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Dinesh Raheja

RekhaIt was the premiere of Sawan Bhadon (Navin Nischol, Ranjeet) at Mumbai's Novelty cinema in September 1970. Slack-jawed shock jolted the guests as they caught sight of the film's debutant heroine -- a dusky, obese 16-year-old whose 33-inch waist strained against a gaudy, black-and-blue sequined gharara. A bouffant with stiff kiss curls and a profusion of ringlets completed the unlikely picture. An amazed Shashi Kapoor uttered in disbelief, "How is this dark, plump and gauche actress ever going to make it?"

His wife Jennifer nevertheless recognised the inexplicable star quality within the south Indian teenager and prophesised that she would be the darling of the masses for years to come.

Rekha became famous and made Jennifer's prophecy come magnificently true.

Rekha's landmark films

Year

Film

Costars

1970

Sawan Bhadon

Navin Nischol

1972

Rampur Ka Lakshman

Randhir Kapoor

1973

Kahani Kismet Ki

Dharmendra

1978

Ghar

Vinod Mehra

1978

Muqaddar Ka Sikander

Amitabh Bachchan,
Vinod Khanna, Rakhee

1979

Mr Natwarlal

Amitabh Bachchan

1980

Judaai

Jeetendra

1980

Khubsoorat

Rakesh Roshan

1981

Kalyug

Raj Babbar,
Anant Nag

1981

Umrao Jaan

Farooque Shaikh,
Naseerudin Shah

1981

Silsila

Amitabh Bachchan,
Sanjeev Kumar,
Jaya Bachchan

1985

Utsav

Shashi Kapoor,
Shekhar Suman

1988

Khoon Bhari Maang

Kabir Bedi,
Sonu Walia

1999

Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi

Akshay Kumar,
Raveena Tandon

She went on to do more films as a heroine than any other Hindi film actress. Moreover, Rekha became the original makeover miracle. Even after three long decades in the industry, she remains a glamour icon for the couture cognoscenti.

But Rekha's 33-year-long journey to her current position as Queen Bee emeritus, the doyenne of the philosophical sound bite, has been paved with several potholes and strewn with emotional landmines.

The daughter of south Indian film stars Gemini Ganesan and Pushpavalli, Rekha had a materially privileged but peripatetic childhood. Family finances spiralled into a mess and she had little choice but to opt for films. School was not a major attraction forthe young Rekha anyway.

The novice was made to kiss Biswajeet on her very first day of shooting for Anjaana Safar and the shot, though censored, made it to the cover of Life magazine.

Her first release, Sawan Bhadon (1970), was a smash success and she became an instant star. But she wastoo young to understand the responsibilities that come with stardom and stories of her truancy in the early 1970s are well known. She reportedly bunked shooting to spend time with her boyfriends Kin Kin (Kiran Kumar) and Vin Vin (Vinod Mehra) or her many friends, including the ailing Meena Kumari.

Luckily for Rekha, filmmakers and audiences responded to her namkeen (saucy) appeal -- a term Meena Kumari used to describe her. Rekha may not have trained as a classical dancer, but she could do all the filmi jhatkas with consummate ease. In 1973-1974, she had a string of hits: Namak Haram (opposite Rajesh Khanna), Dharma (opposite Navin Nischol), Kahani Kismet Ki (opposite Dharmendra) and Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye (opposite Sunil Dutt).

In these films she played a chubby charmer whose existence orbited around the hero. Rekha got a meaty role for the first time in Dulal Guha's Do Anjaane (1976), her first film opposite Amitabh Bachchan. She made people sit up with her performance as an ambitious wife who sacrifices love at the altar of ambition.

Simultaneously, Rekha began her lifelong obsession with her mirror. Slowly picking up the tricks of make-up, she lost weight and became svelte (the voluptuous star could never be thin).

The Amitabh association, which lasted through nine films, added the final seal of big-time stardom. By the late seventies, Rekha and Zeenat Aman were providing Hema Malini stiff competition for the crown.

Gulzar's Ghar (1978) heralded the arrival of a mature Rekha. Her archetypal jubilance was replaced by her very realistic portrayal of a traumatised rape victim. In the same year, she wooed enthusiastic crowds with the chartbusting Salaam-e-ishq in Prakash Mehra's Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (one of her many portrayals of courtesans) andstole the show from Rakhee with her sympathetic role.

Rekha's famous songs

Song

Film

Singer

Sun sun o gulabi kali

Sawan Bhadon

Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi

Gum hai kissi ke pyar mein

Rampur Ka Lakshman

Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar

Aa ke dard jawan hai

Pran Jaaye Par Vachcan Na Jaaye

Asha Bhosle

Aaj kal paon zameen par

Ghar

Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar

Salaam-e-ishq

Muqaddar Ka Sikander

Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar

Pardesiya yeh sach hai piya

Mr Natwarlal

Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar

O sherowali

Suhaag

Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi

Sun sun sun didi tere liye

Khubsoorat

Asha Bhosle

Dekha ek khwab toh

Silsila

Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar

Dil cheez kya hai aap meri

Umrao Jaan

Asha Bhosle

Man kyon behka re behka

Utsav

Lata Mangeshkar

Haste haste kat jaaye raste

Khoon Bhari Maang

Alka Yagnik

Rekha's peak years as an actress were indubitably 1980 and 1981; she had an unbroken string of artistic and/or box-office success. She dazzled in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Khubsoorat, a film that gave full play to her talent for impersonation and dead-on timing. A hat-trick of melodramatic hits with Jeetendra and director T Rama Rao (Judaai, Maang Bharo Sajna and Ek Hi Bhool), combined with important roles in Saawan Kumar's Saajan Ki Saheli (Rajendra Kumar, Nutan, Vinod Mehra) and Ramesh Talwar's Basera (Shashi Kapoor, Rakhee), made her the box-office queen.Yash Chopra's Silsila (Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar, Jaya Bachchan) and Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan(Farooque Shaikh, Naseerudin Shah) put her into an exalted league.

Her performance as an emotionally unfulfilled courtesan in Umrao Jaan was her crowning achievement. It won her the National Award for Best Actress.

Strangely, her career dovetailed thereafter. Sridevi stormed into the scene in 1983 and Rekha was increasingly sidelined till she made an affirmative comeback with her avenging angel role in Rakesh Roshan's Khoon Bhari Maang (1988). Her performance won her Filmfare's Best Actress Award.

An ill-advised marriage to businessman Mukesh Agarwal plunged Rekha into the darkest phase of her life after he allegedly committed suicide. But the success of K C Bokadia's Phool Bane Angaarey (1991) soon thereafter ensured that her love affair with the audience continued uninterrupted.

Since then, Rekha has played the remorseless don in Umesh Mehra's Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996), the acquisitive housewife in Basu Bhattacharya's Aastha (1997), the patient first wife in Khalid Mohamed's Zubeidaa (2001), the rebellious social worker in Rajkumar Santoshi's Lajja (2001) and the cold stepmother in Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002). Today, in-demand directors like Ram Gopal Verma (Bhoot) and Rakesh Roshan (Koi Mil Gaya) have cast her in pivotal roles in their films.

Though she lives alone in her sea-facing Bandra bungalow, Rekha's recent avowals of her belief in love reveal an evolution of thought. As she says, "For a woman to be complete, she has to be a blend of Paro and Chandramukhi [the two women who love Devdas].I feel that I am that woman."

An exclusive interview with Rekha
The enigma called Rekha


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