Rekha will soon be seen playing Super Nani but the icon who turned 60 on October 10, turns into an age-defying model in the film to teach her errant family a lesson. No, dowdy weepies for the lady. There are many faces of Bhanurekha Ganesan. There is the little girl who danced on a table in a white frilly frock to the tune of aayi hai baharein mite zulmo sitam in Ram Aur Shyam. The child star of the Telugu film Rangula Ratnam (1966). The plump debutante of Sawan Bhadon (1970) whose vulnerability was scarred perhaps by the exploitative callousness of the film industry. She once said how much she hated that time. The lack of love and acceptance experienced as the love child of a famous father can only be speculated upon but it is obvious that she felt alone most of the time. A short-lived rumoured marriage with Vinod Mehra, then a rumoured attempt to end her life and playing truant on film sets was possibly her way of trying to make sense of the unreal world of cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was reportedly so furious with her unprofessionalism on the sets of Namak Haram (1973) that he chopped her scenes but promised that he would make a film for her the day she became worthy of it.
Then there was the Rekha who reinvented herself not just as an actor but as a woman. From a teenaged girl who hated the artifice of sequinned clothes and make-up, she became militantly disciplined about beauty and health regimens. A lot obviously changed within too. She became serious about her craft. One of the first glimpses of what she was capable of came in the film Imaan Dharam (1977) where she stood out in an ensemble cast as a fiery Tamilian. The defining moment in her career was Ghar (1978), a film by Manek Chatterjee where she played a housewife who is brutalised while coming home from a late night film show. This was the film that not only showed us the wordless agony of a rape survivor but also just how deep Rekha was as a performer, the reserves of pain and courage she could draw from to breathe life in a character.
Some believe it all began with Do Anjaane, the 1976 Dulal Guha film where she found love. The film adapted from Nihar Ranjan Gupta’s Bengali novel Ratrir Yatri, allowed Rekha the creative space to play an ambitious, materialistic wife who puts the mysterious death of her husband (Bachchan) behind her to fulfil her ambitions. There was something absolutely magical about the chemistry Rekha shared with Bachchan. You saw bits of it in Do Anjaane when Rekha as the new bride is fuming while her apologetic husband (Bachchan) tries to shore up an unhinged bathroom door. You saw it in many films — in Muqaddar Ka Sikander (in 1978) where Rekha interpretied the sacrificing Chandramukhi for a new audience. Her eyes streamed pain and unrequited love while Bachchan’s Sikandar kept shedding blood and tears over his lost childhood love. Her death scene in his arms turns an impassioned goodbye into a spectacle of heart-breaking beauty.
Their songs together in films like Suhaag (1979), Mr Natwarlal (1979), Ram Balram (1981), show this hit pair in perfect synchronicity. A conspiratorial smile, a locked gaze oblivious to the world, a nod, an instinctive, elemental joy in each other and you knew it wasn’t all just for the camera. Their chemistry wasn’t the kind a choreographer can conjure up.
And then there was Silsila (1981) of course. Who would have thought that the overweight Sawan Bhadon girl would melt into the definitive Yash Chopra heroine? Her Chandni had moonlit hair, poetic eyes, occasional outbursts of anger, but mostly helpless passion for a man from her past. This is possibly the most sensuous film in its genre and not because it had blatant intimacy, but because even when the two lovers looked at each other, we gasped. They turned every conversation, every embrace, every eyelock into a private moment into which we were intruding. But Silsila, possibly the peak of Rekha’s glamourous persona would come later. The 1980 film Khoobsurat was the film Hrishikesh Mukherjee had promised her all those years ago. In Khoobsurat, she was a regular young girl of the 80s in skirts and fitted T-shirts with two long plaits, who straddled a free-spirited humour with duty-bound conscientiousness . A watch on her slim wrist, a playful, unladylike walk and the knack of melting ice and breaking down walls of reserve. You could also see just how deeply she had internalised Bachchan in the way she used some of his mannerisms in her dialogue delivery.
In Shyam Benegal’s art house gem Kalyug (1981), she reinterpreted Draupadi with a taut bitterness In Govind Nihalani’s Vijeta (1982), she played Neelima, a middle-aged mother of a troubled young son (Kunal Kapoor) and this nuanced performance given at the peak of her success, shows how fearless she was when it came to making unsafe creative choices. One wonders how well she would have done if the Benegals and Nihalanis had given her more films. But someone did give her the film that would sum up her entire career in one word, Umrao Jaan.
Here was the reinvented Rekha who had willed herself to speak Urdu like one to the manner born, who with the magic dust of Gopi Krishna sprinkled over her, would dance like a living flame in stately Lucknowi havelis, who would express each nuance of Shahryar’s poetry with one tear-beaded glance, a face that was a monument to an unlived life and unexpressed pain. Umrao was made for her and she was made for Umrao. Up against Jennifer Kapoor’s brilliance in 36 Chowringhee Lane, she won the National Award, forever silencing critics.
We also saw glimpses of the poised actor she really is in Gulzar’s Ijazat (1988), Yash Chopra’s Faasle (1985) and Benegal’s Zubeida (2001) while simultaneously delivering crowd pleasing hits with Jeetendra (Judai, Ek Hi Bhool and counting), the many profiles of a temptress she played in Utsav (1984), Aastha (1997) and Kama Sutra (1996), the avenging angel baying for blood in films like Phool Bane Angaarey (1991) and Khoon Bahari Maang (1988) and the embarrassing caricatures (Madam X, Khiladiyon Ke Khiladi and Bach Ke Rehna Re Baba). And ofcourse through it all her own life, unspooled like a film all along. But then that trivia does not even begin to define who Rekha really is.
Over the last few years, some of the best performances she has given have been off the big screen. At award shows where she creates squirm worthy moments even if she is just called to give away an award. Sometimes she talks in a little girl voice. Sometimes she is calm and centered and poetic. And always there is the big question hanging in the air, “What will she do next?” That a woman who is 60 and has been in films for over 40 years can still create so much curiosity even though her film career has not seen a big ripple in years, says one thing in no uncertain terms.
That the role of a lifetime Rekha has played has been that of Rekha. An enigma no one can quite fathom. And it is clear that she likes it that way. Rekha is not done with reinventing herself. She is possibly looking at a mirror right this minute and asking herself. “So what shall I be next?”