Demystifying The Diva That is Rekha
On the eve of her entry into the Rajya Sabha, Malavika Sangghvi sizes up the Congress's weapon of mass seduction: Rekha.
Many years ago, when I invited Begum Abida Parveen to sing at my home in Mumbai for my mother's birthday, the only request the legendary Pakistani artist made was that I invite Rekha as a guest.
This was long before the Sufi tsunami had consumed the subcontinent.
"If there is anyone who knows and appreciates my music, it is Rekha," the songstress had told me. And it was true, for when she did come accompanied with Farzana and a cousin, it was as if Parveen was singing only to her, only for her, all evening.
After all, Rekha was one of the few who knew every verse, every tune of her repertoire.
Rekha is one of the few true aesthetes I know. She is preternaturally refined. Form, fragrance, tone, colour, texture -- Rekha takes it all in.
Awareness and hunger for learning defines Rekha
Before it was fashionable to be ethnic, she was wearing her Kanjivarams and mogras; before Indian actresses dressed in high street boots and belts Rekha had done it; she discovered Ayurveda, yoga, rituals and indigenous customs long before they were current.
Her international sensibilities are legendary. How many Bollywood actresses of her generation listen to Peter Gabriel? How many Bollywood homes can boast of a state-of-art Italian design along with the best of Eastern sensibilities?
I recall her showing me a chair in her home the likes of which I've never encountered anywhere in the world: ergonomic, post-modern, sleek, and funky. It spoke of a heightened awareness and sensibility far ahead of its time.
This awareness and hunger for learning defines Rekha. For instance, for all her famous exclusivity, she is extraordinarily well-informed about the industry and its goings on. Frighteningly so. Who's who and who's whose is information at her fingertips.
Like most successful single women who live on their own, Rekha has the time and freedom to pursue her interests and take care of herself. And she puts her time to good use.
Exercise, yoga, highly-effective diets, age-old remedies, face packs, beauty treatments, reading and learning consume her whole day. Her business is herself, and she tends to it extraordinarily well. Astutely and with a considerable amount of craft, stealth and guile, she has constructed her own legend, fanning the Garbo myth, plotting her appearances at social events, engineering the stories of her liaisons and link-ups and, of course, constructing her appearance with as much wiliness as she picks her films.
Image: Rekha in Khoon Bhari Maang
'Rekha completely approachable -- even chatty'
For those in awe of her statuesque sleek and graceful persona, it would be prudent to be reminded of the young, gawky and restless girl who lived at Juhu's Beach House Society more or less as a country cousin of the neighborhood's more sophisticated inhabitants like Jaya Bhaduri, Kabir and Protima Bedi, Danny Denzongpa and the Chetan-Dev Anand progeny.
For a girl from Chennai, forced into films to support her family, the Kafka-quoting, free-love-expressing, rock music-loving crowd of reconstructed (and privileged) hippies must have been intimidating to say the least.
Neighbours recall how Rekha had a crush on Dev Anand's nephew, the model Yash Kohli (actor Purab's father), and a host of other romances that didn't lead up to anything.
A female resident of Juhu remembers an incident from that era which reveals quite startlingly Rekha's free and generous spirit.
"I was about 14, and had dropped in at my uncle's, an actor himself, when in walked Rekha, at that time about 18 and already quite a well-known star. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was she completely approachable -- even chatty -- and genuinely interested in my life, but when I admired a striking metal ring that she was wearing, she took it off without a second thought and presented it to me!"
Image: Rekha on the cover of Stardust
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar
'Rekha is the ultimate courtesan and seductress'
That Rekha is enigmatic is a given, but most who have spent any time with her will tell you how she comes across as sincere, eager to make friends, learn new things, and understand other people's lives and worlds.
Few know that besides her well-honed and celebrated on-screen acting abilities, Rekha is a devastating mimic in real life, able to caricature other actresses down to their last smile and simper. Her (good-natured and benign) lampooning of her contemporaries, Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman, were a well-known industry standard and she was often called upon by friends to entertain them with these.
Rekha would cover her teeth with her lips and then with her hand and emit that horsey haw-haw-haw endearing laugh that Zeenat is so known for amongst industry insiders. It is Rekha who does an equally devastating take on Hema's struggle with the English syntax.
The wife of a Bollywood actor, a great raconteur herself, had an interesting insight into the manner in which Rekha conducted herself in her love life. "She is the ultimate courtesan and seductress, and knows exactly how to flatter her love interests," said the lady to me.
"When she was wooing a young hunky newbie actor, she'd invited him over to her Bandstand bungalow, and he was suitably impressed with the life-size photographs of her famous alleged superstar lover that were displayed all over the house. So you can imagine how gob-struck he was when he returned the next week to see all the photographs replaced by his own."
Point, set, match!
Image: Rekha in Umrao Jan
'If there is anyone who believes one's own PR, it's Rekha'
What can you say about a woman who refers to herself in the third person -- "Rekha is not like this, you can't expect a Rekha to...," the actress has been heard to say completely without irony.
If there is anyone who believes one's own PR, it's Rekha. Of her wiliness that often requires military precision and planning, there are many examples. Foremost among these are the words of someone who was attending a film awards function in the company of Rekha's so-called and much-touted love interest.
"We were all in our friend's van, about to step out into the parking lot, when like a shimmer of electricity Rekha blazed past us -- gold sari, flowers in hair, high heels! She'd somehow timed it so she'd enter the vast grounds with her alleged ex-lover and family trailing five steps behind, watching the crowds cheer her."
Rekha has always had a slew of admirers and beaus. Early on there were linkups with actors like Vinod Mehra and Kiron Kumar, but there were enough outside the film industry too.
Raja Khara, the south Mumbai son of a respectable Gujarati family, was one such interest; good-looking, well-educated and suave, he probably appealed to Rekha's ever aspirational and sophisticated worldview. They went on dates to south Mumbai's finest restaurants, entertained friends together and perhaps played into Rekha's fantasies of the life she might have led as a normal non-filmi girl.
Those who knew her at that stage say that she was quite keen on "settling down", but finally the romance never amounted to anything.
Image: Rekha in Ijaazat
How Rekha became Mrs Aggarwal
But the desire to live another life, as the ordinary wife of an ordinary (read non-filmi) man, lingered. And perhaps it is this that led to her disastrous marriage to Delhi businessman Mukesh Aggarwal.
Introduced to him very much as a blind date with marriage prospects by Delhi designer Bina Ramani, Rekha probably saw this as a way of escaping into comfortable oblivion, having kids and settling down.
The fascination very famous women have for the ordinary is not to be underestimated: from Madhuri Dixit to Karishma Kapur, they have all at some time or the other succumbed to it.
So Rekha got married and became Mrs Aggarwal and the couple posed for many happily-ever-after photo sessions, and as readers we learnt far more than we needed to of Aggarwal's rags-to-riches life story and his home appliances business. And then disaster struck: a few months later, Aggarwal was found hanging from the ceiling fan with his famous wife's dupatta.
And the sad tale of the couple's estrangement and many months of separation was played out in the newspapers in the form of phone records and letters.
Apparently, not too long after the wedding, Rekha had placed many oceans and continents between herself and her husband. Why? In the words of an older actress and TV anchor, something of an industry chronicler, "She must have just woken up one day horrified at what she'd gotten herself into -- and fled.
"Her sensibilities were offended!" That she survived the ensuing scandal and the outrage and blame is a measure of her immense fortitude and speaks of the inner work she has done on herself.
Image: Rekha in Khoobsurat
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar
Without Farzana, Rekha would be lost
But anyone who knows Rekha can see that half of her success, her mystique and her life, is the contribution of her dedicated secretary and lifelong friend, Farzana.
The waif-like androgynous Farzana is a perfect foil to Rekha's larger-than-life persona. Farzana serves as her eyes and ears, advisor and aide, buffer and shield, confidante and conspirator in all her pursuits and interests.
Without her, Rekha would be lost. I was once in a car stalled in one of Mumbai's traffic lights with Rekha and Farzana; the window was down and a pesky urchin was beginning to grate with his antics.
But Rekha who sat near the window did not -- she could not -- react with irritation. After all she was the legend; how could she? But I noticed, before the situation got out of hand -- without being asked, as if she knew her boss's mind even before she knew her own -- Farzana reached across and rolled the window up.
Through it all Rekha sat still, the smiling legend with no dent in her image. That's what a good secretary's for.
But if people think their relationship is a one-way street, they are mistaken. Rekha is very appreciative of Farzana's role. A hostess who had them over for dinner remarked that Rekha refused to eat before Farzana did.
And she once remarked to me what an intellectual her aide was: "She reads the papers every morning." I guess in the Bollywood of yore that was akin to reading Kafka!
Photographs: Pradeep Bandekar