IndianScreen's previous exclusive 'Spotlight' features (found here) have thus far profiled prolific actors and filmmakers in Bollywood, that have all been men. This was completely unintentional. But let's chalk it up to my own (at times) conservative South Asian upbringing, than any innate sense of misogyny. I hope.
So today we're going to correct this blunder by looking at the life and times of Rekha, one of Bollywood's most celebrated, talented and accomplished actresses of all time. Winner of many accolades for her work in prominent films that defined a generation of filmmakers, and also someone whose personal life has almost always overshadowed her career's achievements, through no fault of her own.
To understand Rekha's significance within the Indian Film Industry, we first need to unravel the way that acting, or any creative career choice, to this day, is seen and reacted to within a normal South Asian household.
A creative career is often seen as superfluous or not as legitimate as other professions or careers to society in general. Many successful people through the decades have stories about their early days as being ones of having to struggle to simply be accepted into society as a contributing member who is also pursuing their heart's desires.
Artists have had to struggle between choosing a safe option for a career that is steady and stable, resulting in a better future and support of their family, versus the risky and uncertain nature of wanting to be a creative in a world that rarely rewards you for that pursuit. And it is a pursuit. The chasing of a desire to fulfill one's creative urges, follow their passion and satisfy their true sense of being.
It's lofty for sure. Impractical at times. And more often than not just downright unrealistic. But people have persevered. The best artists are ones who are willing to risk something to achieve their dreams. In the film world, actors are of an ilk that often go years without seeing any mainstream success. Success is achieved through sheer perseverance and determination.
While these successful actors have all become so due to the passion in their hearts, this isn't always the case. Becoming an actor reluctantly or even against one's will is a rare occurrence, and one that may not even make sense to an aspiring actor. Which is why the story of Bollywood's yesteryear actress Rekha, and her time in the Industry is that much more interesting and unique.
Known as the original Bollywood Diva, Rekha's career is considered today as one of Bollywood's most iconic, and she as a legend in her own right. Looking at her career, one could even say that she was the progenitor of what is now known as 'woman centric' films and stories, decades before 'Queen' (2013) made it a popular term. But let's pull back a bit, and rewind to when Rekha wasn't even Rekha, but rather Bhanurekha Ganesan.
The Early Years
Born into a Tamil speaking family, Bhanurekha was the daughter of a career Tamil actor and a notable Telugu actress. In a way she was a star kid herself, but with a major plot twist that sets apart her story from others.
Bhanurekha was born out of wedlock, with her father never formally accepting his paternity. So estranged was her relationship with her father that the actress has never reconciled with him, despite attempts on his part to do so years later. The struggles her family had to endure during those early days really had an impact during Bhanurekha's formative years. Her mother's financial troubles is what eventually caused a 13 year old Rekha to abandon her formal schooling and enter the world of acting and films, simply to make ends meet.
No desire. No passion. To make ends meet.
Hesitant and wanting to live out her childhood years appropriately with others her age, Bhanurekha was thrust into the insular and scandalous world of films with no say-so of her own. When Rekha recounts those days, she expresses her regret at losing her childhood so early on.
"What am I doing? I should be in school, having an ice-cream, fun with my friends, why am I even forced to work, deprived of normal things that a child should be doing at my age?" Every single day I cried, because I had to eat what I didn't like, wear crazy clothes with sequins and stuff poking into my body. Costume, jewelry would give me an absolute terrible allergy. Hair spray wouldn't go off for days even despite all my washing. I was pushed, literally dragged from one studio to another. A terrible thing to do to a 13-year-old child."
Ostracized for her dark complexion, plump build and unconventional features, Rekha was considered a black sheep. Not that it ever stopped her from getting work, as she was often dressed up in gaudy and bright costumes to be the bombshell in certain films or other supporting roles. The scandals followed soon after.
Rekha's initial years in the industry can be considered borderline abusive given what she had to go through. One instance being an actual case of unwanted physical abuse, when a director and actor plotted to capture a kiss on screen during a romantic scene that Rekha, then only 15 years old, was unaware of. The incident occurred with members of the crew whistling and cheering as the teenage Rekha had tears in her eyes.
"It was not for my enjoyment, but important for the film. Rekha felt betrayed and was furious,"
-- Biswajeet (lead actor of 'Anjana Safar' who forced himself on Rekha)
Rekha, who by now had adopted the name as her stage name, leaving behind her family name claiming it had done nothing for her thus far, had similar situations in her early years in the industry. Criticized for her look and body shamed, and not even being able to speak Hindi, her future in the industry seemed to be a write-off.
After a few films here and there, Rekha's black sheep status continued, as she was often compared to her counterparts in the Industry, and told she was no where close in talent or look. 'The Ugly Duckling' was a term often used to describe her. This motivated Rekha to completely reinvent herself, and become an actress that paved her own path and was a success based on her merit as an actress and nothing else.
She learned Hindi. Chose better roles. Become more involved in her career. Followed a strict nutrition regiment and physical fitness routine that involved Yoga, not for weight loss, but adopting it more as a healthy lifestyle. Since then Rekha, now over 60 years old, has become a prominent advocate of a clean lifestyle, attributing that to her age-less look.
This reinvented Rekha provided massive successes with women driven roles and performances that even today are able to send chills down one's spine. Role in movies like 'Khoon Bhari Maang', (1988) (a spurned wife seeking revenge for her family) 'Ghar', (1978) (a rape victim) 'Muqaddar Ka Sikander', (1978) (a courtesan) 'Kama Sutra', (1996) (a sex teacher) made Rekha a stand out star, in performances depicting characters that would seem unimaginable for a mainstream actress at the time. (and even today to a certain degree)
Rekha has made a career of choosing roles that are unconventional, but more importantly, are women characters who are leads in their own story, similar to the career graph of actresses of the current generation like Vidya Balan or Sonam Kapoor.
At a time when successful actresses such as Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Vidya Balan are applauded for choosing female driven films like 'Mary Kom' (2014) 'Piku', (2015) and 'Kahaani', (2012) Rekha was doing similar films that showcased women in a leading roles to that of male characters for decades before.
Rekha was known for choosing movies stories that focused on the female lead,where her characters suffered a trauma or injustice that needed to be righted during the story. Rekha never shied away from roles that were unconventional or risky for a woman to be playing. In many ways, it was her insistence on those types of roles that paved the way for strong 'women-centric' films to become as popular as they are today. Mostly playing characters that were wronged, and how they had to fight (both literally and emotionally) to right wrongs and overcome conflicts in their lives.
So successful was Rekha in playing these types of roles, that the idea of a woman seeking revenge as an 'avenging angel', become a film trope of the time with many films adopting a similar story and premise. Not all of these efforts were successful however, such as 'Insaaf Ki Devi', (1992) 'Ab Insaf Hoga', (1995) and 'Udaan' (1997) which all failed at the box office. One of Rekha's many comebacks at the time, arrived with the Akshay Kumar starrer 'Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi' (1996) where she played a ruthless woman gangster.
Rekha's performances have has garnered her countless nominations and multiple Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards from Filmfare, a National Award for Best Actress, A Filmfare Lifetime Achievement award as well as a Padma Shri Award for her contributions to Indian Cinema.
It is for these reasons, that despite only being in 2 Indie films in the past 10 years, Rekha is still a star who creates headlines, is respected with Award ceremony appearances, and whose significance in the Bollywood has not diminished since her peak.
The Role Model
Rekha can be considered one of the first women in Bollywood to speak out against sexual abuse by sharing her own experiences of it, (the aforementioned story above) to break the taboo surrounding the issue. Since then many Bollywood actresses like Kalki Koechlin and Sonam Kapoor, have similarly shared their own experiences, using their fame to start discussions, and set positive examples of removing obstacles and struggles that prevent women may not have sought the help they need.
Rekha was also one of the first Bollywood actresses to openly talk about and discuss sex in a healthy manner, in the context of relationships from the female perspective. While Deepika Padukone's own video proclaiming her sexual independence, and that of women in general caused mixed reactions, it was a major step for feminist ideals, seeing a mainstream Bollywood actress openly discuss her sexual choices. Rekha similarly has always been candid about her own sexuality and relationships for decades now.
“You can’t come close, really close, to a man without making love”, “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”!
Rekha's open nature extends to almost every area of discussion that we consider groundbreaking and progressive for an actress to do engage in today. She often discusses her journey to become more physically fit, after being ostracized for her weight in the industry. Rekha's story draws many parallels to that of an actress in today's generation who has experienced something similar, Parineeti Chopra; but their handling of the situation is worlds apart.
Chopra's physical transformation can be attributed to undue pressure from filmmakers to conform to their standards of female beauty and fitness. The already bubbly and fan favorite actress, experiencing a slump in her career, felt that losing weight was the best way to continue her career, thereby undermining her own natural talent and already existing likability and credibility in the industry.
Since then, Chopra has further perpetuated body shaming attitudes towards women by advocating that this approach is the best method for an actress to stay in the industry, further alienating her from audiences who were able to relate to her given her non traditional figure and her mainstream status because of it, not despite it.
A similar controversy happened earlier in 2016 with the release of Yash Raj Films' 'Befikre', (2016) which saw the re-introduction of actress Vaani Kapoor. Kapoor's look was criticized by many as being a dramatic change from her physique in her intended debut 'Shuddh Desi Romance', (2013) (co-starring Chopra) possibly even involving surgery. Coincidentally, majority of Parineeti Chopra's films have also been with Yash Raj Films.
Whereas in contrast, Rekha, an actress from decades before 'body shaming' and the importance of self esteem were even considered as factors that influenced young girls, did a far better job of portraying a positive body image. It's necessary to put this in perspective: These attitudes of healthy and better living are definitely prevalent today, Rekha however, was an advocate of those very same things at a time when it was acceptable for women to be blatantly held to unrealistic physical standards that undermined their talent, and also held negatively accountable for it.
It goes to show Rekha's values and the uphill battle she faced when she decided to completely overhaul her own career, body and approach to being an actress, something she's continued decades since.
This is the major difference between Chopra's attitude and that of Rekha's. While Chopra changed her physique in a misguided attempt to be able to sustain her career as an actress, Rekha's transformation was one of body and mind in order to become a better person, and not just a thin person. An attitude that can be directly attributed to her being able to successfully deal with all the emotional trauma suffered in her life.
Rekha's prominence in the Indian Film Industry is mostly due to her career and life as an actress. But a lot of it is unfortunately connected to the scandals of her personal life as well. The Diva has seen her share of scandals, and many attribute the current sense of introverted calm-ness that she portrays as having been a calculated reaction to lessons learned from those controversies. The once reckless and care-free Rekha has now become more guarded and diplomatic.
One of her more prominent scandals involves wearing sindoor, the Hindu tradition of sporting a dab of vermillion powder, usually reserved for married women, as a fashion accessory. Her other scandals however, are far more tragic and infamous.
Rekha's one and only marriage lasted less than a year. The troubled union saw two completely different people engage in a whirlwind romance, one that ended in the death of one of them. Rekha's former husband, after suffering through depression of his own, independent of his relationship with her, committed suicide mere weeks after their divorce.
In all fairness, from all that is known about their relationship and his own personal struggles, her former husband was fighting demons of his own years before he was involved with Rekha. This however did not stop the press from labelling Rekha as a Black Widow, spurring a scandal from which it was assumed she would never recover.
Her former husband's violent death resulted in Rekha being the one bearing the brunt of the fall out. With stories and headlines painting her as a man-eater, who was indirectly (or even indirectly) responsible for his death. Accusations swirled that she was after his wealth, some even from his own family. Rekha never blinked. She stood fast as public opinion of her plummeted, she lost the respect of her peers and was demonized in the press. Many even began to write her off after this incident.
“She’s become the national vamp. Professionally and personally, I think it’s curtains for her. I mean I don’t know how will I react to her if I come face to face with her.”
-- Anupam Kher
But despite it all, Rekha emerged unscathed, while maintaining her status as an actor that pushes her boundaries to carry out exemplary performances. She responded to her personal critics through her professional work, and established herself once again as a dominant force in the industry. But the scandals didn't subside.
Probably the most infamous incident that is forever tied to Rekha's name is her alleged affair with Bollywood legend, Amitabh Bachchan who was married to Jaya Bachchan at the time. Being paired together in multiple successful films together, the duo had incredible on-screen chemistry, which seems to have contributed to the supposed legitimacy of their alleged affair.
Now, I say 'alleged' simply because to this day, there has not been any undeniable proof or admission from any party that this affair occurred. However, there have been many implications, double meaning statements and entendres that confirm the suspicion, but no actual evidence.
The Rekha-Amitabh-Jaya real life love triangle could even be considered the height of the modern era of Gossip Journalism that we see prevalent in Bollywood throughout today. While Rekha herself has only referred to her relationship with a mysterious actor only through the use of pronouns, ('Him' and 'He') the actual nature of her relationship with Amitabh Bachchan was considered an open secret.
It's worthy to note that this further cemented Rekha's previously established image by the media as a Vamp and callous person who manipulates relationships for her own personal agendas. Rekha's interviews and personal attitudes though, reflect a far softer person who has been damaged and broken, but manages to continue to put herself together, time and time again.
What further fueled the stories of an illegitimate relationship was, the now legendary, film 'Silsila', (1981) directed by Yash Chopra, that featured all three actors in a story very similar to their own real life controversy. Specifically being about Rekha's character having an affair with Amitabh Bachchan's character, who was married to Jaya Bachchan's character.
While it may seem like a casting coup of sorts for Chopra, it seems odd and distasteful for three people to willfully accept being participants and contributors to a fictional retelling of their own real life drama. And the thing that for me, personally makes this affair even more 'alleged', is that the strongest memories people have during the height of this controversy, is more connected to the incidents in the film itself, than any off-screen incidents.
Through this scandal, Rekha was branded with the 'home wrecker' moniker, to the point that even today if either the Bachchan's or Rekha are even at the same televised event together, the media exploits this with cleverly edited reaction shots and sensational headlines taking advantage of a supposed affair from decades ago.
As much as entertainment journos want to use 'Silsila' and Yash Chopra's brilliance in using this real life love triangle for entertainment purposes, it seems completely exploitative to feature a story that is built around an incident that if true, for all intents and purposes was a traumatic time in the lives of all involved. And for Rekha, Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan to even agree to that, makes them all complicit.
Rekha is a figure who is both enigmatic, charming and an open book. Very few actresses have suffered through the amount of controversy and infamy that Rekha has, and retained the respect that she has garnered in her career.
The original Bollywood Diva has made statements with her acting, her films, sense of fashion and style as well as a media savvy personality with a bold outlook on her world and the industry she worked in, without ever shying away from harsh truths. And she did all this without alienating audiences, or the colleagues that mattered. She has managed to revive her career time and time again, no matter the odds or the obstacles she had to overcome to do so.
Essential Viewing Guide
'Muqaddar Ka Sikander' (1978)
'Umrao Jaan' (1981)
'Khoon Bhari Maang' (1988)
'Kamasutra: A Tale Of Love' (1996)
'Koi Mil Gaya' (2003)