I first encountered the glamorous world of Hindi cinema when I was around eight years old. It happened thus. We had set off on a picnic with family and friends to the Botanical Garden in Howrah. As we headed for our usual spot under the overarching banyan tree, we saw a flurry of excitement just off to the right. There was a small crowd gathered, held behind a roped-off area by a posse of policemen.
How could we possibly resist? We veered off from our normal route to check out what was happening. “Shooting cholche,” explained one excited man, while everybody around shouted “Omeet da, Omeet da!”
The ‘Omeet da’ in question was none other than Amitabh Bachchan. There he sat on the top of a tiny hillock, a white towel arranged around his neck, checking out his reflection in the mirror held up by one of his assistants.
But my eyes swept past him to zero in on another figure: a statuesque sari-clad lady standing in the shade of a tree, her eyes fixed – like the rest of us – on Amitabh Bachchan. Even as a child, I could sense the intensity of that gaze, even though I couldn’t really make sense of it. Who was that woman, I asked my sister. That was the heroine of the movie. Her name was Rekha.
I hadn’t yet been exposed to the pleasures of Stardust or Cine Blitz, so I had no idea about the rumors swirling around the lead actors of Do Anjane (the shooting of this movie was apparently when their affair started). But as we persuaded them to pose for a picture with us, and the two of them stood together in the middle of our little huddle, it was Rekha I couldn’t take my eyes off.
She was simply the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on in my short, uneventful life. Her hair pulled tightly back from her face, her heavily-kohled eyes sparkling like two jewels, her bow-shaped lips a perfect study in red, she was a vision for the ages. But why, I wondered from my vantage point of somewhere around her knees, were her hands five shades darker than her face?
We soon wandered off to have our little picnic, but the image of Rekha stayed with me. The next time I raided my mother’s make-up bag, I used her red lipstick to curve a bow-string around my mouth as well. Needless to say, that did not make me look like Rekha.
But our paths were to cross nearly two decades later. By then I was a journalist, working with Sunday magazine, and Rekha was one of the brightest stars of her generation. So, you can imagine the consternation when she married an unknown Delhi businessman called Mukesh Aggarwal, who then committed suicide seven months later, hanging himself from a fan using Rekha’s dupatta.
As stories go, this couldn’t get any bigger. And I was put on it to provide the Delhi input.
My first interview was with Mukesh’s therapist and friend, Akash Bajaj, who lived in a tony colony in Delhi. It took some persuading to get her to talk but she finally relented. As I was ushered into her dimly-lit drawing room and laid eyes on her beautiful but drawn face, grief etched deep into every perfect feature, I realized in a flash that while Rekha may well have been the wife, I was now face-to-face face with the virtual widow.
Bajaj’s pain was impossible to fathom; her dignity almost unbearable to watch. And as she spoke, her voice straining under her sorrow and bewilderment (“All I want to ask is why?”), the idea of Rekha that I had carried in my head began to take an altogether uglier shape.
Of course, everyone knew even then that Mukesh Aggarwal had been a chronic depressive. And that it was nobody’s fault that he had decided to end his life. But in moments of anger and anguish, it is only natural to lash out at somebody. And Mukesh’s family and friends lashed out at Rekha, the woman who had ‘bewitched’ him and then cruelly abandoned him to his fate.
It was after that episode that Rekha turned into the recluse she is today. Walled up behind the gates of her bungalow, her only link to the world appears to be her long-time secretary, Farzana, who bizarrely, always dresses like Amitabh Bachchan (circa 1980s) whenever she escorts the actress to public events. Even the new biography of Rekha published by Juggernaut is based on interviews with people who know her. Rekha herself remained incommunicado during the entire process.
Speaking for myself, I only saw Rekha in the flesh once after that childhood encounter. We were both leaving an awards function in Mumbai, waiting for our cars to arrive. Not wanting to stare goggle-eyed like everyone else on the porch, I just risked a sidelong glance. Her kohl-rimmed eyes still shone like jewels but her skin was stretched tight as a drum, so much so that those bow-shaped red lips could no longer relax naturally into a smile. Rekha was now the caricature of the woman she had once been, with her rictus grin, her immobile forehead, and paper-thin skin.
Only one thing hadn’t changed. Her hands were still five shades darker than her face.
From HT Brunch, September 18, 2016
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