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30 January 2015

Unveiling The Chaudhvin ka Chand

I grew up watching her on screen in dusty theatres that showed re-runs of black and white films. I sat in awe as her perfection filled the screen, her beauty so natural, her acting so effortless that often, I quite forgot I was only watching a film unfold. Along with Meena Kumari and Nutan, Waheeda Rehman remains one of my favourite heroines of all time. So when I heard that she'd finally agreed to a book about her life, I was thrilled. The author was Nasreen Munni Kabir, whose Conversations with Lata was a wonderful addition to my collection of movie lore. I'd also previously liked her Talking Films, a conversation with Javed Akhtar. So I promptly put the book on 'my list of books to order before I go to India'. 

It was already waiting for me when I got to my sister's flat. First impression? 'That's it?' It was a slim volume, and perhaps I'd expected it to be more in the format of the Lata Mangeshkar book. A week later, I was flying down to my hometown to bring my parents back to Bombay with me, so I happily took the book along, and finished it during the flight.
Reading books about celebrities is a bit like voyeurism. You have already seen them on screen, and for many viewers, their impression of the actor in front of them is coloured by the characters he or she essays. Then, we get to read their interviews, and we colour in the spaces left blank by our imaginations. There is an image of that actor in our consciousness, and when we read a book about them, we hope, we expect, to hear the voice we have already been hearing in our brain. 

We are eager to know our idols; we want them to speak to us in words that we have already scripted for them. Like our gods, we cast our idols too in our own image. An entire generation of film-goers have placed Waheeda Rehman on a pedestal - she is the elusive Chaudhvin ka Chand, the earthy Gulabo and the defiant Rosie; she is the worldly Hirabai, the principled Chameli and the doomed Shanti.

And so we are eager to know more, not just about Waheeda Rehman, the actress, the person, but also the world she inhabited. Conversations with Waheeda Rehman is a window to that world. Written in the Q&A format that author Nasreen Munni Kabir has perfected through her earlier books (the name of the book argues a singular lack of originality, though), the latter gives the gracious actress a platform to shed some light on her life and career. 

And reading this memoir - for make no mistake, that is what it is - brings back memories. Of not just Waheeda, but the cinema of her time.  One word of warning, though: if you expect to read about the Guru Dutt-Waheeda Rehman romance, you are going to be disappointed. Neither does she go in for the big reveal - there's no salacious gossip about her co-stars, no big secrets about her own life. The actress, fiercely circumspect always, only lets the veil drop this far, no further. Yet, what she does talk about, she does with an honesty that is endearing. And expected.

Journalists have always known that getting Waheeda Rehman to sit down for an interview is akin to one of the labours of Hercules. Despite her very public career, the actress has maintained the distance between her public persona and her private life. In fact, though she had agreed to talk to Munni Kabir for the latter's 1989 documentary on Guru Dutt, and the book on Lata Mangeshkar in 1990, she had consistently refused the idea of a biography. Who would be interested? 
On the sets of 'Mujhe Jeene Do'
Well, fans of the actress, for one.

And so you are glad that Munni Kabir persisted through the hurdles of 'Memsaab baahargaaon gayi hai.' 

From the beginning, where you learn that Waheeda, youngest of four daughters, was asthmatic, to where her father, Mohammed Abdur Rehman, an IAS officer, was castigated for 'allowing' his daughters to learn classical dance even though he was a 'good Muslim', the narrative is interesting. Waheeda is nothing but frank and forthright and, having agreed to talk, chronicles her entry into the big, bad world of films from her first appearance on screen. 

And so we hear about how Rojulu Marayi led to that epic meeting with Guru Dutt, and how that led to her move to Bombay. How Akkineni Nageshwara Rao told her gently to face the camera - 'You don't have a bad face.' How the Hindi film industry differed from the South in their way of working. How the song that made her famous - Eruvako sagaro ranno chinnannna - inspired none other than SD Burman. How her insistence on retaining her own name, and on inserting a clause about final veto over costumes did not go down well with director Raj Khosla. (Waheeda comes across as unusually courageous for one so young.) This is not the only time she had a fight with him - a more serious one involved a scene in Solva Saal, where she was given a chiffon sari and sleeveless blouse. When she refused, because of the context of the scene required her to be 'lajwanti' (shy), Raj Khosla erupted. And Waheeda swore never to work with him again. (They eventually made up much later; as she puts it, they both grew up.)

What is even better is the trivia that comes along in the stories' train - some known, others not as much. How Pyaasa was being written when C.I.D was being filmed. How the legendary Zohra Sehgal was the choreographer for Kahin pe nigaahein, kahin pe nishaana. Why Waheeda wore a duppatta for that song. Why the Censor Board had issues with the picturisation of the colour version of the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand. (They felt Waheeda's eyes were too red and sensual.) How Teesri Kasam was shot near Powai Lake. How Satyajit Ray had initially wanted to film Guide and wanted Waheeda to play Rosie.

How Dev refused to be called 'Devsaab', and how he was a decent flirt. How he had initially hated 'Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai' from Guide.  
How Dilip Kumar was a gentle person with a lovely smile. 
How Rajendra Kumar always cried in his films, and she once asked him, 'If you cry so much, Rajendraji, how will I cry?
How it was difficult to understand what the legendary K. Asif wanted in a scene, because he spoke in monosyllables. 
How Rehman was very protective of her.
How Lata Mangeshkar once told her 'The orchestra was there to give us singers a rest. Today we singers are there to give the orchestra a rest.'  
How Manmohan Desai, when asked about some plot hole in Coolie, would tell her, 'Waheedaji, it's a Manmohan Desai movie - there is no logic. No truth, no reality.'  
Or how Rishi Kapoor, having heard about Waheeda's cereal, asked her on the sets of Chandni: 'Arre, Waheedaji, you've started a serial? Where do you do the shooting?' 

She talks about the way films were made then, contrasting it with the way they are now, and mentions her landmark films where she played atypical characters. We learn that there were two characters that she would have loved to have played - Radha in Mother India, and Suchitra Sen's role in Mamta. And how her dream role is that of Meryl Streep's in 'The Bridges of Madison County'. She describes how difficult it was to maintain mood and emotion through the numerous retakes, and how she much preferred her silent reaction shots to ones where she had to speak.

No book about Waheeda Rehman would be complete without a mention of Guru Dutt. And she talks about her mentor and friend with affection, and talks about her work with him in landmark films such as Pyaasa, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Kaagaz ke Phool. She talks about his trolley shots, and his squabbles with his camera-man VK Murthy, how he listened to the opinion of even his valet (Waheeda had questioned the placement of a song that had been picturised on her in Pyaasa), how he was upset when she and Murthy nattered away in Tamil... she is reticent about her personal relationship with him, but that doesn't feel remiss considering the focus is on their professional collaborations. She does set to rest one controversy, though - Abrar Alvi did direct Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, and Guru Dutt never came on the sets unless he was wanted for that day's shooting, or Alvi wanted his input. He did, however, shoot the songs.

Waheeda is a very good storyteller. Along with her honesty that is apparent when she talks about herself (how her work isn't very good when she does not believe in her character or motivations, for instance), there is a sense of humour that peeps through the narrative. The episode with Raj Kapoor, for instance, while they were shooting Teesri Kasam. On their way back from Bhopal, where they were shooting, the train was stopped by the local students who had not been allowed to watch the shooting. They wanted to see their favourite stars. Raj Kapoor was asked to go and calm the crowd. After he spoke to them, they wanted to meet Waheeda. Taking one look at the crowd, Raj refused. His refusal enraged the crowd which attacked the train. Their insistence infuriated Raj Kapoor so much that he wanted to open the compartment doors and confront them. When the production team couldn't control him, they finally pushed him into the ladies' compartment, where Waheeda, her sister Sayeeda, and her hairdresser had to physically sit on him to stop him from tackling the unruly crowd single-handedly.

She talks about her parents and her sisters, her marriage (to co-star Shashi Rekhy), and her children, and life beyond cinema with a forthrightness and honesty that is remarkable. So also is admirable the way she tackled the vagaries of her life, and how she let herself go grey, much to the shock of her friends and family.
At 15. Photo credit: M.A. Mohan
It is these personal recollections and rare photographs that make the book interesting to the layman. Also on record are her close friendships with other actresses - one that has withstood the test of time - Nanda, Asha Parekh, Shammi, Helen, Sadhana. (The launch of this book was postponed because Waheeda Rehman was so overwrought when Nanda died.) Conversations with Waheeda Rehman reveals a side of the reclusive actress, as much as she cares to reveal.

I won't say that I'm completely bowled over by the book. It could have been better. Munni Kabir's questions are sometimes longer than Waheeda's answers. But if you look it less as an 'interview' and more as the titular 'Conversations', it makes more sense. I do wish, however, that the conversations had been more in-depth, and that Munni Kabir had pushed a little to get more details. However, it does paint a picture of Waheeda as she was, and is, and it is a very likable picture indeed.

If you're a fan of the actress, however, or even if not, this is a good addition to your collection of movie lore for an insider's look at the movie industry of the past. 


  1. Thanks Anu for this wonderfully tentalizing book! I suppose one can get
    it on the net (yes, I've just checked, 24 dollars on Amazon) Well, my birthday's soon coming up! I'll have practice my hinting!

  2. Thank you for the book review. Waheeda Rehman is a favourite. I have liked her ever since I saw her on screen singing " jaane kya tune kahi ". I liked her a lot in Mujhe jeena do and Reshma aur Shera. I saw a couple of her interviews on youtube. What struck me that how much happiness she had with her husband. He was ver caring in day to day life. She was reading a book, later he picked the same book, when he found she was in the middle of it. She said, she will read it later, he split the book, gave her the portion she had not read yet . They were both reading and content with each other.
    Will pick it up one of these days and also read your article on Lata Mangeshkar.

  3. Yves, do you know anyone in India? The dashed thing costs less than $8 on Amazon.in.

    Happy Birthday in advance....

  4. You're welcome, Neeru. What a lovely anecdote about Waheeda and her husband.

  5. Anu,
    Your review is charming. Waheeda Rahman is among my top favourites too. You have encouraged me to buy the book.

  6. Thank you, AK. Read it at least, if only because Waheeda's is such a strong voice. And she comes across as a very down-to-earth, sensible, nice person - in today's PC world, perhaps this comes across as non-PC, but she is a lady, in the true sense of the word.

  7. Waheeda Rehman is one of the few stars whom I've always liked - and have felt, from the occasional interview I've seen of hers, that she must be a really nice person in real life too. (I especially remember her saying in one interview, "My sisters used to call me 'ugly duckling', you know. I wasn't good looking; it was just that the camera was very kind to me." That was so unassuming, I thought. (Though I don't agree with her one bit! - I think she's gorgeous, and I love the fact that she's not succumbed to the lure of colouring her hair. That silver hair helps her retain her dignity).

    I must get this book. Considering I'd promised Nasreen Munir Kabir I'd read at least some of her books... this seems like a good place to start, even if Ms Kabir doesn't do it total justice. Thanks for the review, Anu.

  8. Madhu, she comes across as a very down-to-earth person, very sensible. And not too bothered about the trappings of her stardom, even during her heyday. This is a decent enough book; I think my issue with Munni Kabir is that the tenor of the book is very superfiicial. I much preferred her book with Lata Mangeshkar, if only for the loads and loads of rare photographs.

    (One more book review coming up soon. *grin*)

  9. "(One more book review coming up soon. *grin*)"

    Groan! One more book for me to read, I'm sure! Arrggh.

  10. Actually, yes. And one that I would very highly recommend. Very well-written, very honest - it's an autobiography - and much, much more interesting than Conversations - even though I adore Waheeda. :)

  11. Wonder if it is Dilip Kumar. I had it in my hand at the airport, the line was too long, boarding gate was too far :(
    Did not get it.

  12. Nope. :) Wait for two posts down the line. I haven't quite finished reading it yet.

  13. Coincidentally, I just finished reading this book yesterday. Picked it up on Waheeda Rehman's birthday (after making my post), when I realised that there was a Kindle version available.

    As you said, it is an okay book - could have been much much better! Also I felt that Ms Kabir could have delved a bit deeper. But yes, Waheeda Rehman's honesty and straightforwardness comes right out. I loved reading about the little anecdotes that she mentions and was impressed with the way she spoke about her marriage and children. Sensible lady.

    Have not read Ms Kabir's other books. The Lata Mangeshkar one is good?

  14. I liked the Lata Mangeshkar book because there was a lot more to it. Of course, the questioning remains superficial, and she doesn't delve into the answers. I suppose that is one way of ensuring that the subjects actually talk to you. :) I think her books are more a platform for the subjects to put forth their views than any attempt at laying bare an issue. At least, in Lata's case, she never shied away from talking about some of the controversies that have studded her life. And so you get her side of things. And there are lots and lots of rare photographs.

  15. How it was difficult to understand what the legendary K. Asif wanted in a scene, because he spoke in monosyllables.
    I'm lil surprised by this line you have written.. I dont think she ever did any movie with K.Asif His last movie was "Love and God" which he never completed cause he died early in 70's .. still i curiously wanted to know did she ever try to work with him? or any talks with him about making a movie together? :-D (K.Asif was a legend).
    oR maybe you confused with Asif Sen who made 'khamoshi' with waheeda rehman. :-P

    Waheedaji was a big living legend.. i love her acting and dancing. The first movie i saw of her was "Guide" The classic.. I've seen this film no. of times.. i indeed love her role and couple with Dev anad. They look and act real. they seems to be in love with each other in real life.. so i searched about them, wonder if they ever had an affair.. as mostly bollywood celebrities had. but i was sad and quite surprised they were just a very good co-stars.. well that's nice and sweet :-) (I even wished they married each other in real after watched this movie :-P) And one amazing thing i would like to share through much investigation about Waheedaji on google i came to know about Guru dutt. :-D ha ha.. 'The Man Behind Her' I really dont know about him and their much speculated relationship. :O After guide i become a Fan of waheeda rehman and seen all her movies from the start C.I.D
    Kagaz ke phool
    Bees saal baad
    Baat ek raat ki
    Sahib biwi aur ghulam
    Mujhe jeene do
    Teesari kasam
    Ram aur shayam
    Prem pujari
    Reshma aur shera
    These are my most favourite evergreen collection of Waheeda Rehman's movies I LOVED IT !!!!
    I wished she did more movies as a lead actress.. cause she is really a great and fine artist. she looked real on screen.. A versatile actress.
    I upset when i got to know she rejected andaz opposite shammi kapoor.. i wished she did that movie. i never seen her opposite with him :(


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