Rekha Behind The Mystique

What do you say about an actress who’s had maybe four memorable films in a career spanning 30 years, but has already acquired the status of a Bollywood legend. Jerry Pinto tries to unravel the mystery behind the mythologising of Rekha.




Jessica, Imran, Gavin and I are slowly getting drunk. The three Brits are here to do a book on the stars of popular Hindi cinema. They have met Amitabh Bachchan and interviewed Preeti Jhangiani, talked to Manisha Koirala and been ditched by the police who arrested Bharat Shah.


“We’d like to do Rekha, Jerry,” says Imran, British Asian, spiky haired and full of a nervous panache. “I’d like to do Rekha, Jerry. Hell, my old man would like to do Rekha.”


I tell them of the numerous tries I have made, of the many attempts at getting in touch. We drink some more beer.


“This is after all the Sun-N-Sand,” I say, beer-expansive. “The venue for all those lusty episodes. The night will bring us a way.” I throw open the windows of Jessica’s room. She leans out and stretches a lissome arm out into the sky, then leans her face against her bicep.


“Neela aasmaan so gaya,” she sings.


“Aansoo-on mein chaand dooba,” I add.


More beer.


Finally I grab a piece of paper and write ‘Aap ke pair bahut naazuk hai. Inhe zameen pe ne daaliyega. Maile ho jaayenge.’ I am not sure that the line from Pakeezah with which I am courting Rekha vicariously is accurate. I only know it is worth a try. If Rekha isn’t hung up on Meena Kumari, she should be. (I find later, when I am researching for this piece, that this is so.) Imran orders orchids. Gavin rewrites my note in his illiterate but pretty scrawl. Imran adds: “We have come all the way from England to do a book on Hindi film stars. We would like to interview and photograph you as well…”


All wrong. The last is rewritten, Gavin getting slightly impatient. “The book would be incomplete without you.”


She began with sizzling interviews in the Stardust style, saying that she approved of free love (this was the time when premarital sex went by this euphemism), that the only reason she hadn’t had a baby yet was sheer luck, that you had to go to bed with a man to get to know him.


Then we roll out into a sultry night and drive to Bandstand to Pushpavalli, her bungalow on Bandra’s Bandstand, to Seabird where her office is. Gavin, India-Nairobi-Britain, at two removes from the Hindi film world, does not see this as a pilgrimage worth his effort. He yawns and refuses to come. Imran and Jessica go to the gate with the flowers. They return with bad news. Rekha is out of town and will only be back after they are gone.


We wilt in a collective bunch.


The next day Imran rings up. “It worked, Jerry, it worked. She’s meeting us.”


But first, the facts: Bhanurekha Ganeshan, illegitimate child of superstar Shivaji Ganeshan by his liaison with co-star Pushpavalli, was a struggling starlet in Tamil movies. Her only assets were her breasts; her biggest flaw was her dark skin. She knew no Hindi, no Punjabi (the lingua franca of the Hindi film industry at the time) very little English. Coerced by her mother, she had learnt dancing for a few years but her fat made her movements seem coarse. She was a no-hoper. She was another wannabe, shepherded around by a has-been. Then two things happened simultaneously. She got a break in Mumbai and she kissed Biswajeet in one of her earliest films. She’d made it to the first rung of the ladder as media celebrity.


So much is history. After that, everything else is speculation.


Yes, there has been much written on Rekha but it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Jeetendra, Vinod Mehra, Kiran Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Sunjay Dutt, Akshay Kumar. Is there anything in that list that makes sense? The young man from Lucknow, the spotboy from Bihar, the journalist from Goa, the secretary? Can you find anything there, anything that connects, coheres?


Yes, Rekha has said a whole lot to the press. She began with sizzling interviews in the Stardust style, saying that she approved of free love (this was the time when pre-marital sex went by this euphemism), that the only reason she hadn’t had a baby yet was sheer luck, that you had to go to bed with a man to get to know him. It’s all on record. Now read backwards from the last interview you saw, to the one before that, working your way backwards across the sub-Kahlil Gibran expanse of words. It’s all abstract nouns and generalizations. It’s all about people who hurt you and help you grow and the wound of loneliness and the difficulty of being Rekha.


No one takes Rekha as seriously as Rekha does. Which is why it is very difficult to believe her.


But then there is no need to believe her. There is no need to even talk to her. She has said it all before and will say it again if you ask. She has talked about marriage and infidelity. She has discussed Mukesh Agarwal and Muqaddar ka Sikandar. She has talked about yoga and madness and grief and maternity. She has a carefully considered opinion on everything as long as that something has to do with Rekha.


But somehow you do not get the feeling that Rekha is speaking. You do not hear a voice. You hear a carefully synthesized drawl of the right words. Four thousand words later, you wonder whether you can still believe her when she says that she is now used to being alone. Where do those four thousand words go when she is alone? Who hears the tree falling in the desert?


Okay, as an act of self-invention, India may not see the like again. Generations to come will not believe that she walked the earth simply because they will not believe that she ever actually walked. They will only see that frozen sneer of longing that came out of the Vogue of the ‘60s, the visual sigh of the naayika waiting for her lover, right out of Raja Ravi Varma. They will see a flawless skin and perfect almond eyes and nails from heaven. They will see jewellery from Hyderabad and scarves from Paris and just that one mole in the right place, above the perfect mouth with lipstick in a million shades of blush and tone.


Rekha is in trouble. Not just because she has delivered a string of flops. Not just because there is no work. Not just because she is beginning to feel too old for any male co-star (never mind how she looks).  But because she is now firmly ensconced in her own legend.


And they might just believe that this was put together only so that photographers might admire it, that the camera could make love to it, so that this creation could rest its face against glass, one of the all-time clichés of Hindi film glamour photography.


What films will they see? There are only four Rekha films that might survive into the future. There’s Umrao Jaan with its silky sheen of aesthetic perfection and its magical music; there’s Utsav’s too-worked-out ambience; there’s the immortal love pentagon of Muqaddar ka Sikandar (Amjad Khan loves Rekha loves Amitabh loves Raakhee loves Vinod Khanna) and the trauma of rape in Ghar.  Would they see Madam X, Jhoothi, Ek Hi Bhool, Daasi, Khilaadiyon ka Khiladi, Qila, Khoon Pasina, Mother 98, Jeevan Dhaara, Raaste Pyaar Ke?              


I must confess that I have seen all those. I started as an Amitabh fan which meant that I saw her in Khoon Pasina, Do Anjaane, Mr Natwarlal, Ram Balram, Muqaddar ka Sikandar and Silsila. She was an adjunct to the star, the main man, the giant. She was, I read in at least 500 magazines, his creation. She said so. The press said so. He said nothing.


But you can’t be a journalist and not bump into Rekha. You walk away from interviewing Rani Mukherjee, dull as ditchwater, nothing to say about anything, a smug ball cocooned in her fifteen minutes of fame, and you get back to the office. There a journalist has just asked Rekha to name her ten favourite actors and the words have come gushing forth, an effortless flood of language. You are struggling to put 700 words that might interest you-as-reader. You are failing. Suddenly you long for Rekha.


That means you want to interview her. That means you should at least see her films. That means a visit to the video library and an immersion in Rekha. This makes it easy. You can see it all telescoped. Here is the first Rekha, steamy, spontaneous in a katori choli. She is fat but her fat is soft and receptive.  You can see that she has all the makings of a star.


Here is the second Rekha. She is a star for the middle-class now, not very threatening at all. She is a good actress, she has learnt her lessons in the art of make-up, she has great colour sense. Even when she plays the outcast, the other woman, the courtesan (three of those four films have her playing Zohrabai, Vasantsena and Umrao Jaan) she is not a threat because there is now no artistic stigma attached to it. There is a long lineage of brilliant actresses who played prostitutes including Meena Kumari in Pakeezah, Waheeda Rehman in Pyaasa and Sharmila Tagore in Mausam. Nothing to worry about there as long as Zohrabai will close her doors to all but Sikandar once she discovers her love for him, as long as Vasantsena and the first wife get on well, as long as Umrao Jaan ends up alone in a deserted kotha, moodily wiping a mirror free of its mustiness.



After Amitabh’s desertion (post Ram Balram, pre-Silsila) the bourgeoisification is earnest, relentless. She appears with Jeetendra as his wronged wife in Ek Hi Bhool, as the tormented, abused bread-winner of her family in Jeevan Dhaara, as the first wife who gets lost and then returns suddenly in the middle of her husband’s second marriage in Raaste Pyaar Ke, as Shashi Kapoor’s sister-in-law-turned-wife in Baseraa (Raakhee goes mad leaving her child motherless and then returns), as the… but you get the picture. Women-oriented films all of them, a turn-off for a patriarchally-minded audience. Happens to a lot of female film stars. They get too big for their own good; the budget and the ego-space will not accommodate a real hero and the kiss of death begins with what the industry calls an author-backed role. (Just watch it happen to Kajol in Kuch Khatti, Kuch Meethi. If you have a star like Kajol playing a double role, you can only get Rishi Kapoor to do the honours.) She is an efficient actress but she seems to have no way of getting out of mediocrity. It enfolds her like that first sudden kiss that Biswajeet forced on to her, taking her by surprise, at the director’s instructions.


She got a break in Mumbai and she kissed Biswajeet in one of her earliest films. She’d made it to the first rung of the ladder as media celebrity.


Here is the third Rekha. This is the Rekha who has been infused with some strange synthetic life, who laughs and dances and cries as if she were a real human being. There’s nothing wrong with her performances. The sexuality is missing. She is no longer middle-class, not even upper-middle class, she is out there somewhere, beyond the ordinary, beyond the mortal. Or this is what she exudes. Once in a while, she turns to look at the audience but in those moments of contact and contempt, she sends out only one message: Look, I can do this too. That is when it gets disconcerting. An actress who goes out and sings Aaj Sunday ki chhutti hai (as Rekha did) has the right to look like that. An actress who looks as if she is pleased to show that she can act too is in trouble.        


Which means Rekha is in trouble. Not just because she has delivered a string of flops. Not just because there is no work. Not just because she is beginning to feel too old for any male co-star (never mind how she looks). But because she is now firmly ensconced in her own legend. Somewhere under all that verbiage must be the grim realization that Khoon Bhari Maang is no way to be remembered. That you don’t just get to be a legend because you know that your face blows up during the day and begins to look its best in the afternoon. And most importantly, the realization that you need to have a body of work that supports your legend. There is no body of work. Four films? Out of a hundred-plus?


And yet, here we are talking about Rekha. There you are reading about her. Not that she turns you on. Not one of my friends said that she was a turn-on. Not one. Sexuality invites you in. Rekha now includes you out. Her image is one of self-containment, of regal self-assurance. This is not about her tiresome theme song (“Solitude suits me”) and the psychobabble of how that is a plea. This is simply about the quality of her stardom. She has priced herself out of our emotional market.


No. I don’t think I will see Zubeida.    


This article was first published in the February 2001 issue


Image courtesy: Rakesh Shrestha

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