She is the most private of stars. Not a recluse, as the press wants to label her; just private and protective of her mystery. What the world sees of Rekha are the few glittering outings she makes in her signature Kanjivarams and ornate jewellery. The dazzle is all that’s visible; the rest is hidden carefully behind those silken folds. Only when she’s completely comfortable will she let the veil of mystery to flutter, allowing you just a glimpse. Try to peek in and you will be held back gently.
Interviewing her can be an elaborate game filled with feints, tangential answers and sudden turns. And you don’t just jump into the game; you begin with old school politesse. My conversations with her begin with a comfortable familiarity.
“Wonderful. As always. You know that.”
She deals with that bit quickly. Then it’s her turn.
“How is your mother? Give her my namaskarams. How is your daughter? Husband, family, all okay?
“And you’ve been good?” (I usually come last.)
And this (or variations thereof) is how we usually start our conversations.
Lest I give you the wrong impression, we don’t talk often. Once a year perhaps; sometimes twice. And not for idle chit-chat; always for a reason.
This time, I have two. One, her 60th birthday, which went by around a week ago. And second, she has a film top-lining her after many years; Super Nani is scheduled to release end-October.
But first, the birthday, which was accompanied by predictable talk of the ‘ageless diva’, ‘timeless beauty’ and such-like. She brushes aside both the day and the accompanying hoopla. “Timeless only means time abhi bahut kam hai (time is running out),” she laughs. “And in any case, every day is a rebirth for me.”
Are you saying the sixtieth was like any other day in your life; nothing special about it, I ask. “But every new day is special and a cause for wonder,” she replies. Side-stepping the question, is she? Not quite, you realise, when she continues, “I’m so grateful for every day and every moment, I ask myself what I did to deserve this blessing? All I feel is gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.”
Coming from most, those lines would sound like self-motivational mush — and perhaps they do to those who know only the beauteous, bejewelled figure that she presents most times.
But pause and consider the life she’s had, one that’s too well-documented to recount here. And you will realise that for a 13-year-old who was thrown into what was then the cesspool of the Hindi film industry — an actor who was constantly sneered at and humiliated before she hit the big time, and a woman who was pushed to the very edge before she retreated into her world — the life she leads now must feel like a blessing.
“I didn’t plan to come to Mumbai, or become an actor, or be single, or lead the life I do now. Someone decided this life for me,” she says. “When I was young, my mother sent me into the film industry and I did four and five shifts a day for 15-20 years. I’m reaping the benefits of that today.”
And what are those benefits? “Luxuries actually,” she says. “First, it’s a luxury for me to have my sanity intact.” I laugh, and then stop. “It really is no laughing matter, is it?” I venture. “No it’s not,” she says quietly.
And we return to her list of luxuries. “My solitude. And the fact that I can watch the sunrise and sunset every day from my house. That I can sit in my garden and watch the wrens and kingfishers that come and go. It’s a tiny place, but it’s my oasis.”
She’s earned all of this the tough way and on her own; that’s perhaps why she holds on to the sanctuary of her home like a secret — even close friends have never been inside. “I like the feeling of being able to take care of myself on my own time and in my own space,” she says. “And the luxury of being able to make my own choices. I don’t have to seek permission from anyone, be it a parent, companion or spouse.”
However, she adds, “That said, it is a huge responsibility because I have no one to blame if I make a mistake. No one I can turn around and accuse, ‘You told me to do that!’ If I fail, it’s all my fault.”
But there is one person she turns to every night. “At the end of the day, when I thank God for the wonderful day that I have had, my biggest luxury is the way Shiva looks into my eyes and asks, ‘Amma, are you ok?’”
Er, are you one of those who has conversations with God, I ask. “Oh, I was talking about Shiva, my pet Lhasa,” she laughs. “But yes, I talk to the Lord Shiva too — all the time. Because my prayers are not about aartis and the fragrance of agarbattis and dhoop. That’s the superficial part. There are lots of meditative practices, deep reflection and the awakening of creative energy. Energy that goes into my garden, my singing, the cushions that I place in my car, everything I do. My life is one big prayer because my life is one big blessing.”
This b-word is one you get used to hearing a lot with Rekha, especially since she finds it everywhere and in the simplest of pleasures. “For me, joy is eating home-cooked payasam in a bowl that I have cleaned and polished myself,” she tells me. Wait, did I hear the last bit right? “Yes, I find it therapeutic to clean my vessels and polish them.” She enjoys my surprise enough to feed it further. “I like to water my plants and clean all the artefacts in my house. Do you know, I can actually clean and service an air-conditioner?” She can’t be serious about the last. “But why not; one has to be a little tech-savvy, don’t you think?” Right, so much for all that ‘diva’ talk.
That has come about largely because she manages to keep her private life under the radar and hasn’t played the publicity-interviews-photoshoot-parties game that others do. But no one can escape the promotion blitz that a movie demands these days. So she’s out there, doing her bit for Super Nani, a film about a neglected and humiliated grandmother, who turns her life — and that of the family — around one day. A film that will hopefully strike a chord with all those millions of unappreciated mothers out there.
“But mothers don’t even think of it that way,” believes Rekha. “They’re just happy doing their job; that’s their greatest joy. And that shines through in their every thought, every intention and every gesture.”
There was a time when she believed God was a woman, she says. “Not any more, though I do believe that the woman is stronger. Yes, she’s often considered weaker and subordinate, she is ridiculed and not taken seriously — but that ultimately became her power. She doesn’t need to be proud, all she feels is gratitude.” Now, why does that sound familiar?