Meena Kumari’s 86th birth anniversary: Onscreen tragedy queen who endured pain all her life
On Meena Kumari’s 86th birth anniversary, a look at her short but eventful life, where success and pain were her constant companions.Updated: Aug 01, 2019 13:59 IST
If there is any actor in the Hindi film industry whose life and career followed a diametrically opposite trajectory, it had to be the tragedy queen of Indian screen — Meena Kumari. She passed away at a young age of 38 in 1972 from cirrhosis of liver — darling of the audience but miserable all through her personal life. On her 86th birth anniversary today, here’s revisiting the short but eventful life of one of the most iconic actors of contemporary India.
Born into penury as Mahjabeen, Meena was the second daughter of harmonium player Ali Bux and singer Iqbal Banu, both of whom worked in Hindi films. Constant financial strain on the family meant that young Meena was forced into acting as a child actor, aged about four. Her first role was in Vijay Bhatt’s (no relation of Mahesh Bhatt, but grandfather of director Vikram Bhatt) Leatherface when it released in 1939.
Her cherubic appearance, confident screen presence and competent acting soon got her more offers as a child actor in films like Adhuri Kahani (1939), Pooja (1940) and Ek Hi Bhool (1940), to name a few. She went on to work in films like Bachchon Ka Khel. At the tender age of 13, she appeared in her first role as an adult in this film and there was no looking back —she worked in a number action and mythological-themed films like Veer Ghatotkach (1949), Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950), Lakshmi Narayan (1951), Hanuman Patal Vijay (1951) and Aladdin Aur Jadui Chirag (1952).
The film that would catapult her into the top league would definitely be 1952’s Baiju Bawra, where she co-starred with Bharat Bhushan. The film’s songs, the lead pair’s performance, the story itself touched a chord with Indians and the film was a mega hit; Meena Kumari had arrived. What followed after this was a string of successes — Parineeta, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, Kaajal, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, Aarti, Mere Apne and Bahu Begum to name a few. Even her swan song Pakeezah, a story with which she possibly identified the most, started dull at the time of its release but was lapped up by audience after her death.
Meena Kumari’s mind bogging success came, perhaps, from the stories her films told and the characters she essayed. In film after film, she gave expression to the desires and aspirations of the women of 1950s and 1960s, faced as they were with stiff conservatism. Actually, not just women but men too identified with her, as it was a generational thing.
Despite being on top of her game in her career, Meena Kumari’s personal life was a cesspool of broken dreams and dejections. Her relationship with her father got seriously impaired after she allegedly married director Kamal Amrohi (already married with children) in secret. Matters turned so bad that, at one point, he threw her out of the house, irony being she had been the bread-earner of the family since the time she was a child actor.
Her childhood was anything but pleasant or normal. In a tell-all documentary of her life, a Rajya Sabha TV programme called Virasat - Meena Kumari mentions how as a young girl in her father’s home, she picked up the habit of sleeping with stones and routinely spoke to them. Penury, a lost childhood and constant fights between her parents scarred her badly.
Her life showed a brief spark of happiness when she started her romance with Kamal Amrohi and enjoyed few years of domestic bliss. However, happiness and Meena weren’t meant to be together. During a visit to South India in the late 50s or early 60s, something changed between them. They started drifting apart despite being married. In an attempt to stitch their differences, Meena and Kamal reportedly agreed to some basic conditions that Meena would have to adhere to — that she would not allow anyone into her make-up room other than her make-up man and that she would return home from work latest by 6:30 pm.
Though initially Meena stuck to the rules, in no time, she broke them all. As her relationship with Kamal reportedly faltered, stories of her alleged link-ups with other men started doing the rounds. It was alleged that she endured physical violence in her marriage — the said Rajya Sabha documentary and other random reports mention one particular instance that permanently damaged their relationship -- despite Kamal’s diktats, she reported allowed a gentleman (some say Gulzar) into her make-up room.
When Baqar Ali (Kamal Amrohi’s long-time secretary who would also spy on Meena at his boss’ behest), barged into the make-up room and misbehaved with her. Some reports suggest he hit her. Meena reported asked Kamal to come over to sort the issue. But his lack of initiative on the issue was the deal breaker. Meena Kumari’s name was also associated with an upcoming actor of the time, Dharmendra.
Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi compromised later for the sake of Pakeezah, his most iconic film and her last film. The film took a long time to be completed. In the meanwhile, Meena Kumari’s health went from bad to worse. She was reportedly a patient of chronic insomnia. In order to treat her, her doctor prescribed a small peg of brandy in early 1960s. Meena Kumari, who had never touched alcohol before that, would soon get so addicted to brandy that it would eventually take her life in 10 years’ time.
Meena Kumari’s legacy is her superlative acting — so real and deeply felt they were that they remain a benchmark to this day. Her work in films like Muslim socials like Pakeezah and Bahu Begum looked seamless as she was born into that milieu. However, generations of cine lovers that been simply dazed at her performances in films themed around Bengali culture like Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam — she looked and behaved so convincing that scores of viewers would find it hard to dispute its authenticity. That too wasn’t a coincidence for Meena Kumari had strong family connections with the Tagore family of Bengal.
Reports suggest that her maternal grandmother, Hem Sundari Tagore was the niece of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, who rebelled against customs of her day that condemned her to live a life of rejection after she became a young widow. She ran away from home, converted to Christianity and married a man called Pyarelal Shankar Meeruti and became a nurse. Her daughter Prabhawati was Meena Kumari’s mother.
In retrospect, Meena Kumari was a sensitive soul but a confident working woman who found herself at loggerheads with conservatism that defined her existence. The tussle lasted for 38 years before it finally ended with her unfortunate death.
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