Rekha – the evergreen Queen of Indian Cinema
Bhanurekha Ganesan (born 10 October 1954), better known by her stage name Rekha, is an Indian actress who has mainly appeared in Hindi films. Noted for her versatility and acknowledged as one of the finest actresses in Hindi cinema,Rekha started her career in 1966 as a child actress in the Telugu movie Rangula Ratnam, though her film debut as a lead happened four years later with Sawan Bhadon (1970). Despite the success of several of her early films, she was often panned for her looks and it was not until the mid-to-late 1970s that she got recognition as an actress. Since the late 1970s, after undertaking a physical transformation, she has been featured as a sex symbol in the Indian media.
Rekha has acted in over 180 films in a career spanning over 40 years. Throughout her career, she has often played strong female characters and, apart from mainstream cinema, appeared in arthouse films, known in India as parallel cinema. She has won three Filmfare Awards, two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress, for her roles in Khubsoorat (1980), Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) and Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996), respectively. Her portrayal of a classical courtesan in Umrao Jaan (1981) won her the National Film Award for Best Actress. Though her career has gone through certain periods of decline, she has reinvented herself numerous times and has been credited for her ability to sustain her status.
Rekha was born in Chennai (then Madras) to Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan and Telugu actress Pushpavalli. Her father enjoyed considerable success as an actor and Rekha was to follow in his footsteps.Her mother tongue is Telugu.
Her parents were not married, and her father did not acknowledge his paternity during her childhood. It was in early 1970s, when she was looking for a footing in Bollywood, that she revealed her origins. Later, at the peak of her career, Rekha told a magazine interviewer that her father’s neglect still rankled and that she had ignored his efforts at reconciliation. Rekha quit school in order to start a career in acting. She did not have any personal aspirations in this direction, but the troubled financial state of her family compelled her to do so.
In 1990, Rekha married Delhi-based industrialist Mukesh Aggarwal. A year later—while she was in the US—he committed suicide, after several previous attempts, leaving a note, “Don’t blame anyone”.She was pilloried by the press at that time, a period which one journalist termed as “the deepest trough in her life.” She was rumoured to have been married to actor Vinod Mehra in 1973, but in a 2004 television interview with Simi Garewal she denied being married to Mehra referring to him as a “well-wisher”. Rekha currently lives in her Bandra home in Mumbai.
Image and Artistry
In 2011, Rediff listed her as the ninth-greatest Indian actress of all time, noting, “It’s hard not to be bowled over by Rekha’s longevity, or her ability to reinvent herself… the actress took on a man’s job and did it stunningly well, holding her own against all the top actors and being remembered despite them.” Filmfare described her acting style, writing, “…when it comes to style, sexiness or sheer onscreen presence, she’s unparalleled… a fierce, raw, flinty performer with unbridled honesty. Her acting isn’t gimmicky.” Critic Khalid Mohamed commends her technical control: “She knows how to give and to what degree. She has all that it takes to be a director. There is a kind of vulnerability in her control. She explores when she is acting.” Shyam Benegal, who directed her in two movies, believes she is “a director’s actress”. M.L. Dhawan from The Tribune wrote, “Rekha’s flowering as an actress post Ghar and Khubsoorat climaxed in Umrao Jaan. As a tragic courtesan she gave a performance of consummate artistry, adopting a much-admired huskiness and despondency of tone. Rekha communicated much with a delicately raised eyebrow. In 2010, Filmfare included two of her performances—from Khubsoorat (1980) and Umrao Jaan (1981)—in their list of “80 Iconic Performances”.
Rekha has often been compared to Greta Garbo, and has been cited by media as her Indian equivalent. Hindustan Times described her physical change and loss of weight as “one of cinema’s and perhaps real life’s most dramatic transformations,” arguing that “Rekha morphed from an overweight, dark ordinary girl into a glamorous and beautiful enigma, shrouding her life in an intriguing Garbo-like mystery.” According to Rediff, “Rekha’s reclusive nature has gone a long way towards building an aura of mystery around her.” Rekha rarely gives interviews, and she mostly avoids parties and events. Asked once about her mysterious image, she denied several times trying to live up to this image, asserting it is press-created: “What mystery? The media is the one that creates this image. It’s just that I am basically shy by nature, an introvert and fiercely private.” Film journalist Anupama Chopra, who visited Rekha in 2003, wrote that while tabloids had portrayed her as “a reclusive woman twisted bitter by lecherous men and loneliness”, in reality Rekha was “none of these”, describing her as “chatty and curious, excited and energetic, cheerful and almost illegally optimistic”.
Writing for The Tribune, Mukesh Khosla spoke of her transformation, writing, “From the giggling village belle in Saawan Bhadon to one of country’s reigning actresses, Rekha has come a long way.” According to critic Omar Qureshi, “the term diva (in India) was coined for Rekha.” Mira Nair, who directed Rekha in Kama Sutra (1997), likens her to a “Jamini Roy painting” and says, “Like Marilyn Monroe is shorthand for sex, Rekha is shorthand for charisma”. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali labels her the “last of the great stars”.
She was referred to as the reigning Queen of Indian Cinema at the 2012 IIFA Awards held in Singapore, where she was given the “Outstanding Contribution to Indian Cinema (Female)” award, also referred to as the Lifetime Achievement Award.