Meena Kumari – Retrospective of a true legend

Meena Kumari – one of the finest actresses of Bollywood era of 1950s and 1960s is best known as “Tragic Queen”, both onscreen and off screen for the melodrama roles she selected and a tragic life she lived off screen. Lost her life at a young age, Meena Kumari’s personal life is still in spotlight for its uniqueness and her tragic death. But less known are her interests towards literature and poetry and her talent as a ghazal writer in Urdu language. Apart from her biography work written by veteran journalist Vinod Mehta which has been republished most recently, Meena Kumari also came back to spotlight for the English translation of her Urdu poetry. At this eve I would like to give a small retrospective of this doomed star who spent her last years in severe illness and loneliness.

Ajeeb Dastaan song from Dil Apna Aur Preet Paraye

Meena Kumari’s distinct style

Meena Kumari is best known as Tragic Queen of Bollywood. Her eyes have always reflected her inner voice of agony and pains which she has gone through, and her voice pitch and diction too told the same story. She was a unique blend of natural beauty, unparalleled acting skills and dissatisfied personal life. She mostly appeared in sari-cladded roles on Indian screen with several tear jerking roles. Yet her women-centered films – Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam and Pakeezah are regarded as timeless classics, and her name is listed among the top Bollywood actresses of all-time.This talented actress won Filmfare award for best actress four times, apart from being nominated for 8 times. She has given life to numerous characters which simply told the stories of Indian women. But may be irony, she lived most of those sad and depressive characters off screen as well, Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam being one of such instances.

The real super-heroine on silver screen

Meena was lucky enough to play woman-centric roles in most of her movies, and acting talents overpowered her male lead star as well. It can be said that if was only Dilip Kumar who was able to over shine in movies in which Meena Kumari played the female lead. Though she played tragic roles most she showcased her acting talent in a comedy film Kohinoor starring Dilip Kumar.

Made the career of many less known actors

Many Bollywood stars are obliged to this glowing star for their Bollywood journey and the leading names include Jubilee Kumar – Rajendra Kumar, He-man Dharmendra and Sunil Dutt. The budding actors then, shared screen space with Meena Kumari for the movies Ek Hi Raasta, Chiraag Kahan Roshni Kahan and Phool Aur Pathar respectively which established them as stars of Bollywood.

Her major hits

No doubt – Pakeezah and Sahab Biwi Aur Ghulam are her major works. Meena has delivered numerous hits every year since early 1950s, and continued her successful journey in 1960s as well, till her drinking habits destroyed her personal life and career. Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Sharada, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, Kajal, Abhilasha, Bheegi Raat, Baharon Ki Manzil, Dil Ek Mandir, Mein Chup Rahooni, Miss Mary, Kinare Kinare, Bhabhi Ki Choodiyan etc are a few more memorable roles she played onscreen. Most of her movies were jubilee hits. Her personal life has also played a significant role in making many of her movies successful beyond expectations. Her real life was more tragic than many roles she played onscreen.

She was exploited by many

Throughout the life, she was lonely and faced many setbacks. She started working at a young age as a child artist, and was the breadwinner of her family. She was first exploited by her family, followed by relatives and colleagues. Whatever she earned through celluloid she lost to many. Yet Meena didn’t complain to anyone.
But she turned bold when her husband over controlled her and put more restrictions on her professional career. This powerful lady was not willing to let anyone control her personal freedom. Exploited by many, when she died at a hospital in Mumbai, there was no one to pay her bills though she stood at the peak of her professional career and popularity then. It shows how lonely she was during her last years, and it is nothing short of a film script.

A brief description of her career and life

She was born into a poor Parsi theater family in the year 1932. She didn’t get opportunity to go to school, as she started working at the age of 6. She also didn’t get the opportunity to play like kids of her age. She was a self-taught person, and showed great interest in languages, poetry and literature. She was an avid reader also which opened doors to the world of poetry.
At the age of 16 she shifted to a villa in Bandra, Mumbai and got busy with her film career very soon. She got attracted to the noted writer and director Kamal Amrohi, who was very senior to her. Her relationship with the family broke soon after her marriage with the director. Though she got fascinated by the behavior and talent of Kamal, soon after marriage she realized it to be a mirage. He put a lot of restrictions on her professional career, which broke the relationship between the two. She was given less freedom which hurt a lot. It was Kamal’s third marriage, and he didn’t want kids from his third wed lock though Meena loved kids a lot.
Kamal used to spy on her and put spies even in her makeup room, and she was asked to return home before 7 pm. She also faced physical abuse. By that time first phase of the classic film – Pakeezah had started. But following the split between two the movie got shelved.

Her closeness to Dharmendra and others

A screenshot from Baharom Ke Manzil – They worked together in 7 movies

At that time she became close to Dharmendra, who was only a less-known actor then. It was rumoured that Dharmendra used Meena only a ladder to achieve stardom, and soon after the success of Phool Aur Pather, he chose his own path. Dharmendra was already married then. Meena was three years senior to Dharmendra. Yet Meena never hid her love towards this young actor. Her name was also linked with Gulzar and Sawan Kumar Tak. 

Her disease and addiction to Alcohol

She was a patient of chronic insomnia who had less sleep during nights and her doctor suggested her to use a peg of brandy as a sleeping pill. But following her trouble relationship with Amrohi, this drinking became a habit and she increased its doze which took away her life.
In the later 1960s during the peak of her career she became a liver cirrhosis patient and did her treatment at London. Though she returned back and became active in movies, her health condition deteriorated gradually. Though her doctors suggested her to take complete rest, she decided to take those precious moments to complete many of her started projects, and it included her classic Pakeezah – her last release.  

Finally Pakeezah got released

She had a deep desire to complete the dream project of her estranged husband – Pakeezah. She believed it be the self-reflection of her own tragic life. Through the efforts of Sunil Dutt and Nargis, she communicated with Kamal and restarted the movie once again. Obstacles were many. Apart from financial problems, her health issues, her physical change and reshoot of several scenes were the main obstacles. Yet both decided to go forward. 
meena kumari pakeezah

Chalte Chalte song from Pakeezah, her last release

She was seriously ill during the final shoots of the film. She acted in front of the camera though she suffered from severe pain. Her dream came true, and the shooting was completed in January 1972. The movie got released in February, 11 years after it was started. But against expectations, the movie didn’t receive good opening which depressed Meena a lot. She died the following month. Soon after her death, the film turned to be a huge blockbuster, and got cult classic status.

Chalte Chalte Yuhi Koi Mil Gaya Tha– the popular song from the movie was definitely a picture of her real life which she portrayed on celluloid. It’s more than 4 decades since Meena left the world. Yet she is still alive in the hearts of millions of her fans. If she was alive now, she would have celebrated her 84thbirthday this week on August 1st.
Let me conclude with the English translation of her popular ghazal,
“My heart wonders incessantly
If this is life, what is it that they call death?
Love was a dream?
Ask not about the fate of this dream?
Ask not about the punishment
I received for the crime of loyalty”
Her personal life had some striking similarities with Bollywood Diva Madhubala who also died young. Read More
Read articles related to her personal and professional life here. Click the links below.
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A freelance writer and blogger by profession since October 2011, interested in writing over a wide range of topics. Hope you enjoy my writings. I belong to one of the beautiful places of the world, Kerala, nicknamed as 'God's own country'.

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