Indian actor Rekha will be honoured by the upcoming Dubai International Film Festival with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The festival runs from December 7 to 14, and is now arguably the leading cinematic event in the region with both Doha and Abu Dhabi having shut shop some time ago.
In a four-decade career that saw her act in 180 movies, Rekha’s first steps into filmdom were unimpressive and seemed dangerously close to being one that would crash even before taking off.
Although her first work as a heroine was no less than one with the reigning Kannada superstar of the day, Rajkumar, in Operation Jackpot Nalli CID 999 in 1969, she actually came into the limelight with a Hindi picture, Sawan Badon, in 1970 co-starring with Navin Nischol. The movie was a runaway success, but Rekha was yet to arrive! And apart from her dark complexion and plump figure -- two hugely minus points in the Hindi cinema industry -- nobody really thought that Rekha would become an actor worth the name.
In one her very early interviews, she rued: “I was called the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of Hindi film, because of my dark complexion and South Indian features. I used to feel deeply hurt when people compared me with the leading heroines of the time and said I was no match for them. I was determined to make it big on sheer merit.”
Adding to her struggle was a scandal in a movie, Anjana Safar, she did with Biswajeet in 1969 --where she said she was tricked into kissing her hero in a version meant for the international circuit. The film made it to the Life magazine in an era when kissing on the Indian screen was such a novelty, nay an outrage.
But Rekha weathered this cyclonic phase -- often contending by way of explanation that she was forced by her mother, Pushpavalli, into choosing movies like Anjana Safar, Asha Jyoti and Zameen Aasman that bombed at the box office and stopped her from flying high in the skies. Yet, nobody still understands why she said a no to a brilliant film like Shankarabharanam; she was sounded out for the Hindi version of it. It was a huge miss.
But then all this proved to be a passing phase, and Rekha made up her mind at some point that she would give up her unprofessional attitude (that included walking late into the sets), slim down and get set for the last word in looks and discipline. Was there a man behind all this? We can only surmise.
And as luck would have it, Yash Chopra’s Faasle and Girish Karnad’s Utsav came along, and Rekha’s career took an upswing. There really was no looking back after that, and years later, her father and one of the most popular movie stars of his time, Gemini Ganesh (also called the King of Romance), would tell this writer during a long chat at his Madras home that “You know I am really very, very proud of my daughter Rekha. Her talent is immense, and far, far ahead of mine.” He was also sad that Rekha could not have a college education like him (He was a graduate.).
However, after all these years, nobody can deny that Rekha was among the best that the Hindi film industry had ever produced -- and one can easily rank her along with Madhubala, Nutan and Waheeda Rehman -- some of the most iconic performers of all time. Rekha’s brilliant acting in works such as Umrao Jaan, Khubsoorat, Khoon Bhari Maang, Silsila and Khiladiyon Ka Khliadi have been tempered with rare intensity. Even in Khubsoorat, where she essays a happy-go-lucky girl, her pluck ultimately saves a man (Ashok Kumar) from death. Remember the scene where she admonishes a senior doctor over the phone and lectures him about humanism (insaaniyat)?
Several awards have gone to her - including a Padma Shri and a Filmfare trophy. And the festival’s chairman, Abdulhamid Juma, went to the extent of saying in a note that “Rekha has played an instrumental role in the evolution of Hindi cinema, sustaining her legendary status throughout an astounding 40- year career, and has rightfully earned the recognition she has seen all over the world, including here in the UAE.”
What is even more impressive about the Dubai honour is that it has been bestowed on some of the giants of cinema, like Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, Faten Hamamah, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Youssef Chahine, Martin Sheen, Oliver Stone, Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai.
And Rekha, once shunned by her own industry, now stands rubbing shoulders with these great men and women celebrated the world over.
Many years ago, she told this writer in her Bombay bungalow -- at a time when fame was still a little away -- “At times, I fantasise about a girl in a world of shells”. That is what she was at school in Madras, the Church Park Convent, a plain Jane who was hesitant, nervous, unsure about herself. But Jane transformed into an epitome of accomplishment and beauty.” What a marvellous journey!