Waheeda Rehman is arguably one of the finest actresses in Bollywood from the generation that followed the trinity of Nargis, Meena Kumari and Madhubala. Never hamming, she excelled in delineating the finer nuances of every role she played and literally lived the character in a natural and understated manner. No wonder so many characters portrayed by her remain etched in the minds of the viewers. So it didn’t come as a surprise when Amitabh Bachchan was asked at the India Today Conclave in 2014 to name an actress whom he would have loved to court, he mentioned Waheeda Rehman, whose elegance and dignity he has admired for long.

Born in 1938 in Chenganpattu, Tamil Nadu, she began learning Bharatanatyam at an early age. She debuted in a Telugu film, Rojulu Marayi, in 1955, followed by Jayasimha; and then she did a Tamil film, Kaalam Maari Pochu, in 1956.

At the celebration of Rojulu’s success party in Chennai, Guru Dutt, film producer, director and actor from Bombay, spotted a spark of talent in Waheeda. He got her to Bombay and featured her as a vamp in his film CID against debonair Dev Anand in 1956. The success of this film triggered a professional and personal relationship between Guru Dutt and Waheeda, both of whom gave several masterpieces to Hindi cinema. Sadly, it was all followed by Guru Dutt’s tragic and untimely death.

After CID, Guru Dutt featured her as a leading lady in his critically acclaimed film Pyaasa, in which Waheeda beautifully enacted the role of a prostitute with a golden heart. The film not only depicts the trials and tribulations of a struggling shaayar, but also carries a scathing commentary on money, power, selfishness, greed and shifting relationships. Pyaasa gave us some wonderful songs: Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics soulfully sung by Hemant Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Gita Dutt in “Jaane Kya Tune Kahi”, “Aaj Sajan Mohe Aang Laga Lo” and “Yeh Mehlon, Yeh Takhton, Teh Tajon Ki Duniya.”

Guru Dutt’s film Kaagaz Ke Phool, with its autobiographical overtones, depicts the decline in the fortunes of a successful film director who is married, and falls in love with his leading lady. When the heroine and the director meet after his professional fall, Gita Dutt’s pathos-filled voice was evident in the song, “Waqt Ne Kiya Kyaa Hasin Sitam” rising in the background. In that song, Waheeda’s face is a virtual kaleidoscope of fleeting emotions. Unfortunately, in spite of the brilliant direction, superb acting and unforgettable music, the film proved to be a box-office disaster.

Chaudhvin Ka Chand, a romantic film set in Lucknow, proved a commercial success, thanks to the natural performances of its actors, its beautiful songs and the film’s wide appeal. Waheeda looked and acted beautifully in it. In the 1960s, lakhs of young men used to hum the title song of the film—picturised on the ethereally beautiful Waheeda Rehman, and sung by Mohammed Rafi in his inimitable style— for their beloved.

In the film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, while the pivotal role was enacted by Meena Kumari, Waheeda had a significant parallel role as the love interest of Bhootnath played by Guru Dutt. She comes out as chirpy and charming. The film received huge critical acclaim in India, but its lukewarm reception at the Berlin Film Festival in 1964 dampened Guru Dutt’s spirits. A few months later, on 10 October 1964, he reportedly died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Increasing marital discord with his wife Gita Dutt and serious differences with the actress he had launched a decade back are alleged to have been contributory factors.

Waheeda gave several hit films with Dev Anand, whose film Guide, directed by his younger brother Vijay Anand, offered Waheeda the role of a lifetime. The film was way ahead of its time—a Hindu wife walking out on her husband, and an unmarried Hindu man bringing someone’s wife home as a friend wasn’t acceptable as per established social norms of the time. Rosie’s role of a neglected and shackled wife,  who gives up dancing due to the dislike and disapproval of her husband, was tailor-made for Waheeda.

Vijay Anand wove in some of the most fascinating sequences of Bharatanatyam in the film. Waheeda excelled in this dance form, as is evident in songs like “Piya Tose Naina Lage Re” and “Mose Chhal Kiye Jai”. In the picturisation of the song “Kaanto Se Kheench Ke Yeh Aanchal…”, Waheeda expressed her uncontrollable feeling of liberation and exhilaration which was in total contrast to her expressions when she walked to the temple to see a fasting and dying Raju (played by Dev Anand). Deservedly, she won Filmfare’s best actress award. Her second Filmfare award for best actress came for the film Neel Kamal.

In Shailendra’s Teesri Kasam, directed by Basu Bhattacharya, Waheeda again gave an outstanding performance as Hira Bai. On earthy, folksy tunes composed by Shankar Jaikishan, she looks and acts every inch as a nautanki waali bai in songs like “Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaro” and “Haye Ghazab Kahin Tara Tuta”. In the last scene, when the train is about to depart, Hira Bai is hoping and praying that Hiraman arrives before she leaves. Without a whisper, the expressions on her face say it all.

In the dacoit drama Mujhe Jeeno Do, as Chameli, the wife of dacoit Jernail Singh (played by Sunil Dutt), Waheeda gave a touching performance. But it was another Dutt film, Reshma Aur Shera, an engaging tale of vendetta amid sand dunes, that fetched Waheeda her only National Award for
best actress.

She was paired in three successful films with Dilip Kumar—Ram Aur ShyamDil Diya Dard Liya and Aadmi—wherein she didn’t allow the thespian to steal a single scene.

In her pre-retirement phase, she played pivotal roles in films like Kabhi KabhieTrishulChandniNamak HalalWaterRang De Basanti and Lamhe. In Gulzar’s sensitive and delectable film Namkeen, she portrayed the character of an elderly mother, Jugni, who is always worried about her three daughters, played by Shabana Azmi, Sharmila Tagore and Kiran Vairale.

As her reputation as an exceptional actress rose, the renowned director Satyajit Ray cast her as Gulabi in his film Abhijan against Soumitra Chatterjee. Waheeda didn’t disappoint him and gave a stellar performance.

But her biggest hit was with none other than the original superstar of Bollywood, Rajesh Khanna in Khamoshi, as nurse Radha Mitra, in 1970.