AN ACTOR OF GENIUS - Waheeda Rehman's best work came after the Guru Dutt phase

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 26.07.12

Preparing for a public conversation with Waheeda Rehman intended to flag off a retrospective of her most notable films, I watched as many of them as I could, starting with C.I.D. and ending with Delhi 6. This homework confirmed me in my belief that she is, by some distance, the best actor produced by Bombay’s film industry in the 1950s and 1960s, and arguably the best actor in the history of Hindi cinema. At the same time, the unnatural experience of watching a dozen films end-to-end made me see the graph of her career, its highs and lows, differently.

My revisionist thoughts were uncharitable ones and directed principally at Guru Dutt. Waheeda Rehman’s early career in Hindi films is virtually made up of films that Guru Dutt produced and/or directed and acted in. C.I.D., her first Hindi film, was produced by Guru Dutt, though it was directed by Raj Khosla while the leading man was Dev Anand. Waheeda isn’t the heroine in this feature; that credit belongs to Shakila. Waheeda plays Kamini, the apparently sinister but actually good-hearted vamp or moll. Guru Dutt’s overweening influence over films that he produced but which were nominally directed by others, seems apparent here in the way in which the camera seems to stalk the young Waheeda.

His storied obsession with his young protégé was, in fact, a secondary infatuation. The real love of his life, his grand passion, was Guru Dutt himself. Pyaasa, made soon after C.I.D. in 1957, is Guru Dutt’s signature film: it is the film in which he settles into the role of the neglected, self-pitying artist, beset by a materialist world. Waheeda Rehman, hard on the heels of her vamp’s role in C.I.D., plays a prostitute with a heart of gold. She is wonderful in the role but her character exists to make Guru Dutt’s martyred point that it takes a whore to appreciate a poet because respectable bourgeois society is too crass to appreciate real art.

Pyaasa is often misunderstood as a great romantic film; if romance requires two people in love, Pyaasa isn’t a romance. Guru Dutt’s capacity for self-love is so enormous that it crowds everyone else out of this film, Waheeda included. The film’s trademark song, “Jala do isey, phoonk dalo yeh duniya ” isn’t a call to arms, it isn’t Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, it is a bit of tuneful moaning, the real message of which, despite the incendiary lyric, is “poor me, isn’t the world an awful place for not recognizing my genius”. Vijay’s idea of action is to declare in front of a rowdy audience that he isn’t the poet they think he is, just so that he can confirm his view of the world by being beaten up by the philistines who make it up.

The attraction of the Vijay character to a movie-going public is, paradoxically, that he is an infantilized man who can’t make ends meet or feed himself, but who believes the world owes him a living. It is hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for his brothers when they reproach their mother for feeding him off their hard-earned money. It may not have been the most fraternal thing to have said but you can’t help wondering why this well-fed, not particularly young man is still living off furtive handouts from his mother.

Waheeda’s role in this film is to supply nurture; Guru Dutt isn’t looking for love in Pyaasa, he’s looking for a baby-sitter. It should come as no surprise that Guru Dutt wanted the film to end with him walking away from the haunts of men into the sunset, alone. His distributors persuaded him to take Gulabo (Waheeda) along for the sake of a happy ending. But in terms of the logic of Pyaasa, they were wrong and he was right: the true martyr needs to be alone; company of any sort thwarts his need for perfect desolation.

Thwarted by his distributors in Pyaasa, Guru Dutt set things right in his next film with Waheeda, Kaagaz ke Phool. In this film, the narcissism evident in Pyaasa becomes a kind of monomania. Again the great theme of the film centres on the great artist, this time a film director, cast off by a money-grubbing world once his movies fail at the box office. Once again the world — his producers, his parents-in-law, his wife, even his well meaning daughter —conspire to drag him down. The only person who stands by him is Waheeda, the girl he had fashioned into a star, who is in love with him but who leaves him because his daughter, anxious to save her parents’ marriage, asks her to. This time, Guru Dutt was determined to maximize martyrdom: he dies alone, in the studio he had once commanded, sitting in the director’s chair just as Emil Jannings had died at his teacher’s desk in The Blue Angel, another cinematic monument to male self-pity.

The truth of the matter is that while Guru Dutt is crucial to Waheeda Rehman’s stardom, her roles in his films are circumscribed by his narcissism. Her main task is to look ravishingly beautiful and this she does. It is to Guru Dutt’s credit that he frames her in ways that highlight her loveliness. But that is her role in his films; she’s a lovely prop. She is there so that the Guru Dutt character can be reliably loved by someone beautiful while he works his way through several sorts of male angst. It is a tribute to her abilities as an actor that within these constraints she comes across as a believable character.

This is most clearly the case in Guru Dutt’s great Muslim social, Chaudhvin Ka Chand. Briefly, a Lakhnavi nawab (Rehman) falls in love with Jameela (Waheeda Rehman). But purdah-induced mistaken identity leads to Aslam (Guru Dutt) marrying Jameela at the nawab’s urging (who is his best friend) and resolving this impossible circumstance without destroying this precious and longstanding male friendship is the burden of this film. So while the film is best remembered for its title song, “Chaudhvin ka Chand ho, ya aftab ho”, sung to an ethereally lovely Waheeda asleep on her marriage bed, its dramatic tension turns on the impact of her marriage on Aslam’s friend, the nawab. If this is a love story, Aslam’s love interest is the character played by Rehman, not Waheeda Rehman. It’s probably appropriate that the film ends with the leading lady, in this case Rehman, killing himself by swallowing a diamond.

It’s tempting but inappropriate to ‘queer’ Chaudhvin ka Chand. While it is a story about male love, the nature of that love is homosocial rather than homoerotic. In societies like ours, where young men and women often live sexually segregated lives, friendship is, almost by definition, the company of men. What is remarkable about the relationship between Rehman and Guru Dutt in this film is Aslam’s agonized willingness to consider ‘sacrificing’ his marriage at the altar of male friendship. Jameela’s likely feelings about this absurd scenario where she is to be delivered to the right address (that is, Rehman’s) once Aslam removes himself from the scene, don’t seem to matter. While this might be explained away as a requirement of the genre, it is harder to avert your eyes from the heavy-breathing voyeurism of two men in early middle-age, sizing up a younger woman not as husbands or lovers might, but in the manner of shaukeens, connoisseurs of beauty.

Waheeda Rehman’s own favourite amongst her films is Guide, which tells us that great actors aren’t necessarily reliable judges of their own work. Guide has arguably the greatest soundtrack in Hindi film history, but as a film it tells us more about Navketan’s directorial failings than it does about Waheeda Rehman’s capacity as an actor. She is done in (again) by the self-love of her male lead as the film declines into a parody of moksha with Dev Anand, naturally, playing the enlightened one.

Waheeda Rehman’s greatest performance came after Guru Dutt’s death, in 1967 in Teesri Kasam, a film directed by Basu Bhattacharya, produced by the lyricist, Shailendra, where her leading man was another champion in the self-love stakes, Raj Kapoor. Set in colonial India, Waheeda plays Hira Bai, a singer and dancer in a ‘company’ repertory, who is transported as a passenger in Raj Kapoor’s covered bullock cart to a fair where she’s scheduled to perform. Raj Kapoor manages to merge his star persona with that of an innocent villager plausibly, but this is Waheeda’s film.

She plays a sexually experienced nautanki performer who is first disconcerted and then charmed by Raj Kapoor’s innocent protectiveness and chivalry. Her unparalleled ability to play characters who live on or beyond Hindi cinema’s strictly policed border of respectability has never been turned to better account. Inarticulately the two of them fall in love with each other, even as she performs a series of magnificent nautanki sequences in the fair which show off her dancing ability, her sensuality and her expressive genius. The film ends with a separation, it is poignant without being sentimental or self-indulgent; when the credits roll, you know that you have been in the presence of an actor of genius.

Waheeda Rehman is Hindi cinema’s greatest actor but it is a mistake to make that claim, as often happens, on the basis of her work in Guru Dutt’s films. Guru Dutt sprinkled her with stardust; as an actor, she made herself.