Remembering the Tragedy Queen Meena Kumari

Remembering the Tragedy Queen Meena Kumari

Though her own life was full of heartache, none could reduce an audience to tears like Meena Kumari could - and she could play every role to a fault

By Khalid Mohamed

Published: Thu 24 Mar 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 2 Apr 2016, 3:20 PM

Death anniversaries of movie legends provoke remembrances. Print, blog and Internet sites rewind to the stupendous actors that were. Television channels rotate daylong flashbacks in the form of memorable songs, dances and dramatic scenes, captioned under the title of 'Shradhanjali' or 'Tribute.'

OLD WORLD CHARM:Meena Kumari in scenes from(clockwise from bottom) Phool Aur Phattar, Dil Apna Preet Parai, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Mere Apne, Bahu Begum; and (top left) Kohinoor
I am guilty of travelling down the same predictable route. No option. Suggesting a retrospective of the legend's films by some film distributor or cinema owner is futile. Ditto the government's film festival officials, who haven't ever spared a thought for artistes still enshrined in the hearts of cinemagoers. Neither has the film industry ever considered paying homage of any kind to those who have contributed tremendously to the evolution of Bollywood, as it is known today.
Meena Kumari's grave in Mumbai's Rahmatabad cemetery in Mazgaon is rarely visited. Gratifyingly, though, the tombstone - which was in a decrepit condition - was renovated at the behest of her step-daughter, Rukhsar Amrohi, some six years ago.
If books have been authored on the actress, they have sought to delve into her private life rather than her ascent from a child star to a heroine who excelled in both high-drama and comedy, wrote poetry, and appeared in unconventional endeavours that weren't purely designed for commercial success (examples: Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Majhli Didi, and music composer-turned-director Salil Choudhury's Pinjre ke Panchhi).
Every now and then, there have been announcements of a biopic on the actress, born Mahjabeen Bano, the last one claiming that Kangana Ranaut had assented to incarnate the legend. None of the projects have fructified, largely because of the legalities involved in recreating her life story, which was drenched in heartache and melancholia.
Incredibly, despite her loneliness and isolation, she could leave her emotional baggage at home to perform with emotive accuracy before the eye of the camera at the studios. In a career spanning three decades, she appeared in approximately 90 films, before passing away of liver cirrhosis at the age of 39 on March 31, 1972.
Lore has it that there were no savings to pay for her hospital expenses and for her burial rites. Hers, in fact, is a cautionary tale for B-town's actors, coerced by circumstances, to shift towards the shadows of Sunset Boulevard. Her last films - particularly Dulal Guha's Dushman and Gulzar's Mere Apne - featured her as a white-haired widow prematurely.
Curiously, she was frequently slotted into the character of widows garbed in white saris, be it as Jeetendra's sister in Jawaab or as the conscience-prodder of a criminal played by Dharmendra in Phool aur Patthar. As for Saawan Kumar Tak's Gomti Ke Kinare, it showed her as a single mother, harangued by nasty accusations of her past as a courtesan. As it happened, after a point, the actress wasn't allowed to be at ease. No more fun time, no more entertainers of the Azaad and Kohinoor variety, in which she was a perfect match for Dilip Kumar.
Incidentally, an eminent psychoanalyst had advised Dilip Kumar to move away from the doom-stricken characters he had enacted in a series of films, including Deedar, Andaz and Devdas. The actor has been deeply affected by those performances, and consequently shifted to light-hearted, swashbuckling projects.
Who knew that his co-star Meena Kumari was just as affected psychologically, on being overburdened with parts that were mentally disturbing? Moreover, her situation (unlike Dilip Kumar's) was exacerbated. At the age of 19, she had rushed into a nikaah with the much older and already-married director Kamal Amrohi. By all accounts, she was soon to discover that they were incompatible. She longed to have a child - he didn't, because they belonged to different sects.
On the upside, Kamal Amrohi was responsible for directing her in two of her most powerful performances: as a subjugated housewife in Daaera and, of course, as Pakeezah in the eponymous 1972 film. Here were two women-centric films before the term had been coined.
Following the break-up of Meena Kumari's marriage, it took nearly a decade-and-a-half to restart Pakeezah. Kamal Amrohi had shown the rushes to Nargis and Sunil Dutt, who convinced the actress to return on board the lavishly-mounted film about social prejudices that confront a courtesan and then her lookalike daughter.
Meena Kumari's health was fast deteriorating but she completed the shoot, morally supported by her co-actress Nadira. The dance sequences - including Thare rahiyo and Inhi logon ne - had to be shot with a double, the intricate steps being executed by Padma Khanna, who could be equally adept at cabarets and Kathak-inspired mujras.
As Pakeezah, Meena Kumari projected an elegiac, introverted quality, which had became her image. Called the Tragedy Queen, there was no actress who could reduce the audience to tears with a suppressed tremble in her voice and an injured look in her eyes like she could. Her other emotionally lacerating portrayal, besides Pakeezah, was as the loveless badi bahu of a feudal family in Guru Dutt's Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam.
Coincidentally, her first film as a grown-up heroine was a tragedy too. In Vijay Bhatt's Baiju Bawra, the heroine - a boatman's daughter - plunged to her death in a river instead of succumbing to a loveless marriage, a performance that fetched her the well-deserved Best Actress Filmfare Award.
The day Meena Kumari passed away, Baiju Bawra was re-released at Mumbai's Super cinema, drawing house full audiences, which wept copiously. Pakeezah, which was showing at the nearby Marathi Mandir cinema to lean audiences, was suddenly packed to the rafters, and went on to become a milestone in Indian cinema.
The parallels between her real and reel life are suffused with irony. Which is why I wonder how many will remember to shed tears for Meena Kumari on her death anniversary on March 31. The candle, as it's said, is blowing in the wind.

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