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What is glorious about Rekha’s story is the triumph of a woman who lives her life on her terms, in an industry that is so fiercely male dominated.
Rekha’s story is so extraordinary, that it fits in perfectly in Kiran Manral’s new book RISING: 30 Women Who Changed India – here’s the excerpt for your reading pleasure.
Hers has been a life that fairy tales are made of, of the ugly duckling morphing into a gorgeous swan. From her debut as a child actress to her current status as the mysterious, reclusive prima donna of the Hindi film world, Rekha has indeed come a long way.
She was named Bhanurekha Ganesan. When she entered the Hindi film industry, her name Bhanurekha got shortened to simply Rekha. She was born on 10 October 1954; she was the daughter of the Tamil superstar Gemini Ganesan and the noted actress Pushpavalli, born out of wedlock.
Throughout her childhood, her father never acknowledged Rekha and her sister as his daughters. Years later, talk show host Simi Garewal would ask Rekha whether she had missed the presence of her father growing up. Rekha responded with grace, ‘If you don’t taste something, you don’t know what it means. I didn’t know what the word “father” meant.’
Yasser Usman, the author of the biography Rekha: The Untold Story, talks about how Rekha’s childhood shaped her. ‘Rekha had a turbulent childhood. Her father Gemini Ganesan was a huge star but he was totally absent during Rekha’s childhood. She said in an interview, “Though he never lived with us, we ‘felt’ his presence wherever we went or whatever we did. My mother constantly spoke about him.” In the absence of her father, her mother Pushpavalli became the most important person in her life.’
He adds that Rekha had to join the Bombay film industry against her wishes. She was pulled out of her school due to financial constraints. She was totally uninterested in acting, young as she was. In the interview with Simi Garewal, she says, ‘When a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old wanted to have a chocolate or an ice cream and has been deprived of it for months together, somewhere you tend to snap. I mean I never used to run away, I would say “abhi aati hoon” and lose track of time.’
She has vivid memories of those troubled early years as a child actor and then as a lead heroine when she was just a teenager. Years later she would say, ‘Bombay was like a jungle, and I had walked in unarmed. It was one of the most frightening phases of my life… I was totally ignorant of the ways of this new world. Guys did try and take advantage of my vulnerability. I did feel, ‘What am I doing? I should be in school, having ice-cream, fun with my friends, why am I even forced to work, deprived of normal things that a child should be doing at my age?’
Her initial foray into the film industry was as a child actress, credited as Baby Bhanurekha, in her debut Telugu film Inti Guttu (1958), then as a heroine in the blockbuster Kannada film Operation Jackpot Nalli C.I.D. 999 with the then superstar Rajkumar in 1969.
She would go on to debut as a lead actress in the Hindi movie Sawan Bhadon (1970). It was a hit, and the teenaged Rekha was an unlikely star. While Sawan Bhadon was released as her first Hindi movie, it wasn’t the first Hindi movie she had shot for. The first was Anjana Safar (1969) with the then ‘chocolate’ hero, Biswajeet. Later, Rekha would claim she was tricked into shooting a kissing scene with Biswajeet. The incident has found mention in Usman’s biography of her.
To quote from the book, ‘Every last detail of the strategy had been decided before the shoot. As soon as the director Raj Nawathe said ‘action’, Biswajeet took Rekha in his arms and pressed his lips on hers. Rekha was stunned. This kiss had never been mentioned to her. The camera kept rolling; neither was the director ordering ‘cut’ nor was Biswajeet letting go of her. For all of five minutes, Biswajeet kept kissing Rekha. Unit members were whistling and cheering. Her eyes were tightly shut but they were full of tears.
In the early ’70s, she was part of several box-office hits such as Raampur Ka Lakshman (1972), Kahani Kismat Ki (1973) and Pran Jaye Per Vachan Na Jaye (1974), amongst others. She was still an outlier at the time, dark complexioned, plump and unable to speak Hindi. At a movie premiere, Shashi Kapoor is supposed to have said about her, ‘How is this dark, plump and gauche actress ever going to make it?’
She was called the ‘ugly duckling’ of Hindi films because of her dark complexion and South Indian features. She transformed herself completely. From a plump girl with over-plucked eyebrows and a dusky complexion, she became sleek, stylish and gorgeous. She would credit this transformation to yoga, diet and a mindful life. In 1983, she brought out a book titled Rekha’s Mind and Body Temple, advocating a fit and healthy lifestyle. In the interview with Simi Garewal, she said, ‘By the time Ghar was released, that’s when it hit people that it’s overnight. But it’s not overnight, it took about two-and-a half years.’
Interestingly, according to her biographer, Yasser Usman, it was Rekha’s association with Amitabh Bachchan that transformed her on both the personal and the professional front. He says, ‘Though the film media mainly talked about their personal association but in my opinion it was the powerful impact of Mr Bachchan that completely transformed her professionally and also as a person. The manner in which she talks about this experience or her association with Amitabh Bachchan you can feel it is something sacrosanct and internal to her.’
He adds, ‘Professionally, it was definitely Do Anjaane and the impact Mr Bachchan had on her. She became serious and soon stardom happened. Then came a very crucial film Ghar, where she got a chance to work with Gulzar. It was a bold film that dealt with the pain of a rape victim and the social stigma she faces. Rekha gave a memorable performance and everyone began to take her seriously as an actress of exceptional talent. This was a turning point and many films followed post Ghar, including Khubsoorat, Silsila and Umrao Jaan where she was in superb form.’
She also became more particular about the kind of roles she was accepting, her acting turnaround came with the movie Do Anjaane (1976), where she played a negative character, a scheming and ambitious wife to the then superstar, Amitabh Bachchan. It was the sensitively directed film Ghar (1978) that established her as an actress. This got her the very first nomination for Best Actress at the Filmfare awards. Interestingly, she also had one of her greatest hits that year, the commercial blockbuster Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, where she co-starred with Amitabh.
Her portrayal of Umrao Jaan, the nineteenth-century courtesan from the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa and adapted by director Muzaffar Ali was much lauded. After reading the script, she had a strange feeling, that she had Umrao in her. She was awarded the National Film Award for Best Actress for Umrao Jaan. She also became more confident about her abilities as an actress, and began doing more experimental cinema. She worked in Shyam Benegal’s contemporary retelling of the Mahabharata, Kal Yug (1981), Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta (1982), Girish Karnad’s classic Utsav (1984) and Gulzar’s much-acclaimed Ijaazat (1987). In 1988, she played the lead in Khoon Bhari Maang, which won her a Filmfare Award.
In the 1990s, she did some interesting movies including Mira Nair’s Kamasutra, playing a teacher of the erotic arts, and the action movie Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996), which had her play a lady don. In another controversial movie, Aastha (1997), by Basu Bhattacharya, she played a housewife who takes to prostitution. In the 2000s, the roles she took on were few and far between, amongst the noteworthy ones being her role in Khalid Mohamed’s Zubeidaa (2001).
She has three Filmfare awards for best actress and best supporting actress. Her performance as the noted courtesan Umrao Jaan in 1981 won her the National Film Award for Best Actress. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010 by the Government of India and she has also been a member of the Rajya Sabha.
While her professional life has been dotted with accolades, her personal life has been troubled. There were reports of relationships with actors Kiran Kumar, Vinod Mehra and Amitabh Bachchan. She was reported to have married Vinod Mehra in 1973, but later denied it. She surprised everyone when she married Mukesh Agarwal, a Delhi-based entrepreneur and the owner of the Hotline brand of kitchen appliances. She had been introduced to him by her friend, the Delhi-based fashion designer and socialite, Bina Ramani. It was an impulsive decision; Agarwal was smitten by her and Rekha was looking for stability. They were married in a temple in Juhu, in March 1990.
Her husband hung himself to death with her dupatta, barely a year later, while she was away in London, leaving a note stating that no one be blamed for his decision. She consciously withdrew from public life, after the public witch-hunt that followed upon her husband’s death. Says Yasser Usman, ‘Rekha was known for her scandalous and bold interviews in the 1970s and 1980s. But surprisingly, this generation knows her as someone who doesn’t talk to the media—a reclusive diva. When did this change happen? When I was writing the book, I realized that it all changed after her husband Mukesh Agarwal’s death by suicide in 1990. That event changed her forever. There was a proper media trial and everyone blamed her for her husband’s death. Her relationship with the media was broken.’
Since then, she has retained a Garboesque mystery around herself. In a rare interview, she said, ‘I’m a loner. I don’t network or meet people. It’s tacky for a person to talk about herself.’
What is glorious about Rekha’s story is the triumph of a woman who lives her life on her terms, in an industry that is so fiercely male dominated. Says Yasser Usman, ‘For me, it was always a story of an underdog, a complete outsider who came to the Hindi film industry without even knowing Hindi. She was ridiculed for not being “traditionally good looking” according to the crappy Bollywood standards. For years, she went through numerous episodes of humiliation. In her case, the humiliation continued even after she was famous. But she fought back. Like they say, the real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. As a writer, I was really curious to know what transpired in her journey from being a 14-year-old Tamil- speaking girl from Chennai, who went on to win the National Award for playing Umrao Jaan, speaking impeccable Urdu and becoming the diva of the Hindi film industry…all in the course of a long journey of unbelievable tragedies and incredible triumphs. She ruled a male-dominated film industry for years. In fact, there was a time in the early 1980s when she was the bigger star than most of her male co-stars. Movie scripts were written keeping her in mind and despite all the turbulence in her personal life, she gave many blockbusters where she was the hero.’
She rarely gives interviews, lives alone in her magnificent sea-facing bungalow, a landmark in Bandra’s Bandstand, and makes the occasional public appearance, dazzling in her trademark Kanjeevaram sarees and red lipstick. In her splendid isolation, she continues to be perhaps the most seductive woman contemporary Hindi cinema has seen, and perhaps the most misunderstood too.
Excerpt published with permission from Rupa Publications India.
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