'I just rolled up my petticoat and gave the shot': 'Chetna' girl, Rehana Sultan, was the goddess of erotica in the 70s

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·6-min read

FTII graduate, Rehana Sultan, gave a double dose of erotica in Chetna and Dastak… to become the poster girl of New Wave cinema in the 70s.

Lying in bed after fixing herself a drink, she tries to cajole her reluctant customer to join her.

Unsuccessful, she stands up, the camera spotlighting her legs with the man turning away his face from her.

Rehana Sultan in Chetna
Rehana Sultan in Chetna

The poster, featuring newbies Rehana Sultan and Anil Dhawan, became the most-talked about in 1970. B.R. Ishara’s Chetna shook the middle-class out of their social hypocrisy and unnerved the censors.

Chetna
Chetna

As a prostitute, who’s unable to disconnect from her stained past Rehana’s was a no-holds barred act.

“I had no clue that the shot in Chetna would create such a buzz. I just rolled up my petticoat and gave the shot…The era was changing. The heroines were getting real. They left their hair loose, wore soft make-up and were not out of the world,” she was quoted saying.

Rehana and Sanjeev Kumar in Dastak
Rehana and Sanjeev Kumar in Dastak

Followed by Dastak, which was both sensual and sensitive, Rehana Sultan became a frontliner of the New Wave cinema.

While even Satyajit Ray envisaged an interest in casting her, Rehana could not shake off the ‘sexy’ tag. That became her crowing glory as well as her shackles, keeping her enslaved to her image despite over 50 films and earnest talent…

ON HER 70TH BIRTHDAY WE SHARE RARE FACTS ABOUT THE TALENTED REHANA SULTAN.

Daughter of an electrical engineer from Allahabad, Rehana Sultan is a Baha’i. Her Muslim father converted to the Baha’i faith. When she was in kindergarten, a child dropped ink on her. This upset her protective parents. Then on they made her school at home. She started attending school only in the eighth standard.

After her matriculation, Rehana filled an admission form for the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), which appeared in Amrit Bazar Patrika. She got selected.

Rehana did poorly in the first year at the FTII. “I only got andas (zeroes). I was shy. If someone told me I looked nice, I’d get offended and get into a fight. None of my classmates wanted to work with me in the campus films,” the actor revealed.

Teacher Roshan Taneja guided Rehana. She began to enjoy reading acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski.

She watched classics and counted Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief and Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow among her favourite films.

In the second year, she earned a first class. Writer-director Rajinder Singh Bedi happened to watch Rehana in an institute film, Water In The Tap, where she played a pregnant woman waiting in queue for water. He offered her Dastak (1970).

Rehana shot for Dastak and B R Ishara’s controversial Chetna simultaneously. But Chetna released first in 1970. Initially, she refused to meet director BR Ishara (whom she eventually married). “He was sitting on the sofa with his feet up and was smoking in my drawing room,” she once shared. But when he began narrating the script she was keen to do the film.

More than the suggestive photography what she felt awkward about was the dialogue in Chetna - “Maine zinadgi mein itne nange mard dekhein hai, ke kapde pehne huwe mardon se mujhe nafrat ho gayee hai!”

Dastak
Dastak

Dastak, though profound and poetic, seemingly carried the hangover of Chetna.

The posters had Rehana lying on the floor, scantily clad. The media dubbed it as a ‘second-long nude flash’ even though just her bare shoulder was seen.

The film dealt with a newly married couple, who happen to rent a house in a red-light area, previously occupied by a tawaif. This invites harassment for the new bride as the courtesan’s clients come knocking at her door.

The song Tumse kahoon ek baat, where the lead pair, finally gets intimate, exudes a lyrical sensuality. The film won National Awards for Rehana, Sanjeev Kumar, composer Madan Mohan and cinematographer Kamal Bose.

After these films, every filmmaker wanted to shoot a bathroom scene or an intimate scene with Rehana. Haar Jeet (1972) was a simple entertainer. But they had a huge cut-out of her sliding pallu. “Even when I wore a skirt, it would be written, ‘Rehana has started her leg show’!” she once said.

Prem Parbat
Prem Parbat

Rehana’s other popular films were Ved Rahi’s Prem Parbat, where she’s married off to an old man, Narendra Bedi’s adventure drama Khote Sikkay, Deepak Bahry’s espionage thriller Agent Vinod and Amrit Nahata’s political satire Kissa Kursi Ka (between (1973-1977). She also acted in the Punjabi movie Putt Jattan De (1981) and Vijay Anand’s Hum Rahen Na Rahen (1984).

Some of the finest songs filmed on her have been Lata Mangeshkar’s Baiyan na dharo, Hum hai mataye (both from Dastak), Yeh dil aur unki (Prem Parbat) and Rasme ulfat and Aap ki batein karein (both from Dil Ki Raahein). Reportedly Lata Mangeshkar sang Rasme ulfat at the Royal Albert Hall in London, citing it as one of her favourite numbers.

Rehana married mentor and filmmaker B. R. Ishara (she also acted in his Yeh Sach Hai and Maan Jaaiye) in 1984. “Ishara saab wore kurta with chappals and sported a jhola. He spoke of UG Krishnamurthy. His idealism appealed to me,” said Rehana explaining what attracted her to a much-older Ishara.

The couple chose not to have a baby. “My husband asked me, ‘Do you want to bring another machine in the world?’ I was impressed by this ‘intellectual’ thought… I wasn’t prepared to take on the responsibility either. Normally, children in due course move away from you," said Rehana

Rehana’s last major appearance was in Surajmukhi (1992) and then in a television film Aakhri Chal (1985). Sudhir Mishra offered her the cameo role of Chitrangda Singh’s mother in Inkaar (2013).

“I miss everything about acting. I miss the camera, the atmosphere. I wonder why I stopped acting. I am open to acting again. But will anybody take me now?” she once said.

B R Ishara passed away in 2012 (his other popular films were Log Kya Kahengey, Milap, Ek Nazar, Zaroorat, Milap, Kaagaz Ki Nao, Prem Shastra and Bazaar Band Karo) after a paralytic stroke and a spell of tuberculosis.

Rehana, leading a quiet life in the suburbs, is still hopeful of getting work and living with dignity.