Waheeda Rehman birthday special: The face that could launch a thousand ships

Had Christopher Marlowe been alive today, instead of referring to Helen of Troy, he’d have referred to Waheeda Rehman and exclaimed with euphoric joy, ‘This is the face that can launch a thousand ships and aircraft!’ Jokes aside, the grace, elegance, style and acting skills converging on one individual resulted in the creation of Waheeda Rehman.

In spite of being the coeval of Nargis, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Vyjayanthimala and Nutan, there's some unexplained quality, kind of a je ne sais quoi in French, in Waheeda Rehman that differentiated her from the contemporaries. Her eternal and ineffable beauty is completely devoid of oomph and lasciviousness. A very expressive actress with exceptional dancing skills, Waheeda always left an ineradicable impression on the minds of the cine-goers.

While acting in a Bangla film Abhijan (1962), directed by the legendary auteur Satyajit Ray, film critic Chidanand Dasgupta dedicated Lord Byron’s famous poem, She Walks in Beauty to Waheeda. Coupled with acting prowess, Waheeda’s screen presence has always been very powerful. Whether it was Kaagaz ke Phool, Pyaasa, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Khamoshi or Kohra, Waheeda’s intense looks and natural acting made all these films truly immortal.

A renowned film critic in the 60s, observed that Waheeda had the ability to carry an entire film on her shoulders despite the presence of brilliant male actors. Such was her cinematic impact! The best example that can be adduced to bolster his observation was a rather forgettable film Kaun Apna Kaun Paraya (1963) directed by Johnny Walker to promote his brother Wahiuddin Khan (screen name Vijay). Though the movie nosedived, Waheeda was its saving grace, especially when she appeared in the immortal song Zara sun haseena-e-nazneen, sung by the inimitable Rafi. Always a cinematographer’s delight and a thinking director's muse (like in the case of Guru Dutt), Waheeda could emote so well on the celluloid that we still remember her for the films like Dil Diya Dard Liya, Teesri Kasam, or Dev Anand’s Guide.

It was said about Waheeda that she never appeared to be acting. It came to her spontaneously as fragrance to flowers. Imbued with a feminine and feline grace, Waheeda essayed her roles with a consummate ease and impeccable dignity, seldom, if ever, seen in Hindi cinema. Despite her roots in South India, Tamil Nadu, to be precise, Waheeda spoke beautiful Urdu and Hindi and never gave even a skerrick of impression that she was born and brought up in the southern part of India. No Dravidian accent ever marred her Hindi/Urdu.

(The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, cultures, religions and civilisations. He teaches linguistics, psycho-linguistics and philology at world’s premier varsities and contributes to world’s leading publications and portals in various languages.)

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