Part 3! I am so glad I decided to do this in multiple parts. I probably could have squeezed it all into one, but Rekha has really lived many lives, it is only fair to give her many posts. Oh, and again, almost all this information comes from This Book. Buy it if you like these posts and want to learn more! (post 1 here and post 2 here)
Disclaimer: All of this may or may not be true, I have no way of knowing. I don’t know these people personally. However, it is the generally accepted “truth” of the gossip press and public. If you are new to this film industry, it should be helpful for you to know it.
The fascinating thing about Rekha, to me, is how she was able to completely reinvent herself over and over again. First, she was the wild child from the South who gave outrageous interviews and treated work like something to be avoided and love affairs like something to be proud of. Second, she was the devoted “other woman” to the biggest star in history, inspired by “Him” to change her appearance, her professional behavior, every part of her life. But what happens when “He” deserted her? Well, then we get Rekha version 3.
Rekha version 3 doesn’t have quite the same firm point of origin as Rekha version 1 (her scandalous kiss in her very first Hindi film when she was a teenager). Or of Rekha version 2 (her professional/personal relationship with Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of Do Anjaane). I ended the last section with her being cut out from Amitabh’s life during his recovery from the Coolie accident, and the release of her greatest acting triumph Umrao Jaan, which is as good a place as any to mark the beginning of a new phase.
After Umrao Jaan, finally, Rekha had respect as an artist. And power as an artist, no more heroine roles for her. No, from now on she wanted only leading parts! And if her early shift into more a “career woman” mode was camouflaged as part of her love for Amitabh who inspired her to great heights, now that love (while still mentioned in most interviews) was being more and more set aside in favor of professional discussions.
And who helped co-ordinate this change? Farzana! Rekha’s secretary/manager/companion/girlfriend. They have lived together since the mid-80s when Farzana first came into her life.
(They’re cute together, right?)
Rekha’s roles also reflected the shift away from her public image as the “devout lover”. Instead of Tawaifs, she started playing avenging seductresses, gang bosses, tough independent women. Which also meant she tended to slowly drift down into the B-movies where she had started out in the early years. There aren’t as many strong roles for women in the higher level films.
(Just gonna put this video up again. Definitely a strong role for Rekha, but not exactly Umrao Jaan, you know?)
It could be that career drift, it could have been that she was tired of never getting respect from society, it could be any number of other issues. But by 1990, Rekha was tired of being “Rekha”. She was ready to try a dramatic shift to something new.
This would have been Rekha 4.0, only it kind of never got off the ground. She started out well. She met a really nice man from Delhi, a self-made millionaire with a lot of filmi type friends. He was in awe of her fame, but also treated her as a normal woman. And was comfortable with her filmi friends, since he already knew some people from that world. He introduced her to his family and talked about marriage. It seemed like the perfect combination of worship and respect. She could marry him and have a firm place in society that no one could take away. She was even able to negotiate that she could continue working in Bombay after marriage and fly back and forth to Delhi.
The marriage itself was hasty. After only meeting a handful of times, he came to visit her in Bombay and they decided they had to be married that night, no more waiting. All of their friends were taken by surprise, as was the press. No one could quite believe it. But at first, it seemed like a happy thing. They went off for a London honeymoon, before returning to his house in Delhi where he made over rooms for her. And then Rekha went back to Bombay to complete her filming commitments.
(Rekha and her husband, don’t know who the little girl is)
There was no huge moment necessarily when the marriage ended. It was more that it was a mistake from the beginning. Rekha never really gave up her closeness with Farzana. Her in-laws told stories of Farzana being included in all the family events, being the only one who would answer the phone in Rekha’s Bombay house, being in complete control of Rekha’s life. And from the side of her husband, Mukesh Anand, there was also a long term girlfriend, a divorced woman with two kids who had encouraged him to marry someone else, someone younger and unattached, which is what lead him to Rekha in the first place.
More importantly, he had met this girlfriend when she was treating him for severe depression. An illness he had still not gotten over, and which he only admitted to Rekha after their marriage. Also after the marriage, he started to change the terms, asking her to spend more time in Delhi with him and less time in Bombay working. Rekha responded by not returning to Delhi at all, and having Farzana block his calls when he tried to reach their Bombay house.
Finally, less than a year after their marriage, before any big Bombay reception had been organized (Shashi Kapoor was planning to host, because he felt someone should do something, and he is The Best Kapoor) or the industry had even gotten used to the idea of a “married Rekha”, divorce papers were filed, and Rekha’s husband killed himself.
(Is anyone else thinking of Jean Harlow’s husband’s suicide? No? Just me?)
The most scandalous version is that he hung himself with Rekha’s dupatta. He certainly hung himself with A dupatta. But as one of the interviewees in the book pointed out, how exactly did the gossip press determine that it was Rekha’s dupatta, and not his sister’s or mother’s or maid’s or even his previous girlfriend? Was her name embroidered in it or what? Oh, and he left a note (supposedly) saying “don’t blame anyone.” Which meant that everyone immediately blamed Rekha.
You could say that this was the beginning of Rekha 3.0/4.0, in fact the book does say that. But I disagree. She had already begun to move to a more private and career focused and scandal free existence, that’s why she agreed to the marriage in the first place. Gaining this “Black Widow” reputation and the hatred of half the industry (the half that had been friends with her husband) and most of the public just accelerated the process.
Suddenly, Rekha who got famous for her bold and unedited interviews was telling reporters upfront that she would only talk about her films and nothing else. There were no more comments about “He” (or at least, a lot fewer) and Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan could breath easy. Instead, Rekha 3.0 was all about the work, the privacy, and the well-regulated life. No one is allowed into her Bombay bungalow but Farzana, not just reporters but even friends are not invited inside. She attends every major televised event, but not the Dilwale parties or other purely social evenings. She is almost always dressed the same, in a huge gold kanjeevaram sari. Suddenly she has become the “safe” figure, every young man talks about how he had a crush on her in his youth, or wants to dance with her at awards functions. She is brought out to hand the FilmFare award to Shahrukh over and over again, as a beautiful woman with whom there is no drama.
(See? He wouldn’t do a whole fake proposal gag if that was, say, Madhuri or Sridevi. And definitely not Anushka or Kajol or one of the other newer ones. And it wouldn’t feel as sincere if it was Farida Jalal or Jaya. But Rekha is in this odd position of being still beautiful but a confirmed spinster so we all know it is a joke)
She also embraced the idea of image over content. Through out the 90s, Rekha was a fixture at every show resulting in a TV broadcast, and was constantly offering elaborate photo shoots to the film magazines. Even if she had large gaps between actual roles, her face was always present in your mind.
(Still find this photo shoot weird. But it worked, Kajol got some fame from being in the same frame as Rekha, and Rekha stayed relevant)
But even in her new restrained and classy avatar, there is still DANGER DANGER for Amitabh and Jaya. The affair rumors more or less slowed down by the mid-80s. And yet for the next 3 decades, Amitabh was careful to never so much as make eye contact with her in public. And so was Jaya. Their family even ran interference, Aish and Abhishek elaborately coordinating the social dance to keep them apart.
And her image consciousness gave her a new way to keep the media buzzing without needing to say anything at all. Starting back in the late 90s/early 2000s and continuing through today, Rekha will show up at events wearing a massive sindoor mark in her part! If she is questioned about it, she will say it is a fashion statement, she likes the way it looks, it is no big deal. Maybe she’s right, but every desi I have talked to has said “no, this is a HUGE deal!!! That’s not something you do just for appearances!” Maybe I am missing some subtle cultural thing, if so tell me in the comments, but it really seems like she would only be wearing that if she considered herself a married woman.
Let me use the “sindoor” thing as a jumping off point for a moment to discuss the possible shell game Rekha is playing on all of us. The “public” secret is that she is still in love with Amitabh, considers herself married to him, and who knows, maybe he is still secretly in love with her and the affair is continuing? This is what all the reaction shots at awards shows are about, or dragging up her old “He” quotes in every interview, and the common interpretation of the “sindoor” that she wears.
But, the real “secret” is that Rekha is clearly in a committed relationship with a woman and has been for almost 3 decades. That is the secret relationship that makes her “safe” for all the younger boys to flirt with at awards shows, that is the reason she leads such a very restricted and private life, that is why she doesn’t talk much in interviews any more, that is the love she is trying to hide away. And possibly, logically even, that would be the reason she is wearing sindoor so much. Because she considers herself a married woman, married to Farzana, only society won’t acknowledge it. And she is cleverly using the Amitabh rumors as a smoke screen for the real secret, the dangerous one that the public would never ever accept the way they can accept the “Tragic Tawaif” idea behind her Amitabh affair.
(Notice, her smokescreen is so good, she doesn’t even have to hide Farzana, she is right there at the awards shows with her and the press stays fairly quiet about it)
If that is the case, I wonder if Rekha has just gotten tired of it? After all these years? Or if Jaya or Amitabh or someone threatened to expose the “real” secret unless she got rid of the “fake” one? For whatever reason, just in the past few years, suddenly the Rekha and Amitabh scandal is, finally, being let go.
Rekha gave an interview, one of her few in this new era, to Simi Garewal on television in 2015 (I think). And this time she did not duck the Amitabh question, but addressed it head on. And this time she had a new clean Bachchan approved version. Yes, she was in love with him, how could she not be? But no, it never crossed a line and was never anything more than hopeless devotion. He inspired her to change herself, to improve herself, but that is all he did. Either because this public statement had cleared the air in their relationships, or (more likely) because they knew at this point that public peace would be the best way to end it all, suddenly the Bachchans and Rekha are all friendly again! For the first time in decades!
And so, after starting her life as a child of enormous scandal, Rekha has successfully made her way to ultimate respectability. When I first got into the films back in 2004, what I learned about her was: 1. Great interesting character actress, see her performance in Koi Mil Gaya 2. Brilliant beautiful artist in her youth, one of the all time great Hindi acresses, see Umrao Jaan 3. Some kind of scandal with Amitabh, but that’s died down now.
The “new” Rekha, the 3.0, didn’t just manage to reinvent her, it managed to make us all magically forget huge portions of her past! Those early years and early affairs, the string of bad performances in B movies, those are all gone now. And soon, if the Bachchan peace remains, we may not even remember the Amitabh scandal and the whole Rekha 2.0 version either. We may just have Rekha as the elegant eternally beautiful woman sitting in the audience at awards shows.
Okay, I’m doing another one off on Thursday, but what series should I start on Tuesday?
- The Chopras: BR, Yash, Aditya, Rani
- Meena Kumari