Rekha arrived in Bollywood as a plump dark, gauche 14-year-old, fresh of the boat from Tollywood. And how her life unfolded – career-making makeover, national awards, headline-making affairs and all – is the stuff of, well, Bollywood films. Film fans will enjoy reading Rekha: The Untold Story, just released by TV journalist and film commentator Yasser Usman, which charts the actor’s professional and private life. If you haven’t had the time to read the book yet, we’ve put together a time line of events that tell Rekha’s story via her 10 best films.
Do Anjane (1976)
Co-starring Amitabh Bachchan, this was the new, improved Rekha’s first performance oriented role. It was also the rumoured starting point of the affair between the lead pair. Despite the number of films Rekha had previously made, she was criticised for her ‘giggly’, underwhelming performance as well as her dark, unconventional looks. Cue makeover. The Hindustan Times remarked on the change, describing it as “one of cinema’s and perhaps real life’s most dramatic transformations”.
Playing the role of a housewife who overcomes the trauma of being gang raped under the care of a loving husband (played by Vinod Mehra), it was a big-deal role for Rekha, and propelled her into the big league as an actress of note. She apparently married Mehra in secret, and according to Usman’s biography, the marriage didn’t work because his mother refused to accept her.
Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978)
Another Rekha-Amitabh starrer, it was the story of Zohra, a kotha owner who silently loves Sikandar. He unfortunately loved another (played by Rakhee) who doesn’t return his feelings… things got complicated, what with his betrothal to a third woman, and then things got even more complicated, until Zorah killed herself by swallowing her diamond, so as to clear Sikandar’s path to wedded bliss. It’s not surprising that this movie was the highest grosser of the year. To draw a parallel with some of what happens in the movie with real life, Rekha confessed to Simi Garewal on her talk show that “A rose is a rose is a rose… I want to have the honour of being associated with [Amitabh BAchchan] so what is stopping me… I’m here to be one of the lesser mortals who can just have a whiff of him and feel happy.”
Rekha gave an award-winning performance (she won a Filmfare Award for Best Actress) in Khubsoorat, where she played a feisty young woman who wanted to inject some joie de vivre into her sister’s family, much to the annoyance of the mother-in-law (so typical!). Reviews from the time were full of praise for her work, with Film World labelling her an accomplished actress. Rekha was at the peak of her career.
Umrao Jaan (1981)
Another career-defining role, this one won her a National Award. In fact, it made such an impact on the cinemascape that 30 years later it was inducted in Filmfare’s 80 Iconic Performances. At that time though, she experienced a wobble career-wise, especially with the arrival of Sridevi in Bollywood.
Also starring her (alleged) real life lover Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya, this Yash Chopra movie was eerily reminiscent of the off- screen saga being played out between them. According to Usman, it was Jaya who introduced Rekha to Amitabh. The two women lived in the same building at the time, and Rekha called Jaya Didibhai, which means older sister in Bengali. Interestingly, this was Rekha and Amithab’s last film together.
Jeevan Dhara (1982)
Yet another nomination for a Filmfare Best Actress Award followed Rekha’s fantastic performance as a young woman who sacrifices her own happiness and independence to look after her family. It’s often said that art imitates life and this film was a prime example of what that means – Rekha herself was compelled to join the film industry – which would come to be the cause of so much personal grief – because of the dire financial circumstances of her family at the time.
Rekha’s sensual depiction of Vasantasena, a 5th century courtesan in Girish Karnad’s film, was path-breaking in Bollywood at the time. Countless fans flocked to cinemas to take it all in. In fact, a still from Utsav was used in the now-infamous Filmfare interview she gave later that year, about her affair with Amitabh – wherein she spoke openly about their long-running affair, his denial of the affair and her subsequent thoughts and desires.
Rekha plays Naseeruddin Shah’s ex-wife in a role that saw her win over movie goers with her mature and nuanced performance. The film put Rekha at the other end of a spectrum, as the cheated on party. A chance meeting with her ex-husband makes her realise though, that she had completely misunderstood his intentions all along. The irony is strong with this one.
Khoon Bhari Mang (1988)
If ever there was a film to prove that you don’t need a male lead when you have Rekha, then this was it. Tricked and left for dead by her villainous husband (Kabir Bedi), she underwent a stunning makeover and extracted her revenge. This film propelled Kabir Bedi to the upper echelons of villainy, something that he was unable to achieve even as the villain in the James Bond film, Octopussy. It also earned Rekha the title Lady Amitabh, says Usman in his biography.
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