Saturday, July 16, 2016


                At some point early in 1997 I was grabbed by the trailer of a new film called “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love”. The title suggested something sexually explicit – but what the trailer showed was an opulent spectacle, set in some long ago period of Indian history. Full of peacock colors, dazzling architecture and DeMille-like sweep. For me – a sword and sandal fan – this was manna in the peplum-starved desert of the 90’s. I now know “Kama Sutra” was a British-American-Indian co-production, helmed by Mira Nair, a talented director of Indian descent who – although based in the U.K. – enjoyed using her art to celebrate her cultural roots. I went to the movie and loved it - a perfumed garden full of sensuality, surging jealousy-stoked emotions, intoxicatingly beautiful sets and costumes . Performances were compelling, the drama both elemental and sophisticated. This wasn’t a Bollywood film. Its pedigree was multi-national.  And there was no parade of song numbers. In the years following, Nair became most famous for the worldwide hit “Monsoon Wedding”. She also directed a version of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” with Reese Witherspoon, which I love. And currently Disney is about to release her Africa-set “Queen of Katwe” (with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo); positive buzz on this one is already circulating.  
            As I said, I really enjoyed Nair’s “Kama Sutra” And eventually bought the DVD. I actually wanted to re-watch it before I posted this. But – like so many things – it seems to be MIA somewhere in my apartment. I know exactly what shelf it sat on for years. But one day I took it into my head to re-organize that corner. And that particular item re-organized itself into oblivion. Yet another argument for inertia. The movie’s entire cast was splendid (I believe Naveen Andrews later enjoyed great success on the TV series “Lost”.  Never saw it– but I remember talk of the thing was culturally inescapable for awhile. Anyway, one “Kama Sutra” cast member in particular, riveted me to the screen. She was an actress – maybe 30, maybe 40 –who went by the single name, Rekha.  She didn’t play one of the leads – the role was more of a prolonged cameo. Remember the complicated cast lists of those Italian peplum epics that boasted, “con la partizipazione straordinario di (fill in the name)"?  Well  Rekha’s presence in this film seemed an occasion that genuinely cried out for that sort of grandiose Cinecitta-billing. She played Rasa Devi, a wise maternal figure – who also happened to be an instructress of seduction –Kama Sutra style. Rekha had everything. The stillness of a goddess.  Yet - when she moved - grace itself. Her voice was fascinating –what you’d expect to hear if silk could speak. Charisma to burn.  And – oh, yes – that face. Exquisitely, glamorously beautiful, the effect compounded by the fact that she was a startling look-alike for one of Hollywood’s golden age queens, Merle Oberon. Hard to believe they weren’t blood relatives. I don’t know if the photos below will convey that. But onscreen, in elegant motion, these two are cinematic sisters.

                I was determined to know more about her. And in those days I had no computer. I suppose the internet had happened by then – but it definitely hadn’t happened to me. I figured she must have made some Indian films. No one could have sprung quite so fully formed onto the screen without some prior career history. I knew that Toronto (where I live) had a section popularly called Little India. And I figured there must be stores there that sold Indian movies. So I went into explorer mode and took the bus out there to do some Rekha-noitering. There were indeed several music & movie stores in the area – all mom and pop outfits – with exotic names and exotic wares in their windows. Turns out the first one I tried was operated by a guy I’d actually worked with at the record store some years before. He was surprised to see me in his neck of the woods – and I was a source of some eyebrows-arched  curiosity  for the other guys on his staff. Now I’m not much of a mingler. But I was determined to squeeze at least some info out of them. “Have you ever heard of an actress called Rekha? ”, I asked. Well, imagine if someone came up to you and asked if you’d ever heard of an actress called Marilyn Monroe?  That’s pretty much the reaction I got. Like “Are you kidding me?”. Anyway, my antennae were immediately quivering– because it looked as if Operation Rekha was actually going to yield some results. They filled me in on the fact that she’d been a big, big star in India for decades – and that it was highly unlikely I’d meet anyone from India who hadn’t heard of her. DVD’s hadn’t really made their appearance in India yet. So the movies these guys sold were VHS format. They recommended a couple of titles – good recommendations, as it turned out. So the first actual Bollywood Rekha films I saw were “Muqaddar ka Sikandar” and “Suhaag” (both from the late 70’s). The movies turned out to be culture shock items in many ways. Video quality was far from high. The movies themselves were full of features I’d soon come to recognize as Bollywood hallmarks of the 70’s and 80’s. Hectically executed, unrealistic scenes of revenge-fueled action and violence. Love tangles of the Romeo and Juliet variety. Mother veneration carried to James Cagney “White Heat” extremes.  These two particular films were thankfully light on something I’d later find to be an unfortunate fixture in 70’s and 80’s Bollywood films  -the tendency to shoehorn in  bits of cringeworthy comedy relief; next to the muggers who delivered this material, the Three Stooges were models of Shavian restraint. “Muqaddar” and “Suhaag” were certainly typically Bollywood, though, in delivering set decoration that could (depending on your mood) be regarded as garish or eye-poppingly inspired. Melodrama was dialed up to eleven, and major climaxes or revelations (of which there were a constant flow ) were almost invariably accompanied by frenzied music cues, dramatically exaggerated close-ups or even literal flashes of lightning.  And yet. .. and yet.  There were songs – practically wall to wall. Songs I didn’t know , sung by people I didn’t know. All intriguing.  Here was the new movie musical fix I’d given up hoping to find. Granted, some of the songs took a bit of getting used to. And the Lata–heavy vocals were not an instant fit for me. But there was a song from “Muqaddar ka Sikandar” that I loved right away ,“O Saathi Re”, sung twice – once by Asha Bhosle, once by Kishore Kumar. That melody implanted itself in my head instantly and forever. Romance tended to be chaste – kissing was a no-no on Indian movie screens then. But – as in Rogers and Astaire movies of the 30’s – the musical numbers conveyed a full romantic charge. Love and sex moved onto another plateau – no less effective for being coded. And the big Indian stars delivered fully. Beautiful people – radiating movie star charisma. And a kind of onscreen authority that instantly identified them as idols. Chief among the new discoveries, performer wise, was Amitabh Bachchan, the tall, strikingly magnetic male lead in both films. Talk about owning the screen. I recognized his face from some of the old Bollywood LP’s we used to sell at the record store. But seeing him in action was something else. I later enthused to the guys at the Indian record shop about him. And turns out he was even more famous than Rekha. As a matter of fact, most of the  Hindi-speaking public still consider him the greatest movie star ever. As for Rekha herself, she delivered plenty more of what I’d loved in “Kama Sutra”. She’s got what the legendary divas of Old Hollywood had – poise, glamour, mystery and a kind of elegantly refined sexual heat. Apparently, in the embryonic stages of her career, Rekha had been much plumper, plainer and altogether less present. But using the tools a million other would-be movie queens had employed - determination, discipline and diet - she set out to re-invent herself. Luckily for her – and for audiences - Rekha had a lot more than the average aspirant. Natural beauty, natural talent -plus that indefinable something  that separates the Dietrichs from the dime a dozen Doras. By the late 70’s she was firmly installed as one of India’s “It” girls.  And even if her status nowadays is more star emeritus, she hasn’t let her lustre dim. The name Rekha remains an India-wide byword for ageless allure.
                In the years that followed – from watching more and more Indian movies, devouring Bollywood movie magazines (more about those later) and eventually embracing  the internet – I got a fuller picture of Rekha. The lady plays a definite cultural role; she carries the glamour fans attribute to the past right into the present. One might say it’s become her main function, one she reinforces with occasional acting appearances – usually in extended cameos. And stunning appearances  at industry events.  When she deigns to grant an interview, the lady maintains an air of mystery about her romantic past. For years the press speculated  about an affair between her and (the married) Amitabh - to the feigned shock (and secret delight) of fans who loved them onscreen together. Rekha herself was briefly married years ago to a wealthy industrialist who committed suicide a year or so later (she was away in London at the time). Some sympathized with her; others branded her as a heartless Bella Donna. But few actual details ever emerged. And in the end, it only added one more layer of glamorous impenetrability to Rekha’s legend. For years now, her closest friend (and companion at events) has been her female secretary, who sports short-cropped hair and mannish attire. Occasionally Rekha will appear onscreen in a role that requires her to de-glamorize (up to a point). I suppose it’s to remind people there’s a formidable actress in there. Indian critics and audiences usually respond with a kind of reverent enthusiasm. And – yes – Rekha’s acting abilities are impressive. But, beyond that, she’s a role model (albeit a rather unattainable one), a comforting link to the cinematic past, a defier of the actuarial tables, and an enigma who remains thrilling to behold and to ponder. Sometimes one gets the sense of a beautifully coiled cobra who’s chosen to be benign. For all her well-deserved movie triumphs, one can’t help think, though, that Rekha’s greatest creation remains herself.