About Meena Kumari

Mahjabeen Bano (August 1, 1932 - March 31, 1972), more commonly known as Meena Kumari, was a prominent Indian film actress.

Meena Kumari, traditionally known for perfecting the role of the tragedienne in films, is actually the embodiment of the woman as Essence rather than flesh. The droop of her kiss curl, the anguish-laden voice never more than a sob from abject despair, the unblemished beauty made her the ultimate tragedy queen in Indian Cinema. In a career spanning three decades, she chiselled the contours of two role models and created some kind of an ideal in the mind of the viewer. This was the image of the woman as wife and the woman as mother.

She was born as Mahjabeen Bano in what was then Dr. Gadre's Clinic in Bombay as the third daughter in a row. She was the youngest amongst Khursheed, Madhu, and Mahjabeen-the name given to her. Because the family was so poor, there was no money to give the doctor. Ali Bux, her father, almost left her at a Muslim orphanage, but picked her up after a few hours.

Her father, Ali Bux, variously identified as a Sunni Muslim or a Parsi, was already a dabbler in cinema. A veteran of Parsi theater, he used to play the harmonium, wrote Urdu poetry and was a music teacher. He had played small roles in films like "Id Ka Chand" and had composed music for small films like "Shahi Lutere".

Her mother, Prabhawati Devi, was apparently the second wife of Ali Bux. One tradition connects her to the Tagore family. Meena Kumari's grandmother, Hem Sundari Thakur (Tagore) was married into the Tagore family but after her husband, Rev Bill's death, she was compelled to give up the use of the family name by the powerful Tagore clan. Her daughter, Prabhawati Devi was a stage actress and dancer with the stage name Kamini before meeting Ali Bux. After their marriage, Prabhawati converted to Islam and changed her name to Iqbal Begum.

When Mahjabeen was born, Ali Bakhsh had hit upon hard times and was living near Rooptara Studios, where he had hopes of getting a role as an actor. Her therefore mastered his disinclination and, urged on by his wife, tried to get his daughter into films, despite her protestations of wanting to go to school. Young Mahjabeen is remembered to have said I don't want to work in films. I want to go to school and learn like other children. Meena had a love-hate relationship with films until her death.

Mahjabeen was renamed Baby Meena and her first film as a child was "Farzand-e-Watan" or "Leatherface" (1939), directed by Vijay Bhatt for Prakash Studios. She was the sole bread-earner of the family as she was given roles in films all throughout the 1940s. Her early adult work consisted of mainly mythological films like "Veer Ghatotkach" (1949), "Shri Ganesh Mahima" (1950) and fantasies like "Alladin and The Wonderful Lamp" (1952).

Meena hit the big time with her mentor Vijay Bhatt's "Baiju Bawra" (1952). With Baiju Bawra, the suffering Indian woman found a new face in Meena Kumari (for the film she adopted the name Meena Kumari). The heroine in the film is ever ready to negate herself for the material and spiritual advancement of the man she loves and is even willing to annihilate herself to provide him the experience of pain so that his music would be enriched. Her performance fetched her the inaugural Filmfare Best Actress Award in 1953.

With "Parineeta" (1953), "Daera" (1953), "Ek Hi Raasta" (1956), "Sharda" (1957) and "Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi" (1960), Meena went from strength to strength playing the suffering woman, the martyr to prefection.In Daera, her barren life and subsequent disintegration underscores the Indian Woman's lack of selfhood and remains one of the great moments of screen acting. In  Sharda she gave a tour de force performance as Raj Kapoor's lover who becomes his stepmother. Unfortunately coming in the same year as Mother India, Nargis swept all the awards but the Bombay Film Journalists Association named Meena as their best actress of the year for Sharda.

 It is a pity that Meena was known for her tragic roles and she too chose more such roles to cultivate her image of being the great tragidienne because in the few light-hearted films she did in-between like "Azaad" (1955), "Miss Mary" (1957), "Shararat" (1959), and "Kohinoor" (1960) she displayed an unhibitedness that was refreshing to say the least.In these films, her physical movements are free and unrestrained and her dialogue delivery absolutely normal - a stark contrast to the studied mannerisms and passive postures of her tragic roles.

However, it was tragedy that saw Meena Kumari's greatest performance and immortalized her. The film was "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam" (1962), produced by Guru Dutt. In "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam", the film tells the story of Choti Bahu, the youngest bride in an aristocratic zamindar family who strives to make her errant husband return to her even at the risk of self-destruction .The sequence where "Choti Bahu" dresses for her husband singing is a poignant exploration of a woman's expectations and sexual desire. But Meena was on the road to gradual ruin. She began drinking heavily (like her character Choti Bahu) to a point of no return, but carried on.

That year, Meena Kumari made history as she garnered all three Best Actress nominations for the Filmfare Award- for "Aarti" (1962), "Main Chup Rahoongi" (1962), and of course "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam" (1962)- for which she won the award. However, the common factors between the actress's life and "Choti Bahu" are too dramatic to be merely coincidental - the estranged marital relationship, the taking of alcohol, younger male company, the craving to be understood and loved by all, are elements in Meena Kumari's own life. Elements which were mythicized in the film world in the 1960s.

While on the professional front, the emphatic success of "Dil Ek Mandir" (1963), "Kajal" (1965), and "Phool Aur Patthar" (1966) kept her a top star. Meena increasingly relied on the intimate kindness of younger men like Dharmendra and often dulled her senses with liquor. Her image grew in dimension as she was now widely seen as an eternal martyr. Meena spent the last years of her life playing the doomed diva. With heavy drinking she had lost her looks and she began playing character roles in potboilers like "Jawab" (1970) and "Dushmun" (1971). A talented poetess in her own right, she recorded a disc of her Urdu poems - I write, I recite.

She came up with a strong portrayal of an old woman caught between two street gangs of frustrated, unemployed youth, whose killing finally makes them realise the futility of violence in Gulzar's directorial debut Mere Apne (1971) and realised she had a limited time left and went out of her way to complete what has now become a cult classic - Pakeezah (1972). Pakeezah finally released in February, 1972 and opened to a lukewarm response. However after Meena Kumari's death a month after the film's release, it became a hit.

On the sets of one of her films, Meena fell in love with Kamal Amrohi and she herself wrote about Amrohi:
     "Dil saa jab saathi paya
      Bechain bhi woh saath le aaya"
Although he was 15 years older than her, she liked him. Kamal Amrohi was married earlier too. The marriage took place very soon in that same year, 1952 and they went for a honeymoon. Honeymoon plans were for a film that would be a love story reflecting the real life love story of Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari. They planned and completed a film called "Daera" (1953) which was one of Kamal Amrohi's 4 films and they planned "Pakeezah". Nobody knew that "Pakeezah" would take 14 years (1958 to 1972) to reach the silver screen.

Kamal lovingly called his wife Manju. It is alleged that Amrohi didn't want children with Meena because she was non-Sayyed. Since the two had no children of their own, they raised Kamal Amrohi's son Taajdaar. Taajdaar was highly attached to his chhoti ammi (younger mother), Meena Kumari. Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi started developing disparity and their differences grew much larger as the both of them were highly accomplished and successful characters.

She would not like any interference in her work as she was in authority herself. However, Kamal was very upset at her habit of following her own rules and decisions. Relations began to grow sour. In the meantime, the marriage of Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari had turned so sour that it had resulted in separation and divorce in 1964. At this time, the shooting of "Pakeezah" came to a halt. This shaped her private life also. The once very happy Meena Kumari turned into the epitome of tragedy in a short time when she took refuge in alcohol (and poetry). She expressed her sorrows and miseries in many places and most importantly in her poetry which is the best reflection of her feelings. The same person who wrote beautiful poetry about Kamal Amrohi said -
      "Tum kya karoge sunkar mujhse meri kahani
            Belutf zindagi ke kisse hain pheeke pheeke"
At the time of the divorce she had said -
    "Talaak to de rahe ho Nazare kahar ke saath
         Jawani bhi mere lauta do Mehar ke saath"

Jointly planned by Meena and husband Amrohi in 1958, the film "Pakeezah" took 14 years to finally reach the silver screen. Filming had come to a halt when the couple split but Meena was now determined to complete it. Pakeezah finally released in February 1972 and opened to just a lukewarm response but after her death on 31st March 1972, the film went on to become a huge success at the box-office and has since then acquired legendary status and is regarded as her best known film.

"Pakeezah"  is a stylized, larger than life mythicization of the familiar tale of the prostitute with the heart of gold. There is grandeur in Amrohi's filmmaking-an epic magnitude of treatment. The evocative songs and the background music create the right period mood and Amrohi's eye for details brings great depth to the lavish sets. The film is helped by a stunning performance by Meena in the dual roles of the mother and daughter.

 Three weeks after the release of the film Meena Kumari fell seriously ill, and on March 31, 1972, at 3.25 p.m. she died of cirrhosis of the liver . Death came almost as her birth had come. For when she died in ST Elizabeth's nursing home, it was said, there was no money to pay her hospital bills.

 A reluctant entrant to films, her greatest celluloid fantasy, it seems, only waited for her dejection, and eventual death, before becoming a huge success. A legend when she was alive, and an irreplaceable actress after her death, Meena Kumari's iconic status will remain untouched for a long time to come."Gomti ke Kinare" was her last film.

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