Rekha wanted to marry me. It’s true. It was in early 1990, when she was going through a bad phase, her personal life was a mess and her career was going nowhere. She heard from someone that I was living alone and had a cushy job with the UN. She flew in to Delhi and a meeting was arranged in the Niti Bagh flat of our mutual friend, Bina Ramani. It did not take long for her to realise that marrying me was not such a great idea. I was no Dev Anand in the looks department. Besides, I was separated from my wife, but I was not divorced.
A few days later, I met businessman Mukesh Agarwal over drinks and told him the story. He rang up Bina and pleaded with her to introduce him to Rekha. One thing led to another and they married in March that year. It took Rekha a week to realise that the two were very different people. On September 10, a reluctant Mukesh agreed to a divorce. Three weeks later, he committed suicide.
Rekha made no claims on his money or property, but the knives were out for her in Bollywood. Ace director Subhash Ghai told Stardust that she had put “a blot on the face of the film industry”, while veteran actor Anupam Kher, and one of the ruling regime’s most ardent posterboys, called her “the national vamp” in the same magazine. This, needless to say, was grossly unfair. The Mukesh I knew was decent, but a very complicated man. He was chronically depressed, and with his new bride, he behaved like a teenage fan. He had had setbacks in his business and was eager to meet Rekha’s rich friends who might help him. The break-up of his marriage must have been the last straw that ultimately led to his tragic end.
Rekha was born out of wedlock in Madras through a relationship between two actors, Tamil cinema’s ‘Kadal Mannan’ (King of Romance) Gemini Ganesan, and Pushpavalli. The star was already married and refused to accept Rekha as his daughter. The child was pulled out of school at the tender age of fourteen to work in films to start paying off her mother’s mounting debts. She was also beaten up by her brother when she refused to go to the studios. They came to Bombay in 1969, where one of her first films was Sawan Bhadon, in which she was cast opposite a dapper Punjabi, Navin Nischol. “Where did you pick out this namoona, so dark and ugly?” he complained to the producer. Shashi Kapoor too was not impressed. “How is this dark, plump and gauche actress ever going to make it?” he wondered.
Rekha went into diets, reportedly drank only milk for two months at a stretch, and took other measures. The ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan. She gave credit for the transformation to Amitabh Bachchan, who had entered her life by then. They acted in a number of films together and their closeness was observed and commented upon in the closely-knit film community. Rekha was a free spirit. “All those prudes who say that a single woman should have sex only on her suhaag raat are talking bull,” she said in an interview. She was comfortable with premarital and extramarital sex. Both Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan have denied that they had an affair, but that is neither here nor there.
Most of Rekha’s mainstream films were forgettable. The credit for those that succeeded at the box office went to the male lead, more often than not, Amitabh Bachchan. She gave her best performances in small films in the hands of good directors: Kalyug (Shyam Benegal), Utsav (Girish Karnad), Vijeta (Govind Nihalani) and, most memorably, in Umrao Jaan (Muzaffar Ali), a film she carried alone on her shoulders.
She has worked in over 150 films, fourteen in 1978 alone (like the sensitive Ghar with Vinod Mehra, the blockbusters Mukaddar Ka Sikandar and Ganga ki Saugandh opposite Amitabh Bachchan.) Understandably, Rekha has not cooperated in the writing of this biography. But Yasser Usman has dug deep into the information that is out there and he has been meticulous in citing his sources.