Oh, this is gonna be a fun one! And I am sure it will only be able to scratch the surface, so please add on nifty details in the comments. And I should also acknowledge, it is almost entirely taken from This Book. If you like this post, Buy It! And if you disagree with this post, Blame It! (not really, I’m the one who bought the book and chose which parts to believe and repeat)
Standard Disclaimer: Everything I am about to say may or may not be true, I have no way of knowing, I don’t know these people in real life. But if you are new to the Hindi film world, this is the gossip and background that everyone has for these movie stars. Take it as that, and nothing else.
Honestly, I didn’t know that many details about Rekha’s life, especially her early life, before reading this book. Which is what fascinated me about it, it was kind of like if you randomly read book 7 of Harry Potter first, and then years later stumbled on books 1-6 and went “oh, okay, I see where that was coming from now!” and “wow, really would not have thought this person was like that when they were younger, seeing how different they were in the end!”
And this made me realize that the most important thing to know about Rekha is that she is the Queen of manufacturing and using narratives to present her personal life. And she is able to switch from one to the other as the winds and moods of the country change.
There are a few very firm narratives that most Hindi film heroines have to work within for their personal life. The oldest one, which goes all the way back long before film, is the Tragic Tawaif narrative. It’s a classic, one we had in the West as well (Camille, for instance. Or Moulin Rouge). To my way of thinking, it’s a way of both mastering and acknowledging female sexual power.
(After starring in Camille, Greta Garbo in real life ended up using this narrative a little bit, always presenting the story of being tragically in love with John Garfield, which allowed the public to forgive her for being wealthy and single and independent)
There is the beautiful elegant desirable courtesan. Not just a prostitute who can be purchased, but one who chooses among a variety of possible patrons the one who has the most money and power. This is acknowledging the female sexual power, saying “As a man, I can build up social power through money and position. But I still must offer that all to a woman because I am a slave to my physical desires.” But then there has to be mastery as well, and so the story is always that this beautiful and elegant and witty courtesan is secretly in love with a handsome powerless young man. At heart, she is still dominated by a patriarchal figure. That’s what makes this narrative acceptable and even laudable, that while she may appear to be in control of the men who desire her, at heart she is even more of a powerless worshiper of male power than any devout wife sitting at home.
(See, his wife was probably allowed to cry. But poor devoted Pushpa, the girlfriend, wasn’t even able to do that)
This story plays out onscreen in Indian films over and over again, but it is also a familiar framework that the press and the public like to use for their female stars. Being a film actress, in terms of performance, isn’t that different from being a Tawaif. They dress up, they sing and they dance, and very very wealthy and powerful men are often allowed on set to view their private performances. In the early years, it is rumored, many of the actresses came from a Tawaif tradition, the same skills that their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers had used to entertain kings and lords were taught to them and used to entertain the public on film screens.
And then you have the stories of Nargis, the beautiful woman who was hopelessly trapped by her love for Raj Kapoor. Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, Waheeda Rahman and Guru Dutt, Suraiya and Dev Anand, over and over again the tale of these gorgeous desirable women who were brought down by their brokenhearted love affairs for one man (literally “broken hearted” in the case of Madhubala). It’s this same narrative that has been the hidden background to all my previous Hindi Film 101 posts on actresses. Nargis, Karisma Kapoor, they all have this kind of story attached to them. And it’s this sort of background that the Kapoor family feared and why they did NOT want their daughters to be actresses. And the narrative that Sonam Kapoor has carefully avoided.
There are other narratives of course, for instance the “too innocent to be touched by what is around her” narrative. That’s where you find actresses like Neetu or Kareena (when she was young) or Alia Bhatt today. It works best if you have a very very young actress, a teenager even, who is closely chaperoned by a relative and every co-star and director is in lockstep formation talking about how she is “innocent” “a child” “protected by all of them” “not aware of what is happening”. And if she gets married before she gets out of that zone. Today we are in an exciting time, because we have actresses like Kareena and Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone who successful achieved the “young and innocent” (although Dips had a close shave with “tragic Tawaif” after the Ranbir break-up. Only by being firmly NOT heartbroken was she able to get through it) identity, but now are choosing not to get married, but instead to present an image of a mature working woman, working not because she is driven to it by a tragic love story (Nargis, Madhubala, Karisma), but because she wants to.
Now, what’s fascinating about Rekha is that she early on learned to take all these narratives that were floating around and use them to her own advantage, instead of being used by them. Possibly because she had been trapped in one of those narratives literally her entire life.
This is the backstory I truly had no idea of until I read this bio! Rekha was the love child of two major stars in the Tamil industry and everyone knew it. Shocking! And very very Tawaif-y. Her father was a “respectable” person, a college graduate with a wife and a good job who decided to try acting. Her mother was a leading actress and, it was rumored, the lover of the owner of the studio where she starred. Rekha’s parents were cast opposite each other in one of her father’s first films, her mother’s stardom helped launch him. And they fell in love. The studio owner told Rekha’s mother that either she had to end this affair or he would end her career. She chose love over career and walked out of that studio, never to have that level of stardom again. And then, 5 years later, her young lover had become one of the biggest movie stars the world had ever seen, and moved on to a younger actress. And she was left with his two daughters and no career.
(Rekha’s mother and father, the actress Pushpavalli and actor Gemini Ganesan)
Now, this is a very “Tawaif” type narrative! The powerful beautiful woman who uses all her power to help her young lover. And is eventually brought down by “true love” which makes her forsake all her power and glamour.
But what is not part of a fancy poetic narrative is what happens next, a family living on the edge of poverty with children who are forgotten by their wealthy and powerful father. Rekha was brought up in a household that was always on the edge of disaster. She was a middle child, her mother had already had two children out of wedlock by the time Rekha came along, in addition to Rekha’s full-sister through Gemini, and Pushpavalli had one more relationship after Gemini resulting in another child. It sounds very glamorous to be the other woman with all the romantic tragedy and drama that comes with it. But at the end of the day, it means you have a lot of children and no child support coming in from their fathers.
(Rekha a few years ago with all her sisters (cousins? there may be too many women here to be full sisters). Most of whom were educated, married, and even raised their children, on the money that Rekha made for the family)
Rekha had the additional burden of being the child of a very famous father. Her schoolmates and friends all knew her history, sometimes better than she did herself. I am sure she had to develop a tough skin and an awareness of what is the most convenient “truth” to present during childhood, thanks to schoolyard bullying and teasing.
This was perhaps the greatest talent she brought with her when she was launched in film. Her first movie came about when she was either 13 or 16, depending on which source you read. But it was certainly when she was very very young. A Hindi film producer offered an enormous signing bonus for her and her mother packed her off alone to live in a Bombay hotel and make her way in a new city. Her salary helped support the entire household of 4 children and one single woman now well over her peak working years as an actress (Pushpavalli supported the family as long as she could, but once you are an actress over 40 with 4 kids, the jobs kind of dry up). Rekha could not fail in her attempt to take on Hindi film, or turn down any job, or 5 people would starve.
(14 years old, the only support for 9 people)
In her very first film, with no family or support around her, the director/producer decided it would be good publicity if there was an explicit kissing scene, something which is shocking even today and was extra shocking back in 1969. So he told her 23 year old co-star during the next take to grab hold of 13 year old/16 year old Rekha and kiss her by force no matter how she struggled until he yelled cut.
At least, that’s one version. The other version is that the director talked with Rekha before the take, and she was game for it. But, on the other hand, she was still just a teenager on only her first Hindi film (3rd film overall), with no one around to take care of her besides this producer/director who was telling her this is what she should do.
What is definite is how the whole thing was spun to the press at the time. The producer used the kiss and the resulting media around it to present Rekha as this natural southern sexpot. Quotes appeared about how love was natural, kissing was good, she has no shame for anything she may have done. And the press ate it up! This was something new, not the usual world-weary tragic Tawaif type narrative, or the young “innocent” kind of story. This was a young woman who was happy and unapologetic in her sexual freedom. At least as she chose to present herself to the press.
She also talked to the press a LOT. It wasn’t, and still isn’t really, common for an actress to give a lot of interviews. I suppose there is a fear that one word said wrong could kill their career. And there’s also the idea that actresses are much more interchangeable, the public doesn’t care as much about them as they do the male Heroes. But Rekha was always giving interviews, usually about how she didn’t believe in hypocrisy, she had many love affairs and wasn’t ashamed, etc. etc.
(She’d also do ad campaigns like this. This one is from a little bit later, but it is the same idea of using her personal story for press and branding)
Well, I should say “she” talked to the “press” a lot. This was the era of truly terrible celebrity reporting. Major sources would just make up interviews out of whole cloth. When you go back to an old Stardust article and say to an actor or actress “why did you say this thing?” and they say “I never said that”, they aren’t ducking the question, there’s a decent chance they are saying the simple truth. However, there is a certain public image that the actress or actor would project, and the film magazines would sell based on their ability to publicize that image the way people wanted it to be, even if they were just making up stories and quotes out of thin air. And Rekha’s image was of the wild and free young sexual being.
Her behavior on filmsets played into this a little. Not that she was running around kissing all her co-stars (all there were some rumors about that too, but they don’t seem terribly reliable). She had two generally accepted affairs during this time, a boy and girl thing with Jeetendra while he was also seeing the woman he eventually married, and a passionate affair with Vinod Mehra that came close to marriage (or did result in a religious marriage that was never formalized after Vinod’s mother rejected Rekha, depending on what source you read). No, the bigger problem was that Rekha just refused to take her career seriously. She acted like a high school girl bunking classes, because, well, she was a high school age girl! She would sneak out of the hotel (she was still living in a hotel) and hide behind bushes so her producers wouldn’t see her. And then go drink cokes by the pool or go to stores and buy lipstick, kiddie stuff. She hated diets, she hated make-up, she hated costumes. She just wanted to work as little as possible and be done as soon as possible. Especially when she was in love because, just like a high school girl who can’t STAND it if her boyfriend is away for even a day and will just DIE if she can’t talk to him on the phone for all hours, Rekha would run off for weeks at a time if it meant she could have a glimpse of her latest lover.
(Rekha and Vinod Mehra, her first “serious” relationship. She was only 19 when it ended)
So, this was Rekha version 1.0. Wild unreliable unprofessional and fabulous press fodder. And beginning to be a little trapped by that same “wild sexual freedom” image which first made her famous. Her two confirmed relationships both ended because of it. Jeetendra was never really serious, and when his “real” girlfriend put her foot down, he dropped Rekha without looking back. And Vinod Mehra bowed to his mother who did not want a woman with Rekha’s reputation in their family. Most of all, producers were beginning to get leery. They would give her a sexy item number, or a “bad girl” kind of role. But she wasn’t getting the leading parts, and soon she wouldn’t be getting any parts at all. The press was great, but the drama on set that brought about all the press (or which the press helped bring about?) just wasn’t worth it.
Any other actress would have just faded away at this point, but then any other actress wouldn’t have embraced the sexual image to begin with. Rekha wasn’t any other actress, which is why she found a way to create “Rekha 2.0”. Come back Thursday for that!