Amitabh is like a textbook

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She retains the same allure today, one of mystery, of promise, of a depth unseen by man. Of a blinding energy that is best beheld from a distance. Of a simple charming girl whom Fate has taken to be Her own. The one and only Rekha completes 56 years of her life and 42 years of existence in showbiz. On the way she has bewitched and captivated, kept us guessing, made us dance to her beat and watch some stunning performances. All along, defeating the stereotype and making sure that every step is virtually of her own volition. Of rules that she chose to create, of glass ceilings that she chose to break, of paths that she dared to cross. On her own. Much has been said about her roles. A lot has been written about her performances. Speculations have been whispered on her relationships. But the unwritten emotion, the waiting-to-be-expressed persona, the larger-than-life personality is something no one will deny. She is the one and only.  Period.  A Gemstone. That sparkles with a deep lustre. She is Rekha

I ask her to tap into and elucidate her thoughts. Looking resplendent in a white kurta and jeans, her face scrupulously scrubbed, glowing, she turns her thoughts inwards and sallies, “How do I feel?  I can’t really explain it. How does a mother feel when her child turns 80? To a mother, whether a child is 80, she is still a child. My  belief is that my inner core is ageless and timeless part of the eternal divine whole. Like the camera, I have a point of view and with every passing day, my point of view gets into sharper, deeper focus.”

Like a slowly developing picture, she reveals herself by and by. Sometimes I can read her thoughts, sometimes it’s hard to decipher. Outside the orange sun casts a lambent glow on the sea. She ties and unties her beautifully unruly hair and then fluffs them into a tiny ball. “How does one feel on every birthday? I don’t like attention as a rule. I feel very self-conscious. I remember back in the old days, my producers would have these grand birthday bashes. For want of a better word it was embarrassing. It was good publicity for them. So there we would be in our bouffants, chalky makeup, huge bouquets,” she recalls good-naturedly. 

Me, being me always draws her into looking back with affection. She gently chides me that I only want to know what appeals to me. She tut-tuts at my inability to fine tune into her senses. She says, ‘‘Bete, to me every day is a celebration, a renewal of your vows to yourself. My dreams, my passions, my aspirations will all come to a head. I’m bubbling, exploding with creative ideas. So on this birthday I have resolved to do everything that I didn’t do so far. What I plan to do is for me to do and you to keep guessing. Physically, I feel like a 28 year old, but mentally I think I’m 80. Yet, I feel born again every single day, eager and excited to live every moment with love and compassion. I’d rather use all my energies to solve the problem, fight it and emerge a better human being. My life has been uniquely designed for me. I did what I thought was best then…when I knew better…I did better…” she trails off.

So many questions to ask, so little time. As if seizing my thoughts and yoking them together, she talks about the time she had celebrated her 30th birthday. “When I turned 30 I remember thinking I should be more mature, no choodis and jhumkas for me. I’d have to act mature. Just look at me! How naïve I was. Today, I think I’m more emotionally fit, mature. It’s taken me years to know and understand that I shouldn’t carry excess baggage, eliminate people who add to stress. I’ve learnt to accept life, I may not understand it fully even now,’’ Rekha says with a Zen-like  understanding of that which lies beyond.

She continues, “I wouldn’t have been able to achieve the things I’ve achieved and evolved to be the person I am today, without the unconditional support of my family, my friends and not to mention my eternally loyal fans without whom I couldn’t have ventured this far or be in the place that I am right now.”

India’s most enigmatic star whose reigned on the marquee and the mindscape for years is loath to tom-toming  her achievements. In fact she says modestly, “Look it’s been 20 years since I’ve done anything substantial to write home about. But I’m so grateful to all that God’s bestowed upon me. What we want in life isn’t important, we can’t gauge what’s good for us. Only 
the creator knows what’s the best for us.’’

She adds, “I’m just so happy that people are still curious to know what I’m upto. Every five years when I make a movie, it’s termed as a comeback. It’s always been like that with me. When I did Khoobsurat, they said she’s back. It happened when Silsila, happened. The so-called comeback pattern has dogged me even when  Umrao Jaan, Khoon Bhari Maang and Aastha happened. I can only, like I said, be grateful for all the attention. Patience is a good virtue to have, no?” Maya memsaab asks tongue firmly in cheek.

Almost taking sheaves out of sepia-tinted time she says, ‘‘When I look back and think of all that’s happened, I just catch my breath. I joined movies at a time, when I barely knew anything. I was just 13, too much was happening too soon. I was signed by brothers Kuljeet and Shatrujeet Pal. I was adrift, I didn’t understand Hindi. I couldn’t tell if people were being rude or being nice to me. All I wanted to do was go back and play with my dolls.”

Another nugget: “I was not born with a golden spoon but a film spoon. My Tamil and Telugu background was in my DNA. While mom worked in the studios, me and my siblings played Paandi (hopscotch) in the studios. While I didn’t understand anything but may have registered subconsciously. Maybe it was karmically ordained that I’d always be an actor.”

The dreams of a doll’s house may have come unstuck but Rekha slalomed to big bucks, big cars, big banners. In  a trice, her world had changed. The daughter of the illustrious Gemini Ganeshan and Pushpavalli was deluged and matinee magic had enveloped  her in its huge maw. The tresses come undone again and I stare as she quickly tucks away the hair. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s,  I was doing three shifts in Annapoorna studio. Hyderabad became my home away from home. Jeetendra was the hero of most of my films. I remember at one point, some five films of mine were running in the theatres including Ek Hi Bhool, Judaai, and God knows how many more? Don’t ask me how, at one point I had almost upto 40 films on the floor, unreal, no?” Madame M asks playfully.

She continues, ‘‘I used to sleep in my Volkswagon trailers. I would be studio hopping happily, changing make-up in my car. Sometimes waiting endlessly for late lateef co-stars to turn up, catch my forty winks. I remember the studios were so musty. I’d carry my own Dettol to sanitise the loos. Besides the studios which were our second homes, we also were fixtures at the phone booths in the studio. In fact, there was a phone booth outside RK, which had my handwriting on it…the familiar phone numbers…,” she checks herself.

The late ’60s was also a time when the old order was changing and a new order, a newer breed of actors came into the industry. Rekha being the sharpest tool in the shack.  Memories come cascading about the older lot of actors who welcomed this sprightly teenager with the warmth of a long lost relative. The diva particularly recalls  how Meena Kumari would collect pebbles, rocks and keep it on her bed stead. Rekha recalls, “Once I had the good fortune to meet her. I went with a co-star friends of mine to her house at Landmark building. Everyone those days would keep saying me and my friend resembled each other  a lot. So I asked Meena aapa if we did actually look similar and she husked, ‘Bilkul nahi. Woh meethi hai. Tum namkeen ho. Aur namkeen zyada khaya jaata hai…”

That spice was recognized by other film-makers like Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra and ofcourse the fabulous Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The actor acknowledges his immense contribution to her oeuvre. “Hrishida helped me to discover myself. I was his chinna ponnu. I always thought I was born an adult. But he made me see myself as he viewed me and showed that side to the world. He was able to capture a joie that I didn’t know existed in me in films like Khoobsurat and Jhooti…”

Like blotting paper absorbs the sharp slashes of ink, Bhanurekha’s impressionable teens were filled with many more unforgettable incidents and people. All of which will hopefully make to a biography. While she poo-poohs the very idea of penning her thoughts into a book, she recalls the wise words of the  late Balraj Sahni. He told her, ‘Beta be in the industry, but be out of it. Don’t let it define your persona…’

The clue to her mystique she admits also has been heightened by the inexorable influence of the late Jennifer Kendall,  Sunita Pitamber, and the divine Gayatri Devi, “I was always like a sponge, soaking in beauty, aesthetics, art. The grace and the enormous artistry of women like Jennifer influenced me. Gayatri devi generously opened her heart and home to me and for that I will always be indebted. I have always been aware of the impact I’ve had on people and that’s why I’ve also learnt not to take any of it for granted.”

She adds, “Don’t underestimate the grace of an Indian woman. I learnt so much from designers like Bhanu Athaiya, Mani Rabadi. Instinctively, I started designing my own clothes too for my movies, my photo shoots. Someday all of this will come together in some form which even
I don’t know right now.”

The next step: could it be a fashion label, zillion of endorsements, exclusive signature line ensembles. She holds her cards to her chest. Could it be television then? Without a trace of vanity, she says, ‘‘Television is ready for me. I think the small screen is doing much better than its large screen counterpart.’’

What the beautiful actor also learnt early on was self-preservation. She says sagely, “Most of the times I was mother to my mother and to my siblings. The mother instinct in me was too strong from the time I was born…and has been overflowing all my life. But then again I guess it’s a woman’s prerogative to feel this way. Some people are marked for life.
I was a breadwinner. I had to grow up overnight and take care of my siblings. My brother died prematurely, I had seen so many siblings of co-stars hooked on to alcohol, drugs. I promised myself long ago that I’d  preserve myself.  Many women think they need a marriage or man to complete them. But look at someone like Lataji who has time and again reinforced beautifully that marriage is not the be all and end all. My independence is the biggest gift I gave to myself.

Like her on-screen character in Umrao Jaan, her insatiable curiosity for what lies beyond gives her a certain vulnerability. She almost seems to acquiesce, ‘‘My vulnerability is what I’ll always treasure about myself. Beta do you remember the lines from Umrao when the music teacher tells me, ‘Ya to kisike ke ho lo…ya kisiko apna bana lo… So I say koshish toh ki thi…so he says tum koshish ki cheez nahin ho Umrao…tumhare liye to duniya padi hai… Similarly, while I always under-valued myself and was almost casual about everything I did, there were others who were convinced I had potential. But having said that I also think my greatest gift is that I have loved and received enough love… to let go.”

As inexorable as waves lapping a sea-shore, can any Rekha interview be complete without the mention of Amitabh Bachchan? Mais non. She looks at me half-disapprovingly, ‘‘Once a journalist, always a journalist. Okay, go on ask?”

So I want to know about her fellow Libran who’s jamming the airwaves and creating history once again on the tube. She remarks with equanimity, ‘‘I’m just blessed by being born one day apart from him. To be able to understand his interpretation of his craft, character, impulse is nothing short of karmic. The beauty of it is that Amitji is totally oblivious of his power and potential. Look how he relates to his contestants on Kaun Banega Crorepati. Amitji’s upbringing, his character he brings to bear. You just soak in and bask in all that learning. He’s like a textbook. He’s made whatever he touches larger than what it is meant to be. I see him on a daily basis. We get to see the person behind his true to life performances. His constant flow of positive energy, his pure compassion for his fellow country men ensures the fact that he is the true-blue son of India. When Amitji is switched on, it’s not reality TV, it’s real TV.

“Be it Paa or …Crorepati, I feel positive seeing what he makes us all feel. Through all his trials and tribulations, he’s emerged triumphant. May he live to be a 100 and continue to bless us lesser mortals.” Any more famous last words on AB? Madame M quotes a couplet, ‘‘Allah agar taufiq na dein…insaan ke bas ka kaam nahin, Faizan-e-mohabbat aam sahi…irfaane mohabbat aam nahin.’’

As always with her less is more and you have to read between the lines again! The shadows of the evening lengthen. It’s probably my hundredth meeting with the woman for whom my fascination continues unabated. With any method, she had mastered the height of perfect comic timing, she had mastered the art of summoning tears for the camera.  The art of performance. 

According to me, she is one of India’s greatest actors ever whose potential is still to be tapped. The lady who will probably leave us with many unanswered questions.
Reams have been written about her, films will obtusely make references to the florid life she once lead. Like Gloria Swanson once said, “I’m still big…it’s the movies which got smaller.”

…Just when she’s ready for her close-up.