Shoot­ing Star

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - INDULGE -

IFIRST EN­COUN­TERED the glam­orous world of Hindi cin­ema when I was around eight years old. It hap­pened thus. We had set off on a pic­nic with fam­ily and friends to the Botan­i­cal Gar­den in Howrah. As we headed for our usual spot un­der the over­ar­ch­ing banyan tree, we saw a flurry of ex­cite­ment just off to the right. There was a small crowd gath­ered, held be­hind a roped-off area by a posse of po­lice­men.

How could we pos­si­bly re­sist? We veered off from our nor­mal route to check out what was hap­pen­ing. “Shoot­ing cholche,” ex­plained one ex­cited man, while ev­ery­body around shouted “Omeet da, Omeet da!”

The ‘Omeet da’ in ques­tion was none other than Amitabh Bachchan. There he sat on the top of a tiny hillock, a white towel ar­ranged around his neck, check­ing out his re­flec­tion in the mir­ror held up by one of his as­sis­tants.

But my eyes swept past him to zero in on an­other fig­ure: a stat­uesque sari-clad lady stand­ing in the shade of a tree, her eyes fixed – like the rest of us – on Amitabh Bachchan. Even as a child, I could sense the in­ten­sity of that gaze, even though I couldn’t re­ally make sense of it. Who was that woman, I asked my sis­ter. That was the hero­ine of the movie. Her name was Rekha.

I hadn’t yet been ex­posed to the plea­sures of Star­dust or Cine Blitz, so I had no idea about the ru­mors swirling around the lead ac­tors of Do An­jane (the shoot­ing of this movie was ap­par­ently when their af­fair started). But as we per­suaded them to pose for a pic­ture with us, and the two of them stood to­gether in the mid­dle of our lit­tle hud­dle, it was Rekha I couldn’t take my eyes off.

The story of Rekha con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate us; but the woman her­self re­mains a mys­tery

took some per­suad­ing to get her to talk but she fi­nally re­lented. As I was ush­ered into her dimly-lit draw­ing room and laid eyes on her beau­ti­ful but drawn face, grief etched deep into ev­ery per­fect fea­ture, I re­al­ized in a flash that while Rekha may well have been the wife, I was now face-to-face face with the vir­tual wi­dow.

Ba­jaj’s pain was im­pos­si­ble to fathom; her dig­nity al­most un­bear­able to watch. And as she spoke, her voice strain­ing un­der her sor­row and be­wil­der­ment (“All I want to ask is why?”), the idea of Rekha that I had car­ried in my head be­gan to take an al­to­gether uglier shape.

Of course, ev­ery­one knew even then that Mukesh Ag­gar­wal had been a chronic de­pres­sive. And that it was no­body’s fault that he had de­cided to end his life. But in mo­ments of anger and an­guish, it is only nat­u­ral to lash out at some­body. And Mukesh’s fam­ily and friends lashed out at Rekha, the woman who had ‘be­witched’ him and then cru­elly aban­doned him to his fate.

It was af­ter that episode that Rekha turned into the recluse she is to­day. Walled up be­hind the gates of her bun­ga­low, her only link to the world ap­pears to be her long-time sec­re­tary, Farzana, who bizarrely, al­ways dresses like Amitabh Bachchan (circa 1980s) when­ever she es­corts the ac­tress to public events. Even the new bi­og­ra­phy of Rekha pub­lished by Jug­ger­naut is based on in­ter­views with peo­ple who know her. Rekha her­self re­mained in­com­mu­ni­cado dur­ing the en­tire process.

Speak­ing for my­self, I only saw Rekha in the flesh once af­ter that child­hood en­counter. We were both leav­ing an awards func­tion in Mum­bai, wait­ing for our cars to ar­rive. Not want­ing to stare gog­gle-eyed like ev­ery­one else on the porch, I just risked a side­long glance. Her kohl-rimmed eyes still shone like jew­els but her skin was stretched tight as a drum, so much so that those bow-shaped red lips could no longer re­lax nat­u­rally into a smile. Rekha was now the car­i­ca­ture of the woman she had once been, with her ric­tus grin, her im­mo­bile fore­head, and pa­per-thin skin.

Only one thing hadn’t changed. Her hands were still five shades darker than her face.

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