The Tragedy Queen of Indian Cinema: Meena Kumari

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“This is Life”

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”

(The Poet – A Life beyond Cinema; Collected Poems of Naaz ll Translated By Noorul Hasan)

Mahjabeen Bano is known as screen name ‘Meena Kumari’ who is considered as ‘historically incomparable’ actress of Hindi Cinema by Indian film critique. She had multidisciplinary talent from childhood. She faced life long sufferings from since birth to till death. Meena Kumari was at the pick of celebration of stardom in 60’s.That time, she was at the centre of attraction in Indian cinema. She leaded in 93 films of various genres in her 33 years career. Her many contributions are addressed as classic and cult by appreciators. Her notable contributions are   Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Pakeezah, Mere Apne, Aarti, Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, Foot Path, Char Dil Char Rahen, Daera, Azaad, Miss Mary, Sharada, Dil Ek Mandir, Kaajal, Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, Majhli Didi, Phool Aur Patthar, Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan, Yahudi, Halaku, Baadbaan and Kohinoor.

Vinod Mehta, the writer of ‘Meena Kumari- The Classic Biography’ mentioned a director to claim that the tragedy king of Bollywood, Dilip kumar didn’t control his calmness in front of Meena kumari. Madhubala was fan of Meena kumari’s strong unique voice. Satyajit Ray addressed Meena as “undoubtedly an actress of the highest caliber”. Meena Kumari compared her life span with Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller due to identical similarities. The Indian film fraternities Javed Akhter and Mohammed Zahur Khayyam claimed Meena kumari is perfect example of Indian traditional women in onscreen persona in 50s and 60s. The trademark of Meena kumara was the ability to present the struggle of Indian women in her time. She gained fame and reputation for playing tragic role. She can blend her beauty, aristocracy, tragedy, personality in one package. Her portrayal of ‘Sahibjaan’ as a nautch girl with a golden heart in Pakeezah under Kamal Amrohi’s direction became a historical piece of document. In Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam , her character Chhoti Bahu is considered one of the best performances in Indian Cinema where she subconsciously portrait her real life tragedy  as an alcoholic.

 

Meena Kumari was born in Punjabi descent family with close relationship with Tagore’s family from her mother side. Her grandmother was Bengali Christian; Hem Sundari Tagore was the daughter of younger brother of Rabindranath Tagore. She converted in Christianity after marrying a Urdu Journalist Lal Shankar Meeruti. Hem Sudari had two daughters and Prabhawati who was later introduced as Iqbal Begum is known as Meena Kumari’s mother. Meena’s father Master Ali Bux who migrated from Punjab and was a veteran of parsi theater and music teacher and harmonium player. Ali Bux disappointed for Meena’s birth when he expected a major career break in film industry that never happened. Meena as her family name Muunna (Mahjabeen) played a bread earner role from her childhood for family. At the age of eight, she entered into industry as a child artist. She was unwilling to cast as an actress by overlooking academic career. At her interview in 1962, Meena expressed her emotion of childhood and protest and reality as a helpless child. Her fight had begun since at the age of four. Her passion of reading introduced herself as “Reading Mahjabeen”. She carried children’s book on the indoor and outdoor set. Despite of proper institutional education, she concerned on Urdu rather than Hindi or English as she was self-educated in every sense. Meena never had a collection of bright-colored marbles like other children.In 1943; ‘Bachchon Ka Khel’ introduced Baby Meena as Meena Kumari with a promising future.  On the set of ‘Tamasha’ director Ashok kumar introduced Kamal Amrohi with Meena Kumari and later Meena signed for Film Anarkali. After few days, she had caught severe accident and the dedication of Kamal impressed her. Post hospital romantic flute continued through famous telephonic marathon. In 1952, Meena married Kamal secretly. Meena’s father didn’t reconcile his anger due to secret marriage and the clash had begun in daughter- father relationship on the issues of film ‘Daera’ (1953). The father refused Meena after the disagreement with Mehboob khan’s film Amar.

 

Actress Nadira, a friend of Meena certified that, Meena gave ultimate effort to show respect, love to Amrohi and also feared of him. Nadira also added that Meena Kumari always addressed Amrohi as “Chandan” or “Kamal Sahab”, and Amrohi called Meena Kumari as “Manju”.

 

For Baiju Bawra Meena got commercial stardom and had achieved best film actress in fimfare awards in 1954. Under the direction of Bimal Roy’s Parineeta(1953), Meena Kumari got 2nd Filmfare Award for the faithful interpretation’s of Sharat Chandra Chattopadyay’s  Bengali novel character Lalita. Foot Path was the first film for Meena with Dilip Kumar. In Chandni

Chawk(1954), Meena introduced herself  in the plot of muslim social drama. Meena Kumari Shared screen with Kishore Kumar in Ilzaam(1954). Azad (1955), was featured by Meena and Dilip Kumar and secured top grossing film for not only that year but also decade. B.R Chopra;s Indian Hindi family drama film Ek Hi Raasta (1956) celebrated Jubilee Hits by featured Meena Kumari and new comer Sunil Dutt.

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Chota Bahu from Saheb Bubi Aur Ghulam

In late 50’s the real life complexity haunted Meena and it reflected on the screen artistically and earned the title ‘The Tragedy Queen’. Due to informal divorce, more specifically separation drove Meena to another peak of the achievement. In between 1957-1961 Kumari had exposed her real tragic mental makeup through celluloid. For the film Sharda(1957)  she won Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Award. Sharda was the first venture film with Raj Kapoor and it got major commercial break. In 1958, Meena featured in a Persian Urdu theatre classic based Film Yahudi on the plot of Jews persecution in Roman Empire. Sahara(1958) and Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan(1959) secured the nomination of filmfare Awards in Best Actress category. Bhabhi  ki Chudiyan(1962) counted for  critical acclamation due to notable acting performance of Meena Kumari. Meena got nomination in all slots of 10th Filmfare Award for Arti, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam,Main Chup Rahengi and got her third award for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam in 1963.

The film was notable for brilliant cinematography as well as music composition. In 1967 Vividh Bharati Service of All India Radio Program Meena Kumari confessed that the role of Chhoti Bahu from Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam was her ‘Astral Body’. It’s chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscar in 1962.

Upperstall   mentioned on Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam “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 by an actress on the Indian Screen.”

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam nominated for the Golden Bear at the 13th Berlin International Film Festival, where Meena Kumari was selected as a delegate.

In married life Meena had gone under the terrible possessive supervision with strict patriarchal dominancy from husband Kamal. The over reactive  and protective behavior of Kamal introduced as oppressor to Meena and In the Interview of Fimfare magazine, Kamal argued in self-defense by telling that, all of those were only for the interest of kumari. Many sources confirmed about Kamal’s jealousy and suspicion and it created mistrust and unofficial separation. An unwanted situation that was introduced by Kamal’s assistant Baqar ali on the issue of entrance of lyricist and Urdu poet Ghulzar. Meena- Kamal had kept their strong ego and separated from each other after that issue.

Meena Kumari wrote in her poetry about Amrohi:

When I found a partner like my heart
Restlessness also found with him
.

In post separation period, there were so many romantic scandal rumor of Meena associated with Gulzar, Dharmendra,Sawan Kumar Tak. Meena continued her on screen appearance in Kajaal(1965) with Dharmendra. She won fourth and last Filmfare award for Kajaal. Phul Aur Patthar(1966) celebrated golden jubilee hit and Dharmrndra got stardom and Meena was nominated for filmfare award again for Phu Aur Patthar in following years. In 1967 Mjhli Didi was featured by Meena and selected for Indian entry to 41st Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film Noorjehan(1967) was featured by Meena Kumari and Pradip Kumar on the context of epic romantic love story of Mughal  emperor Jahangir and Noorjehan.

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An old habit of chronic insomnia and post- separation period’s alcoholic addiction damaged her health condition .She moved abroad for treatment and after returning home she never touched alcohol. The dream project of Kamal, Pakeezah had taken to finish sixteen years. It is counted as a love signature of Kamal to Meena . The film was interrupted due to separation and in 1969 after a long separation, Meena confirmed to return the film set of Pakeezah. Pakeezah enjoyed successful run for 33 weeks and celebrated silver jubilee since 4th Februay 1972 and secured its possition as classic. After the appreciation of Pakezah from the industry, Meena was convinced on her husband as a finest filmmaker of India and Meena got twelfth nomination for Filmfare Award.

 

The game of Almighty revealed. Three weeks later of Pakeezah, Meena was admitted in hospital with serious illness. At the time of entering into coma, Meena said to Kamal- “Chandan, I will not live much longer now. My last wish is to die in your arms.”

On 31st March, 1972, Meena died due to liver cirrhosis in ‘Good Friday’. She was buried at Rahematabad, Mumbai. Meena Kumari wished this epitaph to be on her grave:

She ended life with a broken fiddle,

With a broken song,

With a broken heart,

      But not a single regret.

Meena Kumari was also a poet with her pen name Naaz. Her poetry reveals the rare side of personality rather than popular screen appearance. Her poetical expression was much more sensitive. She claimed

Why do you want to listen to my story?

Colorless tales of a joyless life.

 

                        

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