Diva is what they like to call her. “A clichéd image of a star, just as we have clichéd images of politicians,” she says. “It sounds very glamorous, very mysterious but it’s not something I’ve worked towards. It’s just the way journalists have presented me.” But she admits, “I can understand why people call me that. It depends on how much information they have about me.”
For that, you could place the blame at Rekha’s doorstep. Though you’d find it near impossible to access. Go down Mumbai’s Bandra Bandstand, and almost at the midpoint between Salman Khan’s house and Shah Rukh Khan’s mansion, sits Rekha’s bungalow. Everyone knows Galaxy Apartments, where Salman Khan will even make an appearance in his balcony from time to time. Mannat always has a clutch of fans outside and a steady stream of visitors making its way in to meet Shah Rukh Khan.
But not too many could point out Rekha’s bungalow to you. For, all that’s visible of it from the roadside is a thick barricade of bamboo and foliage. Few have been inside Rekha’s home; indeed, many close friends in the industry have not been granted the privilege.
“I choose whom I want to invite; that’s my prerogative,” she says, not with arrogance but firmness. “It’s not an open house.”
She tells you why. “For one, I’m a single woman. Two, I’m a celebrity; there’s a security problem there. And three, believe it or not, I’m really very shy. I don’t meet too many people. I don’t like socialising, I don’t go to so-called happening places, I’m not a globetrotter. When I get back home, I prefer to listen to some music, be with myself, do things that matter to me and get to sleep at my regular time. Even though there’s nobody to say anything to me if I want to go wild or run off to France for a rendezvous with someone special or dance till 4 in the morning.”
Naturally, I ask, have you done any of that? “I’m not about to say that in print, even if I have,” she laughs. But adds, “It’s so boring to be a saint; none of us are. I have a very fun, interesting life.”
She leans forward, her tone quickening ever so slightly. “I’ve worked very, very hard to be in this situation. No one has ever provided for me. I’ve been the sole earning member of the family since I was 13 and my independence is the most powerful gift I’ve given myself. I don’t have to be answerable to anyone except myself. Just imagine someone with a whip dancing on your head all the time.”
I find myself laughing involuntarily at the imagery her words conjure up; she laughs too. The mood is broken, the moment changes, she sits back. Re-ties her hair in a topknot.
It’s the only overt movement she allows herself. She doesn’t fidget with her ring or clothes or hair; she wears a quietude that belies the passion in her words as she tells me, “I think most people lead a very false life in the garb of love. The moment their respective spouses are away they become completely different entities.”
Is that her view of marriage?
“Well, at least that’s what I’ve seen in most cases.”
That said, would she be open to marriage or a relationship today?
“As of now, no. But who knows if I find it in front of me one day? If you asked me, are you open to what’s round the corner, what do I say? How do I know what’s around the corner?”
She believes that most single women “try to fill a vacuum” and therein lies the problem.
Is there a vacuum?
“Yes, there definitely is. But it’s in your mind. Look, I’m not saying one’s alone. Because, bhaiyya, every single person is ultimately alone, from the moment that umbilical cord is cut.”
She pauses, rewinds – “Also, when you say ‘open’, there’s an unspoken expectation. If love happens to me, then I believe that it was meant to be. But as of now, that’s not exactly on the list of my priorities. There are no expectations.”
That’s something Rekha’s learnt to do away with in her life. It’s simple – no expectations, no disappointments. It’s a lesson she learnt from her mother, when she was far too young for all that was happening in her life at the time.
She was 13, naïve and bursting with an unselfconscious sexuality when she was plucked out of Chennai’s Church Park convent school to be packed off to the studios by her mother, Telugu actress Pushpavalli. Her father, Tamil superstar Gemini Ganesan, never lived with them and Rekha says she has not had a single conversation with her father during his life. The family was more or less left to fend for itself and Rekha was thrust into the role of breadwinner though she wasn’t the first-born.
To the surprise of most people, she became an overnight sensation with her first movie Sawan Bhadon (1970). “Everything was blown out of proportion. My fame, my image, everything,” she remembers.
“But what does a 13-year-old know? I was constantly hurt, humiliated, stabbed in the back.” When the bewildered teenager complained to her mother, she got a seemingly harsh reply from a woman who’d seen the world: “Why do you expect people to be nice to you? Just do your karma and don’t expect anything from anyone in return.”
That was easier said than implemented by an impetuous, trusting teenager. Rekha says quietly, “I don’t know anyone who has been hurt as much I have been…continuously hurt, time and time again. And by people who I trusted.” Pause. “Apne jo dukh dete hain na (the pain inflicted on us by those who are dear to us), that’s the worst kind.”
But then, Bhanurekha Ganesan’s much-chronicled life has attracted an inordinate amount of curiosity from day one. The tempestuous young girl hurtled from one controversy to the other in the early years of her career – her penchant for disappearing from the sets, the men she was constantly linked with, an alleged suicide attempt which was put down to a “cockroach in the upma”.
She was brash and unbridled and the scandal sheets loved it. Then came the Amitabh Bachchan phase in her life. Exit the gauche, untamed spirit; enter the elegant, controlled seductress. And the obsession with ‘Him’. Nevertheless, she got into a whirlwind marriage with Delhi industrialist Mukesh Agarwal in 1990, only to have it end when he hanged himself less than one year later.
The accusations and recriminations flew thick and fast. And the next phase began. The shutters came down, she retreated into a silence and drew a curtain of mystery over her life.
Today, she says, “When I think about my life and see it going past in frames, it is a surreal experience.”
The pain is dredged up along with the past. I am silent, so is she. Then, old wounds are sealed as she says, “I have no questions now. I used to have many of them: Why is Dad not with me? Why can’t I get married? Why can’t I have children? Why don’t I have someone to share my life with? But there are no questions now. Because there are no expectations. Simple.”
Is that living in denial, I question. But Rekha hasn’t survived so much for nothing. She looks me square in the eye as she says, “If it is denial, what a beautiful denial it is. If it helps me function like this, look like this, be grateful and bring happiness to others, then why not.”
And she chooses her words carefully these days. She’s learnt to neatly side-step any question she doesn’t want to answer; press her and you will be presented with enigmatic nuggets of philosophy or conundrums. But she will scatter clues; it’s up to you to read between the lines and the pauses unravel the hidden meanings. It’s a little mystery game.
Some days later, I’m speaking to Shabana Azmi, a colleague and friend of Rekha’s for many years. Azmi remembers, “When I first knew Rekha, she was warm, generous, intelligent, impulsive and spontaneous. Her warmth and generosity remain, but over the years she’s developed a persona that is studied and cautious. Because of how impulsive and spon taneous she was, she was always getting into one controversy or the other. She paid the price for her spontaneity. So this diva image is a protective layer that she’s built over the years. I think she revels in it.”
You see the point to Azmi’s analysis when Rekha herself says, “I believe it’s not me to be in too much proximity with people all the time. I like my space. And I also believe that familiarity does breed contempt. I like a slight formality in every relationship.”
Then she adds, “Also, a woman should be seen and not heard.” Ouch, that sounds regressive coming from a staunchly single, independent woman like you, I protest.
Rekha’s unfazed. “Well it may sound like that. But I think a true lady doesn’t go yak, yak, yak,” she maintains. “Or be desperate to draw attention to herself. She should possess an innate special quality – whether it is her natural body scent, the look in her eyes, her voice or her body language. She should walk into a room and be noticed; that kind of aura is so rare these days.”
That’s a woman’s aura deconstructed. And that also tells you why you won’t find too many interviews with this star in magazines or papers. “I don’t have that much to talk about,” she says. “I’m a woman of action and not mere words.”
Another reason she doesn’t have much to talk about, she says, is because she doesn’t “have an opinion on anyone or anything other than myself.” Before you can say it, she does: “I know it sounds vain.” But, she argues, "It’s just the opposite in fact. Because I don’t think I have the right to express an opinion about someone when I don’t always live up to my own expectations."
That’s an unusual rationalisation. Also perhaps one of the reasons why she’s granted just two TV interviews ever – both to old friend Simi Garewal. The first was for a show called It’s A Woman’s World in 1984. The second, in 2004, was for the 100th episode of Rendezvous with Simi Garewal and attracted one of the show’s highest viewerships ever; remarkable for an actress way past the prime of her career. (The Star TV ad merely carried her picture and two words: ‘She speaks’.)
“I haven’t met a person who hasn’t seen it,” says Garewal. How far apart were the two Rekhas she interviewed? Garewal takes a deep breath. “My God, what a difference. What amazed me – and I say this as one who’s interviewed and studied hundreds of people – is that I found there wasn’t a trace of bitterness in this woman after all the turbulence and tragedy in her life.” Garewal emphasises, “Mind you, I’ve tested her and I haven’t caught even a speck of malice towards anyone. It’s as if her tragedies have cleansed her of all negativity.”
It’s not just the celebrity-hungry masses whose interest is piqued by Rekha. Younger stars are equally intrigued. Vidya Balan, who starred in Parineeta (in which Rekha did a nightclub number, Kaisi Paheli) says, “Like so many others, I was curious to see what she was like in person. To most, she’s a mystery, an enigma, a diva. When I did meet her, she was all that and more. She was so warm, which made her very real.”
Balan recalls that when they were introduced, the first thing Rekha said to her was “Iyer ponnaa?” (So you’re an Iyer girl?) And after that, she says, “We jabbered away in Tamil. She said some nice things about my acting; told me to concentrate on my strengths and not be part of the crowd. But what really touched me was when she told me, ‘Your parents have done a great job of bringing you up.’ She made it a point to tell my parents that too and they couldn’t stop smiling.”
The South Indian angle I can understand. (Rekha has, more than once, told me, “You’ll understand, you come from Chennai.”) I know the warmth that everyone talks about, too. Especially when it comes to children. Rarely have I had a conversation with Rekha that has not ended with her asking about my daughter (who she has never met.)
Let me add quickly here that I don’t lay any claim to proximity to Rekha (to borrow her words). That would be presumptuous. Especially with a woman who uses the word friend cautiously.
Do you have many friends, I ask her.
“Yes, a couple.” Are you very close to them?
“Well, I know they’re very close to me.”
You’re not close to them?
“I don’t really know what it is to be close to anyone on a day-to-day basis. And I’m honestly not sure if that’s a bad thing.” We look at each other in silence for a time.
Surely your mother, I say.
“Oh, my mother is part of me; she and I are one. She doesn’t count. But I have had people outside my family who have been with me for a very long time, if that says anything. Like my makeup man Ram Sawant, whom I called Sawant Dada. He was family. After he died, his son’s taken his place.
“And there’s Farzana (Jafri, her secretary, trusted aide and companion for over 20 years), who is the most efficient person you could find. She reads my mind, she knows exactly what I want without my having to articulate it.”
Interestingly, though Rekha might say she is unfamiliar with the dynamics of an intimate, day-to-day relationship, she says she trusts people “implicitly and whole-heartedly.” Because, she says, “I’ve learnt that either you do or you don’t. There’s no such thing as being half-pregnant, is there?”
How has she brought herself to trust after all the hurt and betrayal? “For long, I couldn’t trust easily,” she admits. “It is only the last 15 years… no, make that 20 years, that I’ve been able to do that and be true to myself.”
Oh yes, endorsements. Why is it haven’t we seen her in a single advertisement so far? Considering every second ad these days seems to feature a star, it’s safe to presume the offers must come in.
“Yes, there are plenty,” she tells me, “But none of them have come up with the right product. If I endorse something, it has to be a product that will make a difference. Not something like age-defying cream. I wouldn’t do that; it takes more than a cream to defy age don’t you think?”
Do you worry about getting old, I interject. Only to be told off thus: “That’s a question you should ask someone who’s superficial, materialistic, paranoid about people’s impressions of her and her exterior self. I don’t think I’m any of that.”
Okay, not the fading of your looks; just growing old, I say. Rekha raises an eyebrow in question: “Old as in falling sick? Old as in being physically handicapped and not having someone to look after me? Old as in being lonely?”
Yes, yes and yes.
“The answer is no. Nothing scares me any more. I don’t worry about things like my family members dumping me in an old people’s home. Or even death for that matter.”
That’s as good a point as any to end our conversation. As I gather my assorted belongings and prepare to leave, Rekha asks, “And how is your daughter doing?”