Rekha has acted in over 180 films in a career spanning over 50 years. Throughout her career, she has often played strong female characters and, apart from mainstream cinema, appeared in arthouse films, known in India as parallel cinema. She has won three Filmfare Awards, two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress, for her roles in Khubsoorat (1980), Khoon Bhari Maang (1988) and Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996), respectively. Her portrayal of a classical courtesan in Umrao Jaan (1981) won her the National Film Award for Best Actress. Though her career has gone through certain periods of decline, she has reinvented herself numerous times and has been credited for her ability to sustain her status. In 2010, she was honoured with the Padma Shri by the Government of India.
Rekha was born in Chennai (then Madras) to Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan and Telugu actress Pushpavalli. Her father enjoyed considerable success as an actor and Rekha was to follow in his footsteps. She is an alumnus of the popular Church Park Convent in Chennai. She speaks Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and English fluently.
Her parents were not married at the time of her birth, and her father did not acknowledge his paternity during her childhood. Rekha has one full sister, one half brother and five half sisters. It was in early 1970s, when she was looking for a footing in Bollywood, that she revealed her origins. Later, at the peak of her career, Rekha told a magazine interviewer that her father's neglect still rankled and that she had ignored his efforts at reconciliation. At the age of 13, Rekha quit school to start a career in acting. She did not have any personal aspirations in this direction, but the troubled financial state of her family compelled her to do so.
Rekha appeared as a child (credited as Baby Bhanurekha) in the Telugu film Rangula Ratnam (1966). Rekha made her debut as heroine in the successful Kannada film Operation Jackpot Nalli C.I.D 999 with Rajkumar in 1969. In that same year, she starred in her first Hindi film, Anjana Safar. She later claimed that she was tricked into a kissing scene with the leading actor Biswajit for the overseas market, and the kiss made it to the Asian edition of Life magazine. The film ran into censorship problems, and would not be released until almost a decade later in 1979 (retitled as Do Shikaari).
She had no interest in acting and was basically forced to work to sustain her family financially, this was a difficult period in her life. Still a teenager, acclimatising herself to her new surroundings was an uneasy process. Coming from the South, she did not speak Hindi and struggled to communicate with co-workers, and was constantly missing her mother, who was critically ill. Moreover, she was required to follow a strict diet. Recalling this phase, Rekha was later quoted as saying (Reacting to it, many years later, she said, "I'm healed, I am not bitter anymore, I don't think I ever was."),
She had two films released in 1970: the Telugu film Amma Kosam and the Hindi film Sawan Bhadon, which was considered her acting debut in Bollywood. She had to learn Hindi, as that was not her naturally spoken language. Sawan Bhadon became a hit, and Rekha – a star overnight. Despite the success of the film, she was often scorned for her looks. She subsequently got several offers but nothing of substance, as her roles were mostly just of a glamour girl. She appeared in several commercially successful films at the time, including Raampur Ka Lakshman (1972), Kahani Kismat Ki (1973), and Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye (1974), yet she was not regarded for her acting abilities and—according to Tejaswini Ganti—"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 recalls that the way she was perceived at that time motivated her to change her appearance and improve her choice of roles: "I was called the ‘Ugly Duckling’ of Hindi films because of my dark complexion and South Indian features. I used to feel deeply hurt when people compared me with the leading heroines of the time and said I was no match for them. I was determined to make it big on sheer merit."
This period marked the beginning of Rekha's physical transformation. She started paying attention to her make-up, dress sense, and worked to improve her acting technique and perfect her Hindi-language skills. To lose weight, she followed a nutritious diet, led a regular, disciplined life, and practised yoga, later recording albums to promote physical fitness. According to Khalid Mohamed, "The audience was floored when there was a swift change in her screen personality, as well as her style of acting." She began choosing her film roles with more care; her first performance-oriented role came in 1976 when she played Amitabh Bachchan's ambitious and greedy wife in Do Anjaane. An adaptation of Nihar Ranjan Gupta's Bengali novel Ratrir Yatri, the film was directed by Dulal Guha and became a reasonable success with audiences and critics.
Her most significant turning point, however, came in 1978, with her portrayal of a rape victim in the movie Ghar. She played the role of Aarti, a newly married woman who gets gravely traumatised after being gang-raped. The film follows her character's struggle and recuperation with the help of her loving husband, played by Vinod Mehra. The film was considered her first notable milestone, and her performance was applauded by both critics and audiences. Dinesh Raheja from Rediff, in an article discussing her career, remarked, "Ghar heralded the arrival of a mature Rekha. Her archetypal jubilance was replaced by her very realistic portrayal..." She received her first nomination for Best Actress at the Filmfare Awards.
In that same year, she attained fame with Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, in which she co-starred once again with Amitabh Bachchan. The movie was the biggest hit of that year, as well as one of the biggest hits of the decade, and Rekha was set as one of the most successful actresses of these times. The film opened to a positive critical reception, and Rekha's performance as a courtesan named Zohra, noted for a "smouldering intensity", earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Filmfare.
In 1980, Rekha appeared in the comedy Khubsoorat, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, with whom she had developed a strong father-daughter bond during their previous collaborations. In a role written specially for her, she played Manju Dayal, a young vivacious woman who visits her recently married sister at her in-law's house and tries to bring joy to the wide family, much to the displeasure of the matriarch of the household. Rekha said she easily identified with the bubbly nature of her character, calling it "quite a bit me". Khubsoorat was a success and Rekha was appreciated for her comic timing. It won the Filmfare Award for Best Film and Rekha won her first Best Actress award. The Tribune described the film as "a lively comedy," noting that "Rekha's spunky performance gives the film its natural zing." Film World magazine reported in that same year, "Rekha's done it. Smoothly, successfully. From a plump, pelvis-jerking, cleavage-flashing temptress, she has metamorphosed into a sleek, accomplished actress. Gone are most of the inane mannerisms, pouts, wiggles and giggles." It further noted that her career prospects had begun to improve significantly, as leading filmmakers had started taking more notice of her and become more keen to cast her in their films.
Rekha went on to star opposite Bachchan in a number of films, most of which were hits. She also had an alleged off-screen relationship with him, which was widely reported on in the media, as well as sharply criticised, as he was a married man. This relationship ended in 1981, when they starred in Yash Chopra's drama Silsila. The film was the most scandalous of their films together; Rekha played Bachchan's love interest, while Bachchan's real-life wife, Jaya Bhaduri, played his wife. This was their last film together.
Critics noted Rekha for having worked hard to perfect her Hindi and acting, and media reporters often discussed how she had transformed herself from a "plump" duckling to a "swan" in the early 1970s. Rekha's credits to this transformation were yoga, a nutritious diet, and a regular, disciplined life. In 1983, her diet and yoga practice were published in a book called "Rekha's Mind and Body Temple".
In 1981, she starred in Umrao Jaan, a film adaptation of the Urdu novel Umrao Jaan Ada (1905), written by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Rekha played the title role of a courtesan and poet from 19th century Lucknow. The film follows Umrao's life story right from her days as a young girl named Amiran when she is kidnapped and sold in a brothel. Rekha once confessed, "After reading the script, I had a strange feeling that I had Umrao in me." In preparation for the role, Rekha, who at the beginning of her career did not speak Hindi, took the task of learning the finer nuances of the Urdu language. Director Muzaffar Ali later noted that "Rekha has given more than my conception of the role." The response to her work was universally positive. Her portrayal is considered to be one of her career-best performances, and she was awarded the National Film Award for Best Actress for it. She played a courtesan with a heart of gold in several of her films; Muqaddar Ka Sikandar and Umrao Jaan were followed by a number of films which had her playing similar roles.
In that same year, Rekha starred in Ramesh Talwar's family drama Baseraa, which saw her playing a woman who marries her sister's husband, after the latter loses her mental balance. She appeared as Sadhna in the commercially successful Ek Hi Bhool (1981), opposite Jeetendra, playing the role of a betrayed wife who leaves her husband. In 1982, she received another Filmfare nomination for Jeevan Dhaara, in which she played a young unmarried woman who is the sole breadwinner of her extended family. In 1983, she took the supporting role of a lawyer in Mujhe Insaaf Chahiye, garnering another Filmfare nomination in the Supporting Actress category.
During this period, Rekha was willing to expand her range beyond what she was given in mainstream films. She started working in arthouse pictures with independent directors, mostly under Shashi Kapoor's production, in what was used to be referred to as parallel cinema, an Indian New Wave movement known for its serious content and neo-realism. Her venture into this particular genre started off with Umrao Jaan, and was followed by other such films as Shyam Benegal's award-winning drama, Kalyug (1981), Govind Nihalani's Vijeta (1982), Girish Karnad's Utsav (1984) and Gulzar's Ijaazat (1987), among others. Benegal's Kalyug is a modern-day adaptation of the Indian mythological epic Mahabharat, depicted as an archetypal-conflict between rival business houses. Rekha's role was that of Supriya, a character based on Draupadi. Benegal said he decided to cast her in the role after seeing her work in Khubsoorat, besides noticing that she was "very keen, very serious about her profession". Critic and author Vijay Nair described her performance as "a masterful interpretation of the modern Draupadi". In Vijeta she played a woman who struggles through her marital problems and tries to support her adolescent son, who, undecided about his future plans, eventually decides to join the Indian Air Force. She described her performance in the film as one of her favourite from her own repertoire. For her portrayal of Vasantsena in Utsav, an erotic comedy based on the fourth-century Sanskrit play Mrichhakatika (The Little Clay Cart), she was acknowledged as the Best Actress (Hindi) of the year by the Bengal Film Journalists' Association. Maithili Rao wrote for "Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema", "Rekha – forever the first choice for the courtesan's role, be it ancient Hindu India or 19th-century Muslim Lucknow – is all statuesque sensuality..." In Gulzar's drama Ijaazat, Rekha and Naseeruddin Shah star as a divorced couple who meet unexpectedly for the first time after years of separation at a railway station, and recall together their life as a married couple and the conflicts which brought about their eventual split.
Apart from parallel cinema, Rekha took on other increasingly serious, even adventurous roles; she was among the early actresses to play lead roles in heroine-oriented films, one such film being Khoon Bhari Maang in 1988. She won her second Filmfare Award for her performance in the film. Rekha went on to describe Khoon Bhari Maang as "the first and only film I concentrated and understood all throughout." One critic wrote about her performance in the film, "Rekha as Aarti is just flawless and this is one of her best performances ever! In the first half as the shy and not so sexy Aarti she is excellent and after the plastic surgery as the model and femme fatale she is excellent too. Some scenes show that we are watching an actress of a very high calibre here." M.L. Dhawan from The Tribune, while documenting the famous Hindi films of 1988, remarked that Khoon Bhari Maang was "a crowning glory for Rekha, who rose like a phoenix ... and bedazzled the audience with her daredevilry." Encyclopædia Britannica's Encyclopædia of Hindi Cinema listed her role in the film as one of Hindi cinema's memorable female characters, noting it for changing "the perception of the ever-forgiving wife, turning her into an avenging angel." In a similar list by Screen magazine, the role was included as one of "ten memorable roles that made the Hindi film heroine proud."
In later interviews, Rekha often described the moment she received the Filmfare Award for this role as a turning point, explaining that only then did she start genuinely enjoying her work and seeing it as more than "just a job": "...when I went up on the stage, and received my award for Khoon Bhari Maang... Boom, it hit me! That's the first time I realised the value of being an actor and how much this profession meant to me." In 2011 she further stated, "I felt even more charged to give my best and knew right then, that this was my calling, what I was born to do, to make a difference in people's lives, through my performances."
The 1990s saw a drop in Rekha's success. Few of her films were successful and many of her roles were condemned by reviewers. Critics did note, however, that unlike most of the actresses of her generation, like Hema Malini and Raakhee, who succumbed to playing character parts, typically of mothers and aunts, Rekha was still playing leading roles at a time when younger female stars rose to fame. The first year of the decade saw four releases featuring Rekha, including Mera Pati Sirf Mera Hai and Amiri Garibi, all of which went unnoticed. Still recovering from the recent suicide of her husband and struggling with the ensuing press antagonism towards her, Rekha retained considerable success with her starring role as Namrata Singh, a young woman who joins the police force to avenge her husband's death in K. C. Bokadia's Phool Bane Angaray (1991). The film was a box-office hit and Rekha received a Best Actress nomination at Filmfare for her work, in reference to which Subhash K. Jha remarked, "Khaki never seemed sexier". The public's acceptance of this film and Khoon Bhari Maang prompted several filmmakers to come with similar offers to Rekha, and she played such roles—labeled "avenging angels"—in several of her proceeding projects to a much less consequential effect. These included her next film Insaaf Ki Devi (1992), and later films such as Ab Insaf Hoga (1995) and Udaan (1997), all of which were major duds. She followed with a dual role of twin sisters in Shakti Samanta's Geetanjali opposite Jeetendra and the title role in the box-office disaster Madam X, in which she starred as a young woman hired by the police to impersonate a female underworld don.
Halfway through the decade, Rekha managed to halt her decline when she accepted several highly-controversial films, including Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love and Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996). Kama Sutra, a foreign production directed by Mira Nair, was an erotic drama and many felt it would damage Rekha's career, as Rekha played a Kama Sutra teacher in the film. Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi, an action film directed by Umesh Mehra, was a major financial success, becoming one of the highest-grossing Indian films of the year. It featured Rekha in her first negative role as Madam Maya, a vicious gangster woman running a secret business of illegal wrestling matches in the US, who, during the course of the film, romances the much younger Akshay Kumar. Her portrayal earned her several awards, including the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Star Screen Award for Best Villain. In spite of the positive response to her performance from both fans and critics, she maintained on more than one occasion that she did not like herself in the film, noting that her work was not up to her own, personal standards.
Another controversial film at that time was Aastha: In the Prison of Spring (1997), where Basu Bhattacharya, making the last film of his career, cast her as a housewife who moonlights as a prostitute. While her performance earned her positive notices and a Star Screen Award nomination, she was criticised by the audience for the nature of the part, to which she later replied, "...people had a lot to say about my role... I don't have problems playing anything. I've reached a stage where I could do justice to any role that came my way. It could be role of a mother, a sister-in-law; negative, positive, sensational or anything."
In the 2000s, Rekha appeared in relatively few movies. She started the decade with Bulandi, directed by Rama Rao Tatineni. The other was Khalid Muhammad's Zubaidaa, co starring Karisma Kapoor and Manoj Vajapayee playing the first wife Maharani Mandira Devi of the King.
In 2001, Rekha appeared in Rajkumar Santoshi's feminist drama Lajja, an ensemble piece inspired by a true incident of a woman being raped in Bawanipur two years before. The film follows the journey of a runaway wife (Manisha Koirala) and unfolds her story in three main chapters, each one presenting the story of a woman at whose place she stops. Rekha was the protagonist of the final chapter, around which the film's inspiration revolves, playing Ramdulari, an oppressed Dalit village woman and social activist who becomes a victim of gangrape. Speaking of the film, Rekha commented, "I am Lajja and Lajja is me". Highly praised for her portrayal, she received several nominations for her work, including a Best Supporting Actress nomination at Filmfare. Taran Adarsh wrote that "it is Rekha who walks away with the glory, delivering one of the finest performances the Indian screen has seen in the recent times."
In Rakesh Roshan's science-fiction film Koi... Mil Gaya, Rekha played Sonia Mehra, a single mother to a developmentally disabled young man, played by Hrithik Roshan. The movie was a financial and critical success and became the most popular film of the year; it won the Filmfare Award for Best Film, among others. Rekha received another Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Filmfare for her performance, which Khalid Mohamed described as "astutely restrained".
In 2005, Rekha guest starred in an item number in connection with the song "Kaisi Paheli Zindagani", in Pradeep Sarkar's "Parineeta". In Bachke Rehna Re Baba (2005), Rekha played a con woman who, along with her niece, uses one scheme to rob men of their property. The film was a major critical failure. Mid Day remarked, "why Rekha chose to sign this film is a wonder," noting that she is "riddled with bad dialogue, terrible cakey makeup and tawdry styling". This was followed in 2006 by Kudiyon Ka Hai Zamana, a poorly received sex comedy about four female friends and their personal troubles. In a scathing review, Indu Mirani noted that "Rekha hams like she was never going to do another film." In a 2007 article by Daily News and Analysis, critic Deepa Gahlot directed an advice to Rekha: "Please pick movies with care, one more like Bach Ke Rehna Re Baba and Kudiyon Ka Hai Zamana and the diva status is under serious threat."
In 2006, she reprised the role of Sonia Mehra in Krrish, Rakesh Roshan's sequel to Koi... Mil Gaya. In this superhero feature, the story moves 20 years forward and focuses on the character of Sonia's grandson Krishna (played again by Hrithik Roshan), whom she has brought up single-handedly after the death of her son Rohit, and who turns out to have supernatural powers. Krrish became the second-highest grossing picture of the year and, like its prequel, was declared a blockbuster. It received mostly positive notices from critics, and Rekha's work earned her another Filmfare nomination in the supporting category. Ronnie Scheib from Variety noted her for bringing "depth to her role as the nurturing grandmother".
In 2007, she once again portrayed a courtesan in Goutam Ghose's Yatra. Unlike the initial success she experienced in playing such roles in the early stages of her career, this time the film failed to do well. In 2010, Rekha was awarded the Padma Shri, the 4th highest civilian award given by the Government of India.
Rekha has also been nominated as a Rajya Sabha member. She currently is the member of the Rajya Sabha (May 2012).
Rekha starred in the 2010 film Sadiyaan alongside Hema Malini and Rishi Kapoor. The film marked the debut of Shatrughan Sinha's son Luv Sinha. The film failed to do well at the box office.
In 2014, Rekha was working on Abhishek Kapoor's Fitoor, but left the film due to unknown reasons and later Tabu was signed as her replacement. In 2014 she also worked in Super Nani released on Diwali (24 October). Super Nani was a family drama, in which the grandmother (Rekha) is unappreciated by her children and husband, Randhir Kapoor. Her grandson, Sharman Joshi convinces her to change. The grandmother 'transforms' herself into a glamorous model.
In 2015, she appeared in R. Balki's Shamitabh, where she played herself.
In 1990, Rekha married Delhi-based industrialist Mukesh Aggarwal. A year later—while she was in London—he committed suicide, after several previous attempts, leaving a note, "Don't blame anyone". She was pilloried by the press at that time, a period which one journalist termed as "the deepest trough in her life." Bhawana Somaaya observed the period speaking of "a strong anti-wave against the actress — some called her a witch, some a murderess," but added that soon "Rekha came out of the eclipse once again unblemished!"
She was rumoured to have been married to actor Vinod Mehra in 1973, but in a 2004 television interview with Simi Garewal she denied being married to Mehra referring to him as a "well-wisher". Rekha currently lives in her Bandra home in Mumbai.
In 2011, Rediff listed her as the ninth-greatest Indian actress of all time, noting, "It's hard not to be bowled over by Rekha's longevity, or her ability to reinvent herself... the actress took on a man's job and did it stunningly well, holding her own against all the top actors and being remembered despite them." Filmfare described her acting style, writing, "...when it comes to style, sexiness or sheer onscreen presence, she's unparalleled... [she is] a fierce, raw, flinty performer with unbridled honesty. Her acting isn't gimmicky." Critic Khalid Mohamed commends her technical control: "She knows how to give and to what degree. She has all that it takes to be a director. There is a kind of vulnerability in her control. She explores when she is acting." Shyam Benegal, who directed her in two movies, believes she is "a director's actress". M.L. Dhawan from The Tribune wrote, "Rekha's flowering as an actress post Ghar and Khubsoorat climaxed in [...] Umrao Jaan. As a tragic courtesan she gave a performance of consummate artistry, adopting a much-admired huskiness and despondency of tone. Rekha communicated much with a delicately raised eyebrow. In 2010, Filmfare included two of her performances—from Khubsoorat (1980) and Umrao Jaan (1981)—in their list of "80 Iconic Performances". Her work in the latter was included on Forbes India's list of "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema".
Rekha has often been compared to Greta Garbo, and has been cited by media as her Indian equivalent. Hindustan Times described her physical change and loss of weight as "one of cinema's and perhaps real life's most dramatic transformations," arguing that "Rekha morphed from an overweight, dark ordinary girl into a glamorous and beautiful enigma, shrouding her life in an intriguing Garbo-like mystery." According to Rediff, "Rekha's reclusive nature has gone a long way towards building an aura of mystery around her." Rekha rarely gives interviews, and she mostly avoids parties and events. Asked once about her mysterious image, she denied several times trying to live up to this image, asserting it is press-created: "What mystery? The media is the one that creates this image. It's just that I am basically shy by nature, an introvert and fiercely private." Film journalist Anupama Chopra, who visited Rekha in 2003, wrote that while tabloids had portrayed her as "a reclusive woman twisted bitter by lecherous men and loneliness", in reality Rekha was "none of these", describing her as "chatty and curious, excited and energetic, cheerful and almost illegally optimistic".
Writing for The Tribune, Mukesh Khosla spoke of her transformation, writing, "From the giggling village belle in Saawan Bhadon to one of country's reigning actresses, Rekha has come a long way." According to critic Omar Qureshi, "the term diva (in India) was coined for Rekha." Mira Nair, who directed Rekha in Kama Sutra (1997), likens her to a "Jamini Roy painting" and says, "Like Marilyn Monroe is shorthand for sex, Rekha is shorthand for charisma". Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali labels her the "last of the great stars".
She was referred to as the reigning Queen of Indian Cinema at the 2012 IIFA Awards held in Singapore, where she was given the "Outstanding Contribution to Indian Cinema (Female)" award, also referred to as the Lifetime Achievement Award.