This is such a fun one to write! Mostly because it is so fake. Rekha is brilliant at manipulating the press and crafting an image for herself, so her whole life story (as presented to the public) sounds like something out of a bad melodrama. Oh, and almost all of this is based on This Book, which is a super fun read and if you like this post, you should go buy it and read it.
Disclaimer: All of this may or may not be true, I have no way of knowing. It is just to help people who are new to the Hindi Film world understand all the gossip history and rumors that you sort of learn by osmosis if you spend long enough following Hindi film.
In my first half, I talked about Rekha’s childhood and early fame. More importantly, I talked about the created narratives that dominate press coverage of actresses. Either they are the “Tragic Tawaif”, in love with a man they can never have, working only for his benefit, and hiding a broken heart behind a beautiful face (Nargis, Madhubala, Saraiya, Karisma). Or, they are the “young innocent”, a baby-faced child protected from all the scandal around her, who is married off at a young age before her bloom has been rubbed away (Neetu, Alia Bhatt, Divya Bharti).
But Rekha bucked those trends. Maybe because she didn’t fit easily in any narrative, being too young for the “Tawaif” when she started out, but too soiled by her famous parents’ scandals (her very very famous father was a married man who fathered two children with her less famous mother out of wedlock) to be the “young innocent”. And so she ended up with a new narrative, all her own, of the natural wild child who wasn’t ashamed of sex or love or anything, who poured her heart out to film magazines (or film magazines made up interviews and pretended she was pouring her heart out), who may not have been the most talented or beautiful actress, but kept getting jobs because she made great copy.
But that can only go so far. By the mid-70s, 5 years into her career when she finally left her teens, producers were beginning to lose patience with her behavior. She would show up days or weeks late, leave at a moments notice if one of her boyfriends called, never prepare, never seem to take her work seriously in anyway. They kept hiring her for two reasons: 1. She has an eidetic memory, even with no preparation, one glance at the script and she would still know her lines word perfectly. 2. She was willing to take the scandalous roles and do the scandalous things no other name actress would touch. But there was only so far that could take her.
(Also, for instance, she was willing to pose for liquor ads in low cut tops)
Now, I am going to give you two versions of what lead to her transformation, and you can choose which you believe. First, the scandal and gossip version. Rekha had finally gotten an apartment, moving out of hotels. It was in the same building as Jaya Bhadhuri. Jaya was also a rising star, but of a very different ilk than Rekha. Jaya was always given credit for her acting abilities, her charm, her professionalism, her “class” essentially. While Rekha was never considered to have any of those things. Rekha, supposedly, became good friends with Jaya, called her “Didi”, and Jaya tried to advise her and steer her away from the habits that were ruining her career. And, during this time, Rekha also met Jaya’s serious boyfriend, a young actor Amitabh Bachchan who was not nearly as famous as either of the two women at the time. However, when it came time for Jaya and Amitabh to be married, Rekha was not invited to the wedding. And from that time on, there was a coolness between the two women.
2 years later, Rekha was cast in a film with Amitabh for the second time, their first time as co-stars. Their first film together, Namak Haram, they hardly interacted on set. But this time, for Do Anjaane, their relationship was pivotal to the film. It was also one of the best parts Rekha has been offered in years, playing a widow who remarries only to discover her husband (Amitabh) is still alive. During the shooting, everyone noticed a change in Rekha, and that this change was related to Amitabh. Amitabh was and is known as the most professional actor in Hindi film. He arrives to set not just on time, but early. He knows the entire script before filming starts and is always eager to discuss his character and make alterations at the behest of the director. And he expects his co-stars to have a similar attitude.
(The two of them in Do Anjaane. He’s in disguise!)
Suddenly, Rekha was arriving on set early for the first time, intelligently debating her character’s inner turmoil, obsessing over the perfect gesture or look for a scene, turning into an entirely different actress. And she was happy to tell everyone, from reporters to friends to directors, that it was because of “His” influence (she would never say Amitabh’s name in interviews, only refer to him by respectful pronouns).
At the same time, she went through a massive physical transformation. From a girl who lived on junk food and hated traditional clothes, she emerged as an elegant slim woman almost always seen wearing a sari. Her lifestyle became almost monastic (nun-ish?) in it’s regimentation. She did yoga every day, she had a fixed and restricted diet, she only wore certain clothes, certain make-up, certain hair-styles. The only area where she let loose was, still, in interviews.
(Very different kind of look)
Rekha was in love with Amitabh and wanted the world to know it. She talked about how “He” had changed her whole world, how she lived only for “Him”, and if anyone dared to mention the fact that “He” had a wife and two children, well, Rekha would give choice quotes like “The question is not what do I have that she doesn’t, but what does she have that I do”.
At the same time, Rekha and Amitabh were making film after film together, and their chemistry lit up the screen. It was there for all too see. And Amitabh and Jaya never gave an interview to deny what Rekha was saying, so it became accepted truth. Amitabh and Rekha were passionately in love, beyond the bonds of society and law. And if only boring Jaya wasn’t standing in their way (with her two babies, don’t forget), they could be together as they were meant to be.
(Still from Mr. Natwarlal, one of their “lessor” films. But check out the chemistry! And the costumes!)
This whole era reached its peak with Muqaddar Ka Sikander. (SPOILERS follow, by the way) Amitabh plays his usual tragic orphan street tough figure. He is in love with a “virtuous” woman, played by Raakhee (very confusing cast list!). But the Tawaif Rekha falls for him. In the end, she gives her life for his happiness, and he does the same for the happiness of the woman he loved. The message of the film that most viewers got was that Rekha and Amitabh were a matched pair in a way he never could be with a “pure” woman like Raakhee/Jaya. His damaged and powerful and rough kind of power could only be matched by a woman who was similarly damaged and ultimately good. Most of all, India went mad for Rekha as a Tawaif. The remote and beautiful woman who can only have her heart touched by one very special man. (SPOILERS over)
(A little more chemistry, a lot better costumes)
Okay, so that’s the scandal and gossip version. And a lot of the facts in there carry over to the boring and practical version. But without all the juice. Yes, Rekha and Jaya probably knew each other and they were both rising actresses. But the whole “she never invited me to her wedding!” drama seems fairly invented, it was a very tiny and hurried wedding, don’t really see how it could start off a massive decades long feud to not be invited.
Yes, absolutely, Do Anjaane and working with Amitabh changed Rekha’s career forever. But was it because she became a slave to his love? Or was it because he influenced her to be more professional on set and pay more attention to building an image that would work in the new era of film?
And for all those interviews she gave, well, she had always given interviews like that. And Amitabh was the biggest star of the day, biggest star of all time. Sure, maybe she had a crush on him during Do Anjaane, maybe they even had an affair. But it was also great copy to keep talking about “Him”. And a lot safer for her career than her previous “I have many affairs and am ruled by passion!” attitude. If anything, her obedience to Amitabh’s rules of professionalism on set made her more attractive to producers, rather than less.
And finally, while Amitabh and Jaya never denied her story, they also never confirmed it. Or said anything at all. About anything. Amitabh had declared a moratorium on all press interviews for himself and his family during this time. It was a smart move, he didn’t need the press, the press needed him. And the public was more than happy to make due with the occasional public statement or public appearance or photo shoot. But it did mean that the floor was free for Rekha to say whatever she wanted.
Really though, there probably was some kind of affair. Not just Rekha, but plenty of directors who worked with the two of them during this time have talked about it. How Amitabh would come on set where she was working, how she would leave early to go off with him, etc. etc. Maybe it was just a close friendship, maybe Rekha was somehow brainwashing them all into believing it was something more, but it does seem to have been at least a little true.
(More chemistry! Suhaag this time)
What is definitely almost certainly true is that Jaya put her foot down after Muqaddar Ka Sikander and declared that Amitabh and Rekha could not and would not co-star again. Every film they had been in together up to that point had been a hit, and Muqaddar was the biggest of them all. And then suddenly, nothing. No more films signed together, no joint appearances anywhere, nothing. However, I don’t necessarily see this as confirmation of an affair. Or confirmation that there was an affair and it had ended. Similar to Priyanka and Shahrukh today, or Kangana and Hrithik, the rumors had gotten so big that it didn’t matter if they were true or not, any public appearance together would cause pain and damage to their private lives, so it wasn’t worth it.
A few more films dribbled out that had been completed before Muqaddar, but then there was a gap that lasted until 1981. This didn’t slow Rekha down at all, by the way. She kept giving interviews about “Him” and their special bond that transcended distance and space and so on. And Jaya and Amitabh stayed silent.
And then, in 1981, Silsila brought it all back. People had wondered for years how Yash Chopra managed to pull off this feat, casting Amitabh to play the husband torn between Jaya his wife and Rekha his mistress, and in an interview shortly before he died, Yashji finally revealed that he hadn’t pulled it off at all, it was Amitabh who organized the whole thing.
Yashji had the script and the story in mind. He also had a long-term relationship with Amitabh (and besides, everyone loved Yashji), so he was pretty sure he could get him to sign the film. For actresses, he was thinking Smita Patil and Parveen Babi. Smita, a more arthouse kind of actress, to play the classy wife. And Parveen, the sexy actress who had worked well opposite Amitabh in Deewar, to play the mistress. Yashji tells it that he narrated the whole story to Amitabh and Amitabh asked who he was thinking for actresses. Yashji said “Smita and Parveen”. Amitabh thought for a second, and said “What about Jaya and Rekha?” Yashji said of course he would love that, it would be his dream cast, but how could he ever convince them? And Amitabh said “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to them.” And that was it. Jaya came out of retirement, and Rekha dropped all her other commitments, and the two women co-starred together for the first and last time in their careers.
(Makes this shot have a whole different feel to it, right? Knowing that both women were convinced by him to do the film. And then he tried to stay way way out of it)
When this casting was announced in the small world of Hindi film, there was an immediate judgement. On Amitabh. That his career had fallen so low (he had had a few flops recently) he needed his “women” to rescue him. That his wife and mistress were joining hands to save him. The gossip spread through parties like wildfire, but this time all 3 of them maintained silence. They were silent on set as well, Jaya refused to speak to Rekha and vice versa. Amitabh had to communicate this to Yash and help him navigate the difficult shoot. There was one scene at the end of the film where Jaya had to hold Rekha back from running into danger, the only time the women had to touch in the whole shoot. She told Yashji that day that she would do the scene, but she would only do one take and that was it. She did it, but Rekha was out of frame for part of it. Yash tried to stop her to ask for another take, but Jaya just walked off set and didn’t come back until the next day.
And then, after all of this, the film was a flop. Amitabh’s career was worse than ever. Until the Coolie incident proved that flop or not, Amitabh was always going to be AMITABH. At some point I will do a Hindi Film 101 on Amitabh, so I’m going to save the full Coolie incident details for that. Suffice to say that he had an accident on set and should have died.
From the Rekha side of things, the force of this accident was to confirm her status as the “other woman” and the price that all her public statements and interviews had. While Jaya never left her husband side, except to pray at every Temple, Masjid, Gurdwara and Church in the city, and was lauded as a modern day Sita by the press, Rekha was bared from the hospital, forced to receive news second hand as the vigil dragged on for days and days. Every figure of the film industry, every co-star and director and producer, was allowed a visitation and given updates if they asked for them. And yet Rekha, his co-star in 8 films (I think? I may have counted wrong), was cut off. Supposedly, she finally found a day when Jaya was gone at another temple and managed to bribe an attendant so she could at least stand in the doorway and look at Amitabh’s body on the bed in the room. She stood there for a good half an hour without moving or speaking, and then left.
(When I say “everybody” came, here is the Prime Minister of India arriving at the hospital to visit Jaya and Amitabh. Really, I have got to do that Hindi Film 101 series on Amitabh some time. Or maybe just a one off on the Coolie accident)
That’s one version of the story. That she was the sad other woman cut off from the man she loved as he lay dying. And I believe it to some degree. That at the very least she had a human connection with this man who she had worked closely with for years, and it must have been painful to be so firmly cut off from him as he died. Not that I am blaming Jaya! Again, don’t know the truth of the story, but having been through my fair share of hospital vigils, I know there is nothing worse than that visitor who you don’t like and have to be nice to while also trying to survive the disaster that has befallen your family. If she needed to have Rekha kept out so she could keep it together for her children and husband and the Prime Minister of India and everyone else, fine with me.
The Coolie accident was a real low point for Rekha’s public and private image, but it was followed by something that had an even more long term effect, Umrao Jaan. Ever since Muqaddar Ka Sikander, Rekha had been the go-to actress for the “Tawaif” parts, the lonely beauty role. And Umrao Jaan was the greatest of these, possibly the greatest Tawaif role in the history of film (it’s either this or Pakeezah). Umrao Jaan was already a well-known story, based on a novel. But the director Muzaffer Ali was almost possessed by it, he had a real vision for what he wanted it to be. And as filming progressed, Rekha became even more possessed than he, learning Urdu for the role, perfecting every dance move, taking care with every shot and every line of dialogue. She knew it would be her greatest performance, possibly the greatest heroine performance in the history of Indian cinema (again, Pakeezah!).
(I don’t normally insert videos in these posts, but really, watch this one!)
The filming finished before Amitabh’s accident (supposedly he used to come visit her on set). But the premiere was scheduled for during his recovery. It was to be a grand premiere, Rekha had planned it all out herself. This was her big announcement of herself as a major actress and a major star, after all. And then Amitabh’s accident happened. The entire film industry shut down, all parties and premieres were canceled. But Umrao Jaan went on. And Rekha was vilified as never before. At the same time she was getting critical accolades for her performance, within the industry she was being given cold shoulders for having, once and for all, proved that she never had a heart.
And this, I think, more than anything else, lead to the beginning of the quest for Rekha 3.0: After Amitabh. Come back for that next Tuesday! And also I’ll finally get into the gay stuff there, if you’ve been wondering where it is.