Rekha has the distinction of acting in more films as a heroine – over 100 films – than any other Hindi film actress. The daughter of South Indian film stars, Gemini Ganesan and Pushpavalli, Rekha began her film career as “Baby Bhanurekha” in a Telugu film in 1966 and debuted as the lead role in another Telugu film in 1970. After failing to make an impact with this film, Rekha moved to Bombay. Her family’s troubled financial situation compelled her to quit school, and take a role in the Hindi film, Anjana Safar (Unknown Journey). On her very first day of shooting for the film, she was made to kiss the star. Though the shot was censored, it made it to the cover of Life magazine that year. Her first Hindi film released, however, was Saawon Bhadon in 1970, which was an enormous success and made Rekha an instant star.

The industry was surprised by her success as her dark complexion, plump figure, and garish clothing contradicted the norms of beauty prevalent in the film industry and in society. Rekha continued to have hits throughout the 1970s, many of them starring opposite Amitabh Bachchan with whom she made nine films. By the late 1970s, Rekha, along with Zeenat Aman and Hema-Malini, was one of the actresses most sought after in the industry. She also began her physical transformation at this time – losing weight and focusing on her make-up, hair, and clothing – a transformation so complete that she became the epitome of beauty, glamour, and sophistication. She became a fitness and beauty guru similar to Jane Fonda, dispensing advice about diet, exercise, and cosmetics. Till today the media and younger actresses indulge in hyperbole and clichés — “the ugly duckling turned into a swan” — about Rekha’s beauty and allure.

Along with her physical makeover, Rekha transformed herself as an actress, taking on more challenging and substantive roles. While she played the typical romantic heroine whose world revolves around the hero in many of her earlier films, from 1978 onwards Rekha’s roles became more diverse. She played a traumatized rape victim in Ghar, the spunky, chatterbox younger sister in Khobsoorat, the elegant other woman in Silsila, and an avenging wife in Khoon Bhari Maang. Her performance as the tragic courtesan in the period film set in the nineteenth century, Umrao Jaan, won her the National Award for Best Actress in 1981.

Though newer actresses emerged on the scene from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rekha continued to act, and was one of the few actresses to have a successful career into her late thirties. Since the mid-1990s she has moved into character and supporting roles which are often more substantial than the norm – a sign of the respect and adulation she commands in the film industry. The most well-known directors of the current Bombay film industry are working with Rekha, and her presence in a project generates a great deal of media atten­tion. Rekha is frequently described by the press as Hindi cinema’s ultimate diva – Tejaswini Ganti

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