Happy Birthday Rekha: Her life is a heady story of success and heartbreak
Actor Rekha is often dubbed as an enigma, the Greta Garbo of Bollywood. She has often been called a loner and is known for her aloofness. Sadly, none of these epithets do justice to either her talent or the strength of her personality. In essence, the actor remains a rebel who fought and triumphed over an intensely misogynistic and patriarchal world. On Rekha’s 65th birthday, here’s a look at her life’s several struggles, misfortunes and challenges.
Born Bhanurekha Ganesan, Rekha’s life should have been one of privilege. Daughter of Tamil superstar Gemini Ganesan and small-time Telugu actor Pushpavalli, Rekha instead grew up in neglect as her father allegedly never acknowledged her younger sister and her. Growing up in Chennai, at a young age, she was pushed into acting to support her family. Rekha was only 12 when he made her debut in the Telugu film, Rangula Ratnam (1966). It is alleged that her mother Pushpavalli got into gambling in a big way and with no support from her father, Rekha had to take to acting. Three years later, in 1969, aged only 15, she did her first adult role in the Kannada film, Operation Jackpot Nalli C.I.D 999. These early years proved to be traumatic for young Rekha as she was forced to grow up, much before time.
Seeking to improve her lot, Rekha moved to Bollywood and appeared in her first Hindi film, Saawan Bhadon (1970). Though the film hit the jackpot, rejection and ridicule were to be Rekha’s constant companions. Before Saawan Bhadon, Rekha shot for another film, Anjana Safar (1969, the film would later be released as Do Shikaari). The film had a deeply disturbing experience during its shoot. It is said that the film’s hero, the much older Biswajeet, in connivance with the director, forcibly kissed her several times while shooting a romantic scene in the midst of whistles and hoots, much to the embarrassment of a teenaged Rekha. In today’s times, the senior actor would have been called out for sexual harassment but, back then, it was passed off as a funny incident. It did, however, scar Rekha further. The incident reportedly finds a mention in Yasser Usman’s biography of the actor called Rekha: An Untold Story.
During the period, she went on to work in a number of commercially successful films but remained the butt of everyone’s jokes for her dark complexion, her lack of command over Hindi and buxom physique. In today’s world, her detractors would have been accused of racism and body-shaming. Sadly, there were no such safeguards back then. Rekha worked in films like Rampur Ka Lakshman and Namak Haram, which were hits.
During this phase, love and disappointment were her constant companions. Her earliest crush was on one of her first co-star, Naveen Nishchal. Sadly, he never reciprocated her affections. According to an article in the National Herald India, during the making of Elaan (1971) and looking for an emotional anchor, Rekha was drawn towards her co-star Vinod Mehra, which resulted in marriage. Vinod’s mother, however, was against this match and reportedly didn’t allow her to enter their home. Vinod tried to salvage the situation by staying with friends but Rekha wasn’t keen on that -- she needed an emotional anchor.
Dejected by the Vinod Mehra episode, Rekha reportedly got close to actor Kiran Kumar, son of veteran actor Jeevan. Kiran agreed to marry her but Jeevan was against the match and Rekha had to face rejection yet again. Sometime during this period, she worked with Amitabh Bachchan. While much was written about their alleged relationship in the gossip magazines, Amitabh was to leave a lasting impression on young Rekha. They first worked together in Do Anjaane (1976, they did Namak Haram in 1973 both were not paired together). Aside from their alleged romance, he proved to be a positive influence in her life. For one, Rekha began to pay more attention to her body, beauty and worked on her Hindi. With yoga, an improved diet and a disciplined lifestyle, the changes were soon visible. From a loud, giggling and plump woman, she transformed into a seductive, young star with a perfect diction, a certain restraint and enviable physique. In films like Gulzar’s acclaimed Ghar (1978) and commercial potboilers like Mr Natwarlal (1978) and Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), the changes were obvious to the world.
This transformation would soon result in Rekha delivering some of her best works -- Gulzar’s Ijaazat (1987), Shashi Kapoor’s Utsav (1985), Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1980) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1979). Umrao Jaan fetched her a National Award too. In fact, her mastery over Urdu, in later years, shocked even the most vehement of her detractors.
Her personal life, meanwhile, remained tumultuous as ever. In 1990, she married a Delhi-based businessman Mukesh Agarwal. Sadly, this too would prove to be short-lived as he reportedly committed suicide while she was away in London. An insecure childhood and a string of failed relationships should have made her an emotional wreck but Rekha did manage to stabilise her life. She lives a quiet life in Bandra in Mumbai and is known to be close to stars from her generation like Hema Malini, Shabana Azmi, Rakesh Roshan among others. She depends on her secretary Farzana and has been making appearances in her trademark gold Kanjeevaram saris and heavy jewellery (that is how a millennial will see her today) at various film events.
Rekha’s dreams of leading a happy married life remained a dream but she ensured that her younger sister Radha got married and lives in the US. Speaking about her and her half-sisters, Rekha had told Deccan Chronicle, “They are all doing very well in life, touchwood. My sister Radha, who lives in the US, has discovered her craft in painting. She is by far the most beautiful among us sisters. If only Radha had been as tall as me, she’d have been the actor in the family.”
It is believed that she had a frosty relationship with her father and that she rebuffed any attempts of a patch-up in later years. While is difficult to back this up with facts, in 2004-2005, she was seen posing with her siblings at an event in Chennai. It may be recalled that Gemini Ganesan had three major relationships. Rekha, therefore, has one sister, one half-brother and five half-sisters.
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