Article Hindi

40 years of Khubsoorat: A treatise of non-conformity, beauty and Rekha

Released on 25 January 1980, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Khubsoorat was a moral tale that showed the true beauty that lay within that genius of a performer, Rekha.

Shriram Iyengar

Even in the age of ‘woke’ feminism, few films can match up to the subtle satire, joyous mischief and spirit of rebellion that Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Khubsoorat (1980) embodied.

‘Saare Niyam Tod Do’ declares a young, rebellious woman unwilling to be bound by the laws of a strict matron. If this were any other actress, it would have simply been the demands of a role. But this was Rekha, the closest thing Hindi cinema has had to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Mysterious. Iconoclastic. Rebellious.

And beautiful. Khubsoorat.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1980 film arrived at the apex of Rekha’s stardom. After years of trying to cement her foothold in Hindi cinema, thwarted by news of her affairs and controversy and struggling with a sense of loneliness, the actress had signed on for Mukherjee’s film despite it having no major stars.

For Mukherjee, too, Khubsoorat was a film that could be marked as part of a series with Guddi (1971) and Mili (1975). Where the other two described girls growing into womanhood and discovering their own identities, Khubsoorat was about a young woman who does not mince words when it comes to the truth. She can slam her sister's fiance because he did not turn up to meet her or call the elderly father-in law (Ashok Kumar) her 'boyfriend'. Manju walks to her own tune.

Back in 1980 this was quite the declaration. One look at the films released that year is enough to sense the male dominance in the industry. Qurbani, Karz, Ram Balram, Dostana, Shaan and The Burning Train were some of the blockbusters and multi-starrers that were released the same year as Khubsoorat.

In contrast, Mukherjee’s little film saw Rekha play Manju Dayal, a self-confident, gregarious young woman who lands up at her newly married sister’s household to discover that the ‘laws’ are a little different. Soon, however, her personality and chirpiness force the entire household to break free.

Khubsoorat was a path-breaking film in many ways. From the subtlety of its satire to the hidden jokes about middle-class morality, Mukherjee used the story as a microcosm of the society he lived in. One example is the sight of Manju and her father (the ever-present David Abraham) joking about YB Chavan breaking off from Indira Gandhi's Congress (I). Or the question about why governments do not ban cigarettes though they are carcinogenic.

For a title that describes beauty, the director chose a personality that did not conform to the dominant idea of beauty in Hindi cinema. In Yasser Usman’s book, Rekha: The Untold Story, the author describes her struggle as the ‘dark’ ‘South Indian’-looking heroine. Even the usually graceful Shashi Kapoor is said to have remarked, ‘How is this dark, plump and gauche actress ever going to make it?’ (Pg 55). She fought through several misconceptions to become the pre-eminent female star of the industry.

Yet, it was her that Hrishikesh Mukherjee chose. With good reason, too. Rekha’s presence in front of the camera was no less than that of any leading man of the time. As a brash young woman who breaks stereotypes and goes against the wishes of traditional family discipline and ‘culture’, the actress is charming to a T. For once, even the leading man of the film (Rakesh Roshan) and the brilliant Ashok Kumar fade into the sidelines. 

The director also explored the thin line between discipline and defiance by pitting two strong-willed women against each other. He did it with such subtlety that you empathize with both women. While Rekha’s joie de vivre is infectious, it is Dina Pathak’s stern, motherly control that feels a lot more familiar.

Dina Pathak

Whether it is her scolding her eldest son who won’t quit smoking or her husband who keeps making a mess by dragging the garden into the living room, Dina Pathak’s Nirmala Gupta is as familiar to us as our own mothers, aunts or teachers. 

Yet, within that discipline is a sensibility. Contrast this with Mukherjee’s other joint-family drama, Bawarchi (1972), where a family without a strong head wilts into squabbling factions. Those factions are again brought together by a force of nature played by Rajesh Khanna. 

Here, that force of nature is Rekha. With her little flourishes of joy, pranks and banter, she breaks people out of their shells and dour selves. With dialogues by familar Hrishi-da collaborator Gulzar, Khubsoorat is filled with teasing, joyful banter. 

In 2017, Rinki Roy, daughter of the late Bimal Roy, wrote for about Mukherjee’s style of comedy, saying, “To me, these are familiar Hrishikaku repartees. Like party jokes, he would pull them out at home and quiz us. In Chupke Chupke he uses them confidently with hilarious effect to embellish Dharmendra’s character Parimal Tripathi aka Pyaremohan. These situations never fail to raise laughs.”  

A great example of this is the surreal song sequence of 'Kaayda Kaayda', where Manju goes on describing a world without rules, where everything is upside down and inside out, to the lost Jagan (Ranjit Chowdhry). This seems to be another of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's ideas of a joke. 

Rekha’s performance won her the Filmfare award for Best Actress in 1981. It was her first Filmfare award and the beginning of a purple patch in her career. With the National award for Umrao Jaan (1981) and another Filmfare for Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) following within 10 years, the ugly duckling had become a swan.

In 2014, when Sonam Kapoor was cast in the role of Manju in the remake of Khubsoorat, Rekha herself approved of the choice. In the outspoken Sonam, the older actress saw the brash, non-conforming individual perhaps. But then, few come close to matching the level of individuality that Rekha embodies.