Rekha, as an enigma

Rekha, as an enigma

Rekha: The Untold Story
Yasser Usman
Juggernaut
2016, pp 231, Rs 499

Rekha continues to be an enigmatic figure in the Hindi film industry. Now seen as something of a recluse, she is certainly enough of an enigma to inspire a full-fledged biography. It was with much expectation, therefore, that I received the latest offering from Yasser Usman, Rekha: The Untold Story. Usman had written a book on Rajesh Khanna in 2014.

This book on Rekha is a collection of extracts from interviews and articles published over the years, and most of the details contained in the book are available today in the public domain. Other facts have been garnered from Indian film magazines like Filmfare, Stardust, Star & Style, Cine Blitz, Bombay Bazaar etc, and some national newspapers. These publications have all been acknowledged towards the end of the book. I admit that the research must have been time-consuming.

Although it is not strictly necessary to interview a famous personality while writing a biography, I personally believe that there are two possible exceptions to this norm: if the person is deceased; and if the person absolutely refuses to grant an interview. In this case, Usman says that he tried to get an audience with Rekha, but was refused, “...although Gulzar even tried to put in a good word... then one morning I got a polite call from her secretary, Farzana... I explained my vision for the project and said I wanted to present Rekha’s true story... she’d get back to me... That call never came. I tried calling multiple times, only to be greeted by a message on an answering machine — yes, she still uses one. I gave up...”

Rekha had a traumatic Hindi film career start in 1970 as a dusky, chubby heroine from South India “...who was forced to kiss Biswajeet...” (An unscrupulous plan by cinematographer Raja Nawathe and director Kuljit on an unsuspecting Rekha in Anjana Safar). She metamorphosed over the years into an exotic, perfectly made-up, elegant superstar of the Bombay film industry, as it was called then. This was before the rather silly epithet of ‘Bollywood’ got attached to the city that was churning out over 200 films a year in the 1930s.

Bhanurekha, as she was christened, was born to Tamil matinee idol Gemini Ganesan and Telugu-Tamil film actor Pushpavalli. This was when Ganesan was already married to his first wife Bobji. She was rechristened the more-glamorous ‘Rekha’ when she landed in Bombay.

This book is like a compiled hardback version of a film magazine, which I am sure has a market — perhaps even more than serious fiction or non-fiction. Like a film mag, there are a number of apocryphal and unconfirmed stories in the book that are centred around Rekha and other men in her life such as Jeetendra, Vinod Mehra, and of course, the most famous one of them all, Big B himself. About the famous Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha ‘affair’, there is nothing new — just a collection of the gossip of the times and Jaya Bhaduri-Bachchan’s ‘reaction’ to all this “controversy”. It was interesting to read about how the trio was persuaded by director Yash Chopra to agree to act in Silsila, which he hoped could get in the film-going public and set the cash registers ringing. The film did not do well.

For me, the only quotes that stood out were those of Shyam Benegal (who directed Rekha in Kalyug and Zubeidaa); Gulzar (Ijaazat, Baseraa, Ghar, Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein, to name a few), and Muzaffar Ali (Umrao Jaan). They seem to have tried to understand what Rekha’s innermost feelings must have been.

Muzaffar Ali, for instance, talks about why he cast her as Umrao Jaan. “A striking feature is that which draws from her past. Her eyes conveyed the experience of having been broken & then having pulled herself together... Life shakes up people, and if they have an artist within them he (she) gets more polished in the process. Rekha is a living example of this.”
The editors of the book have failed to correct several references to Gemini Ganesan’s other daughter as Narayani ‘Ganesh’.

Except for a few anecdotes that may revive the memories of old-timers, this is a book filled with incidents and scandals of the time. It has nothing to do with film history for serious students of cinema. But as I said before, this book will find a market in people wanting to relive the happenings of those days in Rekha’s life. I will also mention that it was not difficult at all for me to finish reading the book — it certainly kept me engaged. A book for pure lovers of ‘filmi’lore and people who help keep apocryphal stories alive. Stories that can be shared at parties by such people, who, after imbibing a few glasses, honestly believe that — as Robert Louis Stevenson once is reportedly to have famously said — “Wine is bottled poetry.”

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