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Being Rekha

If you close your eyes and think ‘Rekha’, the resultant image is now two-dimensional. Over the thirty odd years of her career, Bhanurekha Ganesan has managed to reverse the trajectory of many other Bollywood dream girls. She has gone from being a starlet to being an actress to being a model. The only difference is that Rekha does not allow her carefully cultivated mystique to be used to sell other men’s products. She uses it to sell the image of herself. (At which point, an addendum. Rekha did some traditional modelling assignments including one for Gold Spot. The director? Shyam Benegal.)

It would need a psychoanalyst to decipher exactly what that image is. Part of it is the mystique of a beautiful woman, but that is only a recent phenomenon. When Rekha arrived in Bollywood, in Sawan Bhadon (1970), she was described as ‘fat, dark and pimply’. She wore a layer of pink pancake that ended at her chin, leaving her neck brown. This layer did not completely cover her acne, sometimes brought on by an adolescent body’s rebellions, sometimes brought on by a deliberate indulgence in the seafood to which she knew herself to be allergic. She wore outrageous clothes, she gave outrageous interviews, she heaved her over-weight if voluptuous body through a series of dreadful movies, and for a while it seemed as if she was destined to be Bollywood roadkill.

Hold on a moment.

Last week, in preparation for the writing of this piece, I watched Sawan Bhadon (dir: Mohan Segal), her debut film again – it’s out on VCD as so many movies are, hurray. Rekha has nothing going for her. She has not the assurance of the beautiful woman, she has not the poise of the city girl, she has not the assistance of a bevy of voice and diction coaches, spin doctors and look managers. But what she does have is charm, the charm of a puppy.

One day later I was watching Mira Nair’s Kamasutra (1996). Nair told me when I interviewed her soon after the release of the film that she would not have made the film if Rekha had not agreed to play the senior courtesan, the one trained in the arts of love. I was struck by Rekha’s complete lack of charm in the film. It’s as if she deliberately effaced herself and rebuilt her screen persona and then allowed it to spill into her life.

Every Bollywood buff knows how that happened. Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha are supposed to have met, fallen in love and she is supposed to have remade herself into the kind of woman He – as she would refer to him later – would consider worthy of himself, the son of a poet and the biggest star of Indian cinema, ever. There are others who argue that Rekha did not just transform herself into a woman worthy of Amitabh; she went as far as trying to be Amitabh. In Silsila (1981), we see her eating her soup with her left hand. Some years after Amitabh performed Mere Angane Mein in drag for Prakash Mehra’s Lawaaris (1981), Rekha had a similar song Apne Apne Miya Pe Sabko Bada Naaz Hai in J Om Prakash’s Apna Bana Lo (1982). This was framed as a stage show in which she brought on various husbands and at the end, walks with the tall one. When Amitabh took to singing in Mr Natwarlal (1979), it didn’t take much longer for Rekha to start her own husky warbling in Khubsoorat (1980) or Kal Sunday ki Chutti for Lekh Tandon’s Agar Tum Na Hote (1983). Of course, if you look at the evidence, it does seem as if most of it comes from an industry eager to milk the rumoured relationship rather than Rekha’s own doing.

Besides, it is odd that Bachchan seems to have had the reverse effect on his own wife, who went from being a star in her own right, an actress who was feted for her different performances into a bitter hausfrau with no personal or public life that does not involve her acquired surname. Could this be the result of an unconscious patriarchy at work? Could it be that we do not like the notion of a woman making something out of the raw material of herself and wish to ascribe it to her relationship to a man? Could this be a reflection of the north-south divide, the way in which we have got used to thinking of the north as masculine and the south as feminine, the north as impregnating and the south as fecund?

It might be difficult to get any clear answers. Neither of the principals in this drama will ever speak clearly and honestly. Rekha ducks the issue by talking about men in general, women in general, with a garnish of the latest psychobabble. Bachchan simply says that she was a co-star and nothing ever happened. Jaya Bachchan, and this is where it becomes difficult to know whether to sympathise with this ruin of a woman or to laugh at such a public display of self-deception, said on the Rendezvous with Simi Garewal show, that the media are to blame for making up the whole thing. On another episode of the same show, Rekha said that there had been no affair.

But here is something that should be of interest to those who believe that there could have been no Rekha-as-we-now-know-her had there been no Amitabh-the-transformative-agent. Here is a piece of cinematic evidence. Her best performances have been in Manick Chatterjee’s Ghar (1978), as the married woman who is raped; in Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug (1981), as one of the women caught in the crossfire of a boardroom battle, in Girish Karnad’s Utsav (1985), as the courtesan Vasantsena from Banabhatta’s Mrichhakatika; as Umrao Jaan in Muzaffar Ali’sUmrao Jaan (1981) and as the naughty middle-class girl, an updated Guddi as it were, in Hrishida’s Khubsoorat (1980).

None of these films had Amitabh Bachchan.

Hold on a moment, again.

This is supposed to be an essay on Rekha the actor. And yet it seems to have got bogged down in Rekha the person. But it is difficult to separate the two.Right now, Rekha has star emeritus status in the industry. She has had a run of dreadful luck at the box office. Her last release, Bachke Rehna (2006) had a 51-year-old Rekha and Mallika Sherawat as an aunt and niece pair of con women and it bombed badly at the box office, Indian reviewers, never bothered about issues like ageism, spoke slightingly of Rekha not acting her age and dressing like a young girl. How did she get here?

Rekha was the love child of Gemini Ganesan and Pushpavalli, with whom the leading star had an affair long enough to produce two children, Bhanurekha and her sister, Radha. She remembers her childhood as idyllic: “I was pulled out of the ninth class and made to work when I was fourteen. At that time, it made no sense. I was the pampered child of the family, always given everything I wanted and ten rupees pocket money a day. It seemed to me that we were happy and certainly well off, I was not to know how much in debt my mother was, till much later. So, the idea of working in films did not appeal to me at all. I used to refuse to go to the sets and occasionally my brother beat me up.” – Bombay magazine, (7 January, 1986)

This is the familiar story of the child star. It is also a chilling story, if one puts the hints that Rekha has dropped over the years together, the suggestions of exploitation and cruelty. For instance, on the sets of what should have been her first film but which was released almost a decade later, Anjana Safar (1979) (renamed Do Shikari), Biswajeet kissed Rekha for the cameras. He did so without warning, following the director’s instructions. Raja Nawathe who was the cameraman, was so uncomfortable about shooting a kiss that he focussed the camera and then looked away and forgot to say ‘cut’. The resultant kiss made it to the Asian edition of Life magazine and made Rekha into a sex symbol.

She played to the gallery as well, speaking with a candour that seems to have been misunderstood. “Pre-marital sex is very natural. And all those prudes who say that a single woman should only have sex on her suhaag raat are talking bull,” she told Stardust (September 1972). “It is sheer fluke that I have not got pregnant so far,” she told the same magazine (April 1979).

It is interesting to compare the complete lack of public response to these statements to the brouhaha over Khushboo’s remarks nearly 30 years later. In the seventies, Rekha was giggled at or mocked but no one ever thought of attacking her for being a sexual presence. Today, things are very different.

For many years, it seemed as if Rekha would only be interviewed to talk about the men she married or the men she slept with or the men she is supposed to have slept with. She married Vinod Mehra, dated Kiran Kumar, and then met Amitabh Bachchan.

Which came first? The role of Umrao Jaan, that she almost refused to finish because she claimed Ali had not paid her the agreed fee? Or the liaison with Bachchan? Did the identification with the role of the courtesan begin there or did it end there? Many of her films, the ones by which she will be remembered, have Rekha playing a high-class prostitute. In almost all these films, she dies (Daasi, Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978)) or she is condemned to a life of lovelessness (Umrao Jaan). One could conjecture endlessly, about the marriage to Mukesh Aggarwal, who later killed himself, about her relationship with Farzana who dresses as if she were an Amitabh Bachchan clone from the seventies.

It is difficult to tell but the two-dimensional image that springs to mind, Rekha with lots of lip-gloss and perfect make-up that image trembles for a moment.

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