My encounter with Bollywood diva Rekha

Amrita Mukherjee December 13, 2016 7:13 AM (UTC+8)
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I read Yasser Usman’s recently published book Rekha: The Untold Story a few days back. The author of the book, who has attempted to unveil the real Rekha wrote in the author’s note:

Would this have had another dimension had Rekha agreed to speak to me? Perhaps, but I doubt it. After the 1990 suicide of her husband, Mukesh Agarwal, the tone of Rekha’s interviews changed considerably. Unlike her previous blithe and straightforward answers, she became reserved. I can’t imagine she would have said anything substantially different from what she has said in her more recent measured and guarded manner.

Although writing a biography without talking to the concerned person is an audacious step, after reading the book I felt that  the author was probably right, direct interviews wouldn’t have added a lot.

But I must say, meeting Rekha is an experience that he missed out on. It’s an experience that I would always treasure.

The year was 2005 and Rekha was shooting with Nana Patekar in Hyderabad for Goutam Ghose’s film Yatra where she was playing the role of a tawaif (a prostitute), who eventually becomes a bar dancer to keep pace with the changing times.

The producer of the film Bipin Vohra was from Kolkata and he decided to fly down a few journalists from the city to do interviews with the cast of the film.

For any journalist of our times if doing an interview with Amitabh Bachchan is an ambition that all harbor, meeting Rekha is another one. But most know the second one won’t happen because Rekha prefers to stay incommunicado nowadays barring attending a few events at times.

But on this flight to Hyderabad I was indeed excited. I hadn’t ever imagined I would meet Rekha but here I was all set to do exactly that.

From what I gather from Yasser Usman’s book that right from her first press conference she was an interviewer’s delight. Honest, bold and in-your-face, Rekha never minced words.  The controversy surrounding her very first film Anjana Safar made in 1969 shoved her into the media glare at the age of 14. Director Raja Nawathe had asked actor Biswajit to kiss Rekha for a scene. Apparently Rekha was unaware of the scene and was taken by surprise by Biswajit but there are other versions that say she was aware that such a scene would be filmed and was fine with it.

The producer of the film Kuljeet Pal organized a Press Conference where journalists came to interview the starlet who didn’t shy away from kissing on screen.

Yasser Usman writes:

They asked Rekha, “So you are in favor of kissing?”

“Yes,” answered Rekha.

“In which situations?” asked the scribe.

“When the heroine is wearing slacks.”

It’s difficult to say if this was a stupid answer or a tongue-in-cheek statement but it confused the media.

Rekha kept smiling.

“Why have you come to Hindi films?” one of them asked.

“Because they don’t pay much in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films…’

They laughed at her childlike and honest answers. There was no one like Rekha that the press had seen before. So young, so confident, so blunt and so naïve. It was a heady mix. The media lapped it all up.

That was 1969 and this was 2005. From the teenager, who had a waistline that was 33 and wore gaudy black-and-blue sequined ghararas to premieres this Rekha that I was about to meet was a fashion icon at 50 who looked as young as 30. She could give any young heroine a run for her money and anyone from the media would give his or her right arm to get an interview with her. But this Rekha preferred to stay away from the media in recent times although it was she who had popularized the concept of magazine shoots and loved to see her face gracing the cover of magazines.

The Rekha I was about to meet, I heard, preferred to do few films, and rarely stepped out of her fortress called home. I was convinced that the producer of Yatra had indeed achieved a major feat. He had not only signed the star for his film but also ensured she would give interviews to the media. But my euphoria came to an abrupt end the moment we checked into the hotel.

For starters we had landed on the wrong day. That day Rekha was shooting from 4 am at a place that was 30 kilometers away from our hotel and we had arrived after noon. So there was no question of going there. So we ended up whiling away our time checking out the sets of the film in Ramoji Film City. The executive producer soon took me aside and said that we can take a look around, have a good stay at the five-star hotel but the interview was not happening. Rekha wasn’t willing to talk to the media.

We went back to the hotel dejected. A tour of the sets of Yatra that comprised Rekha’s living quarters, the home of the tawaif (prostitute) had done little to lift our mood. Incidentally the role of a tawaif in Umrao Jaan fetched her The National Award for Best Actress and critical acclaim. In fact, as Yasser Usman pointed out in his book Rekha had played the part of tawaif to perfection in a number of films the most notable of which is Muqaddar Ka Sikander.

Apparently she has been able to portray the characters to perfection because being the illegitimate daughter of Gemini Ganeshan her life has been a quest for her own identity and despite having dated many men and married a couple of times, it has been marred by lack of companionship and loneliness. Here it is important to say that if Rekha’s work has defined one part of her life it’s her alleged relationship with Amitabh Bachchan that has defined the other part. There was a time when she was very vocal talking to the media about “Him.” Yes, that’s what she called the much-married Amitabh Bachchan in her interviews, but he has never talked about her in a single interview. Although in the book it is constantly mentioned that Rekha’s transformation from the dark skinned fat woman, who perpetually came late to shooting, to a strikingly good-looking thorough professional, happened after she met Amitabh Bachchan.

After waiting for one entire day in Ramoji Film City we were told that Rekha was leaving in the evening flight. But there was a piece of silver lining in the news. Rekha would meet the press for 10 minutes before she left for her airport.

Were we supposed to be elated that she had agreed to meet us so what if it was for just 10 minutes? Or were we supposed to be dejected that Rekha didn’t care about the fact that we had flown from Kolkata to Hyderabad just to interview her?

We sat in the hotel conference room waiting for her to come. Her secretary, who has been with her many years, Farzana came and spoke to us. “No questions on Amitabh Bachchan, please,” she pointedly mentioned.

Rekha entered in dark shades, red lipstick and a black long coat on a pair of trousers. Her wavy hair pulled to one side flowing free. She had very little make-up on. I have never been tongue-tied in front of a celebrity but I stammered as I tried to speak. Rekha said with a smile, “Have I met any of you before?”

A senior journalist said: “Do you meet a lot of journalists nowadays that you think you could have met us?”

There was pin-drop silence in the room. I wasn’t sure how Rekha would react to this. She smiled.

“Questions!” she asked.

Sitting at the round table we started asking her the questions but the answers that came were so philosophical that I realized we grappled with the direction her answers were going. There is no denying the fact that Rekha is a hyper intelligent woman and she is well read and has a keen interest in many things. I had seen Rekha talking to Simi Garewal earlier and in this case I felt that that she was deliberately twisting the answers in such a way that no one would be able to quiz her further.

I didn’t care though. I kept marveling at her taut skin, the way she ran her finger through her hair, her red nail-polish and her lovely voice.

I wasn’t satisfied with the interview I got. But I can say that I met the real Diva of Bollywood, something her biographer even couldn’t do.

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