Rekha: The Untold Story By Yasser Usman Juggernaut, India ISBN: 978-8193284186 240pp.

Yasser Usman, a film journalist and author of the late Indian actor Rajesh Khanna’s biography, chose Bollywood actress Rekha as the subject of his new book Rekha: The Untold Story. Within less than a month of its launch, the book went into a second printing and garnered rave reviews across the board.

Of course, given the star power this is not surprising, particularly since the enigmatic actress is known to be quite the recluse and seldom gives interviews anymore. Therefore, a book on her life — and one that promises to tell her “untold story” — is bound to attract the attention of Bollywood enthusiasts, especially since the media attention that she commands has not waned with time. Videos of her go viral on social media the minute she appears at any function, more so if Amitabh Bachchan (or any of his family members) are in proximity.

When I finally got my hands on the book, I read it within hours; it is a compulsive read and will keep you thoroughly engaged, as many aspects of its subject’s life are brought to the fore.

It all began when the 13-year old Bhanurekha (Rekha’s actual name) debuted with the film Sawan Bhadon in 1970, complete with a 33-inch waist and a complexion that compelled a producer to ask whether she was from Africa; yet, despite these ‘disadvantages’ the film was a hit and resulted in producers lining up at her door. Over the next 11 years, Rekha carved out a place for herself that many could well argue has not yet been filled, transforming herself into the ultimate diva. The extra pounds were shed, the cheekbones became sculpted, and her voice modulated with seemingly effortless grace. More importantly, she had, by that time, films such as Ghar, Khubsoorat, and Umrao Jaan to her credit, showcasing the diversity of her oeuvre.

The love child of Pushpavalli and Gemini Ganeshan, Rekha was never acknowledged by her father as his daughter, and nor were her siblings (she had separate sets of half-brothers and sisters, many of whom went to the same school as her). The sting of being illegitimate was not one she forgot; she even tried to commit suicide possibly as a result of this. Yet the book does not provide any insight into this aspect of her life or the pains she must have gone through to groom herself — not just externally — but also in terms of her acting.

Instead, more emphasis is placed on her personal life, be it the much-alleged relationship with Bachchan, or the suicide of her husband Mukesh Agarwal, who reportedly used her dupatta as a symbol of her “betrayal” to hang himself with, or her affairs with the likes of actors Vinod Mehra (supposedly her first husband), Jeetendra, and Kiran Kumar.

Usman admits that he was unable to reach Rekha and therefore relied on interviews with her colleagues. After a more in-depth read, the book comes across as an amalgamation of several interviews that Usman conducted with a few of Rekha’s associates, as well as quotes and extracts from film publications such as Stardust, Movie, Star & Style, Cine Blitz and Filmfare. Many of these have ceased publication and can hardly be termed bastions of credibility given that statements made in one issue would be contradicted in subsequent ones.

Usman, in several instances, refers to the gender bias rampant in the film industry. Yet if one were to compare Rekha: The Untold Story with Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar (also written by Usman), the sexism seems very apparent: the latter delved deep into the psyche of its subject as well as his films, while Rekha’s life is more or less simplified by stating that she took on every possible film because she needed to support her family; therefore the ones that shone were more by chance rather than logical thought or effort, and that she constantly gave “bold interviews” advocating “free love” in order to attract attention.

Rekha’s portrayal of the famed courtesan Umrao Jan Ada in the eponymously titled film cemented her reputation as one of the most captivating actresses of Bollywood.—Scene from the film
Rekha’s portrayal of the famed courtesan Umrao Jan Ada in the eponymously titled film cemented her reputation as one of the most captivating actresses of Bollywood.—Scene from the film

As another example, while much is made of the atmosphere on the sets of Silsila and the casting behind it (there are several nuggets any film enthusiast will relish, although they contradict statements made earlier by Yash Chopra and Bachchan) there really is no mention of the fact that Rekha’s performance in the film is extremely articulate and understated. Similarly, the success of Khoobsurat and Ijaazat, whether in terms of box office earnings or with regard to Rekha’s performances, are largely attributed to the male directors’ skills, rather than the painstaking effort she must have made to assay such diverse roles with such conviction. 

All of this does not mean, however, that the book is not worth reading. Far from it. It is packed with plenty of fodder about Rekha’s life and her work. However, one thing that did strike me was that the book, while doing a competent job of discussing the films that made her stand out, is overshadowed by the (supposed) men in her life; we see glimmers of her personality, but not an insight into how Rekha’s mind works.

While there is no doubt that Rekha: The Untold Story is a definite must-read, it fails to deliver on its promise. It is more like a rehash of a story that has been told time and again, albeit in a single volume. Film critic Anupama Chopra once referred to Rekha as a Rorschach test; sadly the book does not do much to counter that statement.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2017

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