Ashok Kumar who co-starred with Meena Kumari, in record 18 films, once observed: “In the early days she used to overact, there was a touch of theatricality. I pointed it out to her while we were doing Tamasha. She said: ‘Tell me then, how to do it.’ So I started to teach her. She was an eager learner. And she learnt so well that she rose to be one of the greatest. And then she had that wonderful voice. It was so sweet.”
Ali Baksh was a Shia Muslim harmonium player in Parsi theatre who also gave tuitions in music and wrote poetry when not making rounds of studios in search of bit roles, essayed one in Idd ka Chand and composed music for Shahi Lutere. Meena Kumari or Mahjabeen Bano (August 1, 1932-March 31, 1972) was his reluctant daughter from his second marriage to Kamini, stage actress and dancer. Named Baby Meena she embarked on her illustrious career from the age of seven with Vijay Bhatt’s Farzand-e-Hind in 1939 essaying the role of Jairaj’s daughter for which she got a princely sum of Rs 25. Interestingly, 14 years later she was his heroine in Magroor (53). Her first film as heroine was a mythological, Veer Ghatotkach, followed in quick succession by similar fare: Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950) and Alladin and the Wonderful Lamp which literally turned out to be so thereafter, again director Vijay Bhatt’s musical Baiju Bawra (52) opposite Bharat Bhooshan.
Her memorable performance not only won her the first ever Filmfare best actress trophy (1953), and put her on the path of success but also, separation and self-destruction. She went on to win three more: Parineeta (55), Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (63) and Kaajal (66) and nominations another eight times. In fact, she unconsciously wrote history of sorts, for Bollywood heroines, when in 1962 she got all the three nominations, other starrers being Aarti and Main Chup Rahungi. She also won nominations for Azaad (56), Sahara (59), Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan (60), Dil Ek Mandir (64), Phool aur Pathar (67), and Pakeezah (73) posthumously.
Laurels continued to fall in her lap for yet more sterling performances in Dil Ek Mandir (63), and Phool aur Pathar (66). The rumour mills worked overtime reporting stories of her unholy alliance with her married co-star, Dharmendra (her topsy-turvy marriage having resulted in a painful separation from Amrohi in 1964). But she had jumped into troubled waters when, still a teenager, infatuated by the charms of writer-director Kamal Amrohi, she not only married him but also to cement the bond, and promote his career she co-produced the disastrous Daera (1953), playing a sobbing, suffering sixteen-year-old bride of a 60-year-old sick man, while simultaneously romantically inclined towards the young neighbour. She hardly spoke in the film. Later she was also linked with Gulzar who directed her in Mere Apne (71). She is also reported to have sunk a fortune, early on, into the production of Amrohi’s magnum opus (which, incidentally, also became her swan song) Pakeezah which took fourteen long years to complete, using actor Padma Khanna in long dance-and-song sequences because by this time alcohol addiction had made her body unshapely.
Unfortunately, despite being hugely talented she failed to shed the tag of the silently suffering woman all through her career—ninety films in a little over two decades: Parineeta (53), Ek Hi Raasta (56), Sharda (57)—playing both lover and step mother to the hero Raj Kapoor—Dil Apna aur Preet Parayi (60). It does seem she made a conscious effort not to get typecast, and did demonstrate histrionics in somewhat light-hearted films like Azaad (55) and Kohinoor (60) with Dilip Kumar—the tragedy king of Hindi screen. But these were mere flashes in the pan. In between also came and went Miss Mary (57) and Shararat (59).
At her peak she was highly respected and widely regarded as a very adjusting artiste, and despite Amrohi’s dictats she went out of her way to adjust dates, and accommodate producers. There was something ethereal about her persona which prevented people from coming too close. Talking about her dedication, Abrar Alvi, who directed her in the classic Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, stated: “Meena Kumari was so entranced by the theme and the potential of the role of Chhoti Bahu that she decided she had to play the role.” And once work with her commenced she “insisted that she would shoot her portions in one uninterrupted sequence, without breaks” to maintain, or rather retain the intensity required to essay the role convincingly.
Elsewhere, even writer/film-maker Khwaja Ahmad Abbas recorded eloquently about her dedication and commitment fairly early in her career, in his multi-starrer, Char Dil Char Rahen. Since the film got delayed for various reasons, and an unwilling Amrohi refusing to allot more dates, Meena Kumari would report for shooting at seven in the morning for ten o’clock to complete her work which required heavy make-up as she played a harijan girl opposite aheer boy, essayed by Raj Kapoor.
It was a sad, lonely end to a glorious life, a great actor and a sensitive poet. She even cut a disc, I write, I recite set to music by the incomparable Khayyam, and left a whole diwan with Gulzar. The grapevine has also had it that Amrohi had deliberately deprived her of motherhood because she was a Syed, a Shia Muslim. She wrote, when they separated: “Talaaq to day rahay ho Nazar-e-qehar ke saath; Jawani bhi meri lauta do Mehar ke saath (Divorcing me with rage in your eyes/Do also return my youth with the alimony!).” It was the same Amrohi about whom she had written, when she fell in love 12 years earlier: “Dil saa jab saathi paya; Bechaini bhi woh saath le aaya (When I found someone like my heart/He also brought sorrow with him).
Meena Kumari altogether worked in 93 films, the journey from a child artiste (Leatherface, 1939) to a character actor (Gomti ke Kinare, 72), though Mere Apne again had her at her histrionic best, is a sublime story. Paying his tribute in verse, Gulzar wrote: Shahtoot ki shakh per bahti Meena/resham ke dhagay bunti hai/lamha lamha khool rahi hai/patta patta been rahi hai/ek ek saans bacha kar sunti hai sodayan/ek ek saans ko khol khol ke apne tan par/liptaaye jati hai/apne hi taago ki qaidi/yeh resam ki ye shayar/apne hi taago mein ghutkar mar jayegi (Sitting on mulberry branch, Meena weaves silken threads, losing every second, assembling every leaf/saving every breath/listens/wrapping every breath on her body/a prisoner of her own threads/this delicate sulking poet/will die caught in her own threads).
By Suresh Kohli