Stay tuned to our new posts and updates! Click to join us on WhatsApp L&C-Whatsapp & Telegram telegram Channel
ISSN 2231 - 699X | A Publication on Cinema & Allied Art Forms
Support LnC-Silhouette. Great reading for everyone, supported by readers. SUPPORT
L&C-Silhouette Subscribe
The L&C-Silhouette Basket
L&C-Silhouette Basket
A hand-picked basket of cherries from the world of most talked about books and popular posts on creative literature, reviews and interviews, movies and music, critiques and retrospectives ...
to enjoy, ponder, wonder & relish!

An Actress Par Excellence

March 31, 2024 | By

There was more to Meena Kumari than being ‘Tragedy Queen’. Anuradha Warrier revisits the incomparable actor’s films that showcase her incredible range and immeasurable talent

Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari

Where does one begin when one is talking about Meena Kumari? Her image as the long-suffering wife or beloved is so entrenched in people’s minds that they forget that Meena Kumari was one of the finest actors of her time, with a versatility and range that went far beyond tear-filled kohl-rimmed eyes and suffering womanhood.

In popular myth, she is immortalized as the alcoholic Choti Bahu (Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), the tragic Sahib Jaan (Pakeezah), or any of the myriad roles in which she reprised her quiet suffering.  But, watch Kohinoor, Azad or Miss Mary, and you will realize that it was unfair to the actress to slot her only as a tragedienne. Her comic timing was impeccable, and her range as a dramatic actress was truly remarkable.

Born Mahjabeen Bano on 1 August 1933, Meena began working early – her first film was Leatherface (1939), where she debuted as Baby Meena. It was in Bachhon ka Khel (1946), her debut film as a heroine that she was christened ‘Meena Kumari’. A slew of unremarkable films followed until her mentor, Vijay Bhatt, cast her in Baiju Bawra (1952). Its stupendous success propelled the actor to stardom. She deservedly won the Best Actress award at the inaugural Filmfare Awards. The next year she would win again – this time for her role in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta (1953). Fame and recognition followed suit. At the peak of her career, she was the highest-paid actor in the industry.

Young Meena Kumari

‘Baby Meena’

Constant shooting interrupted her formal education, but Meena, eager to learn, employed private tutors and taught herself as well. Similarly, she never attended any acting classes, learning on the job from her colleagues and seniors. In interviews, she has often credited Ashok Kumar for teaching her to act and Raj Kapoor for teaching her how to modulate her voice. All her hard work can be seen in her portrayals – she could express more emotion with a single lift of her eyebrow than most actors could with their entire bodies. Meena internalized her roles, living the lives of her characters on screen. She portrayed her characters’ inner turmoil and expressed their vulnerability and feelings with searing intensity.

Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1963) was her tour de force as a performer – as the lonely, neglected Chhoti Bahu, trapped in a loveless marriage, her face and voice expressed her character’s pain, anguish and longing.

Pakeezah, while not her last film, is considered her swansong. Kamal Amrohi began filming his magnum opus in 1956. But between Meena’s increasingly busy calendar and her estrangement from her director-husband, the movie was shelved in 1964. Thanks to Sunil Dutt and Nargis who mediated between the estranged couple, they resumed shooting in 1969. By now, Meena was an alcoholic. Her face was showing the ravages of the bottle and her illness. But she could still express emotion through her voice modulation, her facial expressions and her body language.

The actor was also an accomplished poet. Gulzar persuaded her to record some of her poetry, and she released an album titled I Write, I Recite, set to music by noted music director Khayyam. The sadness of her life is reflected in her voice.

Today, on her 52nd death anniversary, I revisit some of her greatest performances.

Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari in Baiju Bawra

Bharat Bhushan and Meena Kumari in Baiju Bawra

  1. Baiju Bawra (1952)

Baiju Bawra was her first major role as a heroine. Directed by mentor Vijay Bhatt, and with music scored by Naushad, the film was a stupendous success.

It was perhaps one of the first films that based all its songs on classical ragas.

Meena essayed the role of Gauri opposite Bharat Bhushan who played the fictional poet Baiju. Her Gauri is a simple village girl who falls in love with Baiju and his music. Her stunning performance as a young woman who was willing to die for love gained her not only her first Filmfare award but also cemented her reputation as a great actor. It also impressed Bimal Roy enough that he cast her in Parineeta.

  1. Parineeta (1953)
Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar in Parineeta

Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar in Parineeta

Bimal Roy’s adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novella of the same name deals with issues of wealth and how it should be used; with ethics and morality; with rich and poor. In the background is the love story of Lalita and Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), and the misunderstandings caused by the former’s friendship with Girin (Asit Baran).

The orphaned Lalita, played with sincerity and vulnerability by Meena Kumari, is no drudge; she is loved by her uncle and aunt who have brought her up after her parents’ death, and is equally comfortable in her neighbour Shekhar’s home – his mother depends on her for everything, and Shekhar himself has no objection to teaching Lalita or giving her free use of his money – what is his, is hers, and she has no reason to ask him before taking it.

Lalita is a strong woman, and a quietly loyal one. One of the best scenes in the movie is when she meets Shekhar as a married woman – he humiliates her, not knowing that she considers herself married to him. Her eyes express her hurt but there is an innate pride and dignity with which she answers him.

Bimalda’s Parineeta meanders quietly and lyrically to its inevitable conclusion when all boundaries are crossed, all walls are broken down, both literally and metaphorically. There is no melodrama, no overt histrionics and no scenery-chewing dramatic scenes.

Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari

Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari in Azaad

  1. Azaad (1955)

Meena played the regulation heroine in this swashbuckling tale of thieves and kidnappers and straight garden-variety villains – albeit a spunky one.  Her Shobha is an orphan, brought up by her father’s friend and his wife. They dote upon her, their son having been abducted in childhood. Dilip Kumar plays the titular role of the neighbourhood Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. And Pran, good old Pran, is the man they all love to hate, leching after Meena Kumari as was his wont.

Azaad allowed Meena to showcase her comedic talent and was a thundering success when it first released. Even today, it is well worth a couple of hours of complete entertainment. Add a fistful of songs by C Ramachandra (Radha na bole na bole na bole re, Kitni jawaan hai raat, Ja re ja re o kaari badariya, Dekhoji bahaar aayi,  Kitna haseen hai mausami), a beautifully choreographed dance by Sai and Subbulakshmi, and what more can you ask for?

Sunil Dutt and Meena Kumari in Ek Hi Rasta

Sunil Dutt and Meena Kumari in Ek Hi Rasta

4. Ek Hi Rasta (1956)

A social drama from BR Chopra, the film dealt with the controversial issue of widow remarriage as well as took a nuanced look at a step-parent-child relationship.

Sunil Dutt stars as Amar, the loving husband and father. Meena Kumari is Malti, his wife, and they live a happy life with their son Raju. Until Amar is murdered by a co-worker whom he had helped put into prison.

Prakash (Ashok Kumar), Amar’s boss, has long envied Amar’s simple life and now, feeling responsible for Amar’s death, offers his support to the young widow. Soon, he’s like a member of their little family. Until rumours about their alleged ‘illicit’ relationship begin to harm Malti’s reputation and spoil her relationship with her son.

Meena brings out both the vulnerability and strength of a young woman whose life is turned upside down when her husband is killed. It was a nuanced performance, portrayed with both sensitivity and sincerity.

Meena Kumari and Gemini Ganesan in Miss Mary

Meena Kumari and Gemini Ganesan in Miss Mary

  1. Miss Mary (1957)

This remake of Missiamma (1955) – which in turn was an adaptation of Rabindranath Maitra’s Bengali novel Manmoyee Girl’s School – showed that Meena could be as zany as anyone else; she is sparkly and flirty and spunky and petulant by turns and an absolute delight to watch as she sets the screen afire.

Meena played the role that Jamuna essayed in Tamil and her doppelganger Savitri in Telugu, while Gemini Ganesan reprised his role from the Tamil version. Kishore Kumar as a bumbling detective and Om Prakash join in the lunacy, and a great time is had by all.

Hemant Kumar’s music set the tone for this frothy comedy, with gems like O raat ke musafir  Brindavan ka Krishn Kanhaiyya, Aayi re ghir ghir, Ye mard bade, So gaya saara zamaana and this crazy song by Kishore.

Meena Kumari in Bhabhi ki Chudiyan

Meena Kumari in Bhabhi ki Chudiyan

  1. Bhabhi ki Chudiyan (1961)

I was initially recommended this film by a friend as ‘another movie in which Meena Kumari doesn’t cry’. By this time, however, I was well aware that my favourite heroine’s range went beyond being the ‘tragedy queen’.

In this remake of the Marathi film Vahininchya Bangdya, Meena plays the ‘Bhabhi’ of the title. Meena Kumari does a wonderful job as Geeta, a strong, self-respecting woman, who is the lynchpin of her little household. She is a supportive wife and a loving sister-in-law/mother to her motherless brother-in-law. She is neither a self-sacrificing martyr, nor a cloying, syrupy sweet ‘mother’. The relationship between her and Mohan (Master Aziz/Shailesh Kumar) is lovingly etched out, and her affection towards her devar and her anguish at not being a mother herself are brought out beautifully. Yet, she doesn’t spend her time crying through the movie because she is ‘barren’. Yes, there are tears, as would be natural, but most of the time, she is busy living. There is a quiet strength in the way she goes about the trajectory of her life, and yes, happiness as well.

  1. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam

Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam

If Kagaz ke Phool was supposed to be its director’s autobiography, then Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, based on a Bengali novel of the same name, followed the tragic trajectory of its heroine’s life.  Set during the British Raj, the metaphorical tale of a disintegrating society unfolds through the story of Chhoti Bahu, narrated by a rustic young lad who has come to the city to better himself.

This was a movie that Meena Kumari made her own. With her languorous voice and her tear-filled eyes, she played a complex character, a woman who chafes at the feudal bonds that constrain her. She is desperate yet dignified, a woman unloved, fighting both rejection and a terrible addiction as she makes an anguished plea for her husband’s love.  In showing the valiant, yet ultimately doomed attempt of Chhoti Bahu to become the wife of her husband’s desires – companion, wife, sexual partner – the film is a strong indictment of the brutal world in which women were seen as little more than commodities. Her eyes, suffused with despair; her voice, husky with emotion; her ability to submerge herself into the character – all this made Chhoti Bahu more than just a maudlin housewife who disintegrates into alcoholism when rejected by her husband.

Meena Kumari, who appears almost 40 minutes into the film, was its soul, turning in an electrifying performance as the tormented, desperate wife who stakes her all to win back her husband’s affection. When even that fails and she spirals into alcoholism, her husband’s contempt sears her – Hindu ghar ki bahu hokar, kya sharab pee hai kisi ne? (Has any Hindu daughter-in-law ever drunk liquor before?) she snaps, her hurt palpable in her moist eyes and her quivering voice.

Chhoti bahu dies fighting for her rights as a wife and as a woman. She dies because she has the effrontery to attempt to control her own destiny, instead of passively waiting for the men in her life to decide her path for her. And therefore, she’s punished for stepping out of the lakshman rekha that is drawn to keep women confined to their place in the house and society at large.

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam wouldn’t have been the classic it is, if it weren’t for this towering performance from an accomplished actress. As Chhoti Bahu, Meena was alternately gentle, loving, coquettish, seductive, bitter, angry, desperate, and tormented, sometimes multiple emotions warring with each other across her expressive face. This is one of the finest performances by any actress in any language.

  1. Chitralekha (1964)
Meena Kumari and Pradeep Kumar

Meena Kumari and Pradeep Kumar in Chitralekha

The story was the soul of this film, a morality tale that questioned popular perceptions of sin and virtue, morality and immorality, good and bad. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, Chitralekha narrates the story of her life to her beloved, Bijgupt. “Ye meri apni kahani thi, Bijgupt,” she says, “Shur’uu mein suna dii ki anth mein tumhe mujhse ghrin na ho.”  (This was my story, Bijgupt. I’m telling it to you at the beginning [of our relationship], so you will not hate me at the end.)

Meena invested her role with a gravitas that matched Ashok Kumar’s – their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Fine actors both, they keep the high-octane debates restrained, but manage to get their points of view across.

Director Kidar Sharma had made Chitralekha once before. Released in 1941, that film starred Mehtab and Bharat Bhushan (in his debut). More than two decades later, he remade it with Meena Kumari in the title role. Unfortunately, by now, Meena’s face was ravaged by illness and alcoholism. Though Sharma ensured that he mostly framed her face and upper body, there was no denying that Meena did not fit the role of a young courtesan for whom a chieftain is willing to give up his throne. Neither did Ashok Kumar fit – age-wise – into the role of a yogi in his prime, vacillating between lust and spirituality, nor Pradeep Kumar fit the character of a young, rugged, lovelorn prince. They were all too old for the characters in Bhagwati Charan Verma’s novel. Yet, the film worked simply because their performances and the direction elevated the film to a beautiful treatise on human desires. The songs (by Roshan; lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi) were stellar: from Sansar se bhaage phirte ho, Man re tu kaahe na dheer dhare, Ae ri jaane na doongi, Kahe tarsaayeeach and every one of them was a gem.

  1. Mere Apne (1971)
Meena Kumari in Mere Apne

Meena Kumari in Mere Apne

This was one of Meena Kumari’s finest performances, and her Anandi is a quiet but strong presence. Traditional she may be, but even as a young wife, it is clear that she has a voice, and is willing to speak up for herself. Perhaps because her illness had taken its toll on her by then, Anandi’s younger version is played by Amina Karim. Meena dubbed for both young and old versions, however, modulating her voice differently for both roles. Deven Verma (in a cameo) plays her boisterous, blustering husband – one who often threatens to beat her up if she isn’t a ‘good’ wife, but who, obviously, does nothing of the sort.

In his first directorial venture, Gulzar deliberately keeps a narrow perspective, showing only the point of view of an elderly woman who is plucked from all that’s familiar and comfortable and thrust into a more selfish world, one where she neither understands the culture nor the behaviour. There’s no moral judgement regarding Lata (Sumita Sanyal) cutting her hair short, wearing ‘Western’ clothes or even going to work. Instead, there’s Anandi’s bewilderment at what is beyond her comprehension – women working outside the home, the violence on the streets, the young men’s abusive language, the utter lack of interest in other’s problems, etc.

It is a role and a film that was very close to the actor’s heart. Meena, ailing by then, would lie down on a bed on the sets until called to give her shots. Sadly, she passed away a few short months after filming was complete. 

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

  1. Pakeezah (1972)

Meena Kumari’s voice has rarely been used with such efficacy as it was here. Playing the titular role of the ‘Pure One’, Meena Kumari utilised her lyrical voice to its maximum to reveal the hidden depths of sorrow at the duality of her life. The heavy Urdu dialogues, full of pathos, tugged at your heartstrings because of the way she modulated her voice.

Meena is both mother and daughter, Nargis and Sahib Jaan, the latter seemingly destined to follow in the footsteps of the former – both literally and figuratively. But while the mother flees to a graveyard to escape both the confines of the kotha and the ridicule of society, the daughter has a far happier ending – her doli leaves the kotha and she is a bride at the end of that journey.

There is a distinct difference in Meena Kumari’s looks since the film took almost two decades to complete. Ill health and alcoholism had marred her features to such an extent that Kamal Amrohi, her estranged husband, shot Chalo dildaar chalo without once showing her face. Some of the later dance sequences had Padma Khanna standing in as body double in the long shots.

Meena Kumari's tombstone

Meena Kumari’s tombstone

The muharat of Pakeezah was performed in 1956, and the first shot was canned in 1958. It finally released in 1972, but neither Meena Kumari nor Ghulam Mohammed, the music director, lived to see its success. Meena died two months after the movie was released, disappointed by its lukewarm box-office response. Her death reawakened an interest in the movie, and it went on to achieve cult status. It was an apt swansong.

Many other movies were on my list – Dil Apna aur Preet Parayi, Aarti, Majhli Didi, Baharon ke Manzil, Footpath, Ilzam, Dil Ek Mandir, Sharda, amongst them. Some of them were average films but Meena’s performances were consistently good.

Meena Kumari attempted to live her life on her own terms, and fought – heroically, even desperately – for her personal happiness. Somewhere along the line, she failed and died at the age of 38, a lonely, miserable woman.

Her tombstone is inscribed with a variation of one of her verses:

Raah dekha karenge sadiyon tak
Hum chale jaaenge jahan tanha
You shall yearn for me for eternity
I will depart to a world, lonely”

She has certainly left cinema aficionados bereft.

More Must Read in Silhouette

The Legend That Was Meena Kumari

No One Quite Like Her –  The Inimitable Meena Kumari

Kachchi Hai Umariya, Kori Hai Chunariya: Passion Comes of Age

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam: A Classical Work of Art

Creative Writing

Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to

Anuradha Warrier is an editor by profession, a writer by inclination, and is passionate about books, music and films, all of which she writes about on her blog, Conversations over Chai.
All Posts of Anuradha Warrier

Hope you enjoyed reading…

… we have a small favour to ask. More people are reading and supporting our creative, informative and analytical posts than ever before. And yes, we are firmly set on the path we chose when we started… our twin magazines Learning and Creativity and Silhouette Magazine (LnC-Silhouette) will be accessible to all, across the world.

We are editorially independent, not funded, supported or influenced by investors or agencies. We try to keep our content easily readable in an undisturbed interface, not swamped by advertisements and pop-ups. Our mission is to provide a platform you can call your own creative outlet and everyone from renowned authors and critics to budding bloggers, artists, teen writers and kids love to build their own space here and share with the world.

When readers like you contribute, big or small, it goes directly into funding our initiative. Your support helps us to keep striving towards making our content better. And yes, we need to build on this year after year. Support LnC-Silhouette with a little amount – and it only takes a minute. Thank you

Support LnC-Silhouette

6 thoughts on “An Actress Par Excellence

  • N.S.Rajan

    Meena Kumari must surely be the only actor (anywhere) to have begun her acting career at the tender age of 6 and have it cut short when still young enough to act as a heroine at 38. Her life appears as much a tragedy as some of the roles she portrayed, ending up losing. I remember seeing her first in Parineeta and Baiju Bawra which came close together. Baiju Bawra was understandably partial to Bharat Bhushan although Meena did register her presence strongly. But her performance in Parineeta was outstanding for one so young, practically self taught in the world of Films and film making and acting with ease and flair opposite the senior and established Ashok Kumar.
    Pakeezah, her Swan Song, was mired in too many issues and brought her fame as well as dubious distinction.
    Nevertheless, she has left an indelible stamp of her own on the Hindi Film World in a span of acting that lasted a mere 32 years.
    Thank you for this absorbing capsule account of the highlights in her life and the musical journey that went with it.

    1. Anuradha Warrier Post author

      In an interview I once read, Meena Kumari had said that she followed Ashok Kumar’s lead in Parineeta, imbibing lessons in acting from him.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  • Ratnottama Sengupta

    Meena Kumari’s story is so engrossing even today. Antara Nanda Mondal you may have read Nabendu Ghosh’s story Aalo/ Lights! It’s in That Bird Called Happiness published by Speaking Tiger.

    I loved the piece on Meena Kumari’s 10 Best roles – it has triggered my desire to compile Baba’s thoughts on her in his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri published by Dey’s.

    The biography part doesn’t bring new insight but Anuradha Warrier’s review of the 10 Best Roles does. It underscores Meena Kumari’s command over voice and her dialogue delivery.

    And I am glad it mentions her comic timing although understandably that is underplayed in the selection of the 10 Best. Meena Kumari was, after all, the ‘tragedienne’. But Azaad and Miss Mary are timeless fun films.

    1. Antara

      Ratna Di,

      I do remember the story. I have the book.

      And also what immediately came to mind is your film ‘And They Made Classics’ in which Nabendu Ghosh reveals that Meena Kumari was not the first choice for Parineeta. Ashok Kumar was keen on Nalini Jaywant getting the role or was it Baby Shakuntala? It was on Bimal Roy’s insistence that Meena Kumari was chosen and what a fabulous performance! Can’t imagine anyone else in the role of Lolita.

      Yes, Azaad and Miss Mary proved that her comic side remained largely unexplored. Sad, na?

      Loved this detailed piece by Anuradha – especially the critiques on the films. Dil manage more!!! ❤️❤️🙏😊

      1. Ratnottama Sengupta

        Thank you Antara for remembering And They Made Classics… At the risk of sounding partial or of tomtoming my own work, I must say that the film is like a course material for film lovers. All credit goes to Joy Bimal Roy and Aparajita Sinha who had conducted the interview for Remembering Bimal Roy.

        Much love to all of you!

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Silhouette Magazine publishes articles, reviews, critiques and interviews and other cinema-related works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers and critics as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers and critics are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. Images on Silhouette Magazine are posted for the sole purpose of academic interest and to illuminate the text. The images and screen shots are the copyright of their original owners. Silhouette Magazine strives to provide attribution wherever possible. Images used in the posts have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, YouTube, Pixabay and Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.