The iconic legend—Meena Kumari

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Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, one of her many award-winning performances between Baiju Bawra and Pakeezah. Photo: Publicity Photo 

Half a century has passed since Meena Kumari left the world on March 31. But her sterling performances, impeccable persona and magical charisma endure as timeless memories.

Meena Kumari was a star in the era of Nargis, Nutan, Vyjayanthimala, Madhubala and Geeta Bali. To shine among them for over 15 years as a heroine and later as a star-character artiste was no ordinary achievement.

Branded as a tragedienne (tragedy stalked her personal life more, however), Meena Kumari was also effortless at comedy, as proved—but sadly ignored in the era of typecasting—by a film like Miss Mary, and at light as well as powerful performances in entertainers like Azaad and Kohinoor.

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In Hindi cinema, most images are not consciously aspired for but happen thanks to one or more hits. And so it was that Meena Kumari’s image became that of the woman behind the pained voice that broke with emotions, or the tear-laden eyes in an unblemished face, once stardom happened with Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra (1952) , followed by Parineeta, Footpath, Ek Hi Raasta, Sharda, Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan and others and even that small cameo in Do Bigha Zamin.

Meena’s tryst with the camera, as with so many great artistes from Nargis down to Alia Bhatt, had begun as Baby Mahjabeen, in Vijay Bhatt’s Leather Face (1939), when she was just five years old, and had to support her family when father, Ali Bux, a theatre artiste, fell on bad days. She was a child, adolescent artiste and second or main leading lady in 24 films.

But after her breakthrough in Baiju Bawra, her 25th film released in 1952, if the 1950s was a mixed bag in terms of lachrymal quotient for the star, Meena also mastered melancholy in the ‘60s: beginning Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, she assumed the mantle of the Sultana of Sorrow with Aarti, Main Chup Rahungi, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Bheegi Raat, Dil Ek Mandir, Pyar Ka Sagar, Chitralekha, Benazir, Kaajal, Purnima, Phool Aur Patthar and Main Bhi Ladki Hoon, thanks to most of these being big successes.

Meena’s real-life sorrows were no less of a brand, despite her undeniable stardom. Meena got estranged from her father from the time he fell in love with their maid and she latched on to filmmaker Kamal Amrohi and married him in 1954, but in less than a decade the marriage began to show cracks. They parted ways in 1964, leaving his magnum opus Pakeezah, launched in 1954, and already reshot in color and later Cinemascope, in the lurch.

After her split with her husband, Meena found emotional anchors in Dharmendra, filmmaker Saawan Kumar and Gulzar, but trends had changed towards formula entertainment, and from 1967, Meena rapidly lost ground with successive failures and had to switch to inconsequential character roles in Abhilasha, Jawab, Mehboob Ki Mehndi and even the 1972 super-hit Dushmun.

Her patch-up with her husband and resumption of work on Pakeezah in 1968 at good friend Sunil Dutt’s insistence had less to do with a desire to revive her stardom than the fact that Meena knew that she did not have long to live. But what she (probably unintentionally) achieved was the image of a martyr, who was doomed to self-destruction only because life and associates had not treated her kindly, leading to her addiction to alcohol. Alcohol had, however, come into her life as a medical prescription (one peg of brandy) instead of the sleeping pills she was taking due to her chronic insomnia. After her marriage failed, she took to drinking beyond healthy limits.

Meena even immortalized her life’s experiences into an audio disc of poems called Tanha Chand, inexplicably under the pseudonym of Naaz.

And the fragile beauty finally fought fate and vanquished it to complete Pakeezah, shooting some sequences in close-ups because she was unable to stand or walk, with Kamal Amrohi using duplicates (even the new hotshot Padma Khanna!) in long shots. The film opened on February 4, 1972 and was a whopping hit, even as Meena lay fighting for life in a hospital where she passed away on March 31, 1972, her bills unpaid. Ironically, when she was born, her father too did not have the means to pay the bills!

Pakeezah was so huge that Saawan Kumar billed her last release, his film Gomti Ke Kinare (in late 1972), starring the then Numero Uno Mumtaz, as ‘Meena Kumari’s last film’ (though she had a mediocre character role). Sohrab Modi even made a tribute, a film called Meena Kumari Ki Amar Kahani with a look-alike starlet in 1981. But connoisseurs prefer to term her 1971 Mere Apne as her true tour-de-force.

The film was actually the last she shot for, though she was too ill to lip-synch Lata’s Salil Chowdhury-composed beauty, Roz akeli aaye. As the old widowed governess caught between rival gangsters Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha and exploited by callous relatives, Meena finally proved, under the stewardship of friend-in-need Gulzar in his directorial debut, that we lost one of Hindi cinema’s greatest actresses ahead of time, at just 58.

But Meena’s last tryst with entertainment came six years later: Leke angdai, the last of several songs she had recorded for films, was released in a 1978 album called Pakeezah Rang Barang—a compilation of unused but recorded tracks from Pakeezah.

Actress, singer, poet and (in her time) model and fashion trendsetter, Meena was all of these besides being a loving stepmother to Kamal’s three children. As his second wife, she charmed not only Kamal Amrohi’s first wife but also the latter’s father with her caring ways.

But then who would not be mesmerized by those stunning eyes, and the lovely heart that lay within this magnificent icon?

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