‘Rekha was honest about everything and Bollywood tried to tame her’: biographer Yasser Usman

The television journalist reveals the approach he took in writing about one of Hindi cinema’s most enigmatic stars.

Television journalist Yasser Usman does not particularly care for Rajesh Khanna, but that didn’t prevent him from writing a fine biography of the Hindi movie star in 2014. Usman is not a big followerof Rekha either, but here is the ABP News employee with a new biography of the previously bold and now reclusive actress. “I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of Rekha’s,” Usman writes in the foreword of Rekha The Untold Story (Juggernaut Books). “I grew up in the 1980s when her career was on the downslide. But I certainly love some of her performances from that decade and have always especially enjoyed her interviews.”

Excerpts from these interviews, which are filled with Bohemian philosophising, confessions of unrequited love and heartbreak, and candid and often catty remarks on co-stars and actual and alleged paramours, swell the pages of Usman’s biography. Despite many efforts, he was not able to meet Rekha or her close associates. He was politely fobbed off by her fiercely loyal secretary Farzana, to whom a later chapter is dedicated. Instead, Usman had to rely on Rekha’s printed voice, which regularly enlivened the pages of the leading film magazines of the 1980s and ’90s such as Stardust, Star N Style and Super. This strategy gives Rekha The Untold Story the same breathlessly gossipy quality of the smouldering actress’s numerous interviews. Passages from Rekha’s sensationalist declarations, including revelations on her first husband Vinod Mehra and her alleged affair with Amitabh Bachchan, remind contemporary readers of why she was a headline grabber, and what we have lost with her retreat into silence since the death of her second husband Mukesh Agarwal in 1990.

Rekha and Mukesh Agarwal. Courtesy ‘Rekha The Untold Story’.
Rekha and Mukesh Agarwal. Courtesy ‘Rekha The Untold Story’.

It is the perceived loneliness that marked Khanna and Rekha that prompted Usman to write both books, he told in an interview. “The basic theme of both the books is similar – their on-screen personas are difficult to reconcile with their loneliness,” he said. “They are both loved but also very lonely. That’s why I wrote that book and what is why I did this one.”

Although there is plenty on the much-discussed love triangle between Rekha, Bachchan and his wife Jaya Bhaduri, all couched carefully in libel-free language, Usman begins the absorbing biography with a discussion of the relationship that drove Rekha into a monastic existence. Rekha’s sudden wedding with the Delhi businessman Mukesh Agarwal ended in tragedy. A chronic depressive, Agarwal hung himself at his Delhi home on October 2, 1990, seven months into the marriage. (He reportedly used Rekha’s duppata.) The couple had been separated a month before, and the backlash that ensued sealed Rekha’s reputation as a man-eater.

The press lapped up the sensational story of Mukesh’s suicide and featured reports with outrageous headlines like ‘The Black Widow’ (Showtime, November 1990) and ‘The Macabre Truth behind Mukesh’s Suicide’ (Cine Blitz, November 1990). Delhi high society and Bombay’s film industry vociferously condemned Rekha for ‘murdering’ Mukesh Agarwal. His mother’s wail made headlines when she cried, ‘Woh daayan mere bete ko kha gayi. Bhagwan use kabhi maaf nahi karega.’ (That witch devoured my son. God will never forgive her.)

— ‘Rekha The Untold Story’.

The smear campaign set the tone for Usman’s treatment of the Rekha mythos. “It is a tragic story,” he said. “She is an eternal fighter and finally emerged a winner, but Bollywood has been cruel to her.” Rekha might have overcome several adversities to become one of the leading stars by the ’80s, but her reputation always preceded her, which has less to do with her own scandal-seeking ways than with the entertainment industry’s moral hypocrisy, he added.

“Somebody asked me, why are you ruining your name writing about her?” the writer said. “There were strange and sexist statements. I categorically told each and every one I approached that I did not want to ask about her personal life, but I wanted stories from people who had worked with her. I called up 40 to 50 of her co-stars, but many of them refused to talk to me and made up excuses. In contrast, there were so many stories about Rajesh Khanna and his parties and girlfriends. This is nothing but bias against a successful actress. Look at the Kangana Ranaut-Hrithik Roshan incident: it is still happening and nothing has changed.”

Rekha modelling for Gold Spot in 1969.
Rekha modelling for Gold Spot in 1969.

The biography traces the transformation of Bhanurekha Ganesan into one of Hindi cinema’s most enigmatic stars. The love child of actress Pushpavalli and Tamil movie star Gemini Ganesan, Rekha started off her career at the age of 14 in small roles in Kannada and Tamil films. Her first Hindi film was Anjana Safar with Biswajeet in 1969, directed by Raja Nawathe and produced by Kuljeet Pal. A kiss between Biswajeet and Rekha, filmed without her knowledge and shot while “unit members were whistling and cheering” for the five minutes that Biswajeet forced himself on the teenage actress, earned her the adjective that is doubled-edged in an industry that is known for its double standards: “bold.”

Usman dispassionately traces Rekha’s many misadventures in Hindi films in the 1970s and ’80s. She displayed poor judgement in her choices and paid little attention to her appearance, costumes, and acting. Actor Navin Nischol, who was making his debut in Sawan Badhon with Rekha in Mohan Sehgal’s Sawan Badhon in 1970, reportedly called her a namoona [character] and kaali-kalooti [dark and ugly]”.

The svelte and oomph-oozing actress with the neatly plucked eyebrows, the right amount of make-up, the perfectly chosen costumes, the cultivated hauteur and the perfectly modulated smoky voice first peeked through in 1976. In Dulal Guha’s Do Anjaane, Rekha appeared with Amitabh Bachchan for the first time, and her role as a two-timing wife earned her rare praise. Film World noted, “From a plump, pelvis-jerking, cleavage-flashing temptress, she has metamorphosed into a sleek, accomplished actress. Gone are most of the inane mannerisms, pouts, wiggles and giggles.”

As Rekha’s stock grew, her colourful private life blossomed, and of all the link-ups, her alleged affair with Bachchan remains the best known. Rekha’s on-screen chemistry with the lanky actor, who dominated the latter half of the ’70s, resulted in several well-known films, including Mr Natwarlal (1979) and Silsila (1981). Meanwhile, rumours swirled about their relationship, fuelled by regular gnomic statements by Rekha that made it to the covers of film magazines.

In her famous interview on Rendezvous with Simi Garewal in 2004, Rekha said, ‘Standing in front of Mr Amitabh Bachchan is not easy.’ She revealed that she was paranoid the moment she found out that Amitabh had been signed for Do Anjaane. The entire film industry was raving about his intense portrayal of the Angry Young Man in Deewar. Remembering that time, Rekha said that she was extremely nervous throughout the shoot of Do Anjaane. She light-heartedly recalled how she used to forget her lines out of nervousness and how one day, Amitabh told her in his baritone, ‘ dialogue yaad kar lijiyega.’

— ‘Rekha The Untold Story’.

One of the challenges of writing about stars from the ’70s and ’80s is that the primary source of research is the film magazine. The gossip items, interviews, glamorous photo spreads and reports from movie sets give us vital glimpses into the workings of the film industry, but this kind of reportage is not always analytical. It is difficult to reach into the inner life of a movie star based on interviews designed to perpetuate a public persona. Usman had to take care to ensure that his book did not reproduce the chatty, nudge-wink quality of the numerous back issues that he referred to during the course of his research.

“The danger of using these cover stories is that it might go into the gossipy biography zone,” Usman said. One such book on Rekha has already been published, the scurrilous out-of-print Eurekha! by Mohan Deep. “I didn’t follow stories that were too scandalous, and I stuck to her interviews and her voice,” Usman said. “I picked up the bits where she was revealing her emotions. I also removed the bits that readers would consider juicy and scandalous, even though they might have been in her own voice. I aimed for a graceful account and a balanced journalist account.”

They might seem frivolous and non-academic, but the magazines at least give a vivid picture of film culture in the ’70s and ’80s, Usman added. “It will be very difficult to write a biography or a history of Bollywood based on the current lot,” he said. “The conversations in these magazines are heartfelt and speak of the access that journalists had to the stars. The kind of cover stories that Stardust and Super did simply cannot happen in an age where everything is about promotion and you are told in advance about the kind of questions you should be asking.”

Bachchan, predictably, features prominently in Usman’s narrative despite repeated disclaimers in several chapters that the movie star has either refused to respond to or denied any connections with Rekha. There is the flashback to Rekha’s sensational entry into the wedding of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh with sindoor in her hair, leading to rumours that she had secretly married Bachchan. There is also the jaw-dropping casting of Bachchan, Badhuri and Rekha in a love triangle in Yash Chopra’s Silsila, which appeared to mirror their collective off-screen status.

‘Silsila’, courtesy Yash Raj Films.
‘Silsila’, courtesy Yash Raj Films.

Usman is not sure if some of the current silence surrounding Rekha has anything to do with the film industry’s continuing veneration of Bachchan. “Nobody told me that they would not talk about Rekha because of Amitabh Bachchan, even off the record,” Usman asserted. The filmmakers who did agree to be on the record include those who gave Rekha some of her dignified roles, including Muzaffar Ali, who directed Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981) and Shyam Benegal, who cast her in Kalyug (1981). Apart from discussing Rekha’s contributions to Umrao Jaan, Ali bluntly told Usman that Bachchan should have married Rekha.

Muzaffar was Rekha’s director in Umrao Jaan, perhaps the role Rekha will be best remembered for by generations to come. While making the film, Muzaffar Ali got a close look into Rekha’s life. He described her as ‘a very sensitive woman’. According to him, ‘She became a walking corpse. The fault is entirely Amitabh’s. He used to come and sit on our sets during the Delhi shooting of Umrao Jaan. That’s a fact. Whenever referring to Amitabh, she always spoke using inko, inhone, like women do who consider themselves married. I think she considered herself married.’

Unlike many of Rekha and Amitabh’s colleagues in the film industry, Muzaffar Ali was not cagey. He was direct and unequivocal: ‘She is and she was in love with him. He should have definitely given her an identity. Amitabh should have married her.’

— ‘Rekha The Untold Story’.

Would the book have been different if Usman had managed to interview Rekha? He met her once years ago, at a red carpet event. “Had I spoken to her, it would have been a better book,” Usman said. “I wasn’t able to do the psychological profile like in the Rajesh Khanna book. There are many angles I could not probe because I could not find someone to talk about those phases of her life. It would have been good to get her version, but I doubt that she would have said anything. I realised that until 1990, she was outspoken and would take names, but after the suicide, the tone changed considerably.”

Had Rekha opened up about her eventful life, the book would have reflected the changes in her personality, Usman added. “Thought processes change, people change and they move on, and I wanted the voice that shows incredible struggle and a dramatic makeover towards the end. I didn’t want to force a feminist angle on the book either, but the impression I came away with is that she is a simple woman who refused to accept defeat. I am not saying that she is a role model, but she was honest about everything and Bollywood tried to tame her.”

Yasser Usman.
Yasser Usman.
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