The Black Widow — screamed a headline in Showtime, a film magazine. The year was November 1990.
The Black Widow — screamed a headline in Showtime, a film magazine. The year was November 1990. And the nation woke up in stunned silence, as they discovered that the lady in question was India’s biggest movie star — Rekha! Her soon to be ex-husband Mukesh Agarwal (they had agreed to file for a divorce by mutual consent) had hung himself in his Delhi home, with her duppatta. (A fact vehemently denied by Rekha much later).
That was probably the darkest phase in the life of Kaadal Manan and Tamil icon, Gemini Ganeshan’s illegitimate daughter. She was at once labelled a wicked witch, an evil woman who had driven a decent man to the depths of despair and pushed him to end his life. Her colleagues abandoned her. Actor Anupam Kher called her a national vamp and director Subhash Ghai cruelly brandished her as a blot on the face of the film industry.
Her fans and foes alike expected a response from Rekha. The actress, who had already distanced herself from her hubby, was holidaying in New York at that time. Her dignified silence was misconstrued as an act of guilt. But the truth, would emerge much later, long after the shock and awe had died down.
Rekha, the Untold Story, by TV journalist turned author Yasser Usman, provides the dope on this bizarre drama that brutally tarnished the actress’ image. Interestingly, this is not Usman’s first foray into Bollywood writing. He has also authored a book on the late Rajesh Khanna. Predictably that is also called Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar!
Usman specialises in digging up the dirt from old Bollywood magazines and grilling yesteryears film journos. He garnishes it with some juicy masala and re-serves it as a contemporary read. If you have been a child of the 70s, and a Bollywood buff, this book will take you down memory lane, to the time when Rekha ruled the roost and her every move, written about for posterity.
If you’ve always wondered, why in heavens did Rekha to choose to marry Mukesh Agarwal — a swarthy, plump and Baniya businessman from Delhi, you will find the answers here. While you question the author’s decision to run down a man, who is no longer alive and not in a position to defend himself, as the book unfolds, you understand that the real story had to be told, no matter how dark it is. And Usman has reconstructed the events from Rekha’s perspective, given that it is a biography on her life.
The book is a racy read as it highlights the actress’ life, which was even more dramatic than the roles she has portrayed on the silver screen. From being pushed into acting by her actress mother Pushpavalli — a yesteryear star herself, whose plummeting fortunes attributed to her penchant for gambling, let to this cruel decision of forcing her 14-year-old to join films. The saga gets gory as you discover how Rekha was exploited as a child star by lusty producers, Rekha’s life has been anything but easy or rosy, that’s why the angst that she portrayed as Zohra the tawaif in Muqaddar Ka Sikander or Umrao in Umrao Jaan seems to have been inspired by her own lonely moments.
Temperamental and child-like, Rekha is known to have walked off movie sets on a whim. When she entered Bollywood, she was dark, plump and gauche. The film industry didn’t quite know how to deal with this tornado and taunted her with terms like kaali kaluti and namoona. But the young woman swallowed all the humiliation and responded with supreme confidence. Rekha soon became the media’s darling with headline grabbing remarks: “You can’t come close, really close, to a man without making love”, “It is sheer fluke that I have never got pregnant so far” and “Premarital sex is very natural. And all those prudes who say that a single woman should have sex only on her suhaag raat are talking bull”!
She has been called a seductress, a diva and even a home breaker. She was linked with virtually all her co-stars from Jeetendra to Vinod Mehra (whom she married but has denied the marriage), Kiran Kumar and even Sunil Dutt. Perhaps that’s what prompted the late Nargis Dutt to comment: “She gives the impression to men that she is easily available... I’ve worked with a lot of children with a lot of psychological problems in my time. She’s lost. She needs a strong man.” The irony is that even a newly married Dimple Kapadia asked Rekha to stay away from her husband, Rajesh Khanna.
A book on her life cannot be incomplete without reference to “him” — the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan. The Bachchans have famously denied any relationship; Amitabh has always acknowledged her as a colleague he worked with. But a few brave souls like director Muzaffar Ali, whose Umrao Jaan won Rekha a national award, bluntly admits, that “Amitabh should have married Rekha.”
The real-life romance was played out in full intensity on the silver screen, where a desperate Yash Chopra cajoled Amitabh to convince Jaya and Rekha to act together, in his much-hyped movie, Silsila. Jaya, who perhaps had learnt to live in denial, had famously confessed during the movie, “As artists, we were acting out a story written for us; the rest existed in the imagination of the press, and those who believe whatever’s written in the magazines.”
Years later, Silsila’s director Yash Chopra, who was both delighted and nervous with the star cast, confessed to SRK that, “I told them both separately, you are my friend, you are acting in my film out of friendship, please don’t do anything controversial on my set. Each assured me that there would be no problem.” Sadly, the frenzy around the hype didn’t work for this film, which proved to be a box-office dud. But Rekha’s obsession with “Him” remained. She played to the gallery with veiled references and snide remarks against Jaya. The love triangle played out all through the early 1980s, with Rekha even turning up with sindoor in her maang at Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh’s wedding, deliberately fuelling rumours that she married Big B. But the next day, she denied the same, saying she had come straight from a shoot. But the romance petered out after Big B’s life-threatening accident in 1982 in Bengaluru on the sets of Coolie.
The nation prayed for the Big B and Rekha was not allowed to visit or see the man. “I know people must be saying bechari Rekha, pagal hai us par, phir bhi dekho.” That was her most frustrating phase and it also led to the alleged distancing of the two stars, for the Big B inspired by his Silsila moment returned to the arms of his waiting wife. Who knows, maybe that’s what pushed a lonely Rekha into Mukesh Agarwal’s arms years later and she hoped to find the love she had yearned for all her life. But, sadly, it was just not meant to be.
If you are looking for some soul-wrenching quotes from the actress, you will be disappointed. Rekha, true to her elusive nature, refused to be a part of the book. And maybe, it was a good decision, coz today’s Rekha spouts well-rehearsed pearls of wisdom that would have been completely out-of-sync with her older self. Rekha, the Untold story, is a book that anyone who is a fan or even fascinated by the star, would be tempted to read.