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Women who broke the mould in Raj Khosla’s films

Director Khosla brought the best out of actresses from Waheeda Rehman to Asha Parekh in his films.

Sonal Pandya

A former assistant to filmmaker-actor Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla picked up valuable tricks of the trade, scripting strong roles for his leading ladies and showcasing them as characters they were never seen as before. Thus, he became known as one of the few Indian directors, alongside Shakti Samanta and Yash Chopra, to feature their heroines as women of substance.

Khosla’s directorial debut Milap (1955), with Dev Anand and Geeta Bali, did not do well at the box office. But Dev Anand had faith in Guru Dutt’s young assistant and gave him the opportunity to direct Navketan’s C.I.D. (1956). The film quickly established Raj Khosla as one of the leading directors of the new ‘neo-noir’ genre recently introduced in Hindi cinema.

In her first Hindi film, Waheeda Rehman was cast as the femme fatale, the gangster’s moll Kamini, who tries to prevent Dev Anand’s Shekhar and Shakila’s Rekha from solving the case.

Waheeda Rehman had only a couple of Telugu films to her credit when she was chosen in the supporting role which became a training ground for the young actress until her next film, Pyaasa (1957).

Raj Khosla reunited with Waheeda Rehman in Solva Saal (1958), where she was once again paired with Dev Anand. Playing the young and naive Laaj, Waheeda's character gets conned by her boyfriend to give up her family’s heirloom necklace and runs into another conman, played by Anand.

From neo-noir, Raj Khosla moved onto successful suspense thrillers in the 1960s. In Ek Musafir Ek Hasina (1962), Woh Kaun Thi? (1964), Mera Saaya (1966) and Anita (1967), he turned Sadhana into an enigmatic woman of mystery. Her work in Woh Kaun Thi? and Mera Saaya won Sadhana recognition (she received her first Filmfare nomination for Best Actress for the former) and box-office success. Prior to this, she was more popular as a fashion idol with her iconic hairstyle, the Sadhana cut.

Raj Khosla then displayed still more of his versatility with Do Badan (1966) which he jointly reworked with his star and hero, Manoj Kumar. Based on Manoj Kumar’s suggestion, the duo watched Nitin Bose’s Deedar (1951) and turned their film into a tragic love story with Asha Parekh, Pran and Simi Garewal.

Do Badan was a transformative film in the careers of both Parekh and Garewal. The former was usually cast as the well-dressed, bubbly, modern love interest. Here, she played a rich heiress again, but infused the central love story with Manoj Kumar with depth and the audience could not accept the heartbreaking ending.

Do Badan was also Simi Garewal’s breakthrough. After roles in the English film Tarzan Goes To India (1962) and Teen Devian (1965) opposite Dev Anand, she made up the third vertex of the love triangle as Dr Anjali, who supports Manoj Kumar’s Vikas through bouts of despair after his accident. Garewal won her first Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for Do Badan.

Like Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh worked with Khosla again in his later films Chirag (1969) and Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), a dacoit thriller with a story similar to the blockbuster Sholay (1975).

But the film that became a landmark in Parekh’s career was Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978). Produced and directed by Khosla, the film revolved around Parekh’s self-sacrificing Tulsi, the other woman in the marriage of Thakur (Vijay Anand) and Sanjukta (Nutan).

Parekh's performance, along with the classic title song, became iconic. She was cast opposite another powerhouse actress, Nutan, who ended up winning the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. Strangely, both Parekh and Nutan were jointly nominated for supporting actresses for the film, but lost the award to Reena Roy in Apnapan (1977). Khosla lost the Best Director award to Satyajit Ray, who won for Shatranj Ke Khiladi, but Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki won the big award of the night with Best Film.

Raj Khosla came to the film industry in Mumbai with dreams of becoming a singer. Instead, he became an original filmmaker, able to adapt and change with the times. The actresses who worked with him, Sadhana, Mumtaz, Asha Parekh and more, were noticed not just for their pretty looks, but also turned in performances that singularized their careers.