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10 October 2020

The Divas: Rekha

If the word ‘Diva’ was coined for anyone, it has to be for Bhanurekha Ganesan. Her metamorphosis from a dark gawky teenager with puppy fat – she was barely 15 when she debuted in Sawan Bhadon (1970) – to the svelte, polished, sophisticated ‘Rekha’ who straddled crass commercial cinema and artistic parallel cinema is a story in itself. 
Rekha has often talked about what it meant to have her childhood taken away from her; the societal scars of her ‘illegitimacy’; the emotional scars of her father not recognising her siblings and her as his children; the exploitation and mockery she went through when she first entered the industry – she was mocked for her weight, her colour, her lack of command over Hindi, her horrible dress sense… never mind that she was only 15 and wore the costumes that were given to her.  
Worse, in Anjana Safar, which would have been her debut if things had gone to plan, director Raju Nawathe conspired with the hero, Biswajeet, to kiss her for a scene, without letting the young actress know. The kiss went on for more than four minutes. She was furious and in tears, but the all-male unit hooted and clapped. Rekha spoke later about how she had to coaxed to return to the sets. Anjana Safar ran into censor problems because of this kiss (though it made the cover of Life magazine) and only released ten years later as Do Shikari.

The young girl often played truant, bunking shootings to go hang out with her friends, or eat ice cream. It led to her being tagged ‘difficult’ to work with. Her lack of interest in making films showed. However, the remarks about her lack of acting skills stung. It wasn’t until she signed Do Anjaane that something changed – she had a point to prove.  

Do Anjaane was her first film with Amitabh Bachchan (she had appeared in a small role in Namak Haram (1973) but she wasn’t cast opposite him). All rumours aside, Rekha went on record to state that Bachchan inspired her with his professionalism. Indeed, the little girl who played truant disappeared, and Rekha began to take her work seriously. She worked not just on her physical self, but on her language, diction and craft, learning to speak not only Hindi but perfect English and Urdu as well.

Seasoned directors were drawn to Rekha 2.0 – Gulzar (Ijaazat), Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Khubsoorat), Shyam Benegal (Kalyug), Govind Nihalani (Vijeta), Muzaffar Ali (Umrao Jaan), Girish Karnad (Utsav), Yash Chopra (Silsila) etc., offered her roles of substance, even as she graced several multi-starrers playing the quintessential heroine. She pulled off both real characters with the same ease she handled her glamorous ones. Who can forget her scintillating moves to ‘Kaisi paheli zindagani’ in Parineeta (2005)? 
Sadly, no one has yet tapped her immense potential. She still has so much to offer. But today, the still-beautiful actress lives a quiet, secluded life in her bungalow in Bombay. Her career has been filled with good, bad and indifferent films. Today, on her 66th birthday, a look at some of her best performances.

Do Anjane (1976)  
Directed by: Dulal Guha
Co-starring: Amitabh Bachchan
This was the beginning of Rekha’s journey as a ‘serious’ actress. It also marked the beginning of her lifelong obsession with her mirror. She played Rekha, a young woman whose ambition surpassed love, marriage and motherhood. When a new, young producer brings her a script that bears a marked resemblance to her own life, Rekha is forced to reflect on whether what she believed to be true was indeed so. 
The film ended – as these movies usually do – with Rekha realising the error of her ways, but in the meantime, it gave the actress a role she could bite into with relish.
The Hindi adaptation of Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Bengali novel, ‘Raater Gaadi’, it made clear that career-minded women are bad, and that marriage and motherhood should be a woman’s sole aspirations. Never mind what she wants. 
Ghar (1978)
Directed by: Manik Chatterjee
Co-starring: Vinod Mehra
Ghar was that film about rape that focused not on the act but on the trauma it leaves behind – not just on the victim of the assault, but on her family as well. Aarti (Rekha) is a young wife, deeply in love with (and loved by) her husband. Overnight, their lives change, when a gang of men assault her husband and kidnap her. The next morning finds both of them in hospital – she has been gang-raped; he’s being treated for the assault. And now, they have to put their lives back together. He has to come to terms with his guilt over his inability to protect his wife. She struggles to come out of the dark abyss of her mind. 
Both have to deal with the media who sensationalise the crime, politicians who use it for their benefit, and a society that blames the victim, instead of the perpetrator.
A sensitively handled story, backed by strong performances from both Rekha and Vinod Mehra, and a wonderful score by RD-Gulzar, Ghar would make Rekha’s coming of age as a mature performer.
Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978)
Directed by: Prakash Mehra
Co-starring: Amitabh Bachchan
That same year, she would go on to act in a supporting role in a multi-starrer – and steal the limelight from the regulation heroine, played by Raakhee. It is an iconic role and even today, four + decades later, you cannot mention ‘Zohra Bai’ without instantly thinking of Rekha, and Salaam-e-ishq.  
A regulation 70s bromance, Muqaddar ka Sikandar went one up on the standard love-triangle. It had Dilawar (Amjad Khan) in love with Zohra Bai (Rekha) who pines for Sikandar (Amitabh Bachchan) who’s wearing his heart on his sleeve for his employer’s daughter, Kaamna (Raakhee), who is in love with Vishal (Vinod Khanna). Luckily for the audience, Vishal returned Kaamna’s love and we weren’t introduced to another love interest. Zohra Bai was the most sympathetic character in the film, a fully fleshed-out person with her own agency (unlike Kaamna who remained a rather unlikeable water spout throughout the film). 
'Itne mein main sikandar ka tasveer bhi na bechoon," she tells Vishal, who offers her money to stay away from Sikandar. "Aur aap Sikandar khareedne aaye hai?" Zohra would be the first of the many ‘tawaif’ roles that Rekha would go on to do in her career, culminating in the exquisite Umrao.
Khubsoorat (1979)
Directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Co-starring: Rakesh Roshan
It was time to prove that Rekha could also do 'nirmal anand', and be a part of realistic middle cinema. Despite having the glamour toned down, Rekha was more glamorous than the usual Hrishikesh Mukherjee heroine. 
But the actress pulled out all stops in a film that gave full rein to her impeccable comic timing. As the loud, boisterous, but kind-hearted Manju, she proved she could be a natural actress, holding her own against the redoubtable Ashok Kumar. In fact, their ‘chemistry’ in the film was what makes it such a delight even today. 
Umrao Jaan (1980)
Directed by: Muzaffar Ali
Co-starring: Farooq Shaikh
She looked a dream. She aced her Urdu diction. Matched histrionics with the likes of Shaukat Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Shaikh. And managed to make the audience feel the pain of Ameeran, a young girl abducted and sold into a kotha, trained in music and dance and poetry to become one of the foremost courtesans of the time. 
A tale of unrequited love ending in tragedy, Ali left the subtext intact – subtly emphasising the moral hypocrisy of a patriarchal society and its treatment of women, both well-born and tawaif. Umrao Jaan not only got its history right, but rightfully earned acclaim for its acting, music (Khayyam), lyrics (Shahryar) costumes, sets, etc. 
Muzaffar Ali is on record as saying that he cast Rekha solely because she says so much with only her eyes. 
In this film, exquisitely framed as she is, she let her eyes express her hurt and her despair, her hopes and aspirations. Coupled with her wonderfully husky voice, complemented by Asha Bhosle’s evocative rendition of some of the most beautiful lines in Hindi film music, Umrao came to life on screen – beautiful, romantic and tragic.
Kalyug (1980)
Directed by: Shyam Benegal
Co-starring: Shashi Kapoor, Raj Babbar, Anant Nag
Shyam Benegal reset the Mahabharata in corporate Bombay, to tell the tale of two industrial houses at war with each other. It’s a tale of naked ambition, desperate greed, and familial blood lust. Rekha plays Supriya (Draupadi), wed to an inveterate gambler, Dharamraj (Raj Babbar), but consumed by her passion for her younger brother-in-law, Bharatraj (Anant Nag).
She gave a nuanced performance as a housewife who uses the sexual politics in a joint household to her advantage.
Silsila (1981)
Directed by: Yash Chopra
Co-starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar
There’s only one question I had after initially watching Silsila at its Bangalore premiere – why are two such lovely women as Chandni (Rekha) and Shobha (Jaya Bachchan) fighting over an angry, whiny, misogynistic Amit (Amitabh Bachchan? (And considering this was during my crazy-about-Amitabh days, you realise just how bad this character had to be.) More talked about for the casting coup Chopra pulled off, for getting an alleged real-life triangle to play part of his on-screen quadrangle of lovers, Silsila nevertheless showcased a power-packed performance from Rekha. 
As Chandni, she played a gamut of roles – from beloved, to jilted lover, to a relatively loving wife to being in an illicit relationship. Her performance in the confrontation scene with Jaya was inspired.
Utsav (1984)
Directed by Girish Karnad
Co-starring: Shekhar Suman, Shashi Kapoor
Produced by Shashi Kapoor and directed by Girish Karnad, this take on the Sanskrit play, Mrichhakatika, is ably headlined by a beautiful Rekha as Vasantasena, the famous courtesan who, fleeing from Samsthanka (Shashi Kapoor) seeks shelter in Charudutt’s (Shekhar Suman) house. 
While the focus, for the most part, was on Rekha's gorgeous jewellery, the role gave her ample scope to emote, and as in Umrao Jaan, Rekha used her eyes to great effect. 
Ijaazat (1986)
Directed by: Gulzar
Co-starring: Naseeruddin Shah
Ijaazat is certainly one of the highlights of Rekha’s chequered career. As Sudha, a woman who loves her husband, Mahendra (Naseeruddin Shah), but cannot overlook the unseen yet overwhelming presence of Maya (Anooradha Patel), her husband’s ex-girlfriend, in their lives, Rekha lent a restrained dignity to her role. 
Her decision to walk out on her marriage instead of staying to suffocate in it wreaks havoc in the lives of three people, including her. Years later, running into her ex-husband at a deserted train station, the couple revisit their shared past, finding some peace in setting their past to rest.
Khoon Bhari Maang (1988)
Directed by: Rakesh Roshan
Co-starring: Kabir Bedi
A loose adaptation of Return to Eden, the formulaic film saw one of Rekha’s most potent performances. As Aarti, the supposedly looks-obsessed Rekha did not shy away from playing a plain Jane with facial deformities. 
Betrayed by her best friend (Sonu Walia), and cheated upon by her husband (Kabir Bedi), who conspire to usurp her wealth, Aarti returns in a post-makeover glamorous image to avenge her humiliation and reclaim all that she had lost. 
Khoon Bhari Maang wasn’t a great film (or even a 'good' film), but it established one fact – Rekha didn’t need a hero to shoulder a film. She eclipsed them.

 Two later films that really gave her a chance to showcase her acting chops were Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa, where she plays Maharani Mandira Devi, the first wife of  Kunwar Vijayendra Singh of Fatehpur, and Lajja, directed by Raj Kumar Santoshi where, as Ram Dulari, Rekha turned in a chilling performance that stays with you long after the movie ends. 

I began this post by saying the word ‘Diva’ had to have been coined for Rekha. However, I doubt that that word can even begin to describe the woman that she was, and is. Independent. Free-spirited. Living life on her own terms. She taught an industry to respect her. She made a world sit up and take notice. She reinvented herself. Again. And again. And again. And retained her childlike curiosity and joy for life throughout. 

Scribes liked to paint her as a lonely lady, trapped in her ivory tower. The real Rekha chooses instead to live each day with wonder, secure in her citadel with her books, her cat, and a select few friends who are fiercely protective of a loving, caring woman who surely deserves more happiness than life has given her. Rock on, ma’am. You are, and will always be, a woman who wears her fame lightly, who marches to the beat of a different drummer, knowing there’s more to life than the sparkle of tinsel.

Happy Birthday!

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