Meena Kumari’s life brings to fore the great divide between the few whom life enriches with complex and tragic experiences and the rest who live with a linear fulness or emptiness without those devastating upheavals that bring heaven and hell together. It is especially for the benefit of the latter group that I recall her life and its context, which raised a destiny’s child to become an exceptional actress, and as a poet who lived by her heart and departed in its shine.
( Her poems here are freely paraphrased, and are not literal translations. )
The moon’s solitary
Sky resting in itself
Lonely heart I found
Every time we met.
Hope’s dead, even
The stars have set
Just the reek shimmers
And within fills, of itself.
Is this life we call ?
Being alive just
Through this all :
Body lonely, spirit
Dumped upon itself.
Even with partners
I met on the way
We trod alone
Each in, to ourself.
Beyond these lights
Now on, now off
The house will stand alone
Shrivelled and forlorn
Looking over the path
And interminably wait
After I finally depart
Utter, in my loneliness.
Why insist, my dear
Why hear me narrate
A life story bland
Tale wholly joyless.
These words come from one whose life’s story is neither bland nor without joy. As an actor, Meena Kumari is immortalised in some scintillating performances that ever lit up the screens of Hindi cinema. The first ever Filmfare Award for Best Actress was bestowed on her in 1953, for her role in Baiju Bawra. She received her fourth one for the iconic film Kaajal. And Pakeezah, which released two months before she passed away, is a stellar all – time classic today.
The actor grew up as Mahjabeen Bano, the youngest of three daughters of Ali Baksh and Iqbal Begum. The family was poor at the time of her birth on August 1, 1932 but before her birth Ali Baksh looked forward to having a son who would turn their fortune. They could just about manage enough influential references to gain admittance in Dr Gadre’s clinic, in which Iqbal Begum delivered the baby Mahjabeen. An absolutely downcast Ali Baksh took away the newborn and left it in a Muslim orphanage ! Hours later, the despairing but repenting father went back to pick her up and brought the baby girl home.
Meena’s mother was actually a Hindu girl, Prabhavatidevi Tagore, derived from Hindu – Christian parentage, who converted to Islam after marriage. She then came to be known as Iqbal Begum, with the screen name of Kamini – a dancer, actress and Kathak teacher. Ali Baksh was a Shia Muslim Pathan with a large heart. He had been cared for by a Brahmin for 12 years and was an adept Hindu-style astrologer. He had interest and skills in music and poetry. He used to play the harmonium and essay parts in the Parsi theatre. He composed music for peripheral films, which paid some for his efforts but never enough to secure the needs for staying in business. The family lived next to Rooptara studios in Dadar, Bombay, and Ali Baksh was forever hopeful of getting a major break in the film industry. But that never happened.
Not much is known about those early years of the future star of Hindi cinema. Through the ’30s, they stayed in Rooptara Studios, then leased by Vijay Bhatt, and remained hand to mouth. Mahjabeen’s elder sisters would go to school in the morning and the parents to their work in Vijay Bhatt’s productions. The baby would be cared for by the cleaning woman attached to the studio, Sita Tayi, untill the sisters returned from school. Later, the eldest one, Khurshid, took care of the youngest in the family. Later, the family shifted to a naerby flat, in Dadar itself.
Mahjabeen used to be very competitive in school, becoming irritable when her test scores were less than that of her friends. But the Baksh family, perpetually hounded by their want for necessities they did not have, began discussing how the six-year old Mahjabeen could earn for the family. The little girl baulked at the suggestion; she wanted to study, read and write. She used to carry her books even while travelling with her parents on outstation shoots. Ali Baksh was also against the idea of Mahjabeen working in films. That was the social norm too : women from good families did not work on stage or for the screen.
But Prabhavati Devi would have none of that; it was a necessity, an immediate means to make ends meet. Sometime back, they had to give up their flat in Dadar because they could not afford it, and had to return to their earlier quarters in Rooptara Studios. Meena felt it all, from the pain settled in the eyes of her parents, but more in the termination of her studies. Later, even while she was well into her work in films under the tutelage of Vijay Bhatt, she would enroll in a Urdu school, and with an English teacher, in an attempt to remedy the deeply felt loss and make herself ‘ literate.’
Meena’s parents met Vijay Bhatt for work opportunities for their children in his projects. He went over and observed from afar the three Baksh girls at their informal play, acting out roles they had seen their parents rehearse. Vijay Bhatt offered Mahjabeen a child’s role in his production, Leatherface, which released in 1939. The role required her to work with a cat, which she was very afraid of. But she went through with her deliveries in the film and made her parents proud.
Meena’s looks and talent brought more opportunities… and started the unstoppable phenomenon called Meena Kumari. Ever since that ugly beginning against her wishes, she remained the one bread earner of the family and was steadfast in her care for them till the very end. But she was never without that intense love – hate relationship with films seeded then.
Blistering frenzy must have drawn him to these ruins
Who else would light a lamp in storms this booming ?
Every speck must hold his prayers pure
Each form of God, He must have cured.
He’d have quenched the thirst of burning thorns
Lovingly held in palm the waters, dripping hot.
And if he finds a rough stone shining as gold
It will remind of his heart, broken and pure.
Before the traveller wipes off the blood spatters
Know he that made this garden of rocky barrens.
Meena Kumari acted in 94 films before her death in 1972, months short of her 40th birthday. Sans a normal childhood since 1939, she was immersed in work over the next four years, mostly in Vijay Bhatt productions : Adhuri Kahani, Pooja, Nai Roshni, Bahen, Kasauti and Garib (1942). Vijay Bhatt became her mentor and, on the sets of Ek Hi Bhool (1940), rechristened Mahzabeen as ” Baby Meena, ” as which she was known until she grew up to be a young lady and assumed the name we now identify her with.
In 1939 itself, an up and coming writer called Kamal Amrohi met Ali Baksh in his Dadar home, for someone to play a child’s part in Sohrab Modi’s Jailor. After the preliminaries, Ali Baksh sent for his daughters and one came running immediately, barefoot, with traces of mashed banana all over her face. Ali Baksh apologised for the unmade appearance of his daughter, scolded the girl and asked her to wash and come, remarking that the little one looked pretty otherwise. Amrohi agreed and promised he would recommend the girl to Mr. Modi. As it turned out she did not get the role. But Kamal Amrohi went on to become a film director, with whom Meena fell intensely in love and married 13 years later !
More films followed : Pratiggya, Lal Haveli, Duniya Ek Sarai, Piya Ghar Aaja and Bichchade Balam (1948). In Ramnik Production’s Bachchon Ka Khel (1946), Baby Meena became the heroine – Meena Kumari – performing with credit and winning recognition from all in the industry. The phase continued with several hits on the box office, including some mythologicals and fantasies : Veer Ghatotkach, Shri Ganesh Mahima, Magroor, Hamara Ghar, Anmol Ratan, Sanam, Madhosh, Lakshmi Narayan, Hanumaan Pataal Vijay , Tamasha and Aladdin Aur Jadui Chirag (1952).
Think not of how will ‘morrow unfold
Who can say what the moments now hold ?
Hold your tears, let not others cry or weep
How then will calamity affect, whatever it be ?
Tame the river and dam the flow
We can too, without hullabaloo.
Turned to hope in instant each
Infirmities vanish, we march on free.
If our nights are calm, spent in peace
Days break clear, gathered surely.
Let us speak of today and hear of now
Why think of next on the morrow’s brow ?
The year 1952 was especially tumultuous for Meena Kumari. It saw the release of her well received film Baiju Bawra, directed by Vijay Bhatt. It became a huge commercial and critical success and catapulted both its lead actors, Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari, to stardom. The film was a musical, set up in Mughal India of 16th Century, with classical Hindustani melodies wonderfully built into it. The intense story line had everything of human interest… joy and sadness, oppression and rebellion, defeat and victory… and relationships of all hues.
The superhit movie established or enhanced the careers of all the artists involved, Meena amongst them. She won the Filmfare Award and music director Naushad, one of the best ever, received the inaugural Best Music Director Award. This was to be Naushad’s first and only Filmfare Award. Mohammed Rafi, the exquisitely melodious voice in those memorable songs, remained the undisputed best over the next two decades.
And the world noticed the young lady of unblemished beauty, Meena Kumari. It was at this point that she saw the opportunity frontiers she could step up to. In a proud moment of glory on 21st March 1954 at the Metro Theatre in Bombay, only five awards were presented at the Filmfare inaugral, and Meena Kumari was associated with four of them : two each for her films Baiju Bawra and Do Bigha Zameen. The fifth was for the Best Actor, conferred on Dilip Kumar for his performance in Daag. When Meena rose to receive her award, the theatre filled with thunderous applause and ovation to herald the country’s leading lady of celluoid. At this historical juncture of her career, her tremulous voice remained true to her emotions while accepting the award. A nation had showered her with love and appreciation and returned their devotion to her.
Many years have come and gone and many others have graced the stage to accept the award but none yet have captured the spirit of triumph and victory as Meena Kumari did that night. With her that night was Kamal Amrohi. The industry had found a winner… a hard working and soft spoken actor of great sensitivity, capable of carrying challenges on her own and delivering big – time successes.
Meena Kumari was introduced to Kamal Amrohi by Ashok Kumar in 1952, on the sets of Tamasha, when too she met actress Madhubala for the first time. Later, while working together in Amrohi’s Anarkali, their relationship flowered. It deepened when, after just a few scenes of the project had been canned, Meena suffered in a car accident and was laid up in Sassoon Hospital, Poona, for five whole months. Amrohi used to visit her during the weekends. Meena was doubtful if he would still consider her for the role ! To reassure her, Amrohi wrote on her wrist : “ Meri Anarkali ” [ ‘ My (love) Anarkali ‘ ] and signed his name below. The Anarkali project however was abandoned after the first schedule.
This dark abyss of my loneliness
In concert like this chronic breath
With me in life, living as I
As this pulse… throbbing
Which numerous moments lacerate
Deepen with their rocky probes
As they descend, stay and depart
While the agonal blood flows
Seeking someone… for refuge
For the deep want… to call
A mate, one with this soul.
Soon after marriage, Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari produced a film called Daayera (1953), an ode to immortalise their own love story. The movie was rejected by the audience and was declared a major flop. But it remained closest to the couple’s heart. At a time when there were no zoom lenses or trolleys, Kamal Amrohi achieved spectacular effects without them. It was lauded in The Times of India, a major daily, as a ‘poem on celluloid’. A judge of Allahabad High Court wrote a letter to the daily, saying ‘I’m not upset that Daayera has flopped but that the man who made it will never make such a film again.’ Kamal preserved that letter till the very end.
Kamal and Meena planned another film, Pakeezah, an epic saga of human life and character, attitude and relationship… a massive tome which took 14 years to complete, from 1958 when planning began to 1972 when it was first screened in theatres all over. The scenes in the movie’s popular song “Inhi logon ne…” were originally filmed in black and white, but were later reshot in color on Meena Kumari’s suggestion ! We will shed more light on the movie and those years a little later.
In 1953, Meena starred in six films, including Daayera. The movie Dana Paani had Bharat Bhushan, the male lead from Baiju Bawra. Gossip was rife about his affair with Meena Kumari, for which he received many a threat on himself and his wife, presumably from Kamal Amrohi or his assistant, Baqar. But Do Bigha Zamin, directed by Bimal Roy, had a socially powerful theme and proved a trend setter at neo-realism. Meena’s role in the film was secondary, as the kind and helpful landlady who writes letters on behalf of the hapless wife of a marginal farmer struggling in a distant land. The film’s commercial success was moderate but it was celebrated as the first Indian fim to win the International Prize at Cannes in 1954. Foot Path was Meena’s first with Dilip Kumar. Naulakha Haar was forgettable but Parineeta with Ashok Kumar, got her the second Best Actress Award and the Best Director Award to Bimal Roy. It remains the most faithful rendition of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel dealing with very complex happenings in a girl’s life, in which she secretly bethroths a wealthy brat, her childhood heart throb, and publicly weds a self – made man, who saves her family abode and their honour.
During the rest of the 50s decade, before she came to be looked upon as a great tragedienne and actually known as the ” Queen Of Tragedy,” 27 of Meena Kumari starrers were released. The film Baadbaan had a stellar star cast of Dev Anand, Meena Kumari, Ashok Kumar and Usha Kiran. Directed by Phani Majumdar, it was the first ever film in India to have been produced by a workers’ cooperative. Meena matched the boisterous Kishore Kumar and rollicked in the rather obscure Ilzaam, the first of six films with Kishore Kumar. She pranced gaily with Robin Hood Dilip Kumar in swashbuckling Azaad, the top grossing Hindi film in the year of its release and one of the biggest Hindi film hit in the decade. She paired up with Kishore Kumar again and made expressive eyes in the light-hearted Miss Mary, which was entertainment pure… an out-and-out comedy that kept one on the edge. Shararat was again a fun movie with Raj Kumar and Kishore Kumar in double role, with that memorable Kishore song “Hum Matwaley Naujawan…” Bandhan had Motilal and Pradeep Kumar, with songs by Hemant Kumar. It won the National Certificate Of Merit For Second Best Feature Film. In Ek Hi Raasta she was Sunil Dutt’s widow whom Ashok Kumar marries after defying societal norms. She was the love angle, and later the step mother, to Raj Kapoor’s character in Sharda, which did reasonably well on the box office. It was a very difficult role to essay and had been refused by all leading actesses of the day. The finesse which Meena vested in her role earned her the Journalists Award For Best Actress. Yehudi, with Meena again paired up with Dilip Kumar, was set in ancient Rome at a time when Jews were severely persecuted by the State. Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan saw her play opposite Rajendra Kumar, the jubilee star.
Those were heady days for Meena Kumari… In a sponsored program broadcast over Radio Ceylon in 1958, Meena gushed enthusiastically about her first ever visit to her husband’s home town, Amroha, in north – west region of Uttar Pradesh. She and Kamal Amrohi had been there in 1956, four years after they were married. The area is rich in culture, architecture, mangoes, sugarcane and fresh water fishes… Deprived of such exposure through her life in Bombay, she exulted with joy and gratitude, and referred to her husband with high regard, love and extreme respect. Nobody then would have suspected that the couple would be estranged two years later, in 1960.
It is said that they never formally divorced but separated in 1964. Meena did not come home after her shoot and never stepped in their Pali Naka home thereafter. She stayed in actor Mehmood’s house for a while, who was married to her sister, Madhu, before moving to one in Janaki Kutir, Juhu. Kamal rushed to Mehmood’s house to reconcile their differences and escort her back. But Meena refused. Afterwards, their respective egos took over. They never spoke a word against each other, never had a formal divorce, and always loved each other till the end.
What could have provoked her to take such a step ? Was it true, as is generally believed, that her marriage to Amrohi was a failure ? Did he ill-treat her, as was widely alleged ? It is said that Amrohi did not want children with Meena Kumari because she was not a Shia Sayyed. They raised Kamal Amrohi’s son, Tajdaar, who was greatly attached to his Chhoti Ammi (younger mother). Due to their strong personalities, however, Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi started to develop conflicts, both professionally and in their married life. ” It is true,” Kamal Amrohi confessed. ” I used to advise Meena against accepting assignments which would harm her reputation. I used to be a little harsh sometimes but it was all in her interest.”
It was all on account of excessive love !
What is this glow
Clothed in ashen colours
A corpse ice stiff, wearing
A body of lava as if, made in
A desire dumb, a want silent
With ill repute for burial garment !
Every drop is holy, of soiled tears
Which infirms mob at panacea Kauser.
What’s this din, soundlessly stretched
As in notorious den under glitzy shade ?
What is this Paradise that startled wakes ?
This embodied wait eternal, named Silence ?
And what is this bound in my feelings unbound
Where walls n doors obstruct the spirit’s rove ?
A long sensual journey to valley of radiance
I find inscribed at every turn
Just two names : Call it Death
If you cannot say Love.
Tajdar later recalled how their marriage came in for a lot of criticism from the conservative people of Amroha. By marrying an actress, a boy of the Sayyed family was perceived as having tarnished the reputation of their aristocrat family. Kamal made her promise that she would quit acting once she had completed the projects on hand. However, when the time came she pleaded, ‘ I’ve been in the limelight since I was four. I can’t give it up now.’ He couldn’t say no to her, but he laid two conditions — one, she wouldn’t take on films which, in his judgement, were below her dignity ; and, two, when they were to attend social functions together, she would travel with him in his car and not the other way around.
In 1955, the couple went to the Filmfare awards function. Meena had won the Best Actress award for her ‘ Lalita ‘ role in Parineeta. In the rush to get away after the show, she left her gold purse on her seat. Kamal saw it but did not pick it up for her. Actress Nimmi picked it up and returned it to Meena. Meena was surprised that Kamal hadn’t noticed. But Kamal told her that he had. He didn’t pick it up for her because… ‘ Today it’s a purse, tomorrow you might ask me to pick up your shoes.’ On another occasion, when Meena asked him to hold her purse for a moment, he is said to have scolded her in public revealing his alpha-male values common in conservative bourgeois and feudal families.
Both were great artistes with massive egos. Clashes were common and their separation was inevitable. There were rumours about Meena being fed just leftovers from previous day. After they separated the mongering got wilder. It was said that Kamal used to regularly beat her up. Tajdar informs that both were mere gossip and not true. But, without doubt, Meena felt oppressed by the feudal attitude and high – handed behaviour that Kamal brought to their relationship. He was the possessive master; she was not prepared to be the acquiesced slave.
Meena perceived the cruelty and lived the paranoia. She earned millions but Kamal will only allow her a monthly allowance of Rs 100. She desperately wanted to help her sister, Madhu, when Mehmood earned practically nothing. But felt constantly thwarted. Kamal’s lavish productions, Daiyra and Pakeezah, and his Kamalistan studios ( 1958 ), were mostly financed by her earnings. There were too many and far too restrictive do’s and don’ts she had to observe. And, she was watched over. Kamal had issued strict instructions, and had people deployed, to prevent any other man meet Meena Kumari on the sets. His assistant, Baqar, slapped her once when she insisted on letting the budding poet-lyricist Gulzar into her make up room !
Let there be someone now to immediately spot
Turn sudden with longing, unexpectedly call :
Cohabiter, my Cohabitee !
Co-owner of my melancholy
Friend to my unfinished being !
All your wounds are pain to me
Every groan of yours
Link to my sighs deep.
You, a deserted mosque
And I, its muezzin’s call
That issues high and travels far
To meet its own isolation
And tiptoes masked, to pray
Offer namaaz, on the heart
Of this barren land, prostate
To the god unknown
I wonder who ?
Meena Kumari enjoyed doing films with Kamal untill the release of Chandni Chowk (1953). Reportedly, a few (competing !) directors had approached Kamal Amrohi with film signing offers for Meena Kumari which he had refused… declaring that Meena Kumari was not going to sign any more movie contract for the next four months for lack of dates. Afterwards however, Meena Kumari signed Chandni Chowk and Bandhan on her own, which made industry bigwigs feel cheated and ill – disposed towards Kamal Amrohi. They starting meeting Meena Kumari personally, when Kamal Amrohi was not present with her.
The professional drift between Kamal and Meena only accelerated with time. In 1959, during an interview, Meena Kumari was asked about her relationship with Kamal. She responded with :
“ One can never understand a person without spending time with him. Perhaps, there are people about who are not able bear with my success. Hence they are paving my way with thorns.”
Perhaps, Kamal Amrohi had started feeling inferior her. But at that juncture, when the biggest of banners were vying for her dates, there was no way to stop, to turn away from all that she had assiduously built up. She held Kamal with the same respect and regard as before but felt the need to remove him from the professional relationships she had in the industry. Equally, perhaps Kamal Amrohi was not jealous of Meena’s success but merely overprotective and worried, even insecure, of the gossips about an ongoing affair between Meena Kumari and Bharat Bhushan, and later with several others.
Meena’s loving and generous heart was irreparably stung by the distrust implicit in Kamal’s attitude which pushed her over the edge to alchohol and other paramours. Meena felt too little love in the relationship and not enough freedom in her life. Kamal felt he was giving both in excess. Their conflicts led to irreconciliable alienation in 1960 and actual separation four years later. Meena Kumari, once a happy woman, became depressed and found solace in liquor. During those years of separation from her husband, she associated with other men with intimacy… her relationships with Gulzar, Sawan Kumar Tak and Dharmendra were well known.
Her thoughts here reflect her condition and her rebellious resolve :
Days now pass in bits and parts
And nights availed in pieces and shreds
We each are endowed in accord
With heaven’s stretch in our arms spread.
I’ve wished to know this heart of mine
But have heard the laughs each time I tried
As shouts loud in ears at my defeat
This rout once more, life serially beat.
But what of defeats, of attacks oblique ?
Move I all time, must keep on walking
For I have the beau now after my heart
And this unrest too trailing ever since.
My story may start but is of no consequence
When it is without that name, my one friend
That traveller-co who dissolves and fills
My being sensed in folds of dark mane.
Ill-repute, yes, I do embrace
But am lost no more nor misplaced.
Why must I heed not the calls of youthful heart
Pick at its joyous yield, smile and laugh ?
Not everyone is destined else
To avail their life and its reward.
Now flowing tears pause to tell the eye
It’s not the goblet that melts in wine.
Is the day already set or was it
The groom’s party on the boat that drowned ?
I hear no dirge from the shores
No howling cry or a soul’s baul !
Kamal Amrohi is portrayed by Nida Fazli, Kamal’s lyricist in Razia Sultan, as a prurient, eccentric and vengeful man… Fazli wrote that Dharmendra was made to don black grease-paint in Razia Sultan because Amrohi could never stomach the fact that Dharmendra had had an affair with his wife. That, Amrohi was fond of women and pretty faces and insisted on seeing a pretty face every time he woke up after taking a nap in his office. That, he even behaved badly with Sohrab Modi, who had given Kamal his first breaks to script – writing career in Bombay film industry.
In the 60s, Meena Kumari essayed roles that were dangerously close to her own tragic life, after her separation from Kamal. The intensity and power in those celluloid tragedies were derived from her own personal situation and emotional make up in those years. The conviction and strength of those characters she portrayed, in a series of films, earned her a repute as ” the great tragidienne ” and the endearing crown of ” Queen Of Tragedy ” popularly bestowed on her.
The decade started with the release of Kohinoor and Dil Apnaa Aur Preet Paraayi, which were yet carryovers from her more happy days. Kohinoor was a typical fairytale, very commercially presented as an entertainer for the family. It had ample comic moments and Meena Kumari showed a huge knack for fun in them. The songs were very melodious, and Dilip Kumar got the Filmfare Best Actor award for it. Dil Apnaa Aur Preet Paraayi was a more emotionally intense comedy with great performances, especially by Nadira. It earned the Best Music Director Award for Shankar Jaikishan. It was a romantic musical with links to the medical profession and the beautiful Himalayas. And Meena looked ethereal in her role as a sensitive and caring nurse. Both movies were very well received.
The year 1962 proved to be a watershed. Meena Kumari created history, and remains unique to this day, by being the sole leading lady to have been nominated at all slots for the Filmfare Best Actress award in 1963. The nominations were for her roles in Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam, Aarti and Main Chup Rahungi. She won for Saheb Biwi Aur Ghulam, which was conferred with 3 more awards, but her performances in the other two movies had equally impacted the audiences.
Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam was perhaps the most perilous mix of the reel and real. Meena poured her own life into her role. She confided to Gulzaar that she would shed tears and dull her senses with liquor while essaying the role. Produced by Guru Dutt and directed by Abrar Alvi, the story was set in Bengal during late 19th Century British Raj years, when the prosperity of feudal principalities was on the decline. They ‘ lords ‘ still lived in grand palaces and the goings on in one such was presented through the eyes of a simple architect, essayed by Guru Dutt himself. The film had other great actors – Waheeda Rehman, Nazir Hussain, Rehman, Harindranath Chattopadhyay and Sapru – but everything recedes in the background from the moment “Atulya” ( Guru Dutt ) comes across the immense beauty and sadness of “Chhoti Bahu,” wife ( Meena Kumari ) of the youngest “Choudhary” ( Rehman ). Struck with the magnetic countenance, Atulya quite unawaredly becomes the confidante of Chhoti Bahu. The decadence of the Choudharys, their straying ways, and the tragic lives of their love-starved spouses is then revealed. Constantly denied, Chhoti Bahu becomes the drinking companion to her husband, merely to retain his company for herself. Thenceforth, the entire story is overpowered and taken over by the loveless being of Chhoti Bahu, her struggle with the indignities she suffers. But she remains steadfast by her husband even when he is paralysed. Untill she is abducted by the elder Choudhary and is killed and buried.
The reality which Meena gave to her character stirred the collective consciousness of the nation then, especially women folk who could easily identify with it. Her portrayal of Chhoti Bahu is perhaps the greatest performance ever seen on the Indian screen.
May such mad ardents pass your way
Who on their shoulders carry their own graves.
With adorned ruins of heart, they squat and wait
For the spring bloom mayhap to come their way.
This flowing river, these dissolving shores
May someone crossover and beyond go…
Even you looked at me and I looked you up too
You lost your heart but I my life, my life’s verve.
Aarti, directed by Phani Majumdar, had a vengeful Ashok Kumar, simple and unemployed Pradeep Kumar, and scheming Shashikala in pivotal roles. The film was the first venture of Rajshri Productions. It too dealt with marital discord, gender equation and attitudes, negative alpha behaviour, and the medical profession. The Bengal Film Journalists’ Association acknowledged Aarti as one of the top ten Indian films of the year and conferred the Best Actress Award on Meena Kumari. Main Chup Rahungi had the hugely romantic song “Chand Jaaney Kahan Kho Gaya…”, exquisitely rendered by Mohd Rafi. But its storyline had the same woman’s strife and struggle… an unwed mother, who followed her heart, then finds herself abandoned by the wealthy and flambouyant heir. She goes away during her pregnancy but returns to handover the child to the care of an orphange, in which she starts to teach. The male lead was played by Sunil Dutt, who won the Filmfare Best Actor Award the next year.
Kinare Kinare (1963) starts with Partition in ’47, whereafter Chetan Anand and Meena Kumari remain in the frame untill Dev Anand enters. The film went unnoticed except that the experience prompted Dev Anand to observe, ” Meena Kumari was the most beautiful actress I have worked with.” Almost all songs in Dil Ek Mandir were raging hits. Meena was paired with Rajendra Kumar, who essays the role of a medic, but it was her husband in the movie, Raj Kumar, who won the Best Supporting Actor Award. The movie was the 5th grosser in 1963. Akeli Mat Jaiyyo was convoluted and forgettable, though it had Rajendra Kumar in double role. Sanjh Aur Savera (1964) with Guru Dutt was a weepin melodrama. Guru Dutt commited suicide shortly after the film was released. Gazal was a light Muslim story with good songs and a very good star cast. Sunil Dutt gave a great performance in the role of a simple poet who falls in love with the voice of a girl. Meena Kumari was awesome in her performance as a girl who loses her voice just when she is a about to hear a good news. In Chitralekha, Meena is a courtesan with bewitching beauty, of whom the stately prince ( Pradeep Kumar ) is smitten. Ashok Kumar was a Yogi oscillating between lust and spirituality, who falls for her physical charms. Admonished by the lady, the yogi commits suicide while the prince abdicates the throne and comes to marry her. But despite having a great story and cast, the script and unsuitability of the performers to their respective characters led the film downhill on the box office.
Production of Pakeezah started in 1961 but without dates from Meena Kumari. Her shots were taken in 1964 but it all came to standstill for years when Meena separated from Kamal Amrohi. It remained stalled through most of the sixties untill actors Nargis and Sunil Dutt saw the rushes and told Meena, ‘ You must complete the film.’ Also, it was no small matter that by early 1964 a whooping sum of 40 lakh rupees were already spent ! In 1967, Meena called Kamal to her house and suggested restarting production. They then met, after three long years. ” Not much was said, but streams of tears were shed.” Amrohi greeted her with a token payment of a gold guinea and the promise that he’d make her look as beautiful as the day she had started the film. They had dinner together and she gave him her diary to read.
In March 1964, when Meena had left home, Pakeezah was more than halfway complete. Five years and 12 days later, she reported again on the sets of Pakeezah. Over the next two years, the estranged couple met frequently but they never spoke of their sad past. The actress used to tell her close friends – composer Khayyam and Delhi distributor Sayeed Bhai and his wife among them – that God would never forgive those who had wrecked her home with their misplaced sympathy, advice and encouragement. It was a clear admission of her own error at precipitating that tragic pall upon her life, for which untill then she had held Kamal and his ways alone responsible.
My love, in the afternoons
When sea waves rise and resonate
With the beats of my heart
I obtain my strength to bear
This separation, longing for you
From life-glorifying rays of the Sun.
Meanwhile her films Purnima, Kaajal, Bheegi Raat (1965) and Pinjre Ke Panchhi and Phool Aur Patthar (1966) released. Purnima had the lilting evergreen ” Humsafar Mere Humsafar…” and Dharmendra, but fared average with the audiences. Kaajal with Raj Kumar, Dharmendra and Padmini, was an extraordinary movie, with a story too complicated to summarise in a few words. It held our interest with its fair share of deaths, disasters and romances leading to chaos, doubts, suspicions and separations that end in guilt, regret, penance, reunions and fulfilment. The emotional appeal of the film, its music and the songs, was so strong that it kept the viewer engrossed till the last scene. Kaajal garnered for Meena her a fourth and last Best Actress award. Bheegi Raat yet again brought Ashok Kumar and Pradeep Kumar together, with Meena portraying their love interest and Shashikala the spurned vengeful woman. The movie did well on the box office. Pinjre Ke Panchhi did not have a star cast but Phool Aur Patthar, with Dharmendra, was a blockbuster, the top grosser in 1966. It celebrated its golden jubilee, catapulting Dharmendra to stardom.
Phool Aur Patthar also served to set Dharmendra and Meena Kumari up as a popular cine couple. They went on to act in more movies like Chandan Ka Palna, Manjhli Didi and Baharon Ki Manzil. The first two had a lukewarm reception on the box office. Baharon Ki Manzil was an engrossing suspense – thriller in which Meena Kumari plays a young mother’s role and then had a recall of identity that was different from what everyone about took her to be. Dharmendra stood out in his performance as a psychiatrist. It was Meena Kumari, in the central role, who looked alcoholic, a litlle loose physically and a shade tired… and not upto expectations.
The roles Meena essayed in later movies were character parts, main and challenging, but not leads. Heavy drinking had badly damaged her liver and, in 1968, she fell seriously ill. She was taken to London and Switzerland for treatment. Upon recovery, she settled her debts and made peace with her estranged sister, Madhu, whom she had not spoken to for two years. Her good looks had waned. The roles she then played were no longer ‘central’ from box office perspective : Abhilasha (1968), Saat Phere (1970), Jawab (1970), Mere Apne (1971), Dushmun (1971) and Gomti Ke Kinare (1972). Jawab, in common with the fate of Mera Naam Joker and Prem Pujari that year, bombed at the box office at first but was later both well received and regarded. In Mere Apne, Meena shone forth as an old widow who chose to live with a loving street kid than with relatives who merely saw her as housemaid and a nanny to their child. Being motherly and caring, she is loved by all, even by the violent youth of the locality. Directed by Gulzar, her understated histrionics in the film as the lady of peace and the peacemaker between two warring youth groups remains memorable. As is her role in Dushman, the super hit of 1971. She excelled at portraying the silent, implacable widow of a farmer who had been run over by a drunk truck driver. The frozen stares projected her absolute condemnation of the culprit. The nuances she brings on her countenance conveyed her unrelenting hardness and fire in her heart.
Gomti Ke Kinare went nowhere with the audience and proved to be an absolute flop. The producer of her 1968 film, Abhilasha, was a builder who gave her a bungalow in lieu of her fee for the film. During her last days, while Gomti Ke Kinare was still being made, the producer Sawan Kumar Tak went bankrupt. Meena Kumari sold off the bungalow and paid a huge amount to Sawan Kumar. The film was her last release.
The urgent resumption of Pakeezah in 1968, at Meena’s initiative, can be seen as a dire move of someone who had suddenly woken up to her rapid burn out. Compared to the movies that were then being made and the roles that came to her, there was a grandeur in Amrohi’s filmmaking – an epic scale and magnitude of treatment – which alone held the promise for Meena to raise a landmark. And, post their reconciliation, the only man in whom Meena Kumari had implicit faith was Kamal Amrohi himself !
The evocative songs and the background music already created for the film provided the right ambience of the period in which the movie was set. Kamal Amrohi’s eye for details brought great depth to the lavish sets. A deliriously lush and romantic film, the script was pregnant with opportunities for Meena in her dual role, first as the love of Shahabuddin and then as her courtesan daughter. As the blonde-haired Nargis, she seeks to escape the brothel by eloping with her lover, essayed by Ashok Kumar. But the patriarch (Sapru) of Shahabuddin’s family refuses to accept her… and Nargis flees to a graveyard. On her deathbed, she writes to him a letter asking him to come for his newborn daughter. But it is her sister who arrives, finds her dead, and brings the baby back to the brothel house. The girl grows up and, after many struggles and much strife, finds her love in Salim, nephew of Shahabuddin. Salim heeds nothing of the Patriarch’s outright rejection of his love. He marries Sahibjaan and names her Pakeezah, the Pure !
But it wasn’t just Meena Kumari who was desperate to restart the making of Pakeeezah… as a letter that Amrohi wrote on 25th August 1968 to his estranged wife proves :
“…only Pakeezah’s completion remains unsettled. You have made a condition that unless I give you a divorce you will not complete Pakeezah. Even this knot can be untied…I will free you from your marital ties. After this if you wish to help complete ‘your Pakeezah’ I would be most happy to do so. This is my request, that Pakeezah on which the fortune of many people depends, and which has the good wishes of so many people should not be felt uncompleted if possible. […] You have better means. You have power. You have box-office appeal, and most of all Pakeezah needs you personally…Pakeezah that is like a sinking ship will reach ashore under your care.”
When the film was resumed in 1968, several financiers asked Kamal Amrohi to replace the music with one that was more contemporary and trendy. Amrohi said that he would have agreed, if Ghulam Mohammed was yet alive. But he could not betray a dead man who had given him twelve beautiful songs. In keeping with the times though, he kept only six songs in the film.
Kamal Amrohi’s mastery of his craft and his literary brilliance shows throughout the movie. He sketched all the set designs and camera movements, and personally selected every costume, right down to the bangles worn by the minor characters. He enlisted the help of erstwhile Bombay Talkies’ cameramen, German Wirsching and R D Mathur, and composed a series of eloquent tableaux to stage the scenes. Pakeezah’s chandelier – heavy, fountain – adorned Gulabi Mahal is draped with curtains and inhabited by statuesque women with trailing dupattas. There is a visual maximalism that is deliberate; the fancy setting seems surreal. Its splendour fills the eye and stirs the senses. But we are never without the sense of the heart beating at the film’s core.
The dialogues were terrific, as how it prevailed in 19th and early 20th Century Lucknow. They were just appropriately hued for the occasions in the narrative. Salim’s first words for Sahibjaan, about her feet actually, are simple but so soft and touching as to melt our hearts. Salim’s ripostes to the Patriarch are controlled and understated, but scathing. And, it quivers with pathos when Sahibjaan declares herself as the dead who are merely alive.
Amrohi effectively used two sound motifs throughout the film — the train’s piercing whistle, which reminds Sahibjaan of her admirer and hope; and a soulful rendering by Lata Mangeshkar which mirrors her moments of sadness. Kamal used symbols to great effect for expression, economy, and to add to the film’s integrity. The bird with clipped wings and the snake in the house serve as external signs of the struggles in Sahibjaan’s life. At times, the semiotics is heavily underlined — a torn kite on a tree is shown when she returns to the house in helplessness and defeat.
Raaj Kumar made his presence felt in the film : with the likeable steadfastness of his character as well as with impeccable dialogue delivery and his own screen presence. But Meena Kumari’s failing health necessitated that some of the dance sequences and scenes be shot without her. Amrohi shot the entire song “Chalo Dildaar Chalo…” without showing her face. Her understated performance and moist eyes, sparkling with unshed tears, had a hypnotic effect. The dances were extremely well choreographed, but cleverly hid Meena’s inability to dance… she walked and moved ever so gracefully in the song “Chalte Chalte…” even as two other girls danced in the background. All the high energy dance sequences were captured in long shot, and each of them were performed by Padma Khanna, who acted as a double for the specific purpose.
During the dubbing, Meena was barely able to stand on her feet nor had the breath to pack power in her dialogues. Yet, she strove to give her best. Kamal Amrohi had shot 35,000 feet of film of which 14,000 feet was retained. At the premiere on February 4, 1972, among all the big-wigs of the industry, Meena Kumari sat between Raaj Kumar and Kamal Amrohi and watched that magic Kamal had weaved on celluloid. She was excited, overjoyed, and very pleased with what she saw. When Khayyam complimented her with, “Shahkar ban gaya !” … that is, ” the film has become priceless, ” … she was in tears. She regarded the film as Kamal Amrohi’s tribute to her.
But the film’s opening on 20th February was a disaster, causing panic among its producers and financiers and grave disappointment among all involved. But Meena was happy with what she had seen on the screen. The restart of production four years ago had almost brought about her reunion with Kamal, whom she had never stopped loving. Now, she felt the love bond ever more clearly. Common friends suggested to Kamal that he bring Meena home, in Pali Naka. But Amrohi felt it would remind her of the past and that would adversely affect her health.
It was a past most telling captured in her words, in how hurt she was when they had separated :
“Divorce me, even with that rage in your eyes.
But return to me my youth too, along with the alimony !”
In any case, post Pakeezah, Meena and Kamal used to be together for most of the day and she seemed content with the arrangement. It is said, they remarried. But her malaise was beyond cure by then.
You ask, so hear how my life is spent
Night as a hand-out, dawn as alms lent.
Oh, to live is not to breathe mere
‘Thout heartaches, tears, sleeves wet.
See their nights how besotted lovers pass
Eyes open pierced, mirrored dreams of glass.
This sore, my loss deep is the enemy
The ache too is what my heart seeks.
Even a moment’s separation, if it occurs, starts
The hunt for a hub, frenzy for fragrance lost.
The destination I reach sometimes then
Becomes a prelude to my journey next.
While despondency prevailed at the indifferent reception of Pakeezah at theatre counters, Meena Kumari died of cirhosis on 31st March, 1972. Suddenly, as the news spread, people began flocking at theatres all over and soon the film was declared a huge box-office success. It has since acquired a legendary status and is today regarded as perhaps her best, and one of the greatest film ever produced for Hindi screen.
Pakeezah did not receive any Filmfare Award, but for a consolatory one for Art Direction. The veteran actor, Pran, turned down his Filmfare Award that year in protest, even though the Filmfare Best Music Director Award had been won by Shankar-Jaikishan for Be-Imaan, for which film Pran had himself been awarded as Best Supporting Actor. He felt that merit had been ignored when late Ghulam Mohammed was not awarded for his music in Pakeezah. It is reported that Kamal Amrohi was told that he and his crew would receive a special award for Pakeezah for a consideration. He refused to “buy an award” without a second thought.
Pakeezah was the inaugural film telecast by Doordarshan, India’s state-owned television station, when it began broadcasting from Amritsar ( in Punjab ) in the early 70s. It was specially beamed towards Lahore nearby, in Pakistan. Thousands flocked at Lahore, from as far as Karachi, hundreds of miles away, to see Pakeezah. It was a flood… the crowds stampeded the streets of Lahore to get to the television screens placed at strategic points on virtually every street corner !
At her death, Meena Kumari was in more or less the same financial circumstance as her parents were at the time of her birth. It is said that when she died in a nursing home, there was no money to pay for her hospital bills. It was remitted by the doctor who cared for her in those last hours.
She was buried at the Rahematabad Qabristan located at Narialwadi, Mazgaon, Mumbai.
Meena Kumari wished this epitaph to be on her grave :
She ended life
With a broken fiddle
A broken song
And a broken heart
But without a regret single.
Her confidante, Nadira, had recalled, “I bathed and dressed her for the last rites. Without money or work, Meena would not have been able to face life. It’s better that God took her away.”
* * *
Meena Kumari’s poems are all about love, and its impossibility as she discovered in her own life. She looked for it, went ways to find it, and wept for it.
” In fact,” she said, ” love is my biggest weakness, and greatest strength too. I am in love with love. I am craving for love. I have been craving for it since my childhood.”
Perhaps she had it but never found it. Or, perhaps, it was the childhood itself she was craving for, which she never had.
” Appa! Appa! I don’t want to die,” Meena cried out from her deathbed to her elder sister Khursheed. I would imagine that when she closed her eyes, on that terminal day on 31st March of 1972, her heart was still open.
This night, this loneliness
This sound of heartbeats
And this silence dense…
The poetry of love composed
And rendered by these stars
Sets in quiet desolation
Lying on the eyelid of Time.
This last pandiculation of feeling
Of love, pipes on
As the sound of death
In all directions.
* * *
Everyone calls you over…
Come, if even for a flash
Do up my eyes closing
With a dream of love.
” Enshrined forever in our hearts as the tragedy queen, kohl – rimmed eyes brimming, long – suffering, traditional ‘Indian woman’, we forget that Meena Kumari was one of the finest actresses of her time, with a range that went far beyond white saris and glycerine. She was one of the few actresses of her time who could carry huge cine projects on her own star power. She had very few films with the ruling troika of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. And while she immortalised the roles of the alcoholic Choti Bahu and the heart wrenching Sahibjaan, we only need to watch Kohinoor, Azad or Miss Mary… to realise that it was unfair to slot Meena Kumari as a tragedienne. Her comic timing was impeccable, and her range as a dramatic actress was truly remarkable.”