When asked if she feels conscious about the fact that she is a superstar, Rekha said in a 1986 BBC interview, “I’m more conscious of the fact that you all believe that I’m a superstar. I simply believe that I’m an artist.” This was perhaps one of the earliest nods to the fact that Rekha took her acting seriously, but not her stardom. Being a woman and an actor can be frustrating and this was especially true back when Rekha established herself as one of Indian cinema’s most beloved figures. Finding that balance between complex roles, thought-provoking storylines, glamour and commercial success was all the more challenging in the Seventies and Eighties, when all eyes seemed to be on men being manly. Yet despite all this, Rekha thrived. She took on challenges, she pushed boundaries; and in her five-decade-long career, she’s proved that no matter what role she plays — wife, ex-wife, mother, courtesan, vamp — Rekha is always the star.
Born to Telugu actor Pushpavalli and superstar Gemini Ganesan (who abandoned them while Rekha was a child), the actor has said in the past that she didn’t harbour dreams of joining the film industry. “Mujhe toh maar maar ke banaya gaya that (I was beaten into the mould of an actress),” she said in an interview. She was still a child when she made her debut in South Indian films and was sixteen when she appeared in her first Hindi film, Sawan Bhadon (1970). The film was a commercial success but its heroine — dusky, heavy and full-bodied — was mocked and criticised for her appearance. Six years later, in Do Anjaane (1976) and opposite Amitabh Bachchan, there appeared a new Rekha – slim, poised, confident and far more self-assured as an actor.
Perhaps because of the misogynist critique she received about her appearance in her early years, Rekha would almost always choose roles of glamorous women who were as complex as they were beautiful. In roles like Vasantsena, from Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1984), she raised heart rates and eyebrows, all the while emphasising the courtesan’s intelligence and independent spirit. The buzz around Aastha: In the Prison of Spring (1997) might have been because audiences were curious about the much talked-about erotic scenes, but Rekha’s performance underscored the constraints that bind a middle-class, Indian homemaker. She dominated the Eighties and the Nineties, with roles that ranged from being unabashedly commercial to hard-hitting and unconventional. Her choices redefined the parameters for a heroine in Hindi cinema.
By the time the 2000s rolled around, Rekha’s contemporaries were playing the ageing mother – the final rung for actresses once they’re considered past their prime. However, Rekha actively resisted this, beginning the decade with significant roles in Bulandi (2000), Zubeidaa (2001) and Lajja (2001). It was finally in Rakesh Roshan’s cultural phenomenon Koi… Mil Gaya (2003) that the actress was seen in the role of a single mother with a mentally-disabled child (but with a flashback that showed her in a more glamorous avatar). The actress, in response to the criticism of her work, had once said, “I don't have problems playing anything. I've reached a stage where I could do justice to any role that came my way. It could be the role of a mother, a sister-in-law; negative, positive, sensational or anything." We agree.
Here’s a look at some iconic roles from Rekha’s filmography.
Ghar officially announced Rekha’s arrival as an actor. By this time, she was a star of commercial Hindi cinema so the decision to play a married woman dealing with the trauma of a gang rape was unexpected and bold. In an interview, Rekha said it was Ghar that pushed her to take a serious interest in acting. “I’ve never liked the whole of any of my films. But the rape scene, I felt, was very realistic,” she said. Manik Chatterjee’s film can almost be divided into two halves – part one builds the charming love between a newly-wed couple and the next deals with the traumatic experience of rape. Rekha, as Aarti, carries both parts of the narrative with aplomb. Notice her indulgent fantasising in the song “Tere Bina Jiya Jaaye Na” as she looks at pictures of her lover and how the breezy romanticism offers a stark contrast to later scenes like the one in which Aarti dreams that she’s returned home from hospital, only to find her husband behaving coldly. The misplaced guilt of being raped is writ large on Rekha’s face as she navigates being in denial about her husband’s apathy and the suspicion that it is, perhaps, her fault.
“Saare niyam tod do, (Break all the rules)” sang a wise, rebellious woman. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s comedy-drama Khubsoorat is highly celebrated to this date and rightly so because this film is a dose of pure serotonin. Powered by Gulzar’s rooted humour (he wrote the dialogue) and Rekha as the outspoken and irrepressible Manju, the film is about Manju’s mission to free a household from the tyrannical grasp of a controlling matriarch. Until this point, Rekha had been seen in a number of largely gharelu (homely) roles, which made Khoobsurat a welcome change of pace. She seems to feel at home in the skin of a jovial prankster and her comic timing is perfect. When her sister is about to be visited by her prospective husband, Manju hilariously explodes, “Arey didi, tu kya teen saron waali ladki hai? Yaa maut ke kooi main chalne waali motorcycle? Jo tujhe dekhne aayenge? (Are you a freak or a spectacle of some sort that they’re going to make an exhibition of you?)” The year of 1980 saw hit films like Qurbaani, Karz and Shaan, all of which featured male-dominated narratives. Khubsoorat, riding on the talents of Rekha and Mukherjee, won the Filmfare Award for Best Film and Best Actress. If ‘saare niyam tod do’ is Manju’s motto, it would be safe to say Rekha took a leaf out of Manju’s book.
Under all the opulence of Umrao Jaan is a tale of loneliness. Its themes of displacement, commodification and agency are embodied in its central character, Umrao Jaan, a Lucknowi courtesan from the 1800s. Once kidnapped and sold into the business, Umrao is a master of her trade as an adult – a stunning performer who captures the heart of wealthy men, both through dance and poetry. Rekha as Umrao Jaan remains one of the most riveting portraits of elegance, sensuality and melancholia, with her eyes doing much of the heavy, kohl-lined lifting. From twinkling with mischief when an admirer admits to being enchanted by her to brimming with unshed tears when she learns the man she loves will marry another, Rekha’s eyes are a masterclass in acting in this film. In an interview, the actress said, “Uss waqt kuch aise phase se main guzar rahi thi ki woh baat shakal pe aa gayi (At the time, I was myself going through a difficult time and that showed on my face).” This perhaps explains how despite not knowing a word of the language, Rekha was able to deliver the Urdu dialogues with an aching familiarity. Director Muzzafar Ali is quoted in Rekha: The Untold Story as saying, “A striking feature is that which draws from her past. Her eyes conveyed the experience of having been broken and then having pulled herself together... Life shakes up people, and if they have an artist within them then he ]or she] gets more polished in the process. Rekha is a living example of this.”
Shyam Benegal, Shashi Kapoor and Rekha in a modern-day retelling of the Mahabharat? Yes, please. Kalyug turns the epic into an intense modern-day family feud and Rekha plays the role of Draupadi – sensual, commanding and in love with her brother-in-law (Anant Nag, inspired by Arjuna). Benegal has a way of picking striking faces for his films and Rekha graciously joins the roster with her large red bindi and luminous eyes. Known for her glamour, the actress plays the complex role of a woman in a loveless marriage with assured poignancy. Rekha reportedly chose to play the role because of Shashi Kapoor, marking Kalyug as their 11th film together. This is all the more relevant when juxtaposed with the fact that it was Kapoor who, upon seeing a young Rekha at a movie premiere, allegedly remarked “How is this dark, plump and gauche actress ever going to make it?” Kapoor went on to make 18 films with the actress.
Arguably one of the most poetic takes on marriage and relationships in Hindi cinema, Ijaazat is powered by Gulzar’s magic. Rekha and Naseeruddin Shah are terrific as a divorced couple who unexpectedly meet in a railway station waiting room. Their conversations are haunted by the past they once shared – the tea she doesn’t like, the whiskey he still drinks; the ex-lover who loomed large over their marriage. Rekha is riveting as Sudha, the wife who came later and attempted to make a home inside the tomb of her husband’s last relationship. Sudha embodies the complexity of a broken marriage. There is a quiet dignity in the way she accepts her husband’s refusal to move on, but there’s also a sense of fixation as she repeatedly talks about the woman who causes her such pain. Take for instance, the scene where her husband receives a rose from the woman in the middle of a flight, thousands of feet above the ground. Sudha’s reaction to this is heartbreaking: “Iss pagli par taras bhi aata hai, aur pyaar bhi (I feel both pity and endearment for this silly girl).”
Rekha’s grand ‘comeback’ had everything: A crocodile, intense cosmetic surgery, a dance-off, big hair, gaudy outfits and, most importantly, a scorned woman. With Khoon Bhari Maang came the hopeful glimpses of a female-centric film, positioning Rekha as an independent woman who had agency over her own choices and sexuality. Like most revenge sagas, very little of this remake of an Australian mini-series makes sense. And yet, it is a joy to watch Rekha transform from the docile and needy Aarti to Jyoti, a sculpted goddess who knows exactly what she wants. So entertaining was the actress’s performance that it would bring a slew of similar ‘avengeful’ roles to her in the Nineties, which is perhaps the worst decade for women actors in terms of the roles that were written for them in Bollywood.
If Rekha wasn’t taking stardom seriously before, it was nothing compared to her “critics-be-damned” era of the late Nineties. Along with taking up a part in Mira Nair’s production, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Rekha starred in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi, an action film where she plays a villain and romances a much younger Akshay Kumar. The film went on to become one of the highest-grossing Hindi films of the year and we believe the song “In The Night No Control” had much to do with it (watch it for some of the most bizarre displays of affection, including licking blood and gnawing cheese off a lover’s hand). Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi marked Rekha’s first negative role as Madam Maya, the criminal kingpin who organizes illegal wrestling matches in the States. The actress revels in Madam Maya’s dark lips, elaborate wigs and metaphorical dialogues. Her smouldering intensity takes on a darker shade here and while it’s entirely campy, it’s also a delight to watch. After beginning with a role like the one she had in Ghar, her villainous role in Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi signalled the completion of a full circle for the actress.