Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from critic Anupama Chopra’s, ‘First Day, First Show: Writings from the Bollywood Trenches” which reprises nearly two decades of film criticism. A rare encounter with the notoriously reclusive Rekha offers a rare glimpse of the woman behind the legend; a woman who has chosen to age with grace and without apologies. Witty, quirky, and incurably honest, she reminds us of the excellent reasons why we adore her so.
Rekha in the film Umrao Jaan. Image still from the movie.
Rekha is a Rorschach test. What you see depends on who you are. Bollywood insiders speak about an ageing, fading actress who can no longer differentiate between the mask and the face. Tabloids paint her as an erotic icon, still longing for her great unfulfilled love, Amitabh Bachchan; every few months there are whispers of clandestine meetings in London. Journalists talk in pitying tones of a reclusive woman twisted bitter by lecherous men and loneliness.
But the Rekha I meet is none of these. She wears a black knit top over jeans, and solitaires. Her hair, which she herself cropped to shoulder length recently, is held back by a silver clip. Her face, without make-up or discernible lines, is stunning. She is chatty and curious, excited and energetic, cheerful and almost illegally optimistic. She laughs uproariously and talks for hours about films and art, love and rasmalai.
If Rekha really is a gnarled, forlorn, delusional has-been, either it is such a well-kept secret that even she doesn’t know or she is the best actor alive:
I am open to any and every kind of role. I always have been. Actually, I’ve only said no to people I didn’t trust. Otherwise I’ve done every role that was offered to me. Every role. You know what that means . . . so little has been offered to me . . . (breaks into laughter)
Rekha is a Hindi movie miracle. Long after her contemporaries have retired into marriage and motherhood, she soldiers on. Not in vapid bhabhi roles but as characters that shape the narrative. In Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot, a horror film set in an apartment in Mumbai, she plays a psychic.Varma says he could not think of anyone else: “She has a tremendous natural dignity. One look and the audience takes her seriously.” In Rakesh Roshan’s sci-fi Koi Mil Gaya, Rekha is a middle class mother who struggles to bring up a mentally deficient child with love.
Directors wax eloquent about her. Mira Nair, who cast her in Kamasutra, likens her to a “Jamini Roy painting”. “Like Marilyn Monroe is shorthand for sex, Rekha is shorthand for charisma. She is a movie star in any language.” Mahesh Manjrekar says he has grown up adoring her and will “beg at her feet” for her to work with him. Sanjay Leela Bhansali labels her the “last of the great stars”. He says, “Rekha is a question mark, an exclamation mark, a comma, never a full stop. To know her is to be seduced by life.” Shyam Benegal calls her “a director’s actress”.
Thirty-three years of facing the camera in 200-odd films hasn’t jaded Rekha. She still approaches each role as if it were her first. So she is wearing ill-fitting blouses in Koi Mil Gaya to make sure she looks adequately ordinary (“For me that is truly a challenge”). “No matter how many times she rehearses a dance step,” says choreographer Saroj Khan, “she will start from scratch and is nervous.” Varma says she is “more professional than any actor I’ve worked with”. “I’ve seen so many actors lose track as soon as they see the “S” of success but she still has the same interest and concentration.”
So why does she have only two films? Because Bollywood still hasn’t figured out what to do with an incandescent forty-eight-year-old single woman. It hasn’t been able to find a place for her. So while Bachchan, at sixty, is the busiest star in the business, Rekha waits for a film-maker who can reinterpret her. Meanwhile, she is also making plans to turn director herself. Her film will be “romantic, intense, meaningful, intellectually stimulating, different, unique, thought-provoking, visually stunning, unknown and yet totally familiar”. In other words, it will be Rekha:
I am in love with someone I haven’t met. It is a perfect image in my mind. I have had much more than love, such intense feelings overflowing and coming out of each hair and cuticle in my body. If it hasn’t happened in real, it has been so strong in my imagination.
Q. Is this person a fantasy?
A. He is totally oblivious to what I feel for him. He has always been and will always be. He has no clue to what I feel for him. It is true and this is a huge confession.
Q. So why don’t you just tell him?
A. No man or woman can know how the other person feels. There is no rule, no book, you do the best you can and not expect anything in return.
Rekha’s love life has been of national interest for three decades. Her marriages, affairs and rumours of affairs have consumed enough pages to fill a library. And Rekha has continued to stoke stories by seemingly carelessly dropped hints and dramatic looks in public places. But despite endless speculations and an unauthorised biography, the truth remains elusive. What is known is Rekha has had two failed marriages. She was on the verge of divorce when her second husband Mukesh Agarwal committed suicide. The months that followed were harrowing—she was labelled a murderer and posters of her film Sheshnaag were defaced. But Rekha says she emerged stronger from the crisis: “I grew up then to become the eternal child that I am today. I have never questioned life again. I am absolutely, unconditionally open to anything.”
Her life has been more far-fetched than her films. She is the love child of legendary actor Gemini Ganeshan and Pushpavalli. At fourteen, she took to acting to support her sixteen-member family. She was fat, dark and could hardly speak Hindi. Yet her first film, Sawan Bhadon, was a resounding hit. The slings of fortune haven’t made her a cynic. She has retained her sanity by retreating into her castle, a bungalow by the Arabian Sea named after her mother.
Nobody is welcome here. Neetu Kapoor has been a close friend for two decades —Rekha makes it a point to visit her every year on her birthday but she has never been invited home. And Rekha rarely ventures out. “She has become a recluse,” says Neetu. “Rishi has even fired her for not coming out more but she knows her mind.”
Only a handful of people know the password to the magic kingdom of Pushpavalli. AFP
Only a handful of people know the password to the magic kingdom of Pushpavalli—among them her secretary Farzana, her hairdresser and her immediate family. Rekha artfully controls all relationships, so even Varma, thought to be her friend, does not have her home phone number.
She has chosen to live outside the seductive whirl of the film industry but she has no regrets or fears about growing old alone. She has put the idea of having a child on hold “for now”. “First I have to find the prop, the father,” she says with a throaty laugh. Though she doesn’t believe in marriage (“No man-made institution lasts forever”) she won’t have a child out of wedlock because she knows what it is like to grow up without a father.
She isn’t sure what happiness is but she is content to live with her fantasy man and her maker. God, who she calls “the world’s greatest artist”, is Rekha’s constant companion:
I am open to the cosmos, not just people but every leaf, every molecule and every blade of grass. I am renewing my energy and reinventing myself. My soul is being soothed and nurtured every day. I am looking for only one thing: knowledge. My calling in life is to be not just a provider or wife or mother. My calling is to be a true fellow human being. I am not alone. I am every woman and, may I add, I am every man too.
In her self-imposed confinement, Rekha has bloomed. For her, life is a ritual, to be lived with grace, style and, always, romance. As Bhansali says, “It is the way I imagine Cleopatra or Meena Kumari in Pakeezah must have lived.” So even writing a letter must be imbued with elegance—she makes her own stationery. She also designs her own costumes, sketches, writes poetry and spends time gardening. She wakes up at 5 a.m. and exercises for an hour and a half—yoga, lightweights and treadmill. Though sweets are a passion—on Farzana’s birthday, she relished twelve rasmalais—she eats mostly salads. Water, barley water, coconut water are constants.
She is also, she says, the queen of camouflage. But perhaps the real reason why she has not wilted with age are the commandments she has written for herself:
Never expect; always give the benefit of doubt; give better than your best; be open to everything; don’t expect the worst but if it happens, embrace it; do your karma by giving but never let the person know; never crush your creativity; don’t live life with blinkers on; and learn at least one new thing every day.
Like Rekha, these evolve every day. And she remains, a work in progress.