Conversations with Waheeda Rehman
Conversations With Waheeda Rehman. A slice of cinema history as told to Nasreen Munni Kabir through compelling anecdotes and astute observations, the book provides a rare view of a much-adored actress of Indian cinema.
A slice of cinema history as told to Nasreen Munni Kabir through compelling anecdotes and astute observations, the book provides a rare view of a much-adored actress of Indian cinema.
NMK: Kaagaz Ke Phool was the first CinemaScope film made in India. Do you remember any discussions about the planning of it?
WR: I was never involved with those kinds of discussions. When we actors finished the day’s shoot, I used to run out of the studio like a schoolgirl let out of class! Guruduttji, Murthy, Abrar and the technical team then sat together and discussed production issues.
NMK: Kaagaz Ke Phool is now considered an important classic but at the time of its release, the reviews were pretty dismal. Some people felt the story was confused.
WR: It was. When we saw the trial show, I personally didn’t think the audience would like it. Abrar Saab got very angry with me and said: ‘What do you know? Why are you saying that?’ I thought the film was too sad and there wasn’t enough happening in the story. It was too heavy.
As I said earlier, Guruduttji had this habit of asking his cast and crew what they thought about a film, and he also made it a point to ask his valet Rattan. Some people were taken aback by this and would say: ‘What does your valet know? Why ask him?’ But he believed Rattan’s reaction would not be different from that of the audience.
When Rattan saw Kagaaz Ke Phool, he said: ‘I hope you won’t get upset, Saab. But Johnny Walker’s part is not interesting, it isn’t funny.’ And he was right.
NMK: I agree. Johnny Walker’s subplot stopped the narrative flow and weighed the whole story down.
WR: So Rattan was right, you see? Guruduttji told us that Kaagaz Ke Phool was inspired by ‘A Star Is Born’.
NMK: You mean the 1954 musical with James Mason and Judy Garland? One can see similarities in the story. A star played by James Mason falls in love with a showgirl (Judy Garland). She becomes famous while the career of the male star declines. He turns into an alcoholic and finally commits suicide by walking into the sea. Basically it’s the story of the rise of one artist and the decline of the other.
Today Kaagaz Ke Phool is a great favourite for many and has gained the reputation of a classic. But I have to admit I have great reservations about the film despite it having some deeply moving scenes. Undoubtedly, Murthy’s photography is ingenious, especially in the song ‘Waqt ne kiya’. This most gifted cinematographer once explained to me in an interview how he created the lighting effect. He used two large mirrors—one was placed on the roof of the Mehboob Studio floor where the song was filmed, and the other was positioned on the catwalk inside the set. When sunlight fell on the first mirror, Murthy redirected it to the second mirror and from there he managed to create two parallel beams of light that flooded the set.
WR: That was a wonderful scene. It was something that had never been seen before. I know there are many good moments in Kaagaz Ke Phool, but as a whole I didn’t think it worked.
I thank God it is considered such a classic today. But I can’t help feeling the story has flaws.
NMK: Guru Dutt and V.K. Murthy created brilliant cinema together. They must have had a fabulous understanding and closeness between them.
WR: Yes, they understood each other very well, but fought a lot. When Guruduttji explained a shot he wanted to Murthy, he wanted the shot ready at once. But they were never simp1e-they often involved complicated angles, trolley movements, close-ups, mid shots, etc. And since Guruduttji was already thinking about what he wanted next, he would get impatient and say: ‘Murthy, yaar, are you ready? Hurry up now!’
‘Nahin, Guru, abhi to shuru kiya maine. ’ I have just started.
‘Arey yaar, you’re taking a lot of time.’
‘It hasn’t been five minutes since you told me what you wanted. The camera is not in position. How can the lighting be ready?
Murthy Saab would storm off the sets while Guruduttji sat quietly. No one in the unit would utter a word. Then Guruduttji would ask his chief assistant: ‘Did I say too much? What shall I do?’ When Guruswamy became more familiar with him, he’d tell him: ‘I think you should go and say sorry}
Guruduttji would disappear and a few minutes later he returned to the sets with his arms around Murthy: ‘Murthy, yaar, main aisa hi hun.’ [Murthy, my friend, that’s just me. It was very sweet to watch them arguing like children.
NMK: The sets of Kaagaz Ke Phool were superbly designed by M.R. Achrekar. His contribution to Indian cinema of the fifties was tremendous. He was also a fine artist and painted a stunning portrait of you. How did that come about?
WR: We were travelling together on a flight to attend the Delhi premiere of Kaagaz Ke Phool. I was sitting in the row ahead of Achrekar Saab. He came over to me and asked if he could sketch me during the flight. Of course I had no objection.
Between Bombay and Delhi, he made twelve pencil drawings and when we landed in Delhi, he said he’d like to paint a portrait of me. He asked whether I would go over to his house in Shivaji Park and we exchanged phone numbers. When I returned to Bombay, I went over to his house some weeks later. We had two sittings of an hour each. This was sometime in 1961. He drew five or six sketches and then painted the portrait. He worked very fast. It was amazing. When the portrait was ready, he called his wife to have a look at it. She stared at the painting and then at me and said: ‘It’s very good but the mole on her upper lip is missing.’ She was so observant. Then Achrekar Saab made a second portrait that he gifted to me.
I have cherished his painting and it has hung on the walls of the many homes I have lived in. I have it here with me in Sahil.
Achrekar Saab was such a simple and lovely man. One day I must try and buy the other portrait he made of me—the one with the missing mole.
NMK: After Kaagaz Ke Phool, the next film that Guru Dutt produced and released in 1960 was Chaudhvin Ka Chand. I am wondering why he didn’t direct it?
WR: He believed that Sadiq Saab, being a Muslim, would know the nuances of Lucknavi culture. Little subtle details. For example, when Jameela-the character I play-gets flustered, she says: ‘Hai Allah!’ She would say this and immediately cover her head if a stranger happened to enter the house. It’s these delicate touches. Sadiq Saab was familiar with Muslim traditions and etiquette. Guruduttji had made the right decision. He helped with the filming of the songs, of course.
When Guruduttji was producing Chaudhvin Ka Chand, people asked him why he had chosen a director whose recent films were flops. He said Sadiq Saab may be down and out, but that did not take away from his directing abilities. Guruduttji was a very generous man by nature and even sent Sadiq Saab provisions for his house because he knew he was going through difficult times.
NMK: V.K. Murthy told me he went to London as an observer on the sets of The Guns of Navarone because Guru Dutt had asked him to learn about colour photography so he could reshoot the title song ‘Chaudhvin ka chand ho’ in colour, even though the rest of the film was photographed in black and white by Nariman Irani. Why the need to redo the song?
WR: By the early 1960s, many Indian film—makers had started making song sequences in colour, if not shooting whole movies in colour. We were, however, nearly halfway through our production. When Chaudhvin Ka Chand became a super hit, Guruduttji decided to reshoot the song in colour because he knew people would go back to see the colour version since the song was so popular. It was a kind of gimmick.
I remember I had to dip chamois leather in an ice bucket and apply it to my face because the lights burned my skin. The lights were terribly hot. The colour version was the same as the original, shot by shot. We reshot it at Natraj Studios.
The Censor Board wanted the song re-censored and asked us to remove a close-up where I am seen turning my face towards the camera. They said my eyes looked too red and sensual. Guruduttji said my eyes were red because of the strong lighting and explained the characters were husband and wife, and so where was the problem? If the Censor Board members of that era saw the films of today, I wonder what they would say. [we laugh]
NMK: It’s a wonderful film. Rehman was excellent, and equally good as Mr Ghosh in Pyaasa and Chhote Babu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. He is a hugely underrated actor.
WR: Many people have asked me if I was related to Rehman Saab because of our surnames. After the release of Pyuasu, my mother and I were invited to a number of parties. Rehman Saab was very protective of me and would quietly come and tell us to leave because everyone was drinking and the food was bound to be served very late. He could tell that my mother and I were out of place. Sometimes Rehman Saab asked the hostess to give us dinner in another room. He would advise us to eat and leave discreetly so we did not have to say goodbye to everyone.
I remember Rehman Saab wasn’t comfortable with dialogue lines that started with a ‘k’-like the words ‘kab' or ‘kyun’. He would get stuck, and so Guruduttji would ask Abrar to change the line. Guruduttji always found an alternate way of expressing the same mood or feeling. He did not think there was only one way of making a scene work.
Rehman was a very good actor. and after Pyaasa he was in great demand for character roles, Like Raaj Kumar, he had a wonderful personality and although they both played lead roles, I think they had greater presence as secondary heroes.