In Rekha: The Untold Story, his novelistic new biography of the enigmatic star, Yasser Usman pieces together a riveting portrait of a woman who has always strayed from convention in life, love and her career, and often paid a high price for it. Rekha’s personal life could sometimes resemble the plot of her more sensational potboilers. Usman gives us a preview.
She dropped out of school at 14
Rekha had a sad, lonely and all too short childhood in Madras. Her superstar father, Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan, never married her mother Pushpavalli, a popular actress, and Rekha grew up estranged from him. When age caught up with Pushpavalli, the film offers dried up, and she was deep in gambling debt. As a result, Rekha was pulled out of school at 14 and made to work in films. “I used to refuse to go to the sets, and occasionally my brother beat me up,” Rekha has said.
She battled industry creeps
During the first schedule of her debut Hindi film Do Shikaari in 1969, the film’s producer Kuljit Pal, director Raja Nawathe and actor Biswajeet allegedly conspired to strongarm Rekha into a kissing scene. As soon as Nawathe said ‘Action!’, Biswajeet took Rekha in his arms and pressed his lips to hers. Rekha, then 14, was stunned. This hadn’t been discussed with her. The camera kept rolling; the director didn’t stop filming nor did Biswajeet let go of her. Unit members whistled and cheered. Rekha’s eyes were tightly shut but filled with tears.
She loved recklessly
During her initial years in Bollywood, Rekha wasn’t talked about for her acting; instead, magazine cover stories were abuzz with rumours of her affairs and indiscipline. In the 1970s, she was involved first with Vinod Mehra and then Kiran Kumar, and her relationships seemed to become the centre of her universe. She routinely played truant and went missing from shoots for days on end, causing huge financial losses to her producers. They would remark that Rekha in love was a dangerous person: impulsive, irresponsible and reckless.
She survived body-shaming
She was mocked openly for her weight and dark skin. Director Mohan Sehgal had signed her as the heroine for his film Sawan Bhadon in 1969. He had already chosen Navin Nischol, a tall and dapper fairskinned Punjabi, as the hero. When Nischol found out that Sehgal had signed Rekha for the film, he said, “Mohanji, from where did you pick out this namoona? Itni kaali-kalooti!” Nischol’s remark made it to the gossip columns and Rekha became the butt of several industry jokes. The sting would stay with her for years.
She spoke fearlessly
Rekha quickly became popular in the film industry and among reporters for interviews in which she openly tackled love and sex. She told one interviewer, “You can’t come close, really close, to a man without making love.” And: “It is a sheer fluke that I have not gotten pregnant so far.”
Excerpts from Rekha: The Untold Story by Yasser Usman, out now on Juggernaut.in