The Enigma at 55: Rekha

A giggly 70s starlet, Sex siren, Mystery woman and Bollywood's biggest diva. Taking a closer look at Rekha, as she turns 55

I CALLED Rekha on October 10 to wish her 'Many happy returns of the day'. The phone rang incessantly but nobody took the call. Strange. No, it's not that Rekha always sits by the phone, watching her fingernails grow and waiting to personally answer her calls. But, fact is, somebody or the other invariably does respond, when there isn't an answering machine that drones unemotionally, "We are not at home.

Please leave a message."  Each time you call Rekha, you get an interesting and varied response. There is Chhoti who says, "Memsaab, ghar mein nahee hain" and who, I suspect, is Rekha herself, impersonating a maid. Or there is a confident and gruff voice, which I instantly recognise as the voice of Farzana, the screen saver. Screen saver? Yes, she screens Rekha's calls and saves her from faltu callers. Peculiarly, Farzana herself could only be reached by a pager, long after that gadget became infra dig.

Well, having hit a stonewall this time, here's Happy Birthday Rekha in ink. Rekha turned 55 this year. And 40 years of these have been spent in front of the camera! I would like to see more of her.

I feel that unlike most (ok, all) of her contemporaries, there is a lurking potential for one more great performance from Rekha. Despite being last seen as the dowdy dadimaa of Krrish and Koi Mil Gaya, and though the actress had once told me, "98 per cent of my fans are girls; the two per cent men treat me like a touch-me-not lady and admire me from afar," Rekha is still a full-blooded, sensual woman. It would be tragic if the multiplex revolution were to totally by-pass the 50-plus heroine.

I belong to the two per cent of men who have been tracking her career from her early days. I was wearing half pants in school when I saw her debut film, Sawan Bhadon (1970) at Novelty cinema and enjoyed the Navin Nischol-Rekha film's ceetee evoking music by Sonik Omi (Sun sun o gulabi kali). If Rekha hadn't been in films, she too would have been in school, probably in the tenth standard. But while I lugged a heavy bag and went to school, Rekha carried a vanity box to Mehboob Studios.

In one of the dozen plus interviews I have done with her, Rekha had once told me, "In those days, I shot from morning to night so the only road I knew was the one that brought me from my hotel, Ajanta Palace, in Juhu to Bandra's Mehboob Studios via Linking Road. On the way, we would pass a church, which had a lion's head from which water spouted."

Four decades on, though she has characteristically distilled just the good reminiscences from those days, Rekha probably remembers everything. Her memory would be the envy of an elephant.

She also told me, "At the premiere of Sawan Bhadon, I wore a gaudily sequinned, black-and-turquoise-blue gharara with loads of ringlets and a large bouffant with stiff kiss curls and false eyelashes too! Eeks! A scandalised Shashi Kapoor remarked: "How is this kaali, moti actress going to make it in Mumbai?" But Jennifer his wife sweetly prophesised, "No dear. She has some namak, she will be here for many years to come."
Meena Kumari, whose neighbouring house Rekha would frequent at will, told her, "Yogeeta Bali is sweet while you are namkeen. And the taste of namkeen lingers longer."

It has. Today, the number of her films may have dwindled with the passage of time but her passion for acting and life is undiminished.

The first time, I spoke to Rekha was in the late 1980s on the sets of Deepak Shivdasani's Ladaai. And we began on a quarrelsome note. But before I tell you more about that, I would like to rewind to the 70s and 80s, when I watched almost all of her films.

As a starlet, she had become famous for kissing Biswajeet in Anjana Safar and making it to the cover of the prestigious Life magazine. I saw Elaan, Barkha Bahar, Sazaa, Do Yaar, Double Cross a? a bouquet of mostly bad, B-list films. But I liked watching her she had the X factor; and no, the X factor is not merely an euphemism for sex appeal though she oozed oodles of that in Keemat and Kahani Kismat Ki, both opposite Dharmendra.

There was more to Rekha than smouldering SA, and she discovered it, and so did the audience, with films like Ghar, Khubsoorat, Silsila and Umrao Jaan. In Khubsoorat, she was at her perkiest best while in Umrao Jaan, she gave a performance of consummate artistry. The cultivated huskiness of voice and a despondency of tone became identified with her.

She would go the whole commercial hog in her hat-trick of melodramatic Jeetendra-T Rama Rao hits (Judaai, Maang Bharo Sajna, Ek Hi Bhool) but she also had the guts to simultaneously do art films such as Kalyug, Umrao Jaan, Vijeta, Musafir, Izazat before it became fashionable to do so.

For a while in the mid-1980s though, she seemed to have become a glamour diva frozen in time; her career (pre-Khoon Bhari Maang) was on pause but her self-obsessed pout stared at you from innumerable magazine covers.

This was the stage when I met her for the first time. Patrick Biswas, my colleague from Cine Blitz (unfortunately, he passed away a month ago), was one of the chosen few with whom Rekha spoke, and he bravely introduced me to Madame Re with: "This is Dinesh. He is a a?" Rekha interrupted icily, "Journalist." She added, "I can smell one, instantly." I cheekily shot back, "You must have a good nose for Eternity. That's what I am wearing now."

And we went our own ways. Years later, I met her again; this time as the editor of Movie. At her Seabird office (once her residence), over a cup of tepid tea, we broke the ice. And to my open-mouthed astonishment, she said, "I have met you before. On the sets of Ladaai. You were accompanied by Patrick. You were sitting with Dimple. You were wearing a beige shirt and..."

She enjoyed the idea of leaving me gaping open-mouthed like one who seen a meteor at her Arnie-like powers of Total Recall. Her memory is mystifying. Throughout the interview, she tied and unfurled her long hair, teasing them with a couple of sticks, which to me looked akin to chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant. This left me distracted; while her only distraction was a mirror that she looked into, every now and then.

Next evening, we met again (my interview sessions with her always last for two to three days). She was dressed in a white Lucknowi salwar-kameez. I paid her a compliment, "You are looking very pretty today", unwittingly emphasizing on 'today'. "I wasn't looking pretty yesterday?" she queried, leaving me totally at sea for a rejoinder.

I thoroughly enjoy interviewing Rekha. She is indubitably a notable quotable, (I did a special on Rekha at 40 where she candidly admitted to her age), who spikes her pronouncements with philosophy and spices them with tangy reference to the male sex.

And she is still in love with films. Randhir Kapoor quipped to me, "Hats off to Rekha, yaar. While shooting in Mauritius for Mother, she would sit below a palm tree with her sunglasses precariously perched on her nose, immersed in her lines while we would be playing the fool. In the evenings, Ravi (Jeetendra), Guddu (Rakesh Roshan) and I would be guzzling beer, and gambling at the casino and returning, our pockets emptied, at 4 in the morning, while Madam Re would retire to her room for her beauty sleep at 8 in the evening. Not surprisingly she looked so fresh while the three of us wore dark glasses to hide the dark circles."

While people have often marvelled at Rekha's transition from the ugly duckling with a 30-plus inch waistline to a graceful swan, what is overlooked is her evolution as a person. The giggly 70s starlet who would beg off from listening to Meena Kumari's philosophies and prefer jalebis in the kitchen is gone. Today, Rekha spouts New age-y pronouncements, which roll off her tongue with the ease of firm belief.  Consider these:

"For a woman to be complete, she has to be a blend of Paro and Chandramukhi. I feel that I am that woman."
"I am a part of a whole. I tend to rejoice at anyone's creative excellence."

"I have learnt to recognise and respect my learning and capabilities. I believe that I can make a difference, however small the role, with a line, a gesture, a glance that my fans will carry in their hearts forever."
I may not concur with all her philosophies but they are ideal material for a book. In the 70s, when the Juhu crowd was into EST, Rajneesh and other stimulants, Rekha opted for yoga and love.

For a while, Rekha and I too had fallen out when she had obliquely denied a quote I had on tape and to which her poodle Pisti was a witness... but when she bumped into me at shutterbug Rakesh Shrestha's studio, she ragged me with, "Someone is really angry" and we laughed and made up. Life is indeed too short.

We did several interviews thereafter. She is always a star, always expansive, always the sultana of the sound bite ...but sometimes the giggle of the early Rekha escapes through.

The last time I met Rekha was last year at the opening of shutterbug Vicky Idnani's studio. She looked stunning, inducing Gul Panag to ask me: "Isn't she gorgeous?" Rekha cupped her hand like a phone to her ears and said, "Stay in touch." I said, "I will, Rekhaji." (yes, she initiated me into the 'ji' culture because I would call her Rekha and she would invariably correct me, "Rekhaji").

I hope Chhoti or Farzana take my call the next time. Or better still, like Dev Anand, Rekha picks the phone up herself.


By: Dinesh Raheja (Mumbai) Date:  2009-10-18




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