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The Quintessential Umrao Jaan; Only Rekha Could Have Really LIVED This Role!

Posted: October 10, 2020

In an interview, once, Rekha said that she had barely acted in the role of Umrao Jaan; she had lived it. A tribute on Rekha’s birthday today.

I have been an admirer of the actor for decades now, but try as I may, I miserably failed to review her biography written by Yasser Usman. Even though this non-cinematographic representation of a legendary thespian of our times generated a rush of emotions, and I merely remained loyal to them.

The source facts for the piece, though strictly remain from the book, and the emotions are mine.

Who was Umrao Jaan?

It was the year 1884. There was a new dazzle in the world of Urdu Literature. This year saw Mirza Hadi Ruswa rise to prominence with his first ever fully etched novel in Urdu; Umrao Jaan Ada.

She was a courtesan in a kotha in Awadh, where in the mid 19th century, the culture of nautch girls had reached the pinnacle of cultural refinement in poetry, dance, music. This led to some of them rising beyond being mere entertaining escorts to being formidable, intellectual paramours of the rich, sophisticated, culturally inclined Nawabs.

But then it was still a man’s world. Such culturally and intellectually uninhibited women were still to be looked down upon and shoved towards the fringes of society. The novel’s premium draw is it’s sharp prick into an era long forgotten, but that leaves behind its trail of societal moral hypocrisy.

Sold into a brothel

At the heart of the story is a young girl Amiran, yet a minor, who is kidnapped along with another of her ilk Ram Dai. Amiran, due to her dark, nothing to rave about features is sold to a brothel; whereas the fairer, conventionally beautiful Ram Dai is adopted by the Begum to live with her in her own palace.

Amiran grows up to be the beautiful Umrao; her musical, artistic talents reaching new heights concomitant to her brilliance as a poetess. She attracts scores of admirers amongst whom it’s only the Nawab Sultan who matches up to her intellectual dexterity.

But a man of strong intellect is not always one of a strong character. And so she realises, as a weak Nawab fails to offer her a deserving societal acceptance. Accentuating this tragedy, unawares, he marries the conventionally respected Ram Dai brought up as the adopted daughter of the Begum.

Desperate to escape the vicious cycle of her fate, Umrao Jaan seeks solace in different men, only to find herself dejected, unacknowledged, and confined in her kotha; the only place that finally acknowledges her for what she is, with her music, poetry and loneliness.

The movie Umrao Jaan

Cut to 1981. The veteran director Muzaffar Ali makes up his mind to adopt Umrao Jaan for the screen; his Umrao Jaan is to be played by the thespian Rekha. Perhaps his choice was instinctive, but it is she, who would go on to eternalise Umrao on screen like no other. Any attempt in consequent years to emulate the genius of the part she lived would fall flat. Like when none other than the stunning, gorgeous Aishwariya Rai comes face to face with this dawning reality when she made an attempt to reinvent Umrao Jaan once again in 2006. Even her famous, ethereal beauty fails to come to her rescue from the dismal fate of the reinvented Umrao Jaan.

Lesson learnt: Umrao Jaan should be left untouched now and forever. She would eternally remain in public memory as essentially and solely Rekha’s. Rekha ironically has earned the propiertership, as she and Umrao uncannily feed into each other effortlessly.

Bhanurekha, born on 10th October 1954, Madras

Just like Umrao was born Amiran, Rekha was born Bhanurekha Ganesan on 10th October 1954 to a small time struggling Telugu actress Pushpavalli. Her father was just a last name for her – Ganesan – and a very famous one at that.

It didn’t take long for a a very young Bhanurekha to learn that her father was the superstar Gemini Ganesan. Who had a family of his own whom he loved and publicly acknowledged, though he refused any ownership to her, her sister, or her mother, and that she was born out of wedlock; in short, an illegitimate child, shoved to the fringes of society.

As her superstar father flourished and reached the pinnacle of stardom in the South, Pushpavalli struggled with Bhanurekha, her sister and her other half siblings (all born out of wedlock) to make ends meet.

Pushed into films as a 13 year old

With her waning career in films and deep down in debt, in almost sole desperation, Pushpavalli pulled out of school a mere thirteen year old Bhanurekha to make her act in films against the girl’s wishes.

As her father lined up awards, Bhanurekha Ganesan lined up the doors of producers for meagre roles to keep her family going. At a very tender age, Bhanurekha learnt that to survive as a woman in this dark, lethal world is dangerous. It is shamelessly easy to abuse and take advantage of a minor who no one feared, respected or cared for. All the more reason that she bore the cross of her famous title and her illegitimacy.

So acting as a profession came to the teenager not as a matter of choice but as dire necessity. At the behest of a producer her mother knew, her arrival from the South to the Bombay of the late 60’s was fraught with despair, struggle, and an immense fear of the unknown. She was renamed here as Rekha sans her Ganesan surname.

Bhanurekha to Rekha

In the same year of her arrival, there was another south Indian beauty who was launched: Hema Malini. Hema Malini was far well placed in society, knew Hindi better, was a trained dancer, and was easily accepted as well as respected by the film industry. On the other hand Rekha was ridiculed. She was made fun of, mocked at, body shamed serially by various industry people.

It is said that her first co-actor Navin Nishchal, a gold medalist from FTII Pune was horrified at the choice of the female lead. He is rumoured to have initially refused to act opposite this ‘kaali kaluti’, plump, strange, oddly dressed girl from the South who didn’t know a word of Hindi. As for some strange, hushed-up reason, she was the producer’s choice; he complied with a lot of dissatisfaction.

It was an era of beauties like Saira Banu, Asha Parekh, Sharmila Tagore, even the young Hema Malini and her likes. Rekha came across as a stark misfit. Even actor Raj Kumar was caught off guard joking with the producer (based out of Nairobi) on his choice, that his association with Africa justifies his inclination towards dark girls. Shashi Kapoor, who years later ironically heaped her with praises, looked forward to be her co-star and knocked her door several times as a producer (Utsav, Vijeta) was back then overheard amusedly remarking “yeh namoona kahan se utha laaye?” (where did you get this sample from?)!!

No choice for Bhanurekha, no looking back for Rekha

This is precisely how Rekha began her career in Bollywood. But there was no looking back for her and no luxury of choice. If she was a product of nepotism, then this was her biggest curse. Back home, she had mouths to be fed, debts to be cleared and had only one choice, the choice to plod on for survival. She began with B grade films, signing them in heaps. Her aim had nothing to do with acting and everything to do with money.

But fate had moulded her in it’s own image – tough, relentless. She was born to be a fighter and she rose like a Phoenix from the ashes. And as if giving in to her steely determination, fate turned its course and Gulzar’s Ghar happened to her in the late 70’s.

It was the veteran Gulzar who had spotted a special spark in her in the underrated film Do Anjaane, and shocked everyone by casting her in such a serious role. Though she had slowly fought her way into being a glamorous prop for the male leads by then, no one had ever considered Rekha as any kind of an actor.

Years later, Gulzar recalled how his choice had been his biggest jackpot win for decades to come. With that film Rekha had arrived. Gone was the gawky teenager Bhanurekha. Here was the diva as well as the actor Rekha. She left her audience gaping in awe with her finesse in Hindi diction and her superlative, nuanced performance. Her Hindi dialogue delivery towered over all non Hindi speaking actresses of her time and her brilliant voice modulation wasn’t easy to match any more.

Rekha’s golden years

The untrained dancer once again stunned the audience as Zohrabai in Muquaddar ka Sikandar. As she stylishly raises her hand in a salaam, in the song “salaame ishq meri jaan tum yeh quabool kar lo ….” to the shock of several industry insiders, she sent the nation into a hysterical tizzy.

The list of her credentials gradually grew into something invincible. Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khoobsoorat, Shashi Kapoor’s Vijeta and Basera, Gulzar’s Ijaazat; her versatility and her effortless chameleon like actor’s quality took her way beyond many actresses of her time.

Be it Zeenat Aman, Parveen Bobby, Jaya Bhaduri, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Hema Malini – though all were undeniably actresses of superlative calibre in their own right, in front of Rekha they admittedly had a limited range. Rekha was the only one who as an actor could fit in anywhere with anyone.

As Gulzar had rightfully observed, only an actor of exceptionally superior calibre could do this with such skilled ease. “Woh kisi bhee kirdaar ko libaas kee tarah pahan letee hain,” (she wears any character as effortlessly as getting into a dress) he said, as he fondly recalled what a brilliant actor she was capable of blooming as, with the right film and the right director.

She could be the glamorous Chandni of Silsila, and the deglamourised housewife of Aastha. The bubbly, vivacious girl next door in Khoobsurat, and the serious, down to earth Vasudha of Ijaazat. She could gyrate in the typical Bollywood manner with ‘pardesiyaan, yeh sach hai piya …’, and also live up to the hilt the role of the sophisticated courtesan Umrao Jaan.

Whether it was the suave Vinod Mehra, the restrained Raj Babbar, the superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the dashing Shashi Kapoor, the jumping Jack Jeetendra, the brilliant Naseeruddin Shah, the natural actor’s actor Farrooque Sheikh or the talented Om Puri, none could dwarf this lady any more. Each and every frame that she shared with each of them, she was a formidable opponent, a remarkable co actor, who effortlessly cast a spell.

The daughter had grown up and risen beyond her father’s name, but…

Bhanurekha Ganesan, the unacknowledged daughter of her star father, saw to it that she was now a star herself. She had finally managed to silence her critics once and for all. The once dark, gauche, oddly dressed girl with a strange accent was now a gorgeous, fashionista Diva, a star, dancer, and actor with an enviable Hindi diction and an outstanding voice modulation (the last two, I personally believe, none of the other non Hindi speaking actresses including her more welcomed contemporary Hema Malini, could accomplish anywhere near her.)

Farooque Sheikh has been quoted as saying that on the sets of Umrao Jaan, she left the unit spellbound with her Urdu dialogue delivery. All others -Naseer, he himself, even Raj Babbar (all of them having had a prior familiarity with Urdu), she was the only non Urdu speaking actor around the set. Yet her dialogue delivery in the film remains exemplary till date.

Hers is a story of unbelievable dramatic metamorphosis that managed to shock and silence years of triflings and humiliations. Yet Fate silently waited round the corner to serve its last dice.

Though her professional career took her to dizzying heights, it was in her personal life where Bhanurekha was time and again reminded of the inevitability of this inescapable fate. She was never formally accepted by her father, and despite several link-ups and rumours of secret marriages, she was never formally accepted by any man as his legal wife. The only legal association she dared to attempt (businessman Mukesh Agarwal) met with dangerous consequences within months.

In one of her interviews, Rekha admitted that of all the characters she’s played, it was Umrao Jaan where she barely acted at all. Ironically it was this film that fetched her the only National Award for acting in her career.

Though there is no evidence of Umrao Jaan being a real historical character of the 19th century, Mirza Hadi Ruswa had once confessed that the protagonists of all his novels were real, living human beings, whom he had himself met and known at some point of time.

The author was no more alive in the 20th century to witness Umrao coming back to life onscreen. In case he would have had, his earnest take on this immortalized version of his Umrao today would forever remain a figment of our eternal imagination.

Maybe the little girl Bhanurekha Ganesan’s journey deserves poetic justice no less than this.

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Priyanka Mitra Shee. I'm a lover of words, who has discovered on her way that words expressed right can be surprisingly transformative, uplifting, healing, inspirational and a magical portal to both the world we live in and a world we aspire to. I merely, in my small ways try to play a part in it, by putting out my soul through words that could reach out and connect to another.

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