Waheeda Rehman (born 3 February 1938) is an Indian actress and dancer who has appeared in mainly Hindi films, as well as Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam films. She is noted for her contributions to different genres of films and different roles from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Her accolades consist of a National Film Award, two Filmfare Awards out of eight nominations, the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award and the Centenary Award for Indian Film Personality. Throughout her career, she has been frequently cited as one of Bollywood’s “most beautiful” actresses by various media outlets, a title for which she has received substantial publicity.
Although Rehman achieved her film debut in the Telugu film Rojulu Marayi (1955), she received recognition for her work in Hindi films directed by Guru Dutt, which included Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), for which she received her first Filmfare nomination. She continued acting in the mid-1960s, starring in successful movies and establishing herself as one of the leading ladies in classic Indian cinema. Rehman’s career reached its highest point when she won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress twice, for the Hindi blockbuster Guide (1965) and Neel Kamal (1968) and received nominations for Ram Aur Shyam (1967) and Khamoshi (1970).
Despite winning the National Film Award for Best Actress for portraying a clanswoman in love with a separate clansman in the commercial failure Reshma Aur Shera (1971), her career came to a standstill when she was reduced to motherly, supporting roles in films. Rehmen’s notable performances in the 1970s are Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Namkeen (1982) and Lamhe (1991), and the latter film became her last film credit in the next 12 years until 2002, where she returned to the film industry.
In 2011, the Government of India honoured Rehman with the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award of the country. Apart from acting, Rehman is a philanthropist. She is an advocate for education and is an ambassador for Rang De, an organization combating poverty in India.
Early life and background
Waheeda Rehman was born on 03 February 1938 to a Dakhini Muslim family in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, India. It is a common misconception that Rehman was born in Andhra Pradesh instead of Tamil Nadu. Her father was Mohammed Abdur Rehman and her mother was Mumtaz Begum, and she was the youngest out of four daughters. As a child, she and her sisters were trained Bharatanatyam in Chennai. She studied in St. Joseph’s Convent in Visakhapatnam when her father was posted there in the then Madras Presidency. Her father, who worked as a district commissioner, died in 1951 while she was in her early teens.
Rehman’s dream was to become a doctor, but due to her family’s circumstances emotionally and financially, alongside her mother’s illness, she abandoned her goal. In order to help her family, she accepted movie offers that stemmed from her dancing abilities.
Waheeda Rehman’s first performance on stage as a Dancer in earlier days was at Brahampur’s Ganjam Kala Parishad organized by her Uncle Dr.Ferose Ali who was a famous doctor and social activist in Brahmapur city.
This performance of Bharat Natyam was watched by a Telugu Film Director who gave her first opportunity to work for a Telugu film. Guru Dutta watched that movie and introduced in Mumbai. Later she become the heartthrob of Indian Cinema with Dev Anand and Guru Dutt’s film CID.
Dr. Ferose Ali was a down to earth man who used to cure patients free of cost those days. He originally hailed from Cuttack but established in Brahmapur City. His house was known as ‘White House’ in that era which situated between Khallikote Collage Stadium and Palur Bunglow Street and used to be the epicenter of intellectual hangouts in those days. Waheeda visited her Uncle’s house several times in those days.
Waheeda again came back to Brahmapur city for a grand performance after achieving stardom in Bollywood. She raised funds for charity. The funds were used for Red Cross Maternity Ward in Then Red Cross Hospital and Now known as City Hospital in Brahmapur.
Nargis Natarajan (Writer and Daughter of Late Dr. Ferose ali, a student of Saint Vincent Convent School, Brahmapur) also mentioned these incidents in her book’Daddy- A Bouquet of Memories’.
Early work as a starting actress (1955–1959)
Rehman began her career in films in the mid-1950s, usually dancing in item numbers. Her film debut occurred in the Telugu film Rojulu Maraayi (1955), in which she was encouraged by the producer of the film to join the cast, despite hesitance from her mother. It was a success, becoming a channel for more offers from filmmakers to Rehman. She was featured in Jayasimha (1955) by the side of veteran actor NT Rama Rao. Kaalam Maari Pochu (1956) and the first full-length colour Tamil film Alibabavum 40 Thirudargalum (1956).
In the success party of Rojolu Maraayi, Hindi filmmaker Guru Dutt noticed her and decided to have her act in Hindi films. In later interviews, Rehman describes how she considers Dutt as her mentor. Dutt brought her to Bombay (current-day Mumbai) to have her in a supporting role in his production CID (1956), directed by Raj Khosla. Because of the famous Hindi actresses of that era, such as Madhubala, Nargis and Meena Kumari, Rehman was pressurized into changing her name into “something sexy”, but she was adamant on keeping her birth name, signifying her will to stay true to herself. The success of the film caused Dutt to give Rehman her first leading role as a prostitute in Pyaasa (1957), which was also a commercial success and became one of Dutt’s most acclaimed movies. By the time the decade was over, she had made a few more films with the filmmaker, including 12 O’Clock (1958) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). After several years in the industry, her mother died.
Rehman also established a working relationship with Dev Anand, and together as a pair, they had a number of successful films to their credit. Including CID, other box office hits are Solva Saal (1958), Kala Bazar (1960) and Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1961). Suresh Kohli of The Hindu writes on her performance in Solva Saal, “Though barely 22 then and only in her fourth Hindi release, Waheeda Rehman demonstrates her class: both in serious scenes demanding intensity and through sparkling, mischievous eye movements during lighter moments.”
Rise to recognition (1960–1964)
Besides Kala Bazar, Rehman acted in three other films in 1960, which were Ek Phool Char Kaante, Girlfriend, and Chaudhvin Ka Chand. The last film was another partnership between Rehman and Dutt, and was the fourth-highest grossing Hindi film of 1961. It was considered a “saving” point in Dutt’s career, after their last collaboration, Kaagaz Ke Phool, had a horrendous run at the box office. It also represented the strained relationship of the duo. Dutt’s existing marriage and her film successes with other directors caused them to drift apart personally and professionally, although they continued to work together into the 1960s. Their last movie together was the drama Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), starring Dutt, Meena Kumari, Rehman and Rehman herself in a supporting role, and the movie was a flop financially but was lauded internationally by critics. The film presented Rehman her first Filmfare nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actress, and the movie itself received nominations for the Golden Bear at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival and was selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars. Rehman and Dutt finally broke away in 1963, and a year later, Dutt was found dead on 10 October 1964 in Mumbai, reportedly from an overdose mixture of sleeping pills and alcohol.
The actress began to experiment with her roles when she ventured into Bengali film-making with Satyajit Ray’s film Abhijan in 1962. As the years went on, she began to taste higher success when she was offered the leading actress roles in films and played parts that were deemed as unconventional for the typical Bollywood actress. Rehman played a murder suspect in Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962), a girl embroiled in a sibling feud in Rakhi (1962) and an infertile woman in Ek Dil Sau Afsane (1963).
As a leading lady, she also started to star opposite of many familiar faces of Hindi Cinema; Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1962), Nirupa Roy in Kaun Apna Kaun Paraya (1963), and Biswajit in the horror film Kohraa (1964), Majboor (1964), and the psychological-thriller Bees Saal Baad (1962)—the latter becoming the highest-grossing Hindi film of 1962.
At the end of 1964, Rehman became the third-highest paid actress in Bollywood, from 1959 to 1964.
Extreme success and peak (1965–1971)
Vijay Anand’s magnum opus, the 1965 romantic drama Guide presented Rehman with a different outlook of success that resulted in major fame and popularity to her name. The film itself was an adaptation of the same book written by R. K. Narayan, published in 1958. The main cast were Rehman and Dev Anand, and they were last seen together in Baat Ek Raat Ki, an average hit at the Indian box office. The film itself proved difficult for Rehman, as her character Rosie was rebellious, strong-willed and didn’t fit the mold of the usual women Bollywood films portrayed. However, the film was an instant success, becoming the fifth-highest grossing Hindi film of 1965 and a fan-favorite in Rehman’s repertoire. Rehman’s character was especially praised, with Trisha Gupta of Hindustan Times writing, “Rosie was triply unusual: a woman who walks out of an unhappy marriage, begins a romantic relationship with a man who isn’t her husband, and simultaneously embarks on a successful career as a dancer. She would be an unusual Hindi film heroine even today.” and her performance was ranked amongst her best. She won her first Filmfare Award—Filmfare Award for Best Actress—and soon after, she became a sought-over actress in the latter half of the 1960s. Guide became India’s official entry to the Oscars and a staple film in Hindi cinema.
Her peak continued when she was paired with other well-established superstars, namely Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Rajesh Khanna. Among her most acclaimed films of late 1960s include Teesri Kasam (1966), Ram Aur Shyam (1967), Neel Kamal (1968) and Khamoshi (1969). The last three movies all earned Rehman consecutive nominations for Filmfare Award for Best Actress each, with her winning her second Filmfare Award in Neel Kamal. In her role in Khamoshi starring alongside Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra, it is believed to be Rehman’s finest acting performance. She plays a nurse who has gone mentally insane after falling in love with one of her patients, and eventually is sent to her own mental institution.
Other films that were commercially successful were Patthar Ke Sanam (1967) and Aadmi (1968), and box office failures include Dharti (1970) and Shatranj (1969). At the end of the 1960s, Rehman ranked a new record amongst herself in becoming the second-paid actress in Bollywood, from 1964-1969. She states herself, “For Solva Saal, my first film as a freelancer, I received ₹30,000. The highest I ever earned in my career was 7 lakh for a film.”
Character roles, career decline and marriage (1971)
Her career continued throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. She won the Filmfare Best Actress Award for her roles in Guide (1965), where she hit the peak of her career, and Neel Kamal (1968), but despite excellent offbeat roles in subsequent films, including a National Award-winning performance in Reshma Aur Shera (1971), some of the films failed at the box office. Seeing her films being successful, Waheeda decided to experiment with roles at this stage of career. She accepted Reshma Aur Shera, opposite her old co-star Sunil Dutt, with whom she had previously in the sixties had hits such as Ek Phool Char Kaante, Mujhe Jeene Do, Meri Bhabhi and Darpan. Her performance was appreciated by critics, but the film failed at the box office. But Waheeda continued to experiment with roles and accepted the offer to play a mother to Jaya Bhaduri in Phagun (1973). This, she regards the mistake of her career, as after this film flopped, suddenly people started offering her motherly roles to heroes.
Film expert Rajesh Subramanian reported that Manmohan Desai had approached Rehman, on behalf of Shammi Kapoor, during the making of Naseeb. In the song “John Jani Janardhan”, Shammi Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman make a grand entry holding hands. Incidentally this was the first time the two stars appeared together on screen. Later she also did Manmohan Desai’s Coolie and Allah Rakha.
From the mid-seventies, Waheeda’s career as lead heroine ended and her career as character actor began. At around this time, Kamaljit, who starred opposite her in Shagoon (1964), proposed and they got married in 1974. After her appearance in Lamhe (1991), she retired from the film industry for 12 years.
In her new innings from the seventies, her successful films where she played pivotal roles include Kabhi Kabhie (1976),Trishul (1978), Jwalamukhi (1980), Namkeen and Namak Halaal (1982), Mashaal (1984), Chandni(1989) and Rang De Basanti(2006). She played the central character in the Mahesh Bhatt directed film Swayam that starred Akash Khurana and Anupam Kher. She also appeared in a tele-series being directed by Gulzar.
In recent years she made a comeback playing elderly mother and grandmother roles in Om Jai Jagadish (2002), Water (2005), Rang De Basanti (2006), 15, Park Avenue and Delhi 6 (2009) which were all critically acclaimed.
A biography has been written and published in 2014 about Rehman, entitled Conversations with Waheeda Rehman, which consist of interviews collected by author and director Nasreen Munni Kabir.
At the beginning of her career, Rehman is rumoured to have been involved with her frequent collaborator Guru Dutt. At the time, Dutt was married to singer Geeta Dutt and had children. One of their films, Kaagaz Ke Phool, which chronicles a film director falling in love with an actress, is thought to be inspired by the ill-fated affair.
On April 1974, Rehman married Shashi Rekhi (also known by his screen name Kamaljeet), and both had worked together prior in the film Shagoon (1964). She has two children: Sohail Rekhi and Kashvi Rekhi, both of them are writers. After her marriage, she lived in a farmhouse in Bangalore but after the death of her husband on 21 November 2000, she moved back to her ocean-view bungalow in Bandra, Mumbai, where she currently resides.
In October 2004, a Waheeda Rehman film retrospective was held at the Seattle Art Museum and the University of Washington where Rehman participated in spirited-panel-and-audience discussions on her most memorable films; Pyaasa, Teesri Kasam and Guide.