The Legend That Was Meena Kumari
Widely acclaimed for her heart-touching performances in tragic and grief-stricken roles, Meena Kumari earned herself the epithet of “Tragedy Queen”. Pain and anguish was part of her life and she brought them to the fore in her performances that became iconic.
When we talk of Meena Kumari – the legendary actress, the films that come to mind immediately are Pakeezah and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Reason? Perhaps no other actress would have been able to do justice to those hugely challenging roles, where she had to break herself down in pain, anguish and melancholia to come up with such true to life performances.
Widely acclaimed for her heart-touching performances in tragic and grief-stricken roles, Meena Kumari earned herself the epithet of “Tragedy Queen”. She lived a short life (she died March 31, 1972 before she could cross 40) but left behind a repertoire of inimitable performances in roles that were often tailor-made for her.
A superstar and one of the finest actors of her times, Meena Kumari shot to fame with Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra (1952). She was born as Mahjabeen Bano to Ali Baksh and Iqbal Begum on 1st August 1932. While her father was an actor in Parsi theater, her mother was a stage actress before marriage and was related to the renowned Tagore family in Bengal.
Mohe bhool gaye saanwariya (Baiju Bawara, 1952)
With the new screen name of Meena Kumari, she went to enthrall the audience with her histrionics and powerful performances. Meena Kumari’s acting career started as a child artiste at the tender age of six in the film Leatherface in 1939. She acted in more than 90 films in an illustrious career spanning 30 years.
A pristine beauty who had remarkable dignity and poise, Meena Kumari stood apart from other actresses in terms of not only amazing acting talent but also a sobriety that became her trademark.
Watch her in Aarti or Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai or even Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan, Meena Kumari successfully created an aura even in a simple white sari and a bun at the nape of her neck.
Kabhi to milegi (Aarti, 1962)
Sung by queen of the melodies Lata Mangeshkar “Jyoti kalash chhalke” from Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan is a mesmerizing beginning to the morning.
Jyoti kalash chhalke (Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan, 1961)
“Ajeeb dastan hai yeh” is an evergreen and immortal song from Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai.
When you watch this lilting melody on screen, you can’t help marveling at the charisma of Meena Kumari and the way she emotes the pain of her broken heart hidden behind a brave smile (her lover Rajkumar has been forced to marry Nadira).
Ajeeb dastan hai yeh (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai)
In Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’s iconic “Na jao saiyyan, chhudake baiyyan” Meena Kumari plays the frustrated and desperate Chhoti Bahu, who throws decorum to the winds and drowns herself in alcohol in a bid to stop her wayward husband from going to the nautch girl.
Both Geeta Dutt and Meena Kumari bring out all their inner pain and anguish in this stunning portrayal. Interestingly, the lives of these two remarkable ladies would uncannily mirror each other over the next two decades, says Aditya Pant, in the website Geetadutt.com.
“It was in the early 1950s when both Meena Kumari and Geeta Roy’s lives started mirroring each other’s. During the recording of a song of Baazi, Geeta Roy met Guru Dutt for the first time and this meeting apparently blossomed into love and ultimately culminated in their marriage in 1953. Meena Kumari’s experience was no different. She too met her future husband, Kamal Amrohi, at work, i.e. on the sets of a film. Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi eventually got married in 1952.
With the success of Baiju Bawara in 1952, Meena Kumari established herself as one of the top actresses of the time.
“In the following year, with her strong performance in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta (based on Sarat Chandra’s eponymous novel) she won her second consecutive Filmfare award. Musically speaking, the highlight of the film in my opinion was Chand Hai Wohi, sung with great feeling by Geeta. The nuances of a woman’s unflinching devotion to the man she has secretly married and her inability to reveal her ‘secret’ is brought out brilliantly in this song.”
“The coincidental similarities between the lives of Meena Kumari and Geeta Dutt continued. In the second half of the 1950 decade their husbands conceived two films with their wives in the lead role. Guru Dutt planned Gauri, which unfortunately did not progress beyond a few days of shooting. Kamal Amrohi planned his magnum opus Pakeezah, which again went into cold storage for many years, apparently due to the troubled relationship between Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi. Thankfully, the project was revived and released almost 15 years after it was first conceived.
As the years progressed, the married lives of both the artistes were in shambles. It was at this time that Guru Dutt offered Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam to Meena Kumari. This tale of a woman’s desperation to gain her husband’s love and attention, and eventually finding solace in drinking, couldn’t have been closer to her real life. Geeta Dutt’s personal situation at this time was no different. When Geeta Dutt sang Na Jao Saiyan for Meena Kumari on screen, the resultant feeling was uncannily real, almost as if the actress and the singer were reliving their own lives.” (reference Geetadutt.com)
Na Jao Saiyan (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, 1962)
Almost all the songs in Dil Ek Mandir (1963) were huge hits. However the high-pitched “Ruk ja raat, thahar ja re chanda” surpasses the others in terms of sheer beauty of Shankar Jaikishan’s composition along with Lata Mangeshkar’s ethereal voice. Meena Kumari brings alive the sheer desperation of a wife struggling to hold on to fleeting time as her husband (Rajkumar) battles a life-threatening ailment.
Ruk ja raat, thahar ja re chanda (Dil Ek Mandir, 1963)
Meena Kumari also did a few light romantic comedy films including Kohinoor (1960), where ‘Tragedy king’ Dilip Kumar and ‘Tragedy queen’ Meena Kumari broke away from their typical tragic roles to play a prince and princess of different kingdoms in a humorous and light film which was full of sword fights, songs and dances.
Do sitaaron ka zameen par hai milan, (Kohinoor, 1960)
Exploiting her range of histrionics, directors chose Meena Kumari for roles that demanded thought, poetry, lucidity and the powerful ability to get under the skin of the character.
For instance, when you watch Meena Kumari in Bahu Begum, you feel as if Sahir Ludhianvi wrote this introspective song specially with her in mind.
Duniya kare sawaal (Bahu Begum, 1967)
Exploring the similarities between the lives of Meena Kumari and Geeta Dutt, Aditya Pant adds, “The year 1964 turned out to be an emotionally devastating year for Meena Kumari as well as Geeta Dutt. Geeta Dutt lost her husband under tragic circumstances, while Meena Kumari got a divorce. Both women found solace in alcohol and this fatally messed up their health. Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi did get together again, and Pakeezah was revived. Geeta Dutt had no such luck as her husband was gone forever. She found herself in dire straits soon after and her life got caught in a downward spiral.”
“Fans of Meena Kumari and Geeta Dutt cannot erase the year 1972 from their memories. First Meena Kumari succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver in March 1972, followed by Geeta Dutt who died of the same ailment a few months later.
And like a candle that shines the brightest before extinguishing, Meena Kumari gave us Pakeezah, and Geeta Dutt gave us poignant songs in Anubhav, before leaving the world forever.” (reference Geetadutt.com)
Meena Kumari’s very fruitful and creative association with poet-filmmaker Gulzar not only stemmed from their shared love of poetry, it also led to the making of Gulzar’s first film as a director and one of Meena Kumari’s last performances on screen. Gulzar’s Mere Apne (1971), a remake of Tapan SInha‘s celebrated Bengali film Apanjan, saw Meena Kumari give a stellar performance as a spunky old lady, who finds refuge and respect among a band of vagabond outlaws but pays with her life in a bid to stop two warring factions in a bloody political battle.
Less than a year later, Pakeezah 1972, proved to be her swan song. Directed by her ex-husband Kamal Amrohi, the film Pakeezah took 14 years to complete. Started in 1964, the movie was shelved after Meena Kumari and Amrohi separated. The film was finally completed in 1972 and remains her last great performance. Meena Kumari died less than two months after its release.
Though Pakeezah opened to a lukewarm response initially, people thronged theaters after Meena Kumari’s death to get a glimpse of the queen of their hearts. Who can forget the romantic song “Mausam hai aashiqana” from Pakeezah.
Mausam hai aashiqana (Pakeezah, 1972)
Jo kahee gayee naa mujhase
Woh zamaana keh raha hai
Ke fasaana ban gayee hai
Meree baat chalte chalte
These lines from “Chalte chalte” (Pakeezah) seem to be echoing Meena Kumari’s own life, an artist who not only created lyricism on screen but also wrote beautiful poetry herself.
Anecdotes contributed by Sundeep Pahwa of Wo Din Yaad Karo Facebook Group
Meena Kumari’s regular doctor in 50s and 60s was Dr V N Sinha. His clinic in the Khar/Bandra area of Bombay attracted a large number of patients from the film industry. It is believed Meena Kumari along with Dilip Kumar persuaded him to produce a film. S U Sunny was roped in along with Naushad Sahib who was also his patient. The film made was Kohinoor, a Golden Jubliee hit, which presented the tragedy king Dilip Kumar and tragedy queen Meena Kumari in a never-before comic avatar. After the film’s success, Dr Sinha continued in his profession and never made any film thereafter.
One of the finest Loris “Aaja re aaa nindiya” (by Lata Mangeshkar) was picturised on Meena Kumari by Bimal Roy in his classic Hindi directorial debut Do Bigha Zamin. It was a small cameo but Meena Kumari left her mark. This lori was later on surpassed by another gem “Nanhi kali sone chali hawaa dheere aana” (by Geeta Dutt) in another Bimal Roy classic Sujata.
A few of Meena Kumari’s films never saw completion. One of them was Seema, announced in the early 70s and shot for a few days. The film starred Meena Kumari in the role of a nun and the cast included Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz. The film was directed by Suraj Prakash and the writer of Seema was Brij Katyal. Another film which was never released is Birhan.
More to read
Geeta Dutt – The Skylark Who Sang From The Heart
The Incomparable Music Of S D Burman Transcends Generations
Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Voh Kahaan Hain: Songs of Sahir
Gulzar: Redefining Poetry and Purpose In Cinema
Waheeda Rehman: Quintessential Beauty With Intense Acting Prowess
The Nightingale’s Everlasting Melodies
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