Book: Conversations With Waheeda Rehman; Author: Nasreen Munni Kabir; Publisher: Penguin-Viking; Pages: 227; Price: Rs 499.
She has done some of the most unconventional roles in Indian cinema - a prostitute, a gangster's moll, a tawaif, a woman who walks out of a marriage and so on - but with such art and innate grace that Waheeda Rehman has always remained a byword for refined sensibility in the Bollywood universe.
The sentiment is well brought out by Nasreen Munni Kabir's "Conversations With Waheeda Rehman", in which the veteran actress engages in conversation - over a year from December 2012 to November 2013 at her Mumbai home - with the author about all aspects of her life and work in a career that began in the mid-1950s and still continues.
Kabir's work is strictly not an autobiography or a biography, but goes far beyond their limitations to provide a fairly comprehensive account of a remarkable actress whose ethereal beauty has lit the screen in the many unforgettable roles she has essayed - but always on her terms.
An incident when she was on the threshold of her career is illuminating. Waheeda relates how she, when a teenager and not even of an age to legally sign a contract, clashed with established filmmakers Guru Dutt and Raj Khosla, insisting she be allowed to choose her costumes and reject those she deemed unsuitable. And what's more, she would not change her name for the screen.
Though Khosla was taken aback at the gumption of someone who was far from an established star, Guru Dutt was more amenable to her concerns and agreed, thus
launching her career.
Waheeda was the female lead in most of Guru Dutt's films, and Kabir manages to draw her out on the professional relationship that led to such masterpieces such as "Pyaasa", "Kagaaz ke Phool", "Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam" and "Chaudhvin Ka Chand". Kabir has written a book on Guru Dutt earlier but Waheeda's account helps to provide a fuller, more nuanced account of the man and the filmmaker.
The book, very readable and enlivened with several rare photographs, is replete with many other illuminating accounts of Waheeda's work with other legends of Indian cinema - of Bollywood and even beyond including Satyajit Ray. It also chronicles her brush with Hollywood viz the English version of the cinematic adaption of R.K.Narayan's "Guide".
However, "Conversations with Waheeda Rehman" could have added some more value by drawing more on her recollections of other cinematic stars she worked with and remembers with affection - the excellent but masterfully restrained Rehman is an example.
But for one view of Waheeda we must turn to R.K. Narayan himself - it appears in his essay on the making of "Guide".
"The director wanted the hero (Dev Anand) to kiss the heroine, who of course rejected the suggestion as unbecoming for an Indian woman. The hero, for his part,
was willing to obey the director, but was helpless, since kissing is a cooperative effort. The American director realized that it is against Indian custom to kiss in public; but he insisted that the public in his country would boo if they missed the kiss. I am told that the heroine replied: "There is enough kissing in your country at all times and places, off and on the screen and your public, I am sure, will flock to a picture where, for a change, no kissing is shown.' She stood firm'."
Waheeda Rehman did stand her ground - Bollywood or Hollywood!
(09.04.2014 - Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)