'These girls have a Friday -to-Friday shelf life'
In the early part of the 1970s Rehana Sultan blazed quite a trail of thought-provoking, eyebrow-raising unconventional films which redefined the Hindi film heroine. Today, she lives far away from the limelight with her husband, writer-director B.R. Ishaara, happy to be a housewife. On her birthday which fell on November 19, Subhash K. Jha tracked down the actress who startled cineastes by Chetna, Dastak, Haar Jeet, Sajjo Rani and a string of films that probed female sexuality.
Q: Your rise in 1970 was meteoric. Then you vanished.
Gayab nahin hui. I did a lot of films. Some worked, others didn’t. I had no guidance for my career, no one from my family had anything to do with the industry. I went to the Pune film institute. Career to achchha-khaasa hi raha. When I got married I decided to take a break. The offers kept coming for a while. Not lately, though. I don’t mind working. But the role should give me something to do.
Q:How did the startling unconventionality of Chetna and Dastak happen to your career?
I’d also count Haar-Jeet among my important films. I didn’t plan to be unconventional. It just happened. I was at the Pune institute when Rajinder Singh Bedi Saab saw a short film of mine. He offered me Dastak. Yeh sab ho jaata hai.
Q:Your now-husband’s film Chetna branded you a bold actress.
I must admit that the image damaged my career. Filmmakers would come to me only with those kinds of roles. The character would be a simple girl, but she was required to do all kinds of things. They wanted some sex in any movie that I featured in. I said, no thanks. Ek simple si middleclass ladki bathtub mein kahaan se pahunch gayi?! She wouldn’t have known what a bathtub is. I had heated arguments with filmmakers. Nowadays, look at what the heroines are doing!
Q:But for a conservative Muslim girl to do those bold shots in Chetna and Dastak?
First of all, the belief that I’m Muslim is wrong. I’m a Bahai. My husband is a pucca Brahmin. So I lead a completely cosmopolitan life. I did Chetna because I liked the story of the rehabilitation of a prostitute. I had a problem with just one bedroom scene where my character was supposed to be nude. It was impossible for me to actually do a nude scene. I kept asking Ishaara Saab about it until he must’ve thought I’m interested in doing it. My hairdresser Maria bailed me out. She styled my hair with a wig in such a way that it covered my upper torso completely. As for the controversial shot of my legs in an inverted V, I had to do nothing, just hitch up my skirt a bit. But the effect was very bold. I’d say the bold scenes were more in the mind than body.
Q:Were you involved with B.R. Ishaara from the Chetna days?
People thought so. Lekin aisa bilkul nahin tha. We got involved after a couple of years. But I definitely admired him as a writer and director. My father had trusted me and let me enter movies. I didn’t want to do anything to compromise his name. Afterwards when Ishaara Saab and I got close I confessed to my father. Daddy was a very propah British-styled gent. Ishaara Saab was a barefoot artiste. Total opposites. Daddy was shocked by the cultural difference. He slowly started liking his future son-in-law, though unfortunately we got married in 1984 when my father had passed away.
Neither of us was interested in parenthood. We saw no need to bring another human being into this troubled earth. My kid brother who lives with us, is like my son.
Q: We associate some of Lata’s best songs for Madan Mohan with your screen persona.
Jee, woh to hamaari kismat achchhi thi ki hamen Maai ri, Hum hain mat-aye-koocha--bazaar, Rasm-e-ulfat and Aap ki baaten karen, jaise gaane mil gaye.
Q:What do you think of today’s bold actresses like Mallika Sherawat?
I wouldn’t like to comment on any one actress. But all these actresses will have to prove themselves. I’ve nothing against actresses who flaunt a good body. It’s their decision. But an artiste needs acting talent to endure. I feel actresses who flaunt assets other than their acting talent are taking shortcuts. When I signed films like Chetna and Dastak I wasn’t thinking of shocking audiences for publicity’s sake. The bold scenes were part of the script. I may be wrong, but these actresses who constantly show their bodies are like those sub-standard products which are oversold to the public. These are signs of insecurity. No wonder some of these girls have a Friday-to-Friday shelf life.
Q:Whom among the current lot do you like?
Rani, Preity? Among recent films I loved Black. I don’t mind working with anyone?I’ve worked with everyone from Sanjeev Kumar in Dastak to Satish Kaul in Prem Parbat. My last release was Vijay Anand’s Hum Rahen Na Rahen where I was with Shabana Azmi.
Q:Were you friendly with the other trend-setting actresses of your times?
Cordial?.we weren’t good friends. I knew Smita Patil well. I met her a little before her death. We had promised to meet after her childbirth?Sabhi apne kaam mein busy the. Me and Jaya were both from the Pune institute. But we lost touch.
Q:Don't you want to come back in a film made by your husband?
He’s directing two films. But I’m not in either of them. Why don’t you ask him to write something for me?