Dada Saheb Phalke Award For Waheeda Rehman: A Look At Her Illustrious Career As An Actor

Dada Saheb Phalke Award For Waheeda Rehman: A Look At Her Illustrious Career As An Actor

Waheeda Rehman made her acting debut in a small, vampy role in Guru Dutt’s CID (1956)

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Wednesday, September 27, 2023, 08:35 AM IST
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Dada Saheb Phalke Award For Waheeda Rehman: A Look At Her Illustrious Career As An Actor |

In the last few years, there have been contentious winners of the Dadasaheb Phalke Awards, the government’s lifetime achievement recognition for those have made a significant contribution to Indian cinema. But when Waheeda Rehman was named as the recipient of the award for this year, there has been a universal outpouring of approval. If ever a veteran actress deserved it even earlier, it is undoubtedly she, the most versatile, adventurous and accomplished actress of her generation. This no small feat when her contemporaries included Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala and Nutan—all of whom had their strengths, niches and fan bases. 

As a trained classical dancer, she did small parts and dances in a few Tamil and Telugu films before Guru Dutt spotted her—a fictionalised version of the incident can be seen in his film Kaagaz Ke Phool.  She made her acting debut in a small, vampy role in Guru Dutt’s CID (1956), but their professional (and personal relationship) meant that she got to play roles that were very different from the usual romantic leading lady. 

Actresses of the time would have balked at playing a streetwalker, but she did, in Pyaasa (1957), or the actress who leaves her mentor behind in Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guru Dutt’s most personal film set in the Bombay film industry. 

Because Guru Dutt was closely associated with Dev Anand and his Navketan banner, she formed a successful pair with the star, doing films like Solva Saal (1958) and Kala Bazar (1959) with him early in her career. Her most memorable film with him and also her most daring role was as Rosie in Guide (1965)—a dancer, who leaves her husband to follow career success encouraged by her lover (Anand), and leaves him when he gets too overbearing. She had been warned that a role like that could wreck her career, at a time when leading ladies were expected to be virtuous, but she went ahead and did it anyway. Not only did her career not crash but she won a Filmfare award. 

She played a courtesan, Chameli Bai, who marries a dacoit (Sunil Dutt) in the masterpiece Mujhe Jeene Do (1962), and follows him into a rough life in the ravines of the Chambal; she played a very different kind of nautch girl in Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam (1965) opposite Raj Kapoor, a more sprightly and playful woman. 

She won a National award for Reshma Aur Shera (1971), the story of star-crossed lovers from warring clans in Rajasthan (opposite Sunil Dutt), but it is just one more in her list of great films. It’s not as if she did not play the regular romantic heroine, but her filmography is also studded with offbeat films, like Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan (1962), in which she played the complex part of a village widow; the wife who inadvertently breaks her marriage in Phagun (1973); the small role in Yash Chopra’s Trishul (1978), that of an unwed mother, who tells her son to avenge her suffering and Gulzar’s underrated gem Namkeen (1982), in which she played the harried mother who worries about her three unmarried daughters. 

By the late 1970s, the leading lady roles thinned out, the mother roles were offered; she did not officially retire, but the films were few and far between. But whenever she appeared on screen, she made sure all eyes were on her. Her name is already engraved in cinema history, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award just reinforces it. 

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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