Casual observers of Indian cinema might be unaware of the reasons why Rekha, an actress who dominated Bollywood during the 1970s and 1980s, dropped out of the public eye and became a semi-recluse.
She rarely grants interviews or attends show business events. The chance to see her in public last week, when she attended the opening of the 13th Dubai International Film Festival on Wednesday and collected its Lifetime Achievement Award, was a rare treat for fans.
The actress retreated into her private life in the early 1990s, her privacy guarded jealously. The events that preceded this – including a doomed relationship with actor Amitabh Bachchan – became the subject of endless discussion in the media.
A recently published book, Rekha: The Untold Story, by journalist Yasser Usman, suggests that the real reason she abandoned Bollywood was that the industry treated her disgracefully, with scandalous misogyny, after the suicide of her husband, Mukesh Agarwal, in 1990.
He had been clinically depressed for some time, and in his suicide note, he wrote: “Don’t blame anyone.” This did not prevent the media and many in the film industry from attacking Rekha’s character and blaming her for his death.
“The Black Widow” was one of the more restrained headlines. “No conscientious director will ever work with her again,” said director Subhash Ghai. Actor Anupam Kher said: “She’s become the national vamp. Professionally and personally, I think it’s curtains for her.”
After such vilification, it is little surprise Rekha withdrew.
A complicated love life – a string of failed romances preceded her marriage to Agarwal – turned her into a figure of hate. Usman traces her unhappy childhood that was cut short when she was forced to start work as an actress in 1969, at the age of 14, to support her family and pay her mother’s debts.
“I was pulled out of the ninth class and made to work…I used to refuse to go to the sets and occasionally my brother beat me up,” Rekha has said.
She was born out of wedlock and her famous father, actor Gemini Ganesan, refused to acknowledge or support her. At school she was taunted for being “ugly, fat and illegitimate”.
When she arrived in Bombay as a vulnerable teenager, Bollywood proved no friendlier. She was mocked for being dark-skinned, overweight, not knowing Hindi (her mother tongue is Tamil), and eating South Indian food.
“Bombay was like a jungle and I had walked in unarmed,” she has said. “It was one of the most frightening phases of my life.”
Usman suggests the innocent teenager was in all likelihood sexually exploited by men in the industry. In any case, her image as a bold and independent woman – not complimentary terms in an Indian context – were established.
And yet, as Usman relates, Rekha overcame the odds to become one of the greatest actresses of Indian cinema, starring in 200 films and winning acclaim for her roles in Umrao Jaan, Khoobsurat, Kalyug, Utsav and Ijaazat among many others.
While Usman’s account of her life is sincere and sympathetic, its biggest deficiency is, unsurprisingly, that she refused to speak to him. He was, therefore, forced to rely on people who knew her, archive interviews and second-hand sources.
“I managed to talk to her secretary once and she said she would get back to me but never did,” says Usman. “Now that I know how many vicious things have been written about Rekha, I can understand her apprehension in collaborating on the book.”
He sent her a copy of the finished book but has had no response.
“I hope she liked it and realised that it is an honest portrait of her but also a hugely sympathetic portrait,” he says.
“She is an eternal fighter and finally emerged a winner, but Bollywood has been cruel to her.”
This assessment, and accusations of misogyny, will be an eye-opener for those who see Bollywood as trendy and cool.
“I am not saying that she is a role model, but she was honest about everything and Bollywood tried to tame her,” writes Usman.
He believes the treatment of women in the industry has not improved greatly since Rekha’s time. Kangana Ranaut, for example, has faced harsh personal attacks for her feud with Hrithik Roshan.
“Look at Kangana Ranaut, or Vidya Balan, who was on top of her game five years ago,” says Usman. “I’m not comparing them with Rekha – but they’ve got no big pictures lined up.
“Women who speak their mind and are honest are eventually sidelined. This is still a male-dominated industry.”
• Rekha: The Untold Story by Yasser Usman is available now