June 23, 2021 marked the birth centenary of one of my favourite actors, the very talented and charismatic Rehman. Born Sayeed Rehman Khan in Lahore, Rehman joined the Royal Indian Air Force in 1942 and underwent training at Pune as a pilot. The Air Force soon lost its charm for Rehman (he failed a test) and he went off to Bombay to join the cinema industry. Initially taken on as a third assistant director by the writer-director Vishram Bedekar for Bedekar’s film Lakharani (1945), Rehman went on to assist director DD Kashyap in the film Chaand, where, completely by chance, Rehman appeared onscreen. In a dance sequence in the film, a Pathan character was needed—and the only person around who knew how to tie a turban the Pathan way was Rehman. And he knew how to tie it only around his own head.
The Hindi proverb ‘Daane-daane pe likha hai khaane waale ka naam’ comes to mind.
Rehman was required to say a couple of lines in that brief appearance, and fluffed it repeatedly; thirty takes were required to get it right, possibly because the first line began with a K: “Kitna achha naach thha”. Rehman, even years later, and as a seasoned actor, found it very difficult to begin a dialogue with the K sound and would request that a different word be substituted, or the words moved around.
Rehman had enough of a presence for his potential as an actor to be recognized, and he went on to act as a lead, working opposite major actresses like Madhubala, Suraiya, Nalini Jaywant and Nigar Sultana.
In an interview, while reminiscing about his first few years in the Hindi cinema industry, Naushad mentioned how, after he had moved to Bombay and become a music director, his parents arranged his wedding. “We have told your future in-laws that you are a tailor,” his mother said. “If we’d said you were into music, you’d never have gotten married!” The irony of the whole thing was, recalled Naushad, that at the wedding, the band that came along was playing all the latest hits – all of which happened to be from Naushad’s first big score.
Which, as you’ve probably guessed by now, was from this film. Naushad came to Bombay from Lucknow in 1937, and though he did get some work over the next few years, it was not until Rattan that he got a chance to compose the sort of music that catapulted him to the top.
I’ve lost count of the number of Hindi films I’ve seen in which a bride is left at the mandap just because her family hasn’t been able to provide a massive dowry. I have no idea which was the first such film to be made, but V Shantaram’s Dahej is one of the early ones. And to be expected too, from a film-maker who was deeply sensitive to the many shortcomings in the society of his time.
Unlike Madhumati and Aar Paar, where he was just a supporting actor (though, in my opinion, his contribution to both films far surpassed the actual screen time of the characters he played), in Chhoomantar Johhny Walker is not just the funny man, but also the hero. He gets to sing and dance (the latter even in drag!). He gets to woo a pretty heroine, be brother to another lovely lady, and he gets to kick some serious ass.