I have worked with RekhaJi in Supernani but Rekhaji made an impression on me because my grandfather had asked to watch Umrao Jaan six months before he died, and I was told, that he always enjoyed it. Movies being a scarce commodity in our home of books and letters, this was a medal of honour. Else she would have remained - news, gossip and magazine covers, as she is to most people, known primarily for yoga, beauty, cosmetic surgery, love life, et al.
I love heroes, thus Batman, Superman and Gandhiji appeal to me. However in real life, since childhood, not even two people came close to my exacting standards of heroism. And as I grew up, I realized people were not perfect. You cannot admire all the qualities in one person. However, you can admire one quality in one and another quality in another person. Life and people exist in parts.
When I came into the film industry, I saw another quality of humanity - the inadequacy of the successful, many of who store a pearl of creative talent, but are essentially asses! Yes, talented and admirable people who I would never like to be friends with. It’s a contradiction of life that I would not have understood if I was working in a job. Only those who dive to the nadir of life amidst the visuals of effusive celebrations may understand it. And thus, I had no hopes of finding a hero here.
The first month and a half that Rekhaji worked with me, she remained who I had read about - a senior, legendary actor, who was to be admired from a distance. Then it was bye bye time. I was going through difficulties in my career. And then my mother fell ill with cancer. And our film Supernani went on to get reshot over a period of a year and a half. Result was that I had to sometimes tell the production that certain dates were not good with me. And so the news of my mother’s condition came out.
So when I went the next time on the sets, Rekhaji wanted to know about the doctors and treatment. She wanted me to go for more opinions. She wanted me to explore more avenues. She narrated the story of her dear friend who had contracted cancer in her kidneys and had passed away. She talked about her own mother reverentially, and understood the agony I was going through. My sorrow had broken the gates of her reserve, and she wanted to impart a little of herself to me - feelings, love and lessons learnt. This may have been the first time she revealed herself as a human being to me, but as an actor, she was a committed figure from day one.
Who is an actor? One who acts well? No. An actor is one, who loves the process of acting, and revels in this journey, so tough and scalding. An actor is one who is ready to sacrifice - good food, abundance, luxury, and sometimes people too. An actor is actually an ascetic who is on way to self-realization, because acting is essentially a mental process that utilizes the physical, merely to achieve its goals.
On the set, while I would be cramming my lines, I saw that she never held a piece of paper. But I would often see an assistant director reading out the script to her. She would listen to the lines with focus, and lo and behold, deliver them with dazzling grace! Was this some old technique, I wondered. But she confessed that she did not know how to read. She had started working very young, and thus never really attended school. I was blown away - 275 films and she had not read one line, and yet had gone and delivered the performances she is known for….wow!
And oh, it was in the course of filming that she told me that she had done more than 275 films. I was surprised; we know her from maybe a twenty odd films. Then I realized, an actor needs to keep on working. God decides when that work will shine. Giving the example of Umrao Jaan, she said that she travelled to Lucknow by train. Lovers had scribbled a hundred things on the centuries old pillars of some of the monuments they shot at. The film team had to clean them. She would join the team, do the cleaning through the day, and then shoot at night wearing her own clothes and jewellery that she had carried for the film. And while she was in Chennai shooting for another movie, she dubbed for Umrao Jaan in the course of a night, even as the director got her mogra flowers to enhance the mood of her dubbing. She said that they did not know the film would become Umrao Jaan! I had had a similar experience in Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster - shot on a meager budget, with us doing five scenes in a day; we finished the film in 29 days only to know much later that it was a fascinating one. She added with a spiritual glow, ‘A film becomes great because stars align themselves right. An actor gives as much to every journey. The journey is important’.
That must be the reason that even when one day pack-up was placed too close to another day of call time, Rekhaji appeared fresh as a dew, even as we yawned lethargically. She would then tell us how she had completed her morning rituals - exercises, yoga and the likes before arriving on the set! This was the discipline that NK Sharma, my theatre director had caned us for. Somehow, I had forgotten it! Rekhaji reminded me of the word ‘dedication’ again.
In Supernani, she plays a matriarch who is ill-treated by her own family, and who then gets back by standing on her own feet. Rekhaji was worried about been seen as weak. She is a strong woman, and believes that her audiences want to see that strength in her characters too. There is conviction in her understanding of her fans. Then I heard she had signed another film…and we did not meet for a long time.
In the interim, my mother passed away. Rekhaji had often spoken to me about how I needed to view disease, suffering, pain and death. She gave me an enlightened perspective on life. I felt I had done my best, and that gave me strength. During Supernani, I was mostly in and out of hospitals. I am supposed to be her useless
who dreams of becoming an actor but has no beauty or talent for it. Thus I have been shot to look fat, funny and irritating. So all the fat I piled on during maa’s illness, does justice to my character. But after maa’s death, I got to work and lost weight. And when Rekhaji met me again (it was the last day of our shoot), she cooed in delight, and told me that the world is my oyster. She is happy to see the same hardwork and dedication in others. ‘You just see now…’, she said!
Moreover, I saw that she had become half her size in preparation for her forthcoming film. That day she told me that she loves her life, there was so much to learn every day, she said delightedly. And it left me wondering……in a youth obsessed country like ours, where only young are expected to have new experiences, Rekhaji who had lived and seen so much, still loves another day of challenges. Was this the fountain of her youth? Or was it prayers? Rekhaji would often tell me to pray. The numerous times she met me during my mother’s illness, she told me there was strength in prayers. And love. And there is devotion in her love.
From my interaction with her, I believe her truest identity is of an actor. Most men I know want to own a woman, make his dreams her dreams. Consequently, she has to forget the path God bestowed on her. Rekhaji’s life is an ode for women who want to realize their path with single-minded dedication. She has uncluttered her life to leave her free to do what she loves most ---to act. Today, she is not young, yet more beautiful than most - a contradiction in a country like India where beauty is associated only with youth. On Last 10th October, She has celebrated her 60th birthday But on her 60th birthday, she is a better actor than she was five or ten or twenty years back. And that’s her triumph.
And somewhere mine too….because at last I know someone in the film industry who has attributes of a hero. To the hero in Rekhaji, salute!
(Actor Shreya, best known for her role in Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster, has worked in a dozen Bollywood films including Rockstar. She will be next seen in Indra Kumar's Supernani alongside Rekha.)