Waheeda Rehman: In a Male-Dominated Industry, She Set Her Own Rules

Waheeda Rehman: In a Male-Dominated Industry, She Set Her Own Rules

An 18-year-old Waheeda Rehman refused a male-dominated film industry’s decision to change her name (many actresses like Madhubala and Nargis did it to “sound sexy”) as well as wear something that would make her uncomfortable (No Bikini or any skimpy outfits). 

This was a bold move on behalf of an actress. Especially for someone so young who was being offered a debut film opposite Dev Anand. Most would have caved in for the fear of losing such a big opportunity. But Waheeda Rehman showed a firmness and a knack for doing things differently that would, later on, come to define her persona. 

Today, on her 84th birthday, we take a look back at this legendary actress who left a huge influence on Hindi cinema. 

Born in a broad-minded, eminent Muslim family, a young Waheeda had many dreams. She dreamt about owning a house similar to that shown in Gone With The Wind. She also aspired to be a doctor because medicine was the most respectable profession in Muslim families. Her parents used to remark, "You, yourself get sick twice a month how will you treat others?" Eventually, that young girl never took up medicine because she couldn't finish her education. 

Interestingly, Waheeda Rehman still takes a keen interest in reading medical journals and treatments. 

Waheeda and her sister showed interest in learning Bharatnatyam because she was inspired by Kamala Laxman, who was an excellent dancer. When the daughters expressed their desire to have a formal training in Bharatnatyam, their father, who was an IAS officer under the British government, supported them whole-heartedly. Many of his friends were skeptical because they were Muslims. They found it odd that Abdur Rehman was allowing his daughters to learn and perform Bharatanatyam publicly. However, he said, “duniya me koi kaam bura nhi hota, adami bura hota hai” (There is no bad profession. There’s only bad people.)

But this wasn't the only hurdle Waheeda faced when she intended to learn Bharatnatyam. She wanted to learn the beautiful dance form from Guru Tiruchendur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai who refused to take her under her wings at first because she practiced Islam. After persistent efforts, her guru asked for a birth chart. Since Waheeda hailed from a Muslim family, they didn't have a birth chart. The guru took it upon herself to make a birth chart and realized that the chart showed that Waheeda would be her last and most talented student.  Her stellar performances in movies, later on,  became a testimony to Waheeda's magnificent dancing abilities. 

Apparently Waheeda never really planned her life or set certain ambitions in particular. She barely pursued anything very consciously but things fell into place for her. People often used to comment "yeh ladki ka luck bahut strong hai, pata nhi kaha tk jaygi" (This girl is very lucky. We wonder where and how far will she go)

She was a notorious child who used to make funny and sad faces while looking into the mirror. Once her father asked her, "Why do you make faces while looking into the mirror?" Waheeda promptly answered, "I want to make people laugh and cry." It is so interesting that a girl who couldn't formulate that she didn't want to be an actor became one of the reigning queens of the golden period of the Hindi film industry. 

Soon enough, Waheeda got an opportunity to be a part of the film. After seeing her performance in front of the first Viceroy of India, C. Rajagopalachari, she got the chance to perform a dance piece in a Telugu movie. Her father had unfortunately passed away by then but her mother felt reluctant. But Waheeda was persuasive and she took up the opportunity. Post that song, Waheeda gained immense popularity. 

Fun fact: Waheeda and her mother witnessed people throwing coins at the screen when the song used to get screened in the theaters. 

Guru Dutt visited Chennai when he was told about Waheeda's fame, post the release of that song. He then wished to see Waheeda and her mother in Mumbai. Mumbai was a foreign place however things just fell into place. She was to be signed for her debut film CID, which was directed by Raj Khosla and produced by Guru Dutt. 

Raj Khosla wanted Waheeda Rehman to change her name. Many famous actresses of that era had done it. Madhubala and Nargis, to name a few. They had both adopted a stage name to have a sensual/exotic name.  


 However, Waheeda straight-up refused. She questioned, "What is the problem with my name?" 

He said, "It's a really long name." 

She replied, "Yes, it is, but you will use only my first name to address me."

Raj Khosla further explained, "Your name doesn't ooze out sensuality or star-like qualities."

Waheeda was very possessive about her name and felt a certain pride associated with it. 

She said, "My parents have given me this name, why are you trying to change it? Who are you to change it? I am not trying to hide away from my parents or society in order to act in films. My mother is accompanying me. I want to proudly do my work with my name intact."

Finally, Raj Khosla gave in.

Waheeda Rehman: In a Male-Dominated Industry, She Set Her Own Rules
Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman in CID (Credits: Rediff.com)

When the contract was being signed by Waheeda's mother, who was legally representing her 17 years old daughter, Waheeda stopped her and said she wants a clause to be added. 

Raj Khosla jumped from his seat and remarked, "Guru, are you signing her, or is she signing you?" She was asked about the clause and she firmly said, "I won't wear costumes I wouldn't be comfortable in." She addressed Guru Dutt by saying, "Guru ji, when I grow up, I might wear a bikini too but at this age, if I don't feel comfortable wearing something I won't be able to perform." 

Guru Dutt agreed to her request and the costume clause was added to her contract.

Thus, Waheeda Rehman was casted opposite Dev Anand in CID, her debut Hindi film. She was a huge fan of  Dev Anand and her first movie was with Dev Anand. When she first met Dev Anand, she greeted him saying, "Namaste ji Dev sahab" and Dev Anand immediately said, "Dev Sahab, kaun Dev Sahab, call me Dev only Dev". That set the tone of comfort. 

While shooting CID, a particular blouse did not have a lining to it and there wasn't a dupatta provided in the costume. Waheeda Rehman stood her ground and refused to wear that blouse because she wasn't comfortable with the idea of wearing that blouse. 

The shooting was taking place on a tight schedule. Dev Anand was supposed to leave Switzerland that night and the crew intended to finish that portion the very day itself because later, the film had to go for censorship. Raj Khosla tried to convince her by explaining the situation but she still demanded a dupatta. 

Guru Dutt, the producer, was not in town. So he was specifically called back to conciliate with Waheeda Rehman, who adamantly refused to step on the set. He hurriedly returned and heard her concerns patiently. Bhanu Athaiya, the costume designer was called on the set. She plainly admitted that lining the blouse would take half a day. Raj Khosla was in a frenzy because they didn't have that much time on the clock. 

Waheeda reinstated her previously made demand of getting a dupatta and she was finally given the dupatta so that the shoot could get completed. 

CID and Pyaasa were major hits and Waheeda Rehman reached new heights of fame and success. 

With Solva Saal, she reunited to work with Raj Khosla and Dev Anand. While shooting for Solva Saal, Waheeda Rehman had a fight with Raj Khosla. They were shooting a scene in which Dev Anand had rescued her from the sea after she had been cheated and ditched by her boyfriend.

They were to arrive at a dhobi ghat and temporarily change their clothes while the ones they wore dried. While changing clothes, from one side of the curtain, Dev Anand would ask her, "What's your name?" She would reply "Lajwanti." and he would remark "Isliye aapko itni laaj aati hai."

When Waheeda saw the costume she was supposed to change into, she refused to wear it. She denied wearing it because it was a deep-cut blouse with an open back. Raj Khosla was agitated and she reminded him about the clause. She also said, "How does she manage to get such tight-fitting clothes at a dhobi ghat? Can't she wear something else? " Enraged, he insulted  her by saying, "CID aur Pyaasa tumhari chal kya gayi aap samajh rahe ki aap aasman pe pahunch gayi." 

Then she pointed out how the costume choice won't sit well with the Lajwanti dialogue and the situation of the movie. He smirked angrily, "aap mujhe scene aur logic samjheyengi, pack up!"

Dev Anand and Divecha tried to explain to Guru Dutt that Waheeda was right but he was angrily asking them to not support her because she was a newcomer. 

Her mother got a little worried. So when Raj Khosla was leaving, she asked the producer if they should come to set the next day. The producer told her that Raj Khosla just lost his cool, he would calm down and they would call her. 

The next day, Waheeda was called on set because everyone told Raj Khosla that she was right. Everything was fine the next day and Raj Khosla spoke to Waheeda Rehman without any grudges.

However, when the movie Guide was being made, it's original director for the Hindi version was Raj Khosla. Dev Anand had then approached Waheeda Rehman for the female protagonist. She refused the project because she didn't want to work with Raj Khosla again. She suggested that since Raj Khosla was already signed for the film, Dev Anand should approach some other actresses. 

Later, Chetan Anand was made the director for the Hindi version of the film. However, Chetan Anand and Tad Danielewski, the directors for the Hindi and English versions of Guide respectively, rejected Waheeda Rehman. Till this date, she thinks that maybe it was because they didn't like her face but they had also pointed out that her English wasn't very impressive. But Dev Anand had said, “My Rosie is only Waheeda”. This gesture had charmed her a lot because that support was very important. 

She remembers Dev Anand as a "decent flirt".

Therefore, Waheeda Rehman never compromised when it came to the kind of costumes she was asked to wear. Her priority was to feel comfortable while performing rather than being conscious. 

"You have to hold your ground. You need to have some rules and stick to it" ~ Waheeda Rehman

Waheeda Rehman who once hoped of becoming an actor went out to became the quintessential diva of the Hindi film industry. She reinvented the definition of beauty and grace. The whole nation remembers her for her innocence and purity in Chaudvi ka Chaand.

Throughout her career, Waheeda Rehman made certain rules for herself and stuck to them fiercely from a very young age. She ensured that people took her seriously and respected her boundaries. No wonder, Yash Johar used to call her 'Maalik', Yash Chopra used to call her 'Maharaj' and Rajendra Kumar used to call her 'Memsahib'. 

Today she is a living legend who keeps alight the torch of the yesteryears of the golden period of the Hindi film industry. 

Author Biographical Note: Vanshika Lakhani is pursuing her degree in Mass Communications and Journalism from Jai Hind College. She is also an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College from where she studied Arts. She reviews films, web-shows, books, and music. Her reviews have also been published on other portals like Film Companion and Café Dissensus Everyday. She is a huge content enthusiast and enjoys talking to people who tell her about new content to consume. Now she is associated with Explore Screen: The Cognitive Dialogue as an intern.

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