DIVA, REBEL, RECLUSE

A new book, Rekha: The Untold Story, relies on old glossy mags and interviews to create an intriguing character study of the famously press-shy actress

In the late 1960s, a 14-year-old Bhanurekha Ganesan was filming the movie Anjana Safar at Bombay’s Mehboob Studio. It was a love scene with her co-star Biswajit who was twice her age. At the time, intimacy in Hindi cinema didn’t dare go beyond two flowers swaying suggestively. But when the director instructed ‘action’, Biswajit planted a kiss on his minor actress’s lips without her knowledge or consent. The scene continued for a good five minutes, amidst cheers and whistles from the crew. A helpless Bhanurekha dutifully played along with eyes full of tears. Even before film’s release, the infamous kiss landed a cover story in the reputed Life Magazine. Soon ‘sex kitten’ Bhanurekha became the go-to actress for B-grade films with risqué content. This had to have been traumatic for a teenager, but Bhanurekha couldn’t afford to complain. In fact, she embraced the bad publicity around her. After all, she had a large family back home in Madras that was surviving on the money these films brought her.

rekha-front-coverWhen a book is titled Rekha: The Untold Story, you know it’s making you an offer that’s hard to resist. The transformation from Bhanurekha to the enigmatic Rekha is a fascinating tale, and author Yasser Usman does well in documenting the tumultuous journey. However, as one reads about Rekha’s chequered life, you do wish that some of this untold story was told by the actress herself. How does one get past the trauma of a 6-month old marriage ending with your husband hanging himself with your dupatta? Or being a daughter to South India’s superstar Gemini Ganesan, but never being acknowledged because you were born out of wedlock?

Usman tries answering these questions by piecing together a few of Rekha’s older interviews to movie glossies like Stardust and Super. “I was called the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of Hindi films because of my dark complexion and south Indian features. I used to feel deeply hurt when people compared me with the leading heroines of the time and said I was no match for them. I was determined to make it big,” she once said.

Gold Spot advertisement (1969). Before any of Rekha’s Bollywood films were out, she modelled for ads to earn extra money. (Image Courtesy: Shyam Benegal)
Gold Spot advertisement (1969). Before any of Rekha’s Bollywood films were out, she modelled
for ads to earn extra money. (Image Courtesy: Shyam Benegal)

Unlike the Rekha of today, who keeps the press at an arm’s length distance, she was once a film magazine’s delight. Her interviews were intentionally brazen and provocative. Sample these quotes: “It is sheer fluke that I have never got pregnant so far” and “Premarital sex is very natural. And all those prudes who say that a single woman should have sex only on her suhaag raat are talking bull.”

These declarations coupled with a string of dalliances that ended in heartbreak, earned her the reputation of a promiscuous woman with questionable morals. Her co-actors and filmmakers didn’t shy away from saying as much. Her romance with the much-married Amitabh Bachchan is one that either of them will probably never live down. This chapter of Rekha’s life also dominates much of the book. Usman writes about how her first film with Bachchan – Dulal Guha’s Do Anjaane – transformed her in more ways than one. For the first time, her performance in a film was praised. Film World noted, “From a plump, pelvis-jerking, cleavage-flashing temptress, she has metamorphosed into a sleek, accomplished actress. Gone are most of the inane mannerisms, pouts, wiggles and giggles.”

Rekha and Mukesh Agarwal at their friend Neeraj Kumar’s house in Delhi in 1990. Mukesh was a businessman who was known to mount an enormous stallion to receive guests at his farmhouse in Delhi. (Image Courtesy: Mala Kumar)
Rekha and Mukesh Agarwal at their friend Neeraj Kumar’s house in Delhi in 1990. Mukesh was
a businessman who was known to mount an enormous stallion to receive guests at his farmhouse in Delhi. (Image Courtesy: Mala Kumar)

From there on she went from strength to strength as a performer. Her most nuanced performances were those in which she played ‘the other woman’ or a courtesan. Film writers opined that she best identified with the pain of these characters. But clearly, the name Rekha spells dread even today. Usman writes of meeting her former colleagues as part of research – several of them refused to talk about her and those who did, had only “strange and sexist” comments to offer.

The author says he made an earnest attempt in reaching out to the reclusive actress. He was politely blown off by her manager Farzana, to whom an entire chapter is dedicated. Rekha’s relationship with her manager has probably been the most stable and durable one in her life. Here too, Usman pulls out reports that speculate on the nature of their relationship. Unfortunately without the actress’s voice much of these claims remain just that – gossip and speculation.

Rekha: An Untold Story is available on the Juggernaut app and in bookstores.

(Lead Picture Courtesy: Super magazine (December 1980))

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