In a display of typically sexist hypocrisy, the film industry singled out Rekha and maligned her, not her partners, for her supposed relationships. After reports of affairs with Jeetendra, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt and now Amitabh Bachchan, among others, Rekha was being projected as a woman who posed a ‘threat’ to all married men. Derogatory labels like ‘man-eater’, ‘nymphomaniac’ and ‘sex kitten’ were used casually and callously to refer to her.
At the peak of her career, Rekha was at the receiving end of scathing attacks by other leading actresses. The acclaimed actress of her era Nargis Dutt said about Rekha in 1976: ‘She gives the impression to men that she is easily available. Rekha is looked on as a “witch” by some. Sometimes I think I understand her. I’ve worked with a lot of children with a lot of psychological problems in my time. She’s lost. She needs a strong man.’
Dimple Kapadia is reported to have told Rekha to steer clear of Rajesh Khanna, saying ‘stay away from my husband’.
The writer Khushwant Singh, however, known for his blunt wit, effortlessly attacked the double standards of the film industry: ‘Rekha is probably the victim of the usual masculine habit of describing any woman who is stylish and uninhibited as a “nymphomaniac”. Probably, it’s also a kind of wishful thinking of the male. I admire people like Rekha and Protima Bedi. Only I wish they didn’t indulge in it deliberately for publicity. Otherwise, the more scandalous Rekha’s statements are, the more I like her.’
And scandal she did create with her next move.
22 January 1980. The occasion was Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh’s wedding. The whole of R.K. Studio was grandly bedecked to celebrate Raj Kapoor’s son’s wedding. The biggest names of the industry were in attendance, including Amitabh Bachchan, his wife, Jaya, and his parents. Amitabh was talking to Manmohan Desai in a corner and Jaya was sitting with her mother-in-law, Teji Bachchan, when Rekha made a sensational entry. All eyes turned at once towards her. Dressed in a magnificent white sari, Rekha had a bright red bindi on her forehead. But what caught everyone’s eye was the generous dabbing of sindoor in her hair. The cameras instantly pivoted away from Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh, and frenetically photographed Rekha’s curious new look. The dull drone of everyone murmuring and whispering filled the evening air; everyone wanted to know: had Rekha married?
Cine Blitz summed up the mood of the evening in its report: ‘Don’t miss the sindoor in her hair, which only married ladies wear. It’s not something even people in films wear as a fashion. What is she trying to prove – that she’s hooked?’ According to the report, after congratulating Rishi and Neetu, Rekha went and stood bang in the middle of R.K. Studio’s garden. When had she ever shied away from attention, or controversy? But her eyes kept darting towards Amitabh every other second. That evening, Amitabh had injured his hand and was wearing a bandage on it. Gathering courage, Rekha took hold of her close friend Snehlata Pandey, the doctor who is credited for introducing Rekha to aerobics and better diets, and went over to where Amitabh was standing. They were seen chatting formally for a few minutes. According to a report in Stardust, ‘Jaya tried to keep a stoic front for a long time, but eventually she had to bend her head and let the tears roll down.’
In a somewhat anticlimactic interview, Rekha later cleared the air: that evening, she had come to the reception straight from a shoot. The sindoor and mangalsutra she was wearing were part of her get-up for a film, which she had forgotten to remove.
But according to a report published in Movie in June 1982, at a National Awards function, Rekha, who was being honoured with the award for best actress for Umrao Jaan (1981), was asked by then president of India Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, ‘Why do you have sindoor in your maang?’ The audience waited with bated breath. Rekha promptly replied into the mike, ‘In the city I come from, it’s fashionable to wear sindoor.’
But in an interview much later, Jaya Bachchan, in fact, completely refuted her husband’s involvement in any affair: ‘Let the whole world say what they want. He [Amitabh Bachchan] has made a commitment to me and he has to have the courage (to say he’s in love with somebody else!), and if he is doing something behind my back, it’s his problem. Not my problem. He has to live with it. And with his conscience!’
Without taking Rekha’s name, Amitabh responded to the reported tensions in his marriage: ‘A divorce will never happen in our case. I don’t believe in divorce because my basic instincts are Indian. I made an absolutely first class choice when I took Jaya as my wife.’ This is the closest that Amitabh ever came to even admitting that all was not well in the Bachchan household.
But Rekha kept fuelling the media fire. In an interview to Stardust, she made a strange claim: that Jaya had invited her over to the Bachchan home one day. ‘Jaya did not mind the relationship as long as she thought her husband was only having a fling. It’s when she realized that he was really emotionally involved, that is when it began hurting her. She called me for dinner one evening and though we spoke about everything but him, before I left that day, she made sure to tell me, “I will never leave Amit whatever happens”.’
Scandalous disclosures were part and parcel of being Rekha. But this anecdote about an encounter between the wife and the mistress was truly sensational; and Jaya never refuted it. Whether this really happened is difficult to ascertain but a similar episode featuring the very same lead players was about to unfold on screen. The stars were about to align to bring Jaya, Amitabh and Rekha together on film, in spite of the promise that Jaya had extracted from Amitabh never to act with Rekha again.
A new silsila was soon going to unfold, bringing to life the hushed-up love triangle.
Excerpted with permission from Rekha The Untold Story, Yasser Usman, Juggernaut Books.