In the July 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia, Rekha posed for the magazine wrapped in Manish Malhotra regalia. In one of the photos, she is wearing a muslin angrakha anarkali, a vintage brocade coat with a gold zari in another (amongst several). These photographs are embedded in a reverential text about her stardom. What stands out, amongst the designer extravagance, is also the face — blemish-free, wrinkle-free. Not a single visible ageing line is apparent in the shoot.
Rekha, reticent in her older years, who is generally spoken of in adulatory, fond terms by the young is now someone who may well be called, as the kids say, “Mother”, a paragon of persisting beauty. She is — rather, has become — a feminine ideal. Even if you aren’t a Bollywood enthusiast, you probably know that this becoming was a process of several years of un-making, transforming from a “plump, pelvic-jerking, cleavage-flashing temptress”, to a (comparatively) dark-skinned Bhanurekha with inane mannerisms, to a “sleek and accomplished” actress, as the now defunct Film Magazine put it.
The actress had joined the industry unwillingly, pressured by her debt-riddled mother Pushpavalli (also an actress. Rekha’s father, incidentally, was the Tamil star Gemini Ganesan). Rekha had little pulse on how to navigate the conventions of beauty. Among those who raised alarms on her behalf regarding both her relative fatness and darker skin was Shashi Kapoor, who said that he was sceptical how this girl could possibly make it in an industry so inclined towards thinness and lighter complexions. The shift in Rekha’s appearance from a darker, chubby girl, to a lean, bronzed woman is perhaps the most dramatic makeover in Hindi cinema history.
Yasser Usman, in his book Rekha: The Untold Story, calls the actor a “trailblazer” for construing beauty as a destination, as opposed to rendering it as something innate, a concept to feel helpless against. She hired Meena Kumari’s make-up artist, Ram Dada, as her instructor once she realised the significance of make-up in bolstering a leading heroine’s cultural capital. There was, apparently, a liquid-based diet for two months, when all Rekha had was milk. She had also begun to do yoga long before it became the preferred celebrity workout.
It is easy to sparse through her history with men, of her affairs with “Vin-Vin” and “Kin-Kin” (Vinod Mehra and Kiran Kumar respectively), as entertainment journalists referred to them; of her history with a “Him” (possibly: Amitabh Bachchan) whom she brought up in several interviews. To think these consuming dalliances are the main driving force behind her aggressive persuasion of beauty. But this reductiveness irks not just because it is simplistic, but because it contains beauty within the function of sexual and romantic titillation. In a deeply sexist industry, one which is romantically-inclined in storytelling, one so bent on pigeonholing its women, one which thrives on sexualising heroines albeit within a “respectable” framework, doesn’t beauty easily spill over from the romantic realm, into a larger realm of negotiation of their existence?
In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khoobsurat (1980), Rekha plays a young woman who acts as a playful foil against the chiding and traditional matriarch in the family. In addition to the film being a commercial hit, her two ponytails, as well as her dresses, created ripples (Rekha used her own wardrobe for the movie). In Umrao Jaan (1981), one of her most famous films, Rekha plays a poetess and courtesan who falls in love with Nawab Sultan (Farooq Shaikh). The romance doesn’t work out and ultimately, her poetry ends up offering her hopeful solace. In Rakesh Roshan’s Khoon Bhari Maang (1988), she plays a glamorous woman who takes revenge against her husband who tries to feed her to crocodiles in a bid to acquire her wealth. A subtext lurks through several of her films of acute disappointments in romancing men, of beauty as a separate pursuit for power, with a want to be desired serving one if its aspects.
In the recent Vogue Arabia photoshoot, it might be eerie to see a 69-year-old woman without a single line in her face, upholding an idea of beauty in which an older woman’s appearance is glorified without any of the caveats associated with ageing. But Rekha’s preoccupation has always been to indulge her own desires. It is what made her transgressive (and due to that, retrospectively, revered). That these could clash with progressive notions was incidental. These days, however, the “sleek” actress has receded into the distance. We see Rekha at choiceful events like award functions, with her typical Banarasi-weaves and Kanjeevaram silks, both of which pump up her iconography as a fashion diva who leans away from transient trends and towards the timeless.
What is also striking, and distinctive about her beauty, is that even though it participates in the hyper-feminine, it is easily separable from the vulnerability that is often associated with it. To Rekha, beauty is not an expedition into appeasement. Rather, it is a foray into accumulating fortitude. This shameless, but endearing yearning to be indisputably desirable, is driven by a pilgrimage for legitimacy, rather than just the diminishing returns in regards to desires of men, both by Rekha the actor, and some of her most iconic roles. She shape-shifts from the glamorous diva to the unattainable, an actor who even at her most unglamorous is just a little too brilliant to be a girl next door, a woman who has armed herself with a beautiful facade that as is much temptation as it is armour; always reminding the audience (and perhaps her peers) that she is the one in control. She decides how she will be seen.
On the sets of Umrao Jaan, Muzzafar Ali was taken aback by how Rekha’s costume designers, stylists and makeup artists used to travel with her, and a designer was always present on the sets with a hanger with something from her own wardrobe, so that they can turn her into a “Bollywood doll” at a moment’s notice. It reeks of a strong sense of conformity, but also ambition. It moves us towards a reckoning, that perhaps, on the contesting grounds of beauty as an act of conformity, and as an act of agency, is a sneaky paradox, which is where oftentimes a woman’s quest for beauty lives.