Long before she transformed into one of Hindi cinema’s most enigmatic stars, Rekha flirted with cinema in the south. She appeared in precisely three roles – two in Telugu and one in Kannada – but managed to create an impression.
Rekha’s debut was as Baby Bhanurekha at the age of 14 in BN Reddy’s popular social Rangula Ratnam (1966). The first time she is seen on screen, Rekha is singing a devotional song. However, two lines in, she forgets the lyrics and looks up towards the ceiling. After her mother (Anjali Devi) prompts her, the teenager performs the entire Dashavataram in Chepa Rupamuna, the opening song of Rangula Ratnam.
The song echoes Rekha’s own beginnings in cinema. Rangula Ratnam also starred Pushpavalli, Rekha’s mother and Tamil star Gemini Ganesan’s partner. In her television interview to actor Simi Garewal, Rekha recalls that it was Pushpavalli who pushed her to drop out of school at the age of 13 and become an actor to help the family’s poor finances.
Rekha’s role in Rangula Ratnam, a film about the feud between two brothers with opposing ideologies, lasts only a few minutes long the song, but it laid the foundation of a long career in front of the camera.
Three years later, credited as Navanati Rekha (new actress), she appeared in Dorai Bhagwan’s Operation Jackpotnalli CID 999 (1969), the third in Kannada cinema’s popular detective series featuring screen legend Rajkumar.
Prakash (Rajkumar) is hired to solve the mystery around horses mysteriously winning the derby in Bangalore, which in turn leads him to uncover the plot behind the kidnapping of a nuclear scientist. Appearing an hour into the film, Rekha plays Mona, a character modelled on the lines of a Bond girl. Mona makes a smooth entry in a white Contessa, in which she gives a lift to Prakash. The idea is to seduce him and take him to her boss, who happens to be the kidnapper. But it is Mona who is eventually rescued by Prakash after learning the truth about her boss. She thanks Prakash quite literally through the song I Thank You Very Much.
Rekha appears visibly inhibited in her first role as an adult actor. She looks uncomfortable in tight-fitting t-shirts and body-hugging short dresses. A part of the fear and restraint can be sensed in Mona too, who as an amateur con-woman tries her best to hoodwink Prakash.
The same year, Rekha acted in her first Hindi film Anjana Safar, directed by Raja Nawathe and produced by Kuljeet Pal. Out of her comfort zone for the first time and acting in a language that was new, Rekha had her first experience of the ugly side of the film industry. A kiss with her co-star Biswajeet was filmed without her knowledge when Biswajeet forced himself on her. This was also a time when the actor was fat-shamed and called dark and ugly.
But Rekha had decided to fight it out in the Hindi film industry. Her last role in a South Indian production was BV Prasad’s Telugu melodrama Amma Kosam (1970). The tearjerker is about Aarti (Anjali Devi), a mother separated from her elder son. Rekha is part of the sub-plot and plays the role of the vivacious Gita, who is in love with Anand (Krishnam Raju), Aarti’s younger son. As Gita, Rekha brings much-needed lightness to a relentlessly overwrought film.
The transformation of a gawky teenager into a confident adult is complete. Rekha romances in the fields and runs around trees whilst doing her bit to bring about a resolution to the plot. Bhanurekha is nowhere to be seen.