Fame Fatale

The Rekha we know today has slowly and painstakingly rebuilt her life and image from the day of her husband’s suicide in October 1990. The actor at an event in Mumbai this January. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe  

Most of us who grew up in the 1990s think of Rekha as a glamorous but reclusive diva. Known for her weakness for gold Kanjeevaram sarees and exquisite jewellery, Rekha epitomises grace and lasting beauty. But she is rarely seen at Bollywood parties or gatherings, except for the odd appearance at an award function. Barring a few confidantes, no one is allowed inside her seaside bungalow. In fact, according to Bollywood folklore, only Rekha’s trusted secretary Farzana — who some have claimed is her lover — is permitted inside her bedroom; not even domestic help are allowed entry.

Farzana controls and tightly monitors the comings and goings in Rekha’s life and household. She is a formidable gatekeeper and is said to vet each phone call and choreograph practically every minute of Rekha’s life. Rekha has clothed herself in mystique and secrecy — and it is Farzana who makes it possible for her to have such a hermetic existence.

Though millennials think of Rekha as retiring and distant, Indians of a certain vintage may remember her as rather outgoing and transparent. While writing Rekha: The Untold Story, I often wondered how she came to be this way. And who is the real Rekha? Is she the mysterious and elusive woman of the present? Or the carefree and loudmouthed actress who never shied away from speaking her mind?

The Rekha that the Hindi film industry of the 1970s and ’80s knew was bold and fiercely outspoken. She made frank and provocative statements to the press about pre-marital sex being natural and abstinence until one’s wedding night being unnecessary. Rattled by her openness, a hypocritical Bollywood tried to police her. But Rekha was irrepressible.

Her spunk and loud statements were perhaps a strategy to tune out and cope with the ridicule and harassment she was subjected to by both the film industry and the public. Here was a young girl from Madras who was pushed into Bollywood at the age of 14 by her gambling addict of a mother.

At her very first shooting schedule, in the late 1960s, Rekha fell victim to the machinations of the film’s director, producer and lead actor. They coerced her into a kissing scene, with the film’s unit members salaciously catcalling, whistling and cheering. Those lascivious voices were said to have echoed in her mind till much later.

Rekha fell in love several times — with Jeetendra, Vinod Mehra and Kiran Kumar, among others — but each relationship was fated to end the same way. The men in Rekha’s life could not stand up for a woman who had an ‘illegitimate’ past (her father never married her mother). She was left heartbroken each time, even publicly humiliated.

But Rekha managed to seize the narrative, not just through provocative sound bytes, but also by undergoing a miraculous makeover, which she publicly gave Amitabh Bachchan credit for. In the mid-70s, Rekha was said to be in love with Bachchan, and the screen sparkled with their chemistry, and there seemed to be hope on the horizon for Rekha. Film magazines of the time bubbled over with stories of their alleged romance.

Everyone knows how this story goes. But while researching for my book, I realised this wasn’t the love story that changed Rekha forever. That story began not in tinsel town but in Delhi. After a rather quick courtship with Delhi businessman Mukesh Agarwal and a spur-of-the-moment decision to marry him — the priest was woken up in the dead of night to officiate — Rekha found herself in a new ‘Basera’ (home), which was the name of her husband’s farmhouse in south Delhi.

But Agarwal had many skeletons in his closet and it didn’t take long for the marriage to disintegrate; although what happened next took everyone by surprise.

In October 1990, just seven months after their wedding, Agarwal committed suicide by hanging, apparently using Rekha’s dupatta. On that tragic day, Rekha was in the U.S. for a stage show. Agarwal’s sister-in-law spoke with Rekha over the phone and consoled her, saying that the Agarwal family stood by her.

But this was not to be. Rather than commiserating with her, the whole country was soon baying for Rekha’s blood, triggered by Agarwal’s mother’s wail: “ Woh daayan mere bete ko kha gayi (That witch devoured my son).” By the time Rekha came back, the press had fuelled the witch hunt with libelous headlines like ‘The Black Widow’ and ‘The Macabre Truth behind Mukesh’s Suicide’. Delhi high society and Bombay’s film industry vociferously condemned Rekha for “murdering” Agarwal.

In those trying times, even Rekha’s fans deserted her. The posters of her film Sheshnaag were vandalised. Members of the film fraternity were categorical that nobody would work with Rekha ever again. “Rekha has put such a blot on the face of the film industry that it’ll be difficult to wash it away easily. I think after this any respectable family will think twice before accepting any actress as their bahoo,” said director Subhash Ghai. Rekha was branded a witch who had helped kill her husband. There was no future for her, it was deemed.

Rekha was all alone. Shunned and disgraced, she became an outcast.

The Rekha we know today is the woman who slowly and painstakingly rebuilt her life and image from that day onwards. That tumultuous phase of her life completely transformed her. After Agarwal died, Rekha became a recluse. She minimised her interactions with the outside world. She gave fewer interviews, and even in those, one saw a significantly toned-down Rekha. She no longer made sensational statements; rather she was melancholic, almost philosophical.

Rekha is now firmly ensconced in her own legend. A little on the lines of the late actress Suchitra Sen, she has cut off all her friends, other than Farzana, of course, from her life. What a long journey it has been. After years of ridicule and humiliation, and having to defend herself against wild and baseless allegations at the worst time of her life, Rekha had finally had enough. She firmly shut the door on the outside world. The world tried to make Rekha an outcast, and Rekha cast out the world instead.

Yasser Usman is the author of Rekha: The Untold Story .

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 11:58:55 AM |

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