The Mystery and Magic of Being Rekha: Retracing Her Career, Choices When She Turns 68

How are puzzles created? How does a shy, awkward girl transform into the proverbial swan, create a career written in golden letters, become a success story millions want to emulate, and then return to her own shell? Born Bhanurekha Ganeshan to movie idol Gemini Ganeshan and actress Pushpavalli, Rekha is perhaps India’s closest to her own Greta Garbo, who descends for a rare appearance in a cloud of kanjivaram with cameras following her, but never hers gives up vigilance.

The actor, who turns 68 today, never wanted to be a marquee queen. Her dream was to become a stewardess and see the world. The National Award-winning actor, who now rarely gives interviews, once revealed how keen her mother was on her getting into acting. She had told the BBC in an interview in 1986: “My father not so much, but my mother really wanted me to work in film. But for at least six or seven years I didn’t like what I was doing. I was dragged to shoots, I worked double shifts, I didn’t like it at all.”

Rekha, who first appeared on screen as a toddler and was a full-time actress by age 15, added, “I never wanted to be an actress. If you ask most actors, they’ll say they always wanted to get into the film industry, but I didn’t. I never wanted to be an actor mujhe maar maar ke banaya gaya (I was beaten into submission).”

Getting into filmdom wasn’t easy. Ashamed of her body and color, Rekha made a hard transition into a femme fatale. If her films and her choice of characters made headlines, so did her life choices. Author and journalist Yasser Usman wrote Rekha’s biography Rekha The Untold Story in 2016, which included a detailed description of her life, acting career and personal life.

Discussing how Rekha took on unconventional roles that are now hailed as female-centric, the author tells that it was her hard work of nearly a decade that gave her the authority to challenge such pivotal characters. “There’s a reason for that. Whenever we’re talking about female-centric roles and big screenplays that focus on the actress, I think that’s the stage you have to reach as a star because it’s all driven by the market. We may not remember the odd 100 films she made in the 1970s, very few films were successful. There were so many films she did, even B films, but by the late 1970s she had achieved star status. She worked hard to become famous enough to ask producers and directors to give her the roles.”

The actor is perhaps Bollywood’s first actor to take on “female-oriented” roles. Her work in films such as Khoon Bhari Maang and Biwi Ho To Aisi and others established her identity. The actor also directed films such as Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love and Aastha: In The Prison of Spring at a time when screen actresses were still portrayed as silly and shy.

Rekha Rekha in a still from her film Khoon Bhari Maang.

Yasser adds, “She started in 1969 and then became a big star in the late 1970s, so it was her almost 10-year struggle. After the suicide of her husband Mukesh Aggarwal, she made a comeback with Khoon Bhari Maang. There was nobody but Rekha who could do it and it was a smash hit that year. She later directed a revenge drama Phool Bane Angaare by KC Bokadia, which in turn was a commercial hit.”

Rekha wasn’t just a movie star; She was also a fashion icon. Fashion designer Rick Roy says, “[Her choice of]sarees came much later, but she was responsible for making fashion what it was then, and that’s why Rekha is so iconic. If everyone else did something different, I thought Rekha would come up with something outrageous. I think everyone of my generation took inspiration from that.” Not only was Rekha a pretty face in front of the camera, her performance off camera was bold and she also made a statement through various magazine spreads.

“Her personality was also very uncompromising. She was a trendsetter in her own way. For fashion, that’s the magic. If you’re conscious of what you’re wearing, kill that. You don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing and have the confidence to take it off. When everyone else wore saris, Rekha would come up with something like a head covering, these bandanas. No other person did at that time. ”

Rekha Rekha was a fashion icon ahead of her time. (Photo: Express Archive)

But when did Rekha become a hermit? Yasser believes this transition took place after Aggarwal’s suicide. She has always been haunted by gossip and speculation – her relationships, particularly with Amitabh Bachchan and the death of her husband Mukesh Aggarwal, have been widely written about. Yasser says that Rekha has been open about her relationships and often spoke freely about them in interviews, but after Mukesh’s death something changed in her for which several sections of society blamed her.

“If you go to her interviews in the 1970s, actually up to 1984-1985, she was the one who spoke about those relationships. She herself has spoken about it in 100 interviews, sometimes hinting or even taking names. In my personal opinion without Silsila there would not have been any visual elements in the story either… I think more than anything else the Mukesh Aggarwal episode changed her and she stopped speaking to the media. ”

Amitab Bachchan Actors Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in a still from their film Silsila. (Photo: Express Archive)

He adds: “When I was writing the book, Rekha wasn’t involved, I just got a call from her secretary asking what the book was about. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, some people have indicated (on their relationships) that of course there is something and most want to focus on their careers. My book was very focused on the Mukesh Aggarwal episode. I think that was the most important episode of her life, not because of the interest in her personal life, but also because it changed her both personally and professionally. If you see all of Rekha’s artwork, she was never a recluse in the early 15-20 years of her career. It changed her.”

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