Politically and culturally, we live in a time of stultifying conformity, a venal sameness
From the everyday to the existential, there is no dearth of gloom around us. And then, like the stately suns of a vintage sci-fi planet, appeared on our horizon: Rekha. On the Vogue Arabia cover. Dressed in, well, aura. A sultan in robes with assessing gaze. A burnished courtesan. In a maang, so red, we don’t know if it’s khoon or sindoor, only that we gasped at its non-cooperation. Many Rekhas Remixed: the nirmal anand ke liya androgyny of Khoobsurat and Agreement, voluptuous camp of Khoon Bhari maang, calibrated ada of Umrao Jaan, passionate submission of Muqaddar ka Sikandar.
We had only just delighted at Zeenat Aman in Vogue India, the culmination of short walks in flowery meadows and spice gardens we took with her since she appeared on Instagram—her persona elegant, charming, sincere yet self-aware and irreverent.
What do these women bring into view beyond the statistical fact that women over 50 now constitute a transformed demographic, making room for actors like Madhuri Dixit, Sushmita Sen, Neena Gupta, Raveena Tandon, Dimple Kapadia and others on our screens?
Politically and culturally, we live in a time of stultifying conformity, a venal sameness. Repetitive social media, PR-managed gossip, everything driven by marketing. Meta copies Twitter with Threads.
Obediently, we join to post Threads updates to Instagram and Insta posts to Threads. Bachao! (“yahan tumhari cheekhein sunne wala koi nahin,” laughs Mark).
It is not only that these women have lived a whole life that makes their presence rich and umami. That is a part of it—Zeenat Aman and Hema Malini on Koffee with Karan remains one of its best episodes.
But, even in less formatted times, these women wandered outside the norm, adventuresses in uncharted territory. They lived contradictory realities of fame but also sexism, adoration but also social disparagement of women in films, without the safety net of readymade feminist platitudes that people today use to inhabit a designed—and designated—unconventionality. So, they bring that air of complex freedom into our view.
At 17, I heard Rekha’s interview on Simi Garewal’s debut TV effort: It’s a Woman’s World. It was the first time I heard a woman speak about emotional wisdom garnered from living her own life (and saw someone listen to her seriously). It was a defining moment for my life and work.
These are women who cannot be categorised, nor sought categories foremost. They have the scars to prove it. They are the stars who prove it. They reformulate sexiness into something powerful centred on their personalities, not easily reduced to one meaning by any gaze. Some people sighed, hai AI, Rekha looks unrealistically young. Which part of Rekha’s entire manifestation suggests realism, I wonder?
Which part of how she held herself denies her 68 years? Stock politics, mainstream or alternative, have never been sufficient to grasp the uncategorisable meanings of such women.
Therein lies their glamour. And also, their loneliness.
Imagine, this is the first time Rekha is in Vogue. Mainstream spaces only rarely demonstrate the style and confidence to recognise brilliance and beauty not endorsed by brands or marked by conventional achievement of women who are the original copy, so to speak.
Such women somehow have to make themselves known again and again. They have to do it for themselves, this time, and most times. The devi is in that detail.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at email@example.com