Rekha is to India what Elizabeth Taylor was to the US. The definition of a film star is always changing, the definition of beauty is always changing. These two women, one in grand posterity, retain some things elemental to a star heroine: Often upstaged by their own stunning beauty, enduring memories about them are of their wounded-ness, their morality in a viciously superficial and male world, and, at the same time, a mystery and distance from the woman about town. And of course, their faces have no bad angles.
A new book, Rekha: The Untold Story by Yasser Usman, tells us all. The birth of Bhanurekha Ganesan, accompanied by rumour and gossip, a teenage suicide attempt; the desperate early years in films in the south; the birth of Rekha in Bombay; falling in love with a film star; taunts from a prospective mother-in-law; a second marriage with businessman Mukesh Agarwal and his suicide; the Hindi film industry’s “witch hunt”, Rekha being the witch who kissed the poor man; her most famous love affair; the later reclusive years. Excerpts from the book have appeared in the media in a flurry, with words like “explosive” describing the book and its parts.
Rekha: The Untold Story is a riveting book. It taps into that irresistible fancy of knowing the different aspects of a star as mythologized as Rekha.
It is also a painful book to read, like most books about women who exist in public memory because of their beauty and glamour. Usman’s research and presentation of episodic details in Rekha’s life humanize her, but empathy is nearly impossible. I could not resist feeling sympathetic. Yet another biography that convinces me that a woman’s worth, like a man’s, is in their minds. Rekha never got to cultivate hers in her early years—or, perhaps only fleetingly, with some excellent roles in films by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar.
So in her double role in Khoon Bhari Maang, the rich woman with a physical scar at the mercy of a tall, greedy villain and then the cosmetically transformed, bling doll in search of revenge, was Rekha playing out her own personal fantasy?
Usman writes in the introductory author’s note that despite repeated attempts through her secretary Farzana, he could not interview Rekha. He got the answering machine every time he tried. He pieces together interviews with film industry insiders as well as journalists who have closely followed Rekha’s life and films.
Usman has earlier written a biography of Rajesh Khanna, and he says that interviewing for that book was far easier because people willingly talked about Khanna. In Rekha’s case, he writes, “Several spoke about her in the most sexist of ways, called her unprintable names and ridiculed her relationships and affairs—always off the record, of course, when my dictaphone was switched off.”
Heroines are alluring but never empowered, cold-hearted to fans but rarely without the compulsive desire for a powerful man’s protection. Fantasies, with the mundane desire to be wives. Once, when asked why she married so often—people talk about her many marriages with a certain vicarious glee—Elizabeth Taylor said, “I don’t know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.”