Waheeda Rehman has just been selected for the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for Lifetime Achievement this year. The question is, should we heave a sigh of relief? Or, should we feel thrilled? In a manner of speaking, it is both.

First, because this award to her is long overdue. Second, because, we should feel thrilled that at last she has been recognised for her rich and unique contribution to Indian cinema for around six decades. We were left wondering whether she will at all be bestowed this award or not.

But finally, it was and Waheeda Rehman is specially thrilled because the announcement came on the day the country was celebrating the centenary of her friend and co-actor Dev Anand, opposite who she has given a slew of multi-layered performances in many films.

“The greatest joy at hearing this announcement is that it has come on the day we are celebrating Dev Anand’s birth centenary. He is probably seeing all this from wherever he is,” was her first response to the media after hearing the news. She first met Dev Anand on the sets of ‘C.I.D.’, “he said to me, “Call me Dev, not Dev Saab or Anandji.” It sounded somewhat like a command and I obeyed it till the last day we met,” she reminisced.

Waheeda Rehman made her acting debut with the Telugu film ‘Rojulu Marayi’ in 1955. She then featured in several blockbuster classics including ‘Pyaasa’ in 1957, ‘Guide’ in 1965, ‘Khamoshi’ in 1969, ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ in 1976, ‘Lamhe’ in 1991, and 'Rang De Basanti’ in 2006 among others. Her onscreen pairing with late veteran superstar Dev Anand was most appreciated by her fans.

She won the National Award for Best Actress for her stellar performance in one of her earliest films ‘Reshma Aur Shera’ (1971). But many more wonderful films were to follow where Waheeda did deserve the same award again and again but she did not get it.

This did not have any impact on the excellence of her performance in any film, never mind whether it was the hero who had more space and priority, whether the role was the lead or a supporting one, whether she had to portray a young or an elderly woman.

Waheeda underplayed every character given to her never mind if that was as a nurse in a hospital for mental patients as in ‘Khamoshi’ (1969), a prostitute in ‘Pyaasa’ (1957), the aged and adorable Daija in ‘Lamhe’ (1991), or, the sad actress in ‘Kaagaz Ke Phool’. Underplaying was just one facet of her talents.

The other one is that she keeps investing every single character she essays with a deep sense of dignity. For example her performance of a nautanki performer in Basu Bhattacharya’s film ‘Teesri Kasam’ based on Phaniswhar Nath Renu’s work.

Guru Dutt gets the credit of having watched her work in Southern films and bringing her to Bombay. She had placed two conditions on her work in films. One was that she would not change her name like the earlier actors did, such as Meena Kumari, Madhubala and Nargis, but would stick to her own name. The second was that she would never wear titillating or revealing costumes.

In ‘Teesri Kasam’ (1966), her only work with Raj Kapoor, she plays Hirabai, a nautanki performer who realises that Hiraman (Raj Kapoor) is the first man in her life who has treated her with respect, and does not tolerate others insulting her. He asks her to leave the profession but she tells him that just as he is addicted to his bullocks and his cart, she too is addicted to nautanki, to the adventures of travelling to and performing in different places, and that this is her livelihood.

Her perspective on life, however, begins to change through her interactions with Hiraman. There are soft touches when we see her cooking for him and him refusing to sit as he is angry with her. The film won the President Medal at the National Awards the following year.

Waheeda Rehman was one of the best dancers in Indian cinema. In ‘Teesri Kasam’, her dancing is less than perfect, a wonderful innovation by choreographer Lacchu Maharaj who designed the performances to suit Hirabai’s character as a nautanki artiste.

Always a versatile actor, Waheeda Rehman’s excellence as Hirabai is no surprise. Her beauty, however, makes it somewhat difficult to think of her as a common nautanki dancer.

She belonged to an era when leading ladies were specially valued for their dancing talents, including improvised and modernised classical styles. Waheeda Rehman was perhaps one of the best. And no one who has seen Vijay Anand’s immortal film ‘Guide’ (1965) will contest this statement.

Besides an opportunity to reveal her acting skills, Waheeda Rehman’s talents as a dancer were fully exploited in ‘Guide’ by choreographers Hiralal and Sohanlal. When she breaks into a dance after escaping the claustrophobic environment of her husband’s home, the choreography matching Shailendra’s lyrics’Kaanto Se Kheechke Yeh Aanchal’ is a song-dance number performed by Waheeda as Rosie.

It conveys all the exhilaration of a free soul and is one of the turning points of the film. The famous low angle tracking shot of Waheeda dancing along the ledge of the temple continues to amaze one even today. “The song was shot in Udaipur and conveyed the exact feeling of a woman coming out of a cage,” Waheeda recalled.

The other unforgettable dance piece is the ‘sapera’ (snakecharmers) dance in the ‘sapera ki basti’ where Rosie dances only on the ‘been’ (musical instrument) of the snake charmer without any song accompaniment. Waheeda was a trained Bharat Natyam dancer and when she arrived in Bombay, she would often be invited to dance recitals at different venues.

Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) of ‘Pyaasa’ (1957) is perhaps the most restrained and dignified prostitute in the history of Indian cinema. Her dignity is subtle and underplayed probably because she is very poor. Her love for the poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) is rooted in the fact that when they meet for the first time, both share common social and physical space, the fringes of civil society and the margins of poverty.

The irony of her character lies in that she loves poetry and at a point of time, even decides to publish Vijay's poems at her own expense in the form of a book. She buys the file of Vijay's poems his brothers had sold off to a shop trading in old newspapers. She approaches Meena (Mala Sinha), Vijay's old flame now married to a very successful publisher, with a request to get the poems published. When Meena tries to buy them off, she gracefully declines, quietly ignoring the cruel barb Meena makes hinting at her profession.

Waheeda fondly recalls memories of working with the team of Satyajit Ray when she came to shoot for his ‘Abhijaan’ in a supporting role of a naïve, innocent, dehati girl brought to be trafficked or given as the ‘kept’ of the moneyed man. “I got along with the entire team very well thanks to Soumitra Chatterjee having broken my barriers of feeling like an “outsider” which I was. I also have fond memories of Robi Ghosh though we did not get to know each other very well,” Waheeda recalled.

Her films with Dev Anand have become classics today because they were beautifully made with wonderful songs and music and that air of romance that tied these together in films like ‘Solva Saal’, ‘C.I.D.’, ‘Prem Pujari’, ‘Baat Ek Raat Ki’, and ‘Guide’. Almost all of them were box office hits and are still watched by hundreds of cinema lovers on YouTube and other OTT channels.

Besides, Dev Anand, Waheeds has played leading lady opposite a range of actors like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Guru Dutt, Sunil Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan, Biswajeet, and so on. But she is so dignified, that no journalist has ever had the guts to ask her about her rumoured relationship with Guru Dutt though books have been written based on their relationship.

That is Waheeda Rehman for you…