Remembering Dastak: The knock on a forgotten door

Beautiful, bold, and talented, Rehana Sultan was marked as the heir to Nargis' throne. But despite her best efforts, she could never outdo the brilliance displayed in her debut. Here's a reminder of what she pulled off.

Shriram Iyengar

"Lakh lakh makaan aur inmein rehnewale karodon insaan. In karodon insaan ke sukh dukh, hasne rone ke maun darshak hain yeh maun makaan. Theek musafiron ki tarah yahan log aatein hai, rehte hain aur chale jaatein hain. Yahin janam hota hai, vivah hota hai aur hoti hai mrityu."

The city of Mumbai, like its film industry, is made of a million dreams, ambitions, and imaginations. In both cases, the ones trapped within are forgotten or sidelined to anonymity after their short time in the spotlight. Rehana Sultan's is one such story. A talented actress, equipped with the right features to have made her the heartthrob of millions, she never managed to find the right footing in a cruel industry. Winning the National Award in her first film remains her greatest achievement, and sadly her only one.

The lines above were a part of the opening narration of Hrishikesh Mukherji's debut film 'Musafir'. The lines were written by a brilliant Urdu writer and poet, Rajinder Singh Bedi. A writer of immense talent, Bedi was considered one of the most gifted of the Progressive writers who changed the course of Hindi cinema. His sensibility towards economic constraints of the middle class is most evident in two of his most prominent works 'Garm Coat' and 'Dastak'.

Dastak (1970) is a tale about two newly weds, Hamid and Salma, who are duped into renting a flat in Bombay's red light district. The fear of late hour knocks on their doorstep and the impending sense of shame force the couple deeper into their claustrophobic lives. The control of external circumstances forces Hamid to lose his own good judgment and err on the side of caution. The house of disrepute was once home to Shamshad Begum, a notorious dancer, whose customers don't realise the innocence of these two new householders. The tragedy is piled on by neighbours and the paanwala on the street who continue to spread gossip about the pair. The only man who stands apart from the crowd is an old man, Shahid, who pities the couple. The financial poverty and the inability to escape the place make Hamid more desperate. Things come to a head when Salma decides to sing and earn money to help out.

Rehana Sultan was just out of the film institute when Rajinder Singh Bedi offered her the film. Her delicate features and sense of vulnerability add to her appeal. She was sensual without trying to be. As the newly wed housewife struggling to balance the love for her husband with the love for her own freedom, she was superb. Sadly, it was this sensual beauty that would soon drag her to infamy and anonymity. Just before 'Dastak' released, BR Ishara's film 'Chetna' starring Rehana came out. The film was based on the daring topic of a man trying to reform a prostitute by marrying her. The bold scenes and sensuous portrayal of Rehana took much away from the plot itself. Soon, the brilliant actress was typecast into roles that required her to doll up and be glamorous. Her films like 'Haar Jeet', and 'Savera' had compassionate performances, but didn't manage to make a dent in her image. Several years later in an interview, she spoke about the tragedy of being typecast “Not only “Haar Jeet” but even my “Sajjorani” flopped due to misleading publicity. Because of my “Chaetna”-image, the posters of “Haar Jeet” showed me bending down with the Pallav off. For “Sajjorani” I was shown sleeping with my legs exposed and wearing revealing clothes. Now, both the roles were of straight simple girls with no sex angle whatsoever. The posters gave audience high hopes and when they saw the films, they felt cheated.”

In 'Dastak' under the able hands of Bedi and the brilliant camera work of the masterly Kamal Bose, the beauty of Rehana Sultan acquires a different dimension. In one song, 'Maai ri main kaise kahun', she embodies desperation as the young housewife chafing under the control of her husband. Pictured in just a towel, Rehana does not come across as sensuous. Rather, her vulnerability and desperation becomes all the more apparent. In the hands of Kamal Bose and editor Hrishikesh Mukherji, it becomes symbolic of a woman trying to shed off the shackles of gentility to find freedom and music. It is a beautiful sub plot of the film.

Both Rehana and her onscreen husband, Sanjeev Kumar, bagged the National Awards for best debutantes. Madan Mohan earned another National Award for Best Music Direction. Hrishikesh Mukherji earned a rare Filmfare for his work as Editor. A rare film for its topic and style, it was soon forgotten under the deluge of Rajesh Khanna superhits that would follow. Rehana Sultan vanished from the screen after a few forgettable films. By the late 70s, she was reduced to taking up films like 'Agent Vinod' and 'Agent 009'. It was a regrettable finish for an actress who delivered such a memorable performance against one of the most talented actors of that generation, Sanjeev Kumar. Like Salma in Dastak, Rehana suffered not from a lack of talent, but from the world's perception of her talent.