The Romance and Mystique of Waheeda Rehman in Chaudhvin ka Chand

Waheeda Rehman celebrates her birthday on February 3, and a fan insists that never did she look as alluring as in the title song of Chaudhvin ka Chand

In the early 1960s some eccentric genius put everything together: song, cast, photography, scene-setting. And the song-sequence ‘Chaudhvin Ka Chand’  from the Hindi film of that name became – and stayed – one of the most haunting romantic song-sequences in Hindi cinema history.

But this isn’t about Chaudhvin ka Chand the film – no better than your average romance-drama flick. This isn’t about the song per se either. It’s about the song-sequence on screen and The Beauty who made it so irrevocably magical.

The sequence is simple enough: the film’s producer, Guru Dutt, plays Aslam, alone with his new bride Jameela, played by Waheeda Rehman.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t know Urdu or Hindi (although it won’t hurt to understand the lyrics). It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the great Rafi or the others. If you watch and listen to the song-sequence, with the silent reverence it deserves, it will charm.

Chaudhvin ka Chand’ as a song is one of the most lilting romantic ballads in the history of romantic ballads. Music, lyrics and singer come together so much like a Trinity. It’s impossible to tell father, from son, from spirit. It’s impossible to tell which came first, which second and which third. They’re fused, as if inseparably. Of course ‘Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein’ and several songs from Indian (not just Hindi) cinema, also boast of this mystical fusion.

‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’ as a song-sequence went further. It matched the classical romance setting with the actors (the ever-romantic-ever-longing Dutt and the incurably gorgeous Waheeda). Here, several other ‘hits’ fall short. The voices of the actors, their persona, demeanour and the scene-setting do not match the otherwise glorious music, lyrics and singers.

‘Kabhi Kabhi Mere Dil Mein’, for instance, sounds heavenly through speakers. The Trinitarian theory works splendidly. On screen? It’s less than perfect. It demanded a classical romance ‘period’ scene-setting and didn’t get one. It demanded classical-romantic actors and didn’t get any.

Waheeda makes the difference

What sets ‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’ apart? The classical romanticism that the song demanded found expression in the ‘period’ scene-setting and cast. But most importantly, the central character of the sequence is Waheeda. This is where it leaves other ‘very good’ or ‘great’ classical romance song-sequences behind.

Dutt knew. All he had to do was point the camera – Waheeda shone regardless. She shone in spite of anything or anyone in the frame. Especially with little or no make-up or ornaments on.

Dozens of pretty to good-looking actresses have ‘sung’ in memorable classical romance song-sequences in Hindi cinema over the last 60 to 70 years. Not one comes close to the immaculate Waheeda. If anything she’s the one challenging her own rank with appearances in Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. But in no other song-sequence is she as radiant as she is in CKC.. But in no other song-sequence is she as radiant as she is in ‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’.

There would be no full moon, no dazzling sun, no Jameela, without Waheeda.

Opening shot: a full-screen glimpse of a sleeping Waheeda. Moonlight and shadow tease each other – and us.

Next, we see Guru Dutt. He’s speechless at first. No music, no words, nothing to aid him. Helpless, he sighs. Then aid comes as a wave – in music and words. And he pays tribute in the purest Tareef tradition.

The camera creeps like a moonbeam toward Waheeda, stealthily, anxious that any sound beyond the song itself, might rudely wake her.

At first her face is turned ever so slightly upward, away. Then, still asleep she turns gently, slowly toward us. That’s when Dutt musters enough strength to sing as the camera alternates between worshipper and worshipped.

Opening line: Chaudhvin ka chaand ho, ya afataab ho [Are you the full moon or the sun?]

Then: Jo bhi ho tum Khuda ki kasam, la-jawaab ho [Whatever you are….]

In the classical tradition Khuda ki kasam (‘By God’ or ‘I swear by God’) is used exceptionally. Among conservative communities, almost never, because whatever follows isn’t just accurate or fact but the highest truth. Anyone using such a prefix in vain invites the highest punishment. So, it’s no small thing when Dutt uses it with the utter confidence that he’s right, indisputably right. As it happens, those are the moments in the sequence when he shuts his eyes, almost as if closing them to anything but the truth, almost as if the angelic perfection he sees is beyond bearing.

Dutt’s closed eyes in the song-sequence ask conflicting questions that the film doesn’t. He asks: Isn’t it madness to leave such blinding grace unveiled, unprotected? Aren’t even the most precious flowers guarded by branch or thorn? But then again, he asks: Isn’t it madness for such beauty to be hidden at all?

The word la-jawaab doesn’t have a precise translation. Not one that does justice anyway. But roughly it means: that which doesn’t have a suitable reply or that which is matchless, incomparable.

Rightly, Waheeda offers no comfort, no reassurance, no answer. Unlike some other song-sequences, where the object of worship starts questioning or answering the worshipper, in word or song or both, she remains wordless throughout.

If you’ve only ‘listened’ to the song before, I don’t blame you. But you wouldn’t just ‘listen’ to the full moon, would you?

One video-link of the song-sequence on YouTube offers a modest English translation. Purists will naturally shrink in horror; they’re right. No translation, no matter how scholarly, comes close to the original lyrics. Still, it’s manna to the uninitiated who don’t understand Hindi or Urdu.

To Dutt, we can only offer humble gratitude: ‘madman’ all right, but somehow genius as well. He, more than anyone else, seemed to have grasped and captured so intuitively on camera, the magnificent Waheeda – repeatedly and forever.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is the author of ‘Greater than Bradman’.