March 31, 1972. It was Good Friday. The world was mourning the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Inside a city hospital, she screamed, “I don’t want to die,” clawing at the tubes surrounding her.
Then she slumped in the arms of her sister Madhu. Meena Kumari, born Mehjabeen Bano, was dead at the age of 39. Addiction to alcohol killed her. It is said that she had started drinking, while she was still married to Kamal Amrohi.
Amrohi’s German cinematographer, Joseph Wirsching, on being told about a pleurisy patch on her lungs, had recommended a shot of brandy before dinner. Within months she was hooked. On separating from Amrohi, she hit the bottle with a vengeance.
Dream Man Amrohi and she had married on February 15, 1962. He was already married and a father of three. She had come across a magazine photograph of his.. and had resolved that he was the man of her dreams.
Meena Kumari and the movie producer-director were together for 12 years. One day, she went to Ranjit Studio to shoot for
Pinjre Ki Panchhi
and didn’t return home. The press went to town about how the
pinjre ki panchhi
Amrohi blamed her relatives and producers for the split. He claimed they wanted him out of the way, so they’d get a share of her earnings and dates. Her family blamed him. Her sister Madhu asserted that for him she was a “saleable commodity and not a wife.”
There were also rumours of ill-treatment, which Amrohi’s son Tajdar denies vehemently, insisting that the split was the result of a clash of egos.
“She wanted him to come and
her,” Tajdar says. But Meena had refused to open the door. “He never went back and she never came back,” he sighs.
After leaving Amrohi, Meena drowned her sorrows in alcohol. There were other men including Dharmendra, Saawan Kumar Tak and Gulzar. Even her career was nose diving with the arrival of younger heroines. Her drinking had badly damaged her liver.
She was taken to London and Switzerland for treatment. The doctors gave her six months to live. Back home, she started settling her debts. The servants were paid off. She made peace with her estranged sister, Madhu, whom she hadn’t spoken to for two years.
Now there was only
to complete. Sunil Dutt orchestrated a meeting with Kamal Amrohi. Not much was said, but streams of tears were shed.
In March, ’64, when Meena had left home
was more than halfway complete. Five years and 12 days after she walked away, she reported again on the sets of
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.
Token of love
Fourteen years after it was launched
was complete. Kamal Amrohi had shot 35,000 feet of film of which 14,000 feet was retained. The film opened on February 20, ’72. It was a disaster.
Five weeks later, Meena Kumari passed away. After her death the collections of
doubled.. tripled.. quadrupled..
The film went on to celebrate a golden jubilee. 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.”