Since the release of the book, everybody has been asking you about Amitabh Bachchan’s role in this biography. You’ve said it’s not about him, even though he’s there, throughout, in the book. What is your book on Rekha about?
This book is about 14-year-old Bhanurekha Ganesan, who came from Madras to the Hindi film industry without knowing a word of Hindi; who was serially abused and exploited and humiliated. She went through so many relationships and she was rejected because of her past, her status as a child out of wedlock. Rekha wanted a husband and children, she had many relationships where she hoped for fulfilment — Jeetendra, Vinod Mehra, Kiran Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and finally, Mukesh Agarwal.
After his suicide in 1990, she was blamed for everything and there was a witch hunt. She was the bigger star in these relationships and she gave them everything, but they didn’t reciprocate as much. What she went through is not restricted to Bollywood, it happens to so many women in our society. Rekha never wanted what happened with her mother, Pushpavalli (her lover, Tamil superstar Gemini Ganesan, never acknowledged her in public or married her) to happen to her — but it did.
You’re not a Rekha fan, so what made you write the biography? You reached out to her but were unsuccessful. How did you go about writing the book?
It’s a ritual every year, during an awards show, to cut to Rekha’s face or Amitabh Bachchan’s face if the camera is on either of them. Channels have made promos out of these shots to hike up the TRP. I wanted to write a book that would make the reader think differently about Rekha.
When I realised that it would not be possible to speak to her, I went about writing the book with a journalistic approach. It took me more than a year to source interviews from scores of film magazines of the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and I have written about Rekha as she described herself and her life in her own words. I went to the National Film Archives in Pune, I sourced magazines from collectors. She used to give very lively interviews in those days, before she came to be known as a reclusive diva. I also spoke to those filmmakers, producers who worked with her. The most shocking part of her story for me was about her marriage to Agarwal and the events that followed. So I began my book with that.
Your first book was Rajesh Khanna: The Untold Story of India’s First Superstar. Did you notice a difference in how the film industry treats its women stars in comparison to the men?
Absolutely. I spoke to producers and directors who worked with Rekha, they’re quite old now, but they still talk about her in such a sexist way. So much of what they have said is unprintable. So many people did not want to speak to me about Rekha. These are the same men who told me numerous stories about Rajesh Khanna — about his drinking, the different women who frequented his home — but he was a “shaandar mard (an excellent man)”. Those who had good things to say about Rekha — Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Muzaffar Ali — they have made their best films with Rekha. Some people say that Rekha did several substandard films all through her career, but nobody has cared to know why. She was the sole breadwinner of her seven-member family. Women weren’t paid at the same level as men, they still don’t get equal pay, but things were worse when Rekha began her career. She took up as many projects as she could because she had to pay the bills. But this is an industry that remains unforgiving to independent women who want to live on their own terms. Look at what happened with Kangana Ranaut.
Which is your favourite Rekha film?