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Meena Kumari


Dinesh Raheja

Bujh gayee aas chhup gayaa taaraa
thar-tharaataa rahaa dhuaan tanhaa

These lines, penned by Meena Kumari in a compilation of her poems titled, I Write I Recite, suggest the actress was well acquainted with melancholy.

March 31, 2002, marks 30 years since Meena Kumari passed away. But the moist-eyed actress will always be remembered as Hindi cinema's Tragedy Queen.

Famous songs picturised on Meena Kumari
Song Film Singer
 Bachpan ki  mohabbat  Baiju Bawra  Lata Mangeshkar
 Na bole na bole  re  Azaad  Lata Mangeshkar
 Ajeeb dastaan  hain yeh  Dil Apna Aur  Preet Parayi  Lata Mangeshkar
 Do sitaron ka  zameen par  Kohinoor  Lata Mangeshkar,  Mohammed Rafi
 Jyoti kalash  chhalke  Bhabhi Ki  Chudiyan  Lata Mangeshkar
 Na jao saiyyan  Sahib Biwi Aur  Ghulam  Geeta Dutt
 Sansar se bhage  phirte ho  Chitralekha  Lata Mangeshkar
 Tora man darpan  kehlaye  Kaajal  Asha Bhosle
 Duniya kare  sawal toh hum  Bahu Begum  Lata Mangeshkar
 Chalte chalte  Pakeezah  Lata Mangeshkar

Meena's troubled life was abbreviated at 40 when she succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver.

Christened Mahjabeen, she was born to a musician father, Ali Bux. Strained financial circumstances had her and her two sisters Khurshid and Madhu, entering films as child stars. Little Meena got her name in her debut film, Vijay Bhatt's Jairaj-starrer Leather Face in 1939.

Later, when Meena started doing mature roles in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she starred opposite the same Jairaj as his heroine in Magroor. And she held the audience captive with her portrayal of the self-sacrificing Gauri in Baiju Bawra (1952), directed by Vijay Bhatt.

This blockbuster Naushad musical won Meena the very first Filmfare Best Actress Award. Incidentally, Baiju Bawra came after Meena Kumari's nikaah with director Kamal Amrohi. She was his second wife.

Another award followed with Bimal Roy's Parineeta (1953). Meena subsequently acknowledged its hero Ashok Kumar's role in shaping her histrionic abilities. Incidentally, they went onto pair in 14 films.

At 20, Meena had become a star. The actress won acclaim for her performances in Daera (as a young woman married to an old man), Ek Hi Raasta (as Sunil Duttís widow whom Ashok Kumar marries after defying societal norms) and Sharda (as Raj Kapoorís lover who marries his father).

In the 1950s, Meena sensibly alternated these high-octane roles with spirited characters. She gave the boisterous Kishore Kumar tit for tat in six films including Ilzaam; she pranced gaily in swashbucklers like Azaad, and made expressive eyes in the light-hearted Miss Mary.

By the 1960s, Meena's screen image had crystallised into that of a stoic victim. The very successful Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (where her love Raaj Kumar marries Nadira) in 1960 can be seen as the Rubicon line.

Meena looked beautiful when there was a big teardrop suspended on her eyelashes. In real life, Meena never got startled even if someone were to enter the room suddenly and shout. She'd slowly turn around. Perhaps this explains the control she could exercise over her tragic roles.

Moreover, Meena now embodied the 'women's pictures' era. She did films that revolved around her --- even if it meant not signing films with the Raj [Kapoor]-Dilip [Kumar]-Dev [Anand] trio. Gratifyingly, most of her hits were fuelled by her own star power.

In 1962, Meena cornered all the three nominations in Filmfare's Best Actress category with Aarti, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam and Main Chup Rahungi.

She won for Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam as the doomed (and drunk) chhoti bahu who slurs Na jao saiyaan in an anguished plea for love. Meena took the audience on an unforgettable odyssey into the inner recesses of the mind of an emotionally and physically cloistered woman.

The much-publicised split with Amrohi in 1964 added to Meena Kumari's tear-soaked image. Instead of fighting the image, Meena thrived on it. In this heady yet tumultuous phase of her career Meena made a regular pair with Raaj Kumar, Pradeep Kumar and Dharmendra. She was romantically linked with Dharmendra, but scandals could not distract the public's adoration of her.

The Meena-Dharmendra pair sparkled in Kaajal (1965) where her purely fraternal feelings for him are misunderstood; in the superhit Phool Aur Patthar (1966), she is a weeping widow who comes under his protection.

But the euphoria was short-lived.

Films like Chandan Ka Palna and Majhli Didi didn't do well. Worse, in 1968, Meena fell seriously ill and had to be flown to England for treatment.

When she returned, she found herself caught in a morass of character roles like the rape victim in Jawab (1970) and the widow in Dushman (1971).

Meena turned poetry, old wine and new friendships. She worked with new directors like Gulzar (Mere Apne) and Saawan Kumar Tak (Gomti Ke Kinare).

But in the spirit of the maxim that the fame burns brightest before it is snuffed, the best was round the corner. Amrohiís Pakeezah, for which Meena was paid the princely sum of a gold asharfi, was earmarked by destiny to prove a gold mine.

Sunil Dutt and Nargis previewed some reels of Amrohi's lavishly conceived and executed Pakeezah and convinced the estranged Amrohi and Meena to complete the film, launched in 1956. Despite her rapidly deteoriating health, she gave the finishing touches to her performance as a nautch girl who dares to dream of a life as a married woman.

Pakeezah was a perfect swan song for Meena. Her voice caressed each pathos-laden word (few people know that her much-revered vocal inflections were honed to perfection on the sets of Sharda with the help of Raj Kapoor on a tinny tape recorder).

Even as the nation marvelled at her ability to infuse life into her role in Pakeezah, Meena Kumari breathed her last. Within a couple of months of Pakeezah's release, Meena Kumari died on March 31, 1972. And left behind a film befitting her legend.

Meena Kumariís Landmark Films
Year Film Hero
1952 Baiju Bawra Bharat Bhushan
1955 Azaad Dilip Kumar
1957 Sharda Raj Kapoor
1960 Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi Raaj Kumar
1962 Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam Guru Dutt
1962 Aarti Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar
1963 Dil Ek Mandir Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar
1965 Kaajal Raaj Kumar, Dharmendra
1972 Pakeezah Raaj Kumar

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