Labelled A ‘Homebreaker’, How Rekha Fought Bollywood’s Misogyny With Grace And Power

It was at three in the morning the day after my birthday, and I was struggling to finish a murder mystery for a contest when I saw Rekhaji liking my tweets and also re-tweeting them. I stopped immediately. I could not believe it. I had just replied to a question asked by Agent of Ishq, about which song which can turn my libido on, and I had mentioned Rekhaji’s song sung by Asha Bhosle “Katra katra milti hai, Katra katra jeene do/Zindagi hai, zindagi hai/Behne do, behne do/Pyaasi hoon main pyaasi rehne do/Rehne do na” from the movie “Ijazaat”.

Born Bhanurekha Ganeshan to south Indian actors Gemini Ganesan and Pushpavalli, she was deprived of a happy childhood, one of the reasons being the financial crisis. She never really had much interest in studies, so she opted for films given the fact that she was a daughter of film stars. She was initially disliked for her tanned skin and looks, and she was also a bit bulky.

She was only a little girl of 14 when the director Biswajeet forced himself on her in a kissing scene. Rekhaji could not protest as she thought they were powerful and could ruin her completely. The camera rolled when the producers happily declared their discovery of a ‘bold sex kitten’. Her life wasn’t easy, she had an untold pain in her where she had to tolerate the highs and lows of her life, that is, her personal tragedies and professional disappointment.

Let me clarify before I start why I am discussing Rekhaji in this essay. I am not here to discuss her success story, which everyone can see in her movies. I am here to discuss how tough she has been in this misogynistic society, which delivered on her the cruellest blows one can tolerate. And to everyone’s surprise, Rekhaji still remains among the 20 top lead actresses in the Bollywood film industry.

Though people loved her for her sexuality and intrepid roles in several movies like “Umrao Jaan”, “Aastha” and “Kamasutra”, people should also know she is equally talented in the genres of comedy, thriller, drama and suspense. The movie “Ijazzat” is a powerful watch that deals with feminism and patriarchy, where she played the ingenious role of a middle-class woman who fought against the odds but never compromised on her values just for a man.

This is similar to another movie, “Khoon Bhari Maang”, where she played a widow who lost her loving husband only to fall victim to a lecherous man who tried to murder her and steal her money.  In the movie, she was a mother to two little children and she was left to die. She refused to be a victim and ultimately emerged as a powerful woman who kills her tormentor at the end of the movie. It also portrayed her as a stunt woman riding a horse with guns and whips in her hand, to beat a harasser when the need arises.

In the movie “Khoobsurat” she played a role of a naughty girl who, with her loving nature, won several hearts – including that of Nirmala Gupta who, initially upset with her mischievous nature, ultimately forgives her. In real life too Rekhaji is like that, a gallant and loving woman.

Now I bring up the movie “Kamasutra”, which was a brilliant masterpiece from the legendary filmmaker Mira Nair, where Rekhaji played the role of Rasadevi, teaching the women of the 16th Century the art of lovemaking. But both Mira Nair and Rekhaji portrayed the woman as masterful creations of the Almighty, who could teach a man how to love a woman for her spiritual soul and not as a commodity. Sadly our patriarchal society considered this movie obscene and both Mira Nair and Rekhaji were dragged into controversies.

Time and again Rekhaji was blamed for being a homebreaker, but she wasn’t the one to be blamed. If you take a look at her life, she never wanted to be just another woman to any man. In a new book on Rekhaji’s early life and controversies, author Yasser Usman earmarked wrote about another aspect of her life – her loneliness. In an article on his book in the Hindustan Times, the author even mentioned, “In typically sexist style, the film industry and the press repeatedly singled out Rekha and maligned her, never her partners, for her supposed relationships. After reports of affairs with Jeetendra, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan, among others, Rekha was projected as a woman who posed a ‘threat’ to the happiness of married couples in Bollywood. The press uninventively called her a ‘man-eater’ and a ‘nymphomaniac’ […] Even with no one seemingly on her side, Rekha went on to become a superstar and the highest paid actress of her time.

She married a businessman named Mukesh Agarwal, who was attracted by her combination of beauty with brains. He hanged himself to death with Rekhaji’s dupatta, in a suitably Bollywood fashion. The entire world pointed fingers at Rekhaji, blaming her for the suicide. Society knows that Mukesh was a victim of depression, and also utterly possessive, and made Rekhaji’s life miserable by constantly demanding her attention – including embarrassing her by leaving his business back in Delhi to hang around her during her shoots. Despite this, Anupam Kher said about the suicide, “She’s become the national vamp. Professionally and personally, I think it’s curtains for her. I mean I don’t know how will I react to her if I come face to face with her.” She was also accused by Anil Gupta, who said, “My brother loved Rekha truly. For him, love was a do or die attempt. He could not tolerate what Rekha was doing to him. Now what does she want, does she want our money?

So again our society passed judgment, that a woman needs to be blamed when a man commits suicide. I ask, when a woman commits suicide, does this society wonder if a man needs to be blamed? If she was a woman of “questionable character”?  If she was a victim of some illness? No, of course – there we need to scrutinize the woman and question her morality.

People give an eerie look at Rekhaji when she wears a red bindi on her forehead, sindoor on her parted hair, and a mangalsutra, despite not having a man in her life. People assume she is married to someone, and then go on to extrapolate that she must be in a relationship, and so many other factors to drag down a woman. Well, society – I too am a single woman and sometimes I too wear a red bindi, sindoor on my parted hair, and also a mangalsutra when I feel like wearing them, though I do not have a man in my life. I will wear anything I like, I will do whatever I like, and fuck all of you – you have no business playing with a woman’s emotions. And I shouldn’t be biased – those of my own gender also sometimes ask me stupid questions, and all I do is listen.

I am not Rekhaji. I am nothing compared to her. But while Rekhaji tolerates all the gossip about her, does anyone know how she deals with her pain privately? She is a human being, a woman. The media doesn’t spare her: each time she is spotted with a man, her personal life becomes a national affair. And the reason behind it that is she is a talented woman, and people are jealous. She has featured in several movies and in each, she has given a strong message to society. She has acted for several noted directors. To name a few: Mira Nair, Basu Chatterjee, Rama Rao Tateneni and Yash Chopra. She is a recipient of several awards: Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the movies “Khoon Bhari Maang” and “Khoobsurat”; National Film Award for Best Actress for the movie “Umrao Jaan”; Screen Award for Best Villain for the film “Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi”, and too many more to cover in one essay.

In my essay, I wrote through the eyes of Rekhaji, who is my inspiration, but I have a reason behind my story. As a woman, we should be able to do whatever we like, maybe by wearing sindoor, maybe by being sensuous, maybe by talking sex openly – as I am unapologetic when I talk sex and will continue to be so. A man can talk sex, yet we cannot – and when we talk sex openly, we are labelled “bad”. Despite all odds, Rekhaji remains fearless and keeps doing her work in silence. All of us women should be doing that. Pay no heed to rumours or juicy gossip. Likewise, there is no need to beat your trumpet to prove your worth to certain callous characters, who may be of your own gender as well. Keep doing your work and have faith in yourself. Women are accountable to God and to no one else. We need no certification from a man to validate ourselves. We have excelled in all segments, education, science, art, theatre, films, and many more. Over the years there will be several awards for us.

People tried to portray Rekhaji only through her sexuality and sensuality, only to be proved wrong. She is a talent and, as I said, a truly beautiful woman with a heart of gold. People see her happy face, but she dealt will all the blows life delivered to her alone. She had no family to support her. As a celebrity, she is trolled. She chooses to keep a very low profile and it is said that she hardly speaks on the phone. But she is a complete woman who lives the way she loves, and we should all be doing the same. Follow our true calling and not to pay heed to those petty dramas which will be forgotten by history. We shouldn’t be ruled by reason; in that case, the possibility of life will be destroyed.

In conclusion, I say: if you want to make a dent in the universe, a lot of people are going to be unhappy with you. But that’s okay. Tightropes are meant to be traversed alone. So we women are on those tightropes, ready to make a dent in the universe. Better be careful, misogynistic society.

Featured image source: Milind Shelte/India Today Group/Getty Images
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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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