Best of Meena Kumari-Rediscovered

Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari as Choti Bahu in “Sahab Bibi aur Ghulam”

I will start this personal version of my tribute to Meena Kumari, one of Bollywood’s most successful leading ladies of all time, with this fact that I am from the generation born a decade after the legend’s sad and untimely demise. Going through the “new arrivals” section in my favorite book store in Lahore, I came across this new edition of Vinod Mehta’s account of Kumari. The first edition of the book was published a couple of months after Kumari’s death in 1972. The book is titled “Meena Kumari-The Classical Biography” and so far I haven’t read any other authentic biography of this great actress from Bollywood silver screen. My beliefs about this legend were thus reformed due to this book.

Even I am asking myself about why I spent some precious hard earned money on this book. There could be many probable reasons. I read a lot. I have grown up watching (and in love with Saheb Jaan) Pakeezah. Both my parents admired Meena Kumari a lot. The cover has an image of Meena Kumari from Guru Dutt’s “Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam”. The image comes from the first shot of Meena Kumari in the movie. This image of “Choti bahu” from Kumari’s most celebrated performance reminded me about how graceful she was. I think a combination of these factors resulted in buying that book.

So here I was, with this brand new copy of the book. I am a fan of old movies and music, with less skin show and more achievements in art through sheer talent. Naturally since I started watching movies, I had great regard for the woman who danced with utmost elegance to the tunes of “Thaarey rahiyo” and “Inhi logon ne”, still, a major part of her career was still to be discovered. While I went through this book, I watched a handful of her performances too. The narrative was really captivating and it also gave me an insight into the woman she was. And then this strange thing happened. I found myself in love with a woman who has been dead for past 42 years.

Before I allow anyone to judge me for my love for Meena Kumari, I will present my tribute to the woman herself. While I do that, I know I have an advantage here. I have not witnessed the rise of Meena Kumari to stardom. I have not seen people standing outside cinema halls to get tickets to watch her on the big screen. I have not known of her untimely death. I actually didn’t know about her life at all. All I had heard about her life was “Bechari-she had a very tragic life”. My view of the woman thus is totally not relevant to her box office appeal or blind fan following (I am a diehard Sridevi fan in fact, who in my generation was not?). Most interesting thing I discovered after reading this book was, Meena Kumari was no bechari. She had a very different, very intellectual and I would like to say beautiful personality. She was not “run of the mill filmy stuff”. Meena Kumari as I have rediscovered was an artist of some high stature. Kumari was one of the people for whom one life span is not enough. She is of the kind whose death was untimely, but whose art will outlive many generations.

Meena Kumari has performed in more than 70 movies. A few more she worked in as a child star. She started off at the age of 7 as a child star. At 19 she worked in Baiju Bawra, the game changing movie of her career, as the lead actress. Meena Kumari has performed in some of the best movies ever produced by Bollywood. One reason of such a rich portfolio is the fact that high quality content requires good actors to portray it on the silver screen and when the producers had Meena Kumari in the list of credits, they knew the woman can carry any and every role with the ease which is unusual to many. Usually people label her as “Tragedy queen” and though I agree to the fact that no other woman on Indian silver screen has represented grief stricken roles as beautifully as Meena Kumari, I believe this is an insult to the artist I am talking about. I would prefer to call her “Queen of emotions”. After all she was one of her kind. She could enact a whole scene through just her eyes and hands. Watch “Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam” which is a Guru Dutt master piece. Meena Kumari has out done herself where she expresses her sorrow through her face expressions and the movement of her hands. Watch the songs from “Aarti” where in a simple white sari, without moving an inch from her place she expresses her love for the leading man through her eyes, expressions and the movement of her hands. Watch her performing with the kids and it would look like they were of her own flesh.

If I express Meena Kumari in one line, it would be simply that she was a woman. A complete woman? I am not sure. A complete artist? Yes, am sure she was. And yes, this comment might sound out of place, but I think Meena Kumari actually grew from an ordinary (yet photogenic) face to a beautiful fully grown young woman in late 1950s and early 1960s. She appeared the most beautiful in “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam” and “Mein Chup Rahon Ge”. Also, in “Aarti” when Pradeep Kumar sings for her the famous “Ab kya misaal doon mein tumharey shabaab ki” the song appears as a tribute to the elegant and attractive woman in a simple white sari gracing the screen. If anything, Meena Kumari not being a traditional “fair and lovely” arm candy of the leading men on screen only shows how capable she was an an actress.

Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari in and as Aarti

One interesting fact and the first rule broken by Meena Kumari is that she got married at the age of 20 and was not divorced even after she left Kamal Amrohi sahab’s residence in 1964. So in a nutshell, this leading lady of the 1950s and 1960s was married all through her career as a star. A myth broken; many believe marriage is not good for you if you want to retain your top position. I agree, for others it might work that way but not for Meena Kumari. She was talented and she knew how to show it on screen. Our Meena didn’t need to remain unmarried to get the attention of her audience. A proof of her stardom is the credits list of most of her movies, where usually her name appears the first in the list.

As a co-star and as a team member, she was supportive. She was a very confident young woman. Meena Kumari never needed to belittle others to feel her own grand stature as a star. She was comfortable in her skin. In fact, acting opposite to the norm, she was very supportive of the new talent. Meena Kumari was a favorite on the sets for the crew, as she was very respectful, soft spoken and on first name basis with almost every crew member. For her crew members she was either “Meena Apa” or “Meena Didi”. Even when her illness and age resulted in some downwards trend in her career, she was graceful about it and tried to retain her impression through her brilliant performance and I believe she succeeded in doing just that. Being rags to riches success story and becoming the best and most favorite actress of her time and still this humble-I salute.

If you look at her closely, you can see her softness as a person. She came from a humble background and despite making a lot of money she was never very concerned about money matters. Meena Kumari’s heart was open to her friends and family. She spent money on others, very casually and in a dignified way. If I have to bring forward my opinion, I would say it was more the non supportive attitude of her family than anything else which actually killed her. More than Kamal Amrohi Sahab, it was her sister’s interference in her life which led her to take the wrong decisions at wrong time (Like leaving her husband’s house in 1964, and more than that, not coming back even when he went to fetch her). This led to guilt and grief, to heavy drinking and to the ultimate loss of her life. As a human being, she cared about her crew members a lot. This is not very common trait in established celebrities of cinema. I find Meena Kumari not only a great actress but also a person who was not interested in holding on to her money, yet she knew how to maintain her image in the world. She not only succeeded to maintain the image she wanted to project in the eyes of her audience in the decades she lived in, but also, around 40 years after her untimely death. Some success!

My view of her as a woman is very different from what the world in general might have held in the 1960s; the difference again is my coming from a generation suitable enough to be her grand children. Many in her time held the view that she fell for almost all men she worked with. From my point of view, I am not really concerned if her relationships were platonic or not. Being from the modern generation, all I can see is that all the men she was associated with romantically were there to bid her farewell when she died. Her relationships with the people she cared about were thus stronger than just passing affairs. Be it Dharamindra or Gulzar Sahab, the men in her life admired and respected her a lot.  Her husband, Kamal Amrohi sahab was fond of her and I truly believe Pakeezah is nothing more than a tribute from a man in love to the woman he loved so hopelessly. Kamal sahab’s son (Meena’s step son) in a recent interview reiterated that Kamal sahab and Meena Kumari were very close even in the final few weeks of her life, when “Pakeezah” was on the floor.  The step son claims he still loves his “Choti ami”. Her relationship with her step children shows she accepted Kamal sahab with all his good and bad traits and aspects. Falling out of love is thus not a question. It was more the clash of egos that made the two of them suffer towards the end of their fairy tale kind of romance. It was more of artistic ego clash between the two then any personal clash which scarred their married life.

Meena Kumari with Kamal Amrohi

Meena Kumari with Kamal Amrohi

Meena Kumari has always lived another life in a parallel universe that is what I believe. Studios and work were like addiction to her. If anyone in her life got her total attention without a slight hint of dishonesty, it was her work. She was fiercely protective of her on screen image and her work life. Though I believe she was not dishonest to the people she was with at any given time. Again, in the 1950s and 1960s may be she was a woman who was breaking the norms; looking at it today, all of us will call her a great professional. Financial stress forced her to work from an early age and that led to a sort of dual personalities. A very sensible, wise, sober, mature, graceful and artistic Meena Kumari as we know her and the other, a deprived child, Mahjabeen Bano, who had to earn even her bread by her own hands, let alone the luxuries. After reading a lot about Meena Kumari, this is what I have realized. She was no one without her work. It was her life line. She was a larger than life artist, who has left behind a legacy. It was not her addiction of brandy for 3 years, or her marital problems that killed her. It was actually the trio of her infatuation of the studios, the cinema world and the simple at heart Mahajabeen Bano who could not go on together for longer than what she managed. At a time where Bollywood had very restricted creativity and genres, Meena Kumari is one name which broke all barriers and performed at a level higher than expectations. From child like simple beauty to rarely seen erotica (Na Jao Sayyaan) she did it all. She was a woman of strong will power and an almost killer artistic ego. These factors led to her untimely demise.

I have saved the best of my views on her till the end. To understand her life at home, one needs to understand Meena Kumari in a better way. Her marital life had its own shares of good and bad. However, this image of being a thoroughly unhappy and sad woman is not correct (For I believe Rekha has spent a much tougher life, and sadder too). It is more a projection of herself she wanted her audience to keep in mind. After all the image facilitated in helping her movies make money. This is where the core of my respect for her resides. What an intelligent business woman she was! She knew the tricks of the trade too well. The woman was a true artist and was ready to give up everything for the art. She actually lived for her art. More than any of the places she ever lived in, studios were home to her. On the one hand was her art, and on the other hand was her image in the eyes of her audience. This is where her true genius resides. She was so perfect in her depiction of grief stricken roles and carrying this heart broken image around that she made us all believe for around 6 decades that what she had was a miserable life. She was a poetess too and loved reading and reciting poetry. Her artistic ego, her poetic nature, the nature of her work and her devotion to her work above all the rest led to a life which cannot be called fulfilled in normal circumstance. However, Meena Kumari was no ordinary woman. She was the best artist of them all. To the intellect of this amazing artist and business woman all I have to say is, Meena Apa, I truly wish I had known you.

Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari-Best Bollywood Actress Ever

Listing her best performances is not very easy as she has performed better than most of her contemporaries and even the leading ladies of following decades. However, in my view, her best performances include the following:

10. Aarti

9. Dil apna preet parai

8. Parineeta

7. Kohinoor

6. Daera

5. Kaajal

4. Sharada

3. Mein Chup Rahon ge

2. Sahab Bibi aur Ghulam

1. Pakeezah

Post By MairaS (755 Posts)

Webpreneur. CEO ContentCreatorZ Pakistan. Managing Partner Media Marketing Services.

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MairaS (755 Posts)

Webpreneur. CEO ContentCreatorZ Pakistan. Managing Partner Media Marketing Services.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 18, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Nice write-up. Seems heavy flow of ideas captured quite well in the second half of the post that touched me.

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