Bhanurekha, alias Rekha, born on the 10th of October, 1954, the daughter of the Telugu actress Pushpavalli took her oath as a Parliament elder on the 15th of May 2012. Nominated to the House of elders on grounds of excellence in her achievement in the field of arts and culture, Bhanurekha who the world knows as Rekha attains a landmark in her life. Rekha’s biological father, Gemini Ganesan, never acknowledged his paternity and Rekha was left along with her mother, Pushpavalli also a film actress to fend for themselves. Money was a matter with the household and soon Rekha was withdrawn from school to join cinema to earn for the family. Despite being born of a Tamil Brahmin, Rekha and her mother were relegated to lives of Devdasis. Sobha De’s soulful portrayal of her character in her novel, Starry Nights draws out painfully how Rekha as a child artist was sexually abused and exploited. With a truncated education and lost childhood, Rekha emerged as a star in films such as Sawan Bhado and Rampur ka Laxman when the world of Hindi cinema was exploring the feudal, rural, tacky and violent zone of the male characters. Rekha was a part vamp, part siren and definitely not the image of a woman to be followed either for fashion or for virtue. For years she remained space filler, a prop whose sexual image was also up for a voyeuristic exploitation by a growing number of the male audience as cinema tried to spread to the vernacular lands. Rekha was pushed forward by the lobby the south Indian investors and distributors.
Despite a poor career graph all through the 1970’s, Rekha’s debut which was in Hindi and was called Sawan Bhado in 1970 formed the basic script upon which Rekha’s image was founded. It was the image of a powerful village belle, tomboyish, a fighter, fearless and good enough to run the show. Personally then Rekha had already emerged as the pater familias with her being the main breadwinner for her mother and siblings. Hers was the real life image of Meghe Dhaka Taara, the seminal cinema of Ghatak, said to be a mother of all cinemas. In many of her better known films, Rekha’s image of the fighter impresses us. In Mr Natwarlal she fights a tiger; in Khoon Bhari Maang she takes revenge on the villains, and in Bhrastachaar, she simply excels.
Rekha was a middle range star who took her career as a breadwinning proposition and remained essentially a street fighter. For the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Rekha was essentially a slum girl who was to be Rajesh Khanna’s love interest in Namak Haram. Despite her patrilineage of being the daughter of an eminent film personality and a Tamil Brahmin, Rekha’s state of being an illegitimate child declassed her into the gutter. Hers was a life that was a journey into an endless night of neglect, drudgery, boredom and hopelessness. Then she met Amitabh Bachchan, a man who transformed her because he saw in her a princess, a lady second to none. It was through his mentoring that she emerged into the epitome of beauty and sophistication that we see her endowed in. She fell in love with her Pygmalion but who like her biological father again disowned her and denied as having anything to do with her. She soon became the lady who pined for her lover, the eternal Meera swooning at the thought of her beloved who seemed to be vanishing without recovery every passing day. She claimed that her love was not one-sided; he claimed that there was never any. But like Ekalavya, Rekha grew from strength to strength in beauty and grace, completely as an autodidact.
Amitabh Bachchan is a man of ambitions and like every man with ambition he suffers from a sense of deprivation. He imagined his family to be poor, loved to play the father, loved the idea of him being the source of wealth and fame for his family and uphold the dynastic mantle. These were Amitabh’s fantasies; while Rekha truly was all of this. She was the man of her home, the father to her siblings, head of the household who made decisions and provided for everything. Amitabh had been a student of chemistry, Rekha’s father, Gemini was a teacher of chemistry in the Madras Christian College. Did the story of Jurmana emerge from this?
Amitabh struggled to get a foothold in the industy; Rekha struggled for dignity. However, I think that Amitabh had truly admired Rekha for having shouldered the responsibilities of a family and to this extent had fallen for her. Amitabh’s Deewaar ended a whole life for Amitabh that was before him and started a new one with a new sense of purpose; according to Rekha’s own admission, Deewaar was also her discovery of the “Book”. I think that they discovered a higher purpose of life together after Deewaar; Amitabh was the image that Rekha dreamed of, secure in family, living with parents and emotionally well chaperoned and guarded by them. In Rekha, Amitabh too may have seen a self of his which perhaps lived in the corners of his mind where he was helpless, discarded and ignored which he indeed was in the days of his struggle. In many of Amitabh’s later films especially Lawaaris and Sharaabi, scenes from Rekha’s film especially Sawan Bhado have been replayed with Amitabh in the narrative. This was a time when the Rekha and Amitabh affair was supposed to have got over! There are more instances like this in which one gets an idea that Amitabh has continued to explore and seek Rekha long after they were no longer acting together. Unfortunately Rekha’s imitating Amitabh was more apparent despite the fact that Rekha was the original fighter who could crush tigers and shoo away dacoits.
Amitabh has been Rekha’s fatal flaw; it was to be desirable to him that she compromised on her spirit. She became glamorous and sophisticated, graceful and restrained in a manner of offering herself to “Him”. She relegated herself to his shadow, trying to find a shelter in his chaperone, a shade that Amitabh, like her father, Gemini refused to extend to her. Rekha was not wrong in hoping for Amitabh; in her mind, second marriages and concubines were not wrong for she came from a society of bigamies and out of wedlock relationships. She also saw Hema and Dharmendra get married without the man divorcing the first wife; indeed bigamies were all around her in the film world and only Amitabh made such a big case with monogamy. If I know Amitabh well, he would never have brought Rekha home; she was not the social kind from whose wombs he would have liked to have his seeds flow. Extremely conscious of social status, Amitabh could never have taken a woman born out of wedlock and denied by father as his wife. His respectability would have revolted.
Days on she waited for him making her almost into a joke. She was the eternally jilted woman, the Umraao Jaan reincarnate, a role for which she was justly awarded and a role which was her autobiography. A woman who could stall a thousand ships on the high seas incarcerated herself indoors almost into invisibility assuming the role of a woman in love abandoned by her lover. She was lucky to have admirers like Ramesh Sippy and Rakesh Roshan who cast her in apt roles. Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave her a role of a lifetime in Khubsoorat, a character she truly could be had Amitabh Bachchan not cast his shadow over her.
Amitabh sequestrated Rekha, keeping her guessing, waiting, weeping and sighing over him. When quizzed by Simi Garewal he denied having anything to do with her except the routine interactions demanded as a co star. Shobha De, who was fond of Rekha and supported her case by incessantly spilling out the stories of their affair in Stardust suddenly called her a liar and said that she was making things up about Amitabh Bachchan. Shobha De, now respectably married to an already much married Dilip De has suddenly become a harbinger of monogamy and a thorough patriarch who supports Amitabh in shooing Rekha away from his side. The episode of Amitabh darkened Rekha’s dignity which came her way after a long struggle away from her position of an underdog in the industry.
As Rekha stands today in the Rajya Sabha to take her oath, I feel somewhere that she has won the war, especially on Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh’s arrogance of social respectability because he had people close to the government now stands challenged. Rekha is on the same grounds as the Bachchans; she has been awarded by the very instruments with which Amitabh has looked down upon her. As she is accompanied by Farzana Sheikh, Rekha becomes the synosure of all eyes; no nomination has been so lauded as Rekha’s has been. She faces a grouchy and grumpy Jaya, the wife of the very man who she loved, and the man who seemed to have completely ignored her, just as her father did. The wife’s misdemeanour clearly hints that while Amitabh may have always denied their love story, the wife’s intuition has seen through the lies.
I think that Rekha’s nomination has conferred upon her respectability which she deserved many times over but was belied by a brutish, selfish and a cruel father who opened her to abuse and exploitation knowingly and willingly. She has suffered endless indignity at the hands of Amitabh only because she was devotedly in love with him. I think that today the balance has been struck right; what would a father not do to have a daughter in the Parliament, and what a leading male filmstar would not do to see his most popularly paired co star in a position which his family and he had always covered and cherished. The two men are braced today by the very woman who they decimated with their patriarchal arrogance and false consciousness of social respectability.