Yasser Usman’s book Rekha: The Untold Story was released by the publishing house Juggernaut a few days ago, and excerpts from it have been all over the internet.
It seems everyone wants a piece of the shocking, scandalous details from Rekha’s life.
Headlines screaming of ‘smooches and sindoor’ as well as the actress’ relationship with Amitabh Bachchan have been doing the rounds.
And yet, there is not really all that much that is salacious about Usman’s book.
It primarily draws on interviews Rekha gave in the past to film magazines and journalists, with the quotes from the Rendezvous with Simi Garewal episode in 2004 being the ‘newest’ in a sense.
Then there are the writer's interviews with people who played a key role in Rekha's career, and film industry observers of the time, to put the narrative in perspective. Usman has explained his attempts to get in touch with Rekha himself, through her ever-present secretary Farzana. He then explains that while the actress didn’t agree to the interview request, he doesn’t feel that her story, as told in his book, has suffered as a consequence.
He offers as a reason, the changing tone of Rekha's interviews: From an actress who was an interviewer’s delight, letting ‘slip’ the most candid/shocking of statements, she transformed into someone far more guarded. From her early interviews back in the ’70s and 80s to the really explosive ones back in ’90s, and finally the guarded one she gave to Simi — the transformation from uninhibited, vivacious star to a politically correct, diplomatic one was complete.
The changing nature of her interviews was of course, only a reflection of the tremendous change the actress’ image underwent. Where once she was known as ‘bold’ and the phrase ‘no holds barred’ was regularly applied to her, now labels like ‘reclusive’, ‘restrained’, ‘solitary’ were more likely to be used.
Usman hasn’t used an entirely linear narrative in his book. In fact, Rekha: The Untold Story begins with a palatial home called ‘Basera’ in Delhi. This was where Mukesh Aggarwal, the actress' businessman husband of a few months who later killed himself, lived.
Dare I say that in a few quick strokes, Usman is able to draw a more compelling portrait of Aggarwal than he is able to, of Rekha in the entire book?
Is it because Aggarwal was less complex an individual? Or is it because friends and relatives close to Aggarwal gave Usman their insights into his personality?
Whatever the reason, there he is, an entrepreneur who’s made it big but can't let go of his complexes. Usman presents an interesting detail about Aggarwal: That he had an enormous stallion at his farmhouse, and when visitors were expected, he would mount it and wait for them — to make the grandest possible impression.
The Rekha-Aggarwal courtship was quick, as was their marriage; its breakdown was quicker. Usman swiftly sketches how the unraveling occurred — the heady first month or two, the issues caused by incompatibility and differing goals, Aggarwal’s clinical depression, the divorce petition and finally, his suicide.
Usman points to the backlash that Rekha suffered then (he has a quote from an old Subhash Ghai interview that has the filmmaker saying that no respectable family would want an actress for a bahu as a result of the Rekha-Mukesh Aggarwal incident; in another excerpt from an interview, Anupam Kher is quoted as saying that he wouldn’t know how to react if he saw Rekha again) as one of the triggers for her withdrawal from the public eye.
The time of Aggarwal’s suicide was when Rekha’s film Sheshnag was due to release: apparently her face was blackened on posters and news stories that indicted her as the villain in Mukesh Aggarwal’s untimely end were de rigueur. Rekha herself has said that the only person from the film industry who reached out to her at the time was Shashi Kapoor; he sent her a condolence note.
Surprisingly for someone who is portrayed as such a strong, individualistic personality, Rekha’s story seems to have been shaped to a great extent by the men in her life. At least, this is the sense you get from Usman’s book.
This role of the men in her life begins right with her absentee father Gemini Ganesan. On the Rendezvous with Simi Garewal interview, I recollect Rekha saying something to the effect of ‘how do you miss something you never had’ when asked about not having her father's presence during her formative years. In Usman’s book, however, the fact of her illegitimacy (Rekha’s mother Pushpavalli never wed Gemini Ganesan, who was already married to TR Alamelu; he later ‘married’ the actress Savitri as well) seems to loom large over the young Bhanurekha Ganesan’s life.
When she is driven to work in films by Pushpavalli (her mother was struggling to pay off heavy debts), Bhanurekha Ganesan decides to shun the last name that hasn’t helped her so far, and prefers to go by the simple ‘Rekha’.
Her early years in Bollywood form the initial parts of Rekha: The Untold Story. Usman interviews Shyam Benegal, who shot the actress for her first Gold Spot commercial. There are anecdotes about the travails she endured — with her dusky, unconventional looks and lack of regard for the body type the film industry preferred its leading ladies to have, her shaky grasp of Hindi, and her penchant for taking any and every film she was offered, no matter what its cinematic quality. Also hinted at, is the possibility that Rekha — who was only 14 when she began her Bollywood journey — was abused by producers/filmmakers.
In bringing back this version of a gauche, less-than-polished Rekha who has long since faded in public memory to be replaced by the sophisticated diva she fashioned herself into, Usman presents an interesting contrast. The actress’ journey becomes even more remarkable when we consider how it started.
But her dramatic change is attributed once again, to men:
Jeetendra, who apparently first broke her heart and destroyed her illusions about romance.
Vinod Mehra, who is named as the most respectful and chivalrous of Rekha’s lovers, and as per reports, her first husband — until Mrs Mehra (Vinod’s mother) refused to accept the actress as her daughter-in-law and drove her away. (In the Simi Garewal interview, Rekha brushed off Vinod Mehra’s role in her life as that of a “well wisher”.)
There is Kiran Kumar, whom Rekha allegedly ‘stole’ from Yogita Bali. That relationship also ended unhappily due to strident opposition from Kumar’s family.
And then there is Amitabh Bachchan or ‘Him’ as referred to by Rekha in her interviews.
In the introduction to Rekha: The Untold Story, Yasser Usman rues that much of the discussion surrounding Rekha has been hijacked by her relationship with Amitabh Bachchan. “The fact that she is an award-winning actress in her own right and has worked in more than 150 films, a staggering number by any reckoning, takes a back seat,” he writes.
And yet, Usman does pretty much the same.
In this 205-page story, Bachchan makes an appearance right on page 79. In the chapter titled ‘Didibhai’ — this is what Rekha called Jaya Bhaduri, who had an apartment in the same building as her — Usman describes how she was introduced to the lanky Bachchan by Jaya.
There is some print devoted to how resentful Rekha was at not being invited to their wedding, before Usman swings into describing what happened between the actress and Bachchan when they were paired opposite each other in Do Anjaane.
Working with Bachchan is described as the turning point in Rekha’s life, in more ways than one.
Not only did his professionalism and punctuality apparently get Rekha to clean up her act (she was notorious for not showing up to the sets on time, or for playing truant), his dedication and approach to the craft of acting inspired her to invest a lot more thought into her performances.
From the interviews that Usman has quoted to the insights he’s included from noted film writers and personalities, a picture emerges of Rekha working on herself to be far more refined — under the influence of Bachchan.
From here on, the story’s focus becomes the Rekha-Amitabh relationship.
There are several quotes from Rekha’s older interviews in which she refers to a not-so-mysterious ‘Him’, and the hold this person has on her heart.
Her constant references to the relationship as opposed to Bachchan’s radio silence on the subject is a point Usman emphasises several times.
Their hit pairing on screen across several movies, the controversies that rocked the association from time to time, Jaya Bhaduri Bachchan’s response to it are all explored here in great detail.
Two sections stand out: One that describes Amitabh and Rekha working together in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and the other, how Yash Chopra pulled off his casting coup for Silsila, with Rekha, Jaya and Amitabh pretty much playing out their real life triangle.
Why was Muqaddar Ka Sikandar important? Because this was the film that would cast Rekha in a role she seemed to make her own — that of the lovelorn courtesan with a heart-of-gold. A Chandramukhi whose heart beats only for her Devdas. Zohrabai in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar was the first of the many such roles Rekha would take up.
Her interviews around this time also give a curious glimpse into her personality. In one, she narrates an anecdote where she saw Jaya Bachchan crying during the lovemaking scenes between Amitabh and Rekha at a screening of Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. Recounting such a story for mass consumption seems cruel, to say the very least. Or the time she came to Rishi and Neetu Kapoor’s wedding (in 1980) wearing sindoor and a mangalsutra, which led Jaya’s tears to ‘roll down’, as per a magazine report Usman quotes.
And then there is Silsila — Usman tackles the question of just how Yash Chopra got Rekha and Jaya Bachchan to work with each other in the film, and also shares a few instances from the shoot. The film was supposed to be an attempt to revive Amitabh Bachchan’s career (just then he’d been having a spare of flops) as well as Chopra’s; it turned out to be a box office dud, but as Usman writes, it also provided visuals to what the audience/fans had been left to imagine so far: the Rekha/Amitabh/Jaya triangle.
Through all of this, we get a sense of Rekha as the live wire, of Jaya Bachchan as the quiet woman accepting of her fate. We get an impression of Jaya's anger only once, in an interview where she declares that she can imagine being 'hopelessly in love, but never helplessly'. The distinction is a fine one. Of Bachchan’s feelings we get little, if any, indication, except for one comment that Usman elicits from one of his many interviews: It states that Rekha was probably an “ego trip” for Bachchan, that he was “class conscious” and never serious about the actress.
The Coolie incident — where Bachchan sustained a life-threatening injury after a stunt sequence with Puneet Issar went awry — is marked out by Usman as the point where Rekha’s relationship with the actor came to an end. Apparently Amitabh and Jaya grew close once again during his convalescence, and Rekha found herself shut out of his life for good.
With the end of the Amitabh era, Rekha: The Untold Story focuses on some of the actress’ cinematic triumphs. By this time, she had established herself as a serious actor with films like Khoobsurat, Umrao Jaan, and her career was at quite the pinnacle. Usman at this point, brings in his interviews with stalwarts like Muzaffar Ali and Gulzar, who talk about just what it was about Rekha the actress, that was entrancing.
‘Action’ roles such as in Khoon Bhari Mang had led her to being called “Lady Amitabh”.
But younger actresses were ready to make their presence felt — Sreedevi, Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit — and Rekha’s position at the top was no longer inviolate.
And then came Mukesh Aggarwal.
Usman’s writing of Rekha’s story doesn’t flag at any point. It is crisp, it is well-paced, it draws on numerous sources to make its point.
But I’m not entirely certain that the story he narrates here justifies the title. Is this really Rekha’s untold story? It seems more a recapping of one we’ve heard several times before.
Usman compiles his vast sources of information into one good read — but does this give us enough of an insight into Rekha? I’d like to think that she remains as enigmatic as ever.
Usman’s comparisons of Rekha to Sophia Loren (in terms of the transformation into screen siren) and Meerabai (another figure defined by her feeling for a man, even if he was a god) offer some food for thought. It also makes tragic the fact that a beautiful, gifted woman would define herself (or be defined by) her relationship with a man for the majority of her life.
Usman chooses to end his book with an epilogue which recounts what happened at the Star Screen Awards this January: Rekha who had just stepped off the stage after presenting a Best Actress award, rushed to Jaya Bachchan’s side to hug her when Amitabh was announced as the Best Actor. Rekha and Jaya then stood side by side as they cheered together for Bachchan’s win.
It seems an odd conclusion to choose for the book.
It would have been far better to end it with Rekha’s admission that she ‘has always been Bhanurekha, the shy loner’, or Meena Kumari’s assessment of her personality:
“Tum namkeen ho, aur namkeen cheezon ka swaad hamesha zyada yaad rehta hai”.
Rekha: The Untold Story by Yasser Usman; published by Juggernaut; Rs 499, pages 231