Rekha wanted a normal family life: Yasser Usman in new book

A new biography on Rekha has brought the now evasive actress back in the limelight. spoke to author Yasser Usman on Rekha’s incredible journey as an actor and her transformation as a woman from the start of her career.

Sonal Pandya

She is known to her millions of fans and admirers simply as Rekha, but in 1969, a young girl named Bhanurekha Ganesan came to join the Hindi film industry. She left her old self far behind and evolved into a stunning actress who continued to beat the odds in a cut-throat industry. In Rekha: The Untold Story, author Yasser Usman writes, “She is seen as a girl who was mercilessly mocked for years, who suffered in solitude since childhood, who never had an equal relationship with a man, but who persevered and did not admit defeat.” Usman, who previously delved into the life of superstar Rajesh Khanna, examined how the actress changed and adapted herself to the times.

Jerry Pinto says of Rekha in the book, 'She started by being a starlet, she went on to being a star, she then became an actor, a genuine actor and then she became a diva.' Is that a fair assessment of Rekha?

I think that’s quite a fair assessment. Jerry speaks so beautifully [about her] throughout the book. He has his own views about Rekha and some of them were really bang on. He has written about Rekha in various pieces and magazines so I used quite a few quotes from Jerry because of the personal connection he has as a film journalist.

How did you collect the early incidents of verbal and sexual harassment that the young Rekha faced? Especially about the controversy from the sets of Afsana Safar with Biswajeet?

What I have done is just narrated the story from Rekha’s point of view. I have used Rekha’s interviews. I always wanted Rekha to cooperate in this, but the problem is, Rekha doesn’t usually talk to the media and I am a journalist based out of Delhi. So I do not blame her, yet having said that it would have been wonderful had she spoken to me about the book. It would have added another dimension, I’m sure about it. I have attributed everything to Stardust, Filmfare and Star & Style; I have consciously tried to name the interviews. With her childhood part, when she was pulled out of her school and put in the film industry, she didn't even know the world in which she was entering. She was a 14-year-old girl from Chennai and then the entire controversy [happened] when she was forced to do a kissing scene. Rekha actually used that scandal for publicity which is what every film star does. [The story was covered in Life magazine’s article ‘India’s Kissing Crisis: To Kiss or Not To…’ and featured a photo of the two.]

Even if they had told her about the kissing scene, it was still abuse in a five-minute long kissing scene because technically she was a minor. And this was the kind of exploitation which ran rampant in the film industry of the 1970s. She was basically a kid. There were three characters involved, Rekha, the producer, Kuljeet Pal and co-actor Biswajeet, I have taken the versions of all three [from various interviews], instead of only taking Rekha's version. You can hardly hear my voice in the book. It is not there. It is only the voices of the people who are involved with the story.

You also spoke to people who worked with her at the time...

Yes, there were very important filmmakers like Muzaffar Ali who had made Umrao Jaan with her. Rekha came from Tamil Nadu and she went on to play a girl who's from Lucknowi tehzeeb, who speaks fluent Urdu. Not only did she give a brave performance, a masterpiece performance, but actually went on to win the National Award for it. Just imagine! When we talk about Rekha we only talk about her relationships. Just look at the transformation! And she's speaking the kind of Urdu that people today will not be able to understand. If you do not know about the background of Rekha you will think this is a girl from Lucknow. This is the kind of talent she possesses.

Rekha has played a courtesan or 'other woman' in many of her films. Do you spot that as a growing trend for her, she began to identify too strongly with these kinds of characters?

Not only in films, but I have gone through most of her interviews. She gave more than a hundred interviews over the years and there was definitely an image of abandonment she wanted to portray. Now whether she wanted to project this, I am saying it might be true, it may not be true, but this is what she said. If you look at her past, she was very close to her mother. But her father [Gemini Ganesan] never accepted her mother, Rekha and her sister. So it was a lonely childhood without her father and maybe she wanted a normal family, husband and kids like she said in most of her interviews. And that's how Mukesh Agarwal happened. I think he was the only one who proposed marriage to Rekha and that's how she agreed immediately and they got married the same day he proposed.

She has never confirmed her marriage with Vinod Mehra.

No, but it was widely reported that they had gotten married in Calcutta in a particular temple and when they ended up at Vinod Mehra's doorstep; his mother was very angry. So these are reported facts. Somebody told me, ‘I think she had a fling with Navin Nischol’. My answer was that she may or may not have, but I haven't taken or talked about it because Rekha chose not to talk about it. She talked about her relationship with Jeetendra and Amitabh Bachchan, I have taken that. You can't call it gossip if Rekha herself is commenting upon it. Rekha [once said] 'I kissed Vinod Mehra in the privacy of my room'. These are Rekha's words. I'm not saying it. Rekha's interviews are in the archives, people have forgotten about them. I have done intensive research to get those interviews to understand the person.

Rekha declined to be interviewed for the book. What is the one question you really wanted to ask her?

I would ask her about the journey. What transpired in the journey from being a 14-year-old girl from Madras to becoming the ultimate diva of the Hindi film industry, in her own words. This is such a fascinating journey.

She has had an up and down relationship with the media. Rekha used to be very open and friendly with them. It's a complete contrast to her elusive diva image today. To what do you account this sudden change?

I think it happened post-1990, after Mukesh's death. Because so much happened and she was just pushed to the brink. Just think about it. Everyone is after you. Your other relationships weren't accepted and this one relationship was accepted and you actually loved Mukesh. And finally, he also dies. She wasn't built for it. I think this is what pushed her behind the walls. A few months or a year after that her mother Pushpavalli died, she was extremely close to her. Pushpavalli was the pillar of support in all those years when she was going through heartbreaks, exploitation and humiliation in the industry. First Mukesh left and her mother left, I think that changes you as a person.

I wanted to show her as person who obviously is a normal human being who had flaws too. She's not a saint. Like all of us have flaws. We go through tragedies and tragedies change us totally. I think that tragedy of Mukesh Agarwal's suicide completely changed her, but at the same time, she used the tragedy as an opportunity to reinvent herself, with photo sessions and cover stories. The films became lesser and lesser, but she prepared herself to become the diva. She became the brave woman she is. If you think about other actresses from her era like Zeenat Aman or Reena Roy, they were also her contemporaries. They are not called divas any more. They are not written about now, there is something very special about Rekha. She is the only actress who towards the end of her career as a lead actress in the late 80s and 90s didn't need a hero. In Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) and Phool Bane Angarey (1991), there was no hero. And all these films were superhits at the box-office. If Kangana Ranaut is giving hits, we say Kangana is Queen. But Rekha is the one who started this trend of giving solo hits.

It was recently in the news that Rekha has only 5.1% attendance in the Rajya Sabha after her nomination in 2012. She is seen quite regularly at awards shows, but hasn't participated in any discussions or asked any questions as a member. Why do you think she accepted the nomination?

Rekha had given interviews saying "I detest politics". She doesn't even read newspapers. What the government has done is to honour her, they offered her a Rajya Sabha seat and she accepted it. It was in honour of Rekha the artiste, but I think as far as I understand, Rekha from her older interviews, she is not cut out for politics. It is obvious by her attendance. And that's why I've written there's hardly anything to write about politics.

How has your opinion changed of her after writing this book? Is she less of an enigma? You mentioned in your author's notes that you weren't a fan of Rekha's. Do you think you know her better now?

I admire her. Because they are two different things. When you're a fan, there's no denying that. I'm a huge Amitabh Bachchan fan. So if you tell me not Amitabh but Dilip Kumar is better, I will give you a thousand reasons why he's better. That's a fan's perspective. So I chose to write about people in whom I have a journalistic interest so that I can be more objective. I wrote about Rajesh Khanna in my first book and my second book is on Rekha. They went through hell. They were the most loved people at a certain point of time and then they were so lonely at a certain point of time. I am not a fan of these persons, but after writing and researching about them for such a long time, I greatly admire both of them.