three daughters; their naming of ‘this’ daughter ‘Waheeda’ (literal meaning in Arabic: “female of ‘Wahid’; ‘One; Unique; Unparalleled; title of God”), was to prove remarkably prescient.

The predominant societal fervour around the time of Waheeda’s birth was one of patriotism, with a commonly-felt yearning for freedom, for this was ‘pre-Independence India’. Cultural give-and-take and religious co-existence were the prevalent ‘norms’, for this was the ‘undivided India pre-religious-strife’.

The family-milieu of Waheeda’s early childhood was ‘nurturing’, both materially and emotionally. Her father was highly educated, being a district commissioner; her mother was educated, too. Their ‘parenting style’ could be regarded as entirely in keeping with the modern notion of optimal parenting, namely an ‘authoritative’, or ‘good-enough’, parenting.


Waheeda remembers her childhood as being “very happy”. As described to Rama Bharti, her upbringing was “open”; her parents gave the freedom to pursue “whatever urge or interest she had”. Her passion from an early age was in learning to dance, and that is exactly what she did, achieving a reputation for her skills in Bharat Natyam. Her first public dance-performance was in front of late C Rajagopalachari, the then Chief Minister of Madras State.

The idyll of Waheeda’s childhood continued into her adolescence, but her desire to become a doctor was put paid by bouts of ill-health. Undeterred, she pursued her dancing ‘hobby’ with seriousness, as she began her College years, with support from her parents.

Waheeda had no desire to act in films, as she told Rama Bharti; for dancing was her real passion. She none the less accepted a small dancing-part in a Telugu film, ‘Rojulu Marayi’. As destiny would have it, Waheeda’s attention-grabbing dance-performance even in this small part, aided by some serendipitous happenings, made her the focus of attention of Guru Dutt, a highly-rated Hindi film Actor-Director. He was searching for a fluent-Urdu speaking dancer-actress for his film CID, and Waheeda fitted the bill perfectly. There was just one small hitch: Both Guru Dutt and Raj Khosla, the producer, thought the name ‘Waheeda’ to be rather ‘un-cool’ for a Hindi film actress; they insisted on changing her name. Waheeda would have none of it; for it was a name that her parents had given her; how could she be so disloyal as to ditch it?! The name stayed, of course!
Waheeda’s alluring performance in CID, and subsequent mentoring by Guru Dutt, catapulted her screen-career into the highest echelons of Hindi film industry. (Please see the appendix for the full career profile of Waheeda)

Waheeda fondly remembers the help and support she received from Guru Dutt; he was the “best director” she had worked with, as she told Rama. It was fortuitous that she had Guru Dutt as her mentor; for she lacked confidence as an actress, not having had formal training in acting. Her principal skill was in dancing, and the emotional expressivity that went along with it. Guru Dutt, also a trained dancer, understood this; being highly creative, he could improvise enough to make this fledgling, self-conscious actress feel comfortable. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship; it resulted in several highly acclaimed films, including ‘Pyaasa’ and ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’.


It was not a tale with a happy ending though. The relationship turned sour eventually. What transpired between the two, would never be known, for Waheeda, the survivor, has steadfastly refused to say even a word about the matter. At the Delhi meeting, a journalist tried to elicit a response from Waheeda; she was unfazed by the question, but would only go so far as to say “Guru Dutt was the best Director”! A fine display it was, of steely resolve, personal discretion and emotional self-control!

Even as Waheeda was scaling higher peaks of screen-career during the Sixties and early Seventies (with films like ‘Guide’, ‘Khamoshi’ and ‘Reshma aur Shera’ to her credit), her personal world still smacked of loneliness, not having settled on a life-partner. It all changed when Shashi Reiki, her Hindu Punjabi co-star in ‘Shagoon’ – who had ‘given up’ on a film-career following the spectacular failure of his only film, setting up a business-career in Canada, instead – ‘proposed’ to her, if rather clumsily, after years of ‘polite friendship’ during which he was unable to express his true feelings for Waheeda. It was a surprise for Waheeda, but her answer was in affirmative; their wedding taking place in 1974.

It was a yet another change for Waheeda; one that took her into dairy farming near Bangalore, and into a world away from the glitz and glamour. Shashi required care during his final years of ill-health before he passed away in 2001; Waheeda was there for him. His mention makes her tearful; she misses the fun, and his laughter, and his kind demeanour.

Their ‘biological legacy’ in the form of two children, now grown-up, is another solace for Waheeda.

Waheeda Now!

Thanks to Rama Bharti, I can give a first-person account (second-hand, of course!) of Waheeda Rehman, the 76-yr old Icon.

How does she look now? “Unchanged!”, is the one-word answer! There is still the same charisma; same beauty; same intellect; same empathy and compassion; same interest in life; same humility and ‘down-to-earth’ demeanour! She ‘lives in the present moment’, Rama observed; she gives full attention to whatever she is dong, be it chatting with someone, when she would listen attentively, and reply to each query systematically (except those pertaining to Guru Dutt, of course!).And she pays similar singular attention to food, not chatting so much while eating. She is a self-confessed ‘foodie’, and her favourite dish is ‘garlic lobster’ especially one at Trishna restaurant in Mumbai! Though passionate about food, she has the same ability to self-regulate her eating (her slender figure would attest to that), as the ability she has of regulating her emotions. And that capacity of self-regulation in response to a constantly changing environment is, in my view, the hallmark of a complete human being!A ‘Complete Human Being’! That is the true Waheeda Rehman, the Screen Icon, as I have just discovered!

Waheeda: ‘The Human Context’

That Waheeda Rehman is a ‘Living Legend’ is beyond question in the mind of most people; sceptics need only take a cursory glance at her career-statistics (See Appendix) to quell any doubts.

To my mind, however, Waheeda Rehman is much more than a legend; she is the ‘epitome of humanness’, seeing the way she has conducted herself through life.
If one believes that the ‘evolutionary success’ of homo sapiens is heavily reliant on an individual effecting a judicious mix of choices at various junctures, either by deciding ‘to change’ in order to adapt to a changing environment, or choosing to ‘remain the same’, so as to keep hold of the fundamental values that sustain humanity (despite an environmental pressure to the contrary), then Waheeda Rehman, has shown the right way to survive in a changing world.

Looking at her radiant smile and an undiminished charisma at 76-yrs, and ‘feeling’ the inner peace emanating from her – as my friend Rama Bharti experienced! – I can only say that Waheeda Rehman is an inspirational individual who happens to be an actress par excellence! Her parents were obviously right in naming her ‘Waheeda’!


I wish to thank Shyam Uttarwar whole-heartedly, for giving me this opportunity to write on topic close to my heart. I am most grateful to Rama Bharti for her kind willingness, and her enthusiasm to talk over the ‘phone about Waheeda, our common idol! My understanding of Waheeda Rehman would have been incomplete without Rama’s help!

I’m grateful to three dear friends of mine: Kishwari Jaipuri, who encouraged and supported me in writing this article, and reviewed the draft; Dr Chitra Shingare-Muley reviewed the draft, as did Pratap Ranawaya.

Finally, I am indebted to my wife Sally, for being supportive, and for kindly letting me spend hours in my study thinking, reading, watching, talking and writing about someone she does not know even remotely! She will know, I hope, once she has read this article! “

1 Comment

Posted by on December 22, 2012 in Articles


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One response to “‘Waheeda Rehman: An Epitome of Humanness’


    December 29, 2012 at 4:05 am

    In such a well researched panorama of Waheeda,the author has underplayed the emotional deathblow given by Waheeda to her mentor and…Gurudutt.There is a dark side too,strong and remorseless.Well, no one has understood women,Waheeda is just a mortal among many,after all.
    Legend as a dancer,performer//that’s where she stops.


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