In one of her greatest roles in the dacoit drama Mujhe Jeene Do, Sunil Dutt playing Thakur Jarnail Singh points a rifle at her and asks her name: “Chameli”, she says. “Aur dharam? (And religion),” he asks. “Naach gaana (Dancing and singing),” she answers mutinously.
Few leading women in Hindi cinema have played courtesans and sex workers as often as Waheeda Rehman. From Gulabo, the supposedly fallen woman who saves the destroyed poet from a defeated life in Pyaasa (1957), to Rosie, the daughter of a courtesan who dumps her wayward husband for a life of freedom. dancing and singing in Guide (1965), Rehman embodied a thoroughly modern spirit with traditional ada (style).
There was no judgement in the characters the latest recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award chose to play, and none in the way she played them. From Hirabai, the tawaif who performed in rural nautankis and was proud of her profession in Teesri Kasam (1966) to Gulabi in Abhijaan (1962) as a woman tricked into being a sex worker but choosing love, Rehman invested each marginal woman with poise, dignity, and autonomy.
And passion. Rehman’s allure is not merely her gleaming eyes and sparkling smile, at its height in her dances into which she poured her training in Bharatnatyam. It is her total abandon in the role. Hindi film heroines before her have had style and charisma, like Nargis. Hindi film heroines after her had the ability to dance with a total lack of restraint, like Sridevi. But few seemed to be enjoying themselves so much onscreen, whether she was an impulsive young woman eloping with a worthless beau in Solva Saal (1958) or the spoilt heiress romancing the naughty Dilip Kumar in Ram Aur Shyam (1967).
Her legendary romance with the late Guru Dutt, never corroborated, is the stuff of national folklore, giving their intense scenes shot in black-and-white, a special tinge of sadness. But it also authenticated her persona as a woman forever in search of love and freedom. Much before Raj and Simran hugged in a sarson ka khet in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, there was Dev Anand and Rehman, both dressed in red, embracing in a field of green, after singing their way through the iconic ‘Shokhiyon main ghola jaye’ in the pacifist anthem, Prem Pujari (1970).
Other women have been fashion icons. Yet others have been tragedy queens. Rehman was a woman who would do anything for love. She could die for it in Reshma Aur Shera (1971), she could go mad for it in Khamoshi (1969) as nurse Radha, and she could even murder for it in Baat Ek Raat Ki (1962). Most memorably, she could give up her stardom for it in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959).
The Andhra-born actor was a feminist in her personal life as well. She stood up to director Raj Khosla who wanted her to change her name because it was too long, like everyone else had done. “I am not everyone,” she told him. Equally before signing a contract for Guru Dutt, even as a teenager, she said she would not wear costumes she did not like. She began as she meant to go on.
Rehman has always lived a private life, retreating from the industry in 1974 to live on a farm near Bangalore with her husband, raising two children. When she returned to the movies, it was in roles as mother, and lately in the noughties, as grandmother for a handful of directors, such as Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra for whom she is the eternal muse.
There have been many memorable characters she has played, but there is a land where Rehman, now 85, will forever be Rosie, running away with Dev Anand on a hay cart, dressed in a blue chiffon sari embellished with silver, full of optimism, hope and a lightness of being. ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai, aaj phir marne ka irada hai (I want to live again, and I want to die again),’ she sings, going on, ‘Kal ke andheron se nikal ke, dekha hai ankhen malte malte (Leaving the darkness of yesterday, I walk on rubbing my eyes).’ Eternally young, always joyous, in love with life itself. A woman of her time who allowed other women to dream.