Meena Kumari – The Tradegy Queen
While each of the performances are spot on, if there is one person who is the heart and soul of the film, it is Meena Kumari. Her portrayal of Chhoti Bahu is perhaps the greatest performance ever seen on the Indian Screen. The sequence where Chhoti Bahu dresses for her husband singing Piya Aiso Jiya Main is a poignant exploration of a woman’s expectations and sexual desire. And later on when she has become a desperate alcoholic, you cannot help but cry with her in the sequence where she pleads with her husband to stay with her and then angrily turns on him to tell him how she has prostituted her basic values and morals to please him. However the common factors between the actress’s life and Chhoti Bahu are too dramatic to be merely coincidental – The estranged marital relationship, the taking of alcohol, turning towards younger male company, the craving to be understood and loved – all elements evident in Meena Kumari’s own life.
Meena Kumari (1 August 1932 – 31 March 1972), born Mahjabeen Bano, is regarded as one of the most prominent actresses to have appeared on the screens in movies like Baiju Bawra (1952), Parineeta (1953), Daera (1953), Ek Hi Raasta (1956), Sharda (1957), Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960), Kohinoor (1960), Aarti, Main Chup Rahungi, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Pakeezah. During a career spanning 30 years from her childhood to her death, she starred in more than ninety films, many of which have achieved classic and cult status today.
At the time of her birth, her parents were unable to pay the fees of Dr. Gadre, who had delivered her, so her father left her at a Muslim orphanage, however, he picked her up after a few hours. When Mahjabeen was born, Ali Bakhsh aspired to get roles as an actor in Rooptara Studios. At the urging of his wife, he got Mahjabeen too into movies despite her protestations of wanting to go to school. Young Mahjabeen is said to have said, “I do not want to work in movies; I want to go to school, and learn like other children.”
As Mahjabeen embarked on her acting career at the age of 7, she was renamed Baby Meena. Farzand-e-Watan or Leatherface (1939) was her first movie, which was directed for Prakash Studios by Vijay Bhatt. She became practically the sole breadwinner of her family during the 1940s.
In a movie by Zoya Akhtar, Luck By Chance where Dimple outbursts telling her daughter how she was forced to work in movies in her early childhood was actually from Meena Kumari’s life. Meena Kumari gained fame with her role as a heroine in Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra (1952). She became the first actress to win the Filmfare Best Actress Award in 1953 for this performance.
Meena Kumari highly successfully played the roles of a suffering woman in Parineeta (1953), Daera (1953), Ek Hi Raasta (1956), etc meanwhile saddling light-hearten roles in movies like Azaad (1955), Miss Mary (1957), Shararat (1959), etc. One of her best-known roles was in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), which was produced by Guru Dutt. Kumari played Chhoti Bahu, an alcoholic wife. The film was a major critical and commercial success, which was attributed by critics to Kumari’s performance, which is regarded as one of the best performances of Hindi Cinema. The role was famous for its uncanny similarity to Meena Kumari’s own life. At that time, she herself was on a road to gradual ruin in her own personal life. Like her character, she began to drink heavily, though she carried on.
In 1962, she made history by getting all the three nominations for Filmfare Best Actress Award, for her roles in Aarti, Main Chup Rahungi, and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. She won the award for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
For four more years, Kumari performed successfully in Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Kaajal (1965), and Phool Aur Patthar (1966), all of which earned her Filmfare nominations, with Kaajal garnering her a fourth and last win of the Best Actress award. However, after divorcing her husband in 1964, her addiction to alcohol became stronger, and she often dulled her senses with liquor. She also relied more and more on intimate relationships with younger men like Dharmendra. Her subsequent releases, including Chandan Ka Palna and Majhli Didi did not do well.
Kumari’s heavy drinking had badly damaged her liver, and in 1968 she fell seriously ill. She was taken to London and Switzerland for treatment. Because of her heavy drinking, she increasingly lost her good looks, and when she returned, she began playing character roles in movies like Jawab (1970) and Dushmun (1972).
She developed an attachment to writer-lyricist Gulzar and acted in his directorial debut Mere Apne (1971). Kumari presented an acclaimed portrayal of an elderly woman who got caught between two street gangs of frustrated, unemployed youth and got killed, her death making the youth realize the futility of violence.
Pakeezah, starring Kumari and directed by her ex-husband Kamal Amrohi, took 14 years to reach the silver screen. First planned by Amrohi in 1958, the film went on the studio floors in 1964, but the shooting came to a standstill after their separation in March 1964, when it was more than halfway complete. In 1969, Sunil Dutt and Nargis previewed some reels of the shelved film and convinced the estranged Amrohi and Kumari to complete it.
Songs from her movies
Gravelly ill, Kumari was determined to complete the film and, well aware of the limited time left for her to live, went out of her way to complete it at the earliest. Despite her rapidly deteriorating health, she gave the finishing touches to her performance. Initially, after its release in February 1972, Pakeezah opened to a lukewarm response from the public; however, after Meena Kumari’s death less than two months later, people flocked to see it, making it a major box-office success. The film has since gained a cult and classic status, and Kumari’s performance as a golden-hearted Lucknow prostitute drew major praise. She posthumously received her twelfth and last Filmfare nomination.
Throughout her life, Kumari had a love-hate relationship with movies, and besides being a top-notch actress, she was a talented poetess, and recorded a disc of her Urdu poems, I write, I recite with music by Khayyam.
Three weeks after the release of Pakeezah, Meena Kumari became seriously ill, and died on 31 March 1972 of liver cirrhosis. At her death, she was in more or less the same financial circumstance as her parents at the time of her birth: It is said that when she died in a nursing home, there was no money to pay her hospital bills. She was buried at Rahematabad Qabristan located at Narialwadi, Mazgaon, Mumbai.
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