Waheeda Rehman‘s classic beauty has enthralled a generation of cine-goers. The always-modest actress has gone on record to state that she was never aware of her beauty and that it was the right makeup, right lighting, and a good camera man who made her look beautiful on screen. I wish it were that easy! It was definitely not the props that explain her serene beauty in real life, even as she aged gracefully and with dignity.

Born to a Muslim family in Chinglepet, Madras, her father was a District Magistrate who died when Waheeda was in her teens. Waheeda was surely blessed by the Gods. Her sensuous good looks coupled with exquisite grace and immense talent ensured that she earned her place amidst the pantheon of truly great actresses. And she could certainly dance up a storm. In fact, it was a dance that set her film career soaring. She was in her teens when she signed a Tamil-Telugu bilingual, Rojulu Marayi (Kalam Maari Pochu in Tamil). All she had was a folk-dance number (Eruvaaka Sagaroranno Chinnanna which was later adapted by SD Burman as Dekhne me bhola hai, dil ka salona in Bambai ka Babu), which became such a huge success that a star was truly born.

It was while she was in Hyderabad celebrating the success of her debut venture that Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi met her and transfixed by the grace with which she danced, signed her for the role of a gangster’s moll in C.I.D. And what a stunning debut that was! Pyaasa, Kagaz ke Phool, Chaudvin ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam were further collaborations between the director and his actress muse that only added to her repertoire.

Despite that, Waheeda once said that her personal favourites were Guide, Khamoshi, Mujhe Jeene Do, and Teesri Kasam since they were the only films that offered her strong characters. One does not know whether it was her strained relationship with Guru Dutt that led her to disown her performances in his films; the actress has been as restrained and dignified in her personal life as she had always been in her professional one.

Here then are her ten best performances in chronological order, seen through a very subjective lens as always.

1) C.I.D.(1956)

C.I.D_Dev Anand_Waheeda Rehman_BollywoodirectShe was barely 20 when she made her (stunning) debut in Hindi films, in a role with grey shades. It was a role that fully showcased her dancing skills, as she made her appearance on screen with Jaata kahaan hai deewane sab kuch yahan hai sanam (a song that is inexplicably cut from the movie). And the climax comes as she seduces the villain withKahin pe nigahein Kahin pe nishaana, allowing the hero to escape. There is an impish seductiveness about her glances, mingled with worry whether the police inspector she has a soft spot for (Dev Anand), has succeeded in escaping. Her expressive face and liquid movements were but a glimpse of a talent waiting to be unleashed. She had already overshadowed the leading lady of the movie, Shakila. 

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 2) Pyasaa (1957)

One of Waheeda’s strongest performances and it is strange indeed that with the exception ofKagaz ke Phool and Chaudvin ka Chand, Waheeda always played the second lead in Guru Dutt’s movies. Yet, the roles were always made of stronger stuff than that of a traditional second lead. That was the case with Gulabo, too.

She is a prostitute, hardened by her life experiences on the streets. And she is a contradiction of sorts. She loves poetry, this cheap streetwalker, with her dramatically painted face and her cheap, shiny accessories. When she meets a man in the park and solicits him with lines of poetry from a book she has bought from the local raddiwala, little does she realise that fate has tangled her life with his in ways that are beyond her ken.

There is a wealth of experience behind her worldly gaze, she is practised in the art of seduction, yet she begins to feel pangs of a strange emotion. When Vijay, her penniless poet, saves her from the policeman who wants to arrest her for soliciting, she imagines for the first time, what it must mean to lead a life of virtue. And there is anguish as she realises, perhaps for the first time, that it is not a life meant for such as her.

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Yet there is redemption waiting for her; when her poet is declared dead, she sells herself to her wealthy clients in order to publish his poetry. When her poet makes a (unwanted) reappearance at the venue where the publisher and his disloyal brothers are exulting in the success of their venture, she is the one whom he leaves with, for she is the only person who has loved him selflessly. A towering performance from Waheeda Rehman, as she switches from coquettish to playful to angry to anguished – all in the blink of an eye.

3) Solva Saal (1958)Solva Saal_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect

Waheeda joined up with Raj Khosla once again to play a light role that showcased her versatility. She is Laaj, a young girl, who is completely taken in by her boyfriend, and agrees to run away with him. In order to pay their way to her boyfriend’s house, where he assures her they would get married, she steals her family’s heirloom necklace. Dev Anand is a journalist, who overhearing the lovebirds on the train, decides to follow them in search of a story. However, the boyfriend decamps in the middle of the night with the necklace.  Laaj is heartbroken at his feet of clay, but not for her the sitting around and wringing her hands, wailing about how her honour has been besmirched. Full of spunk, her only thought now is to find the heirloom.  She quickly inveigles the journalist into helping her punish the errant boyfriend and reclaiming the necklace before dawn, so she can go back home without anyone being the wiser.

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In a movie that is filled with adventure, intriguing plot twists (the ending is a hoot), and lovely songs, Waheeda’s Laaj stood out for her sheer exuberance and her dignity under pressure.

4) Kagaz ke Phool (1959) Kagaz ke Phool_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect_Guru Dutt

Very rarely has a film about the film industry been so caustically honest about the despair behind the glamour. And perhaps it is this very honesty that was responsible for its box office failure. Kagaz ke Phool was a deeply personal film for its director-producer Guru Dutt. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the film portrayed a highly successful director’s love for his beautiful discovery and his subsequent downfall that corresponds with her rising success. Shot by the inimitable VK Murthy, a Dutt regular, the film used light and shadows to great effect.

Waheeda played Shanti, the debutante, who falls in love with her married mentor with a searing passion that came alive on screen. Just watch her in that one scene where, trying to reach her mentor, they are forced apart by the adoring hordes that surround her. Her turmoil when she is confronted by her lover’s young daughter, her subsequent return to the silver screen, and her anguish when her former lover rejects her offer to direct her comeback movie (that was a stunning scene where Guru Dutt tells her quietly that he had sold everything but his self-respect) – she lit the screen with her quicksilver expressions.

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In later years, Waheeda may have dismissed Kagaz ke Phool as being a ‘director’s film’ saying that she did not have anything to contribute to the film; but the fact remains that there is not one single heroine amongst her peers (with the exception, perhaps, of Nutan) who could have poured her soul into this role.

5) Kala Bazaar (1960) Kala Bazar_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect_Dev Anand

Another grey-shaded character (Dev Anand) who is redeemed by the love of a good woman (Waheeda). Only, as is usual in the Nav Ketan films of the time, the male-female relationships are treated in a very sensible manner. Her character’s graph moved from a young girl who is faithful to her lover who has gone abroad to a woman who realises that the man who befriended her now means more to her than her absent lover who, in the meanwhile, has fallen in love with another woman.

Waheeda, despite brushing Dev Anand off in the beginning (she is in love with Vijay Anand) still remains his friend; later, when she begins to develop deeper feelings for Dev that is also handled without too much melodrama. It is a role that Waheeda could do with her eyes closed and with one hand tied behind her back, but she brought freshness to her character that ensured that it remained in viewers’ minds long after they had left the theatre. 

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For lovers of trivia, Dev had run out of money while making this movie, and hence shot the scene where he is selling tickets in black for Mother India, outside the theatre premiering Mother India.

6) Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect

This is a film that Meena Kumari had made her own – but if her Chhoti Bahu is the soul of the movie, then Waheeda’s Jaba is its life. Waheeda is playing the second lead, but her Jaba is spirited and independent, vivacious and not at all averse to reaching out for what she wants. Witness the expressions flit across her face as she teases Bhootnath while pretending to be writing a poem. She can also be arrogant and rather cutting to Bhootnath, yet her metamorphosis into the loving, tender woman later in the movie is natural in its progression.  

For those who are interested in trivia, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is the only film that Guru Dutt’s regular writer Abrar Alvi directed; it went on to win him the Best Director award at the Filmfare awards that year. Unfortunately, for him, the film bore the inimitable stamp of Guru Dutt, and much to Alvi’s chagrin, many people believed (and continue to believe) that it had been directed by Guru Dutt, who, after the failure of Kagaz ke Phool was wary of putting his own name to a project. This, despite the fact that respected technicians like VK Murthy (camera), YG Chavan (editor) and even Waheeda herself confirmed that it was indeed Abrar Alvi who helmed the project. Guru Dutt did direct the songs, though.

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Geeta Dutt refused to sing for Waheeda Rehman, thus leaving the way open for Asha Bhonsle. Geeta play backed for Meena Kumari.

7) Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962) Baat ek raat ki_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect

Another stellar performance from an actress who made every role look effortless. Waheeda is a self-confessed murderess who is awaiting trial when a young criminal lawyer happens to stumble on the case. Neela (Waheeda) is either insane or amnesiac or a very clever actress and it is up to Rajeshwar (Dev Anand) to find out which. In a bid to learn more about the background of the case and help the police tie up the loose ends, he moves her into isolation, in the process getting to know her better and falling in love with her almost against his better instincts. Now it is up to him to find out the truth – that is, prove that she was not the murderess. Only, he has to prove it not only to the police and in the court, but also to her. And life is complicated when he realises that the man she murdered was her lover. Within the trappings of commercial cinema, this was a film with heart. A suspense thriller (with a decent musical score) which could have done with the services of a good editor (the movie could have been cut by about 20 minutes). 

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Waheeda was wonderful in her portrayal of a girl who moves from being a poor but happy street performer to a stage actress of renown who feels trapped in her gilded cage. She also essays the guilt and fear that her character feels, with much sensitivity.

8) Guide (1965)Guide_Dev Anand_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect

Rosie, the daughter of a prostitute, had achieved respectability through marriage to a researcher. However, nothing in life comes free, not even respectability. She is forced to give up her dance since women from respectable families do not indulge in such hobbies. Ignored and un-cared for, she trails around archaeological sites with her much-older husband until she meets Raju, their local guide, who is thrown into her company when her husband gets engrossed in the local caves. (Funny sort of husband, if you ask me if he’d much rather look at dusty caves instead of his beautiful wife!)

Upon one such excursion alone, Raju sees another side of Rosie when she spontaneously begins to dance at a village. Upon hearing her story, Raju urges her to think seriously about taking up dance once again. And she does, leaving her husband to move in with Raju, unleashing a storm in the process. Watch her unbridled enthusiasm as Waheeda moves from being a jaded married woman who has everything, yet nothing, to a woman who realises that she still has a desire to live even if she has to pay a stiff price for the opportunity. Witness her disillusionment when she learns that her lover had cheated her; her agony when she goes to fetch him and realises that he is nowhere to be found…

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This was a bold move for an actress of the time. The role was first offered to Vyjayanthimala, who turned it down because she did not want to be cast as an adulteress. Waheeda, who took up the challenge much against the wishes of her friends and well-wishers, once remarked that she was not sure she would ever act again. However, the movie (though disowned by RK Narayan whose novel it was based on) was a box-office success, garnering much critical acclaim and awards for the cast and crew

9) Teesri Kasam (1966) Teesri Kasam_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect_Raj Kapoor

Based on Phanishwarnath Renu’s novel Maare Gaye Gulfam, this quiet lyrical tale plods as slowly as Hiraman’s bullocks, taking the protagonists (and us, the viewers) on a journey that will change their lives forever. And the long road trip will see the beginning of an unlikely friendship that just falls short of love – for Heerabai knows that she is not the Heera Devi of his imagination, but Heerabai, who lives and breathes the air of the nautanki; who not only welcomes, but needs the male adulation that is showered on her. Raj Kapoor (an inspired against-the-image casting) is Heeraman, a bashful country bumpkin. Waheeda is Heerabai, a more sophisticated, certainly more literate nautanki dancer, who has to travel to a village far away. The course of the journey sees them becoming friends – she finds his simplicity endearing; he sees her as someone far beyond his grasp, a divine beauty, a Devi, who is to be worshipped.

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This is a film that depended on the two leads, and the conversation between them to move the story along. And what I liked most about the movie is that it does not judge Heerabai for the decision she makes; the fact that she is not ‘pure’ is mentioned, and while she loses the chance to be ‘respectable’, it is a choice she makes. Of her own free will. Like Rosie of Guide, she chooses her own life path and is willing to pay the price.

10) Khamoshi (1969) Khamoshi_Waheeda Rehman_Bollywoodirect

This is a film that drained me, just watching it, that I cannot imagine how much it must have affected Waheeda doing the role. In my opinion, this was probably her best role and that is a difficult thing to say considering her versatility.

Radha is a nurse at a mental asylum and has taken such diligent care of a particular patient (Dharmendra in a particularly effective supporting role) who had successfully undergone a new course of treatment at the facility. So successful, in fact, that he was fully cured. Only, Radha had fallen in love with him. After this, she is (understandably) reluctant to take care of another patient in the same manner. However, fate conspires to bring Arun to the hospital, and Radha is once again in charge. Against her will, the lines between professional and personal blur once again; this time around, however, Arun is in love with her; but is Radha in love with Arun, or with Dev whom she sees in Arun? Haunted by memories past, Radha slowly disintegrates until she, who is a caregiver in the hospital turns its inmate. 

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There is pathos in the story, underlined by the long silences that punctuate its flow. Silences that do not slow the denouement, just emphasise it. It’s a movie that I hesitate to revisit, due to the emotional response that Waheeda’s portrayal draws out of me.

I know I have left out her searing performance in Kohra, and the commercially successful Bees Saal Baad, and even the offbeat interpretation of Romeo and Juliet (Reshma Aur Shera). But it was hard to stick to only *ten* good performances, and I includedSolva Saal only because it was one of her few light-hearted roles.


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