Without a jot of a doubt, the name Waheeda Rehman signifies beauty, dignity and inner strength. And yet I’ve not seen this iconic actress stepping out of her comfort zone to display the staggering range of Madhubala, Geeta Bali, Nutan or Sridevi. Whenever Waheedaji has slipped away from her restrained histrionics, she has given us characters who will live forever, and a Friday.
1. Madhavi in Darpan(1970): Only God and the Moral Police know why our greatest heroines are never accepted as prostitutes, unless they are the pristine poetic version of the sex worker known as the tawaif in Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan and Amar Prem. Otherwise, from Rehana Sultan in Chetna to Shabana Azmi in Bhavna, Mandi and Doosri Dulhan, they’ve all been rejected. In the flop Darpan, Waheedaji played a prostitute being rehabilitated by Sunil Dutt, a role he played earlier to Vyjanthiamala in Sadhana. But here the sex worker was not a simpering poetess, hence rejected on both levels, by the moral police in the screenplay and the audience watching the film. But Watch this flop film for Waheedajis’s anguished protest in the great Lata Mangeshkar song Mujhe pyar karne a haq nahin. Watch the film for its courage to cast a top female star as a sex worker, directed by A Subba Rao who also directed the great Milan with Nutan and Sunil Dutt.
2. Radha In Khamoshi(1969): Producer Hemant and director Asit Sen were advised to take Nutan in the role of a nurse at a mental asylum who is asked to feign love for a man suffering a nervous breakdown after being jilted in love. It’s a role of tremendous complexities, performed by the actress beyond her normal serene range. Waheedaji’s mental breakdown at the end will give you goosebumps each time. Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thi, indeed.
3. Shanta in Phagun(1973): Psychological complexities abound in this dense and profoundly tragic film about a woman whose marriage to a man beneath her status breaks up leaving her emotionally fractured and sexually deprived for the rest of her life. There are scenes where Waheedaji’s Shanta had to enact a character who gets attracted to her own son-in-law. Not a very easy emotional outlet for an actress as dignified as Waheedaji. She told me Phagun was a mistake because it relegated her to the mothers’ roles prematurely. Sandhya jo aaye…why so early?!
4. Gulabi in Abhijaan(1973): In her only film with the great Satyajit Ray, Waheedaji played the free-spirited rural woman, a widow named Gulabi who does what her heart wants. Tricked into the flesh trade by one man, she happily sleeps with another man (Soumitra Chatterjee) with no strings attached because she loves him. Gulabi was a true feminist long before feminism became fashionable in films.
5. Rosy in Guide(1965): Nutan and Nargis may have a wider range, but they couldn’t dance to save their lives. Waheedajis’s snake dance in Guide is the single-most stunning piece of film dancing in Indian cinema, rivaled only by Vyjanthimala’s Hothon pe aisi baat in Jewel Thief. What was it about Dev Anand that provoked these dancing queens to out-excel themselves? What to say about this unforgettable woman who thumbs her nose at a bad marriage to pursue her dreams, her dancing. And her heart—in that order—no matter how much the moral police honks its pointy horns at any signs of horniness. Like it or not, brother, Rosy will live her life on her own terms: Kaaton se kheench key yeh aanchal, tod di bandhan, bandhi payal. Go for it, girl!
Image source: SpotboyE archive
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