Vinod Mehta's biography of Meena Kumari brings alive memories of an actress and her illustrious career

A confession. Like Vinod Mehta began his biography of Meena Kumari with the news of her death, I began this column writing the last note first! But, more of that later. First, a little peek into the life of Meena Kumari, described by The Hindu at the time of her death as “a Muslim who had adopted a Hindu name when she became an actress.”

Born in 1932 to Master Ali Bux and Iqbal Begum (he played the harmonium, she was a stage dancer), Mahjabeen was the second of three sisters. Incredibly, she augmented the family finances from the age of four — she started as a child artiste with Leather Face. After an illustrious career of a little under 100 films, and a challenging life that included prolonged bouts of self-pity, luckless love, lonely drinking sessions, aborted love affairs and a failed marriage, she passed away within days of the release of Pakeezah, her husband Kamal Amrohi’s film that took 14 years to complete. Meena Kumari put aside her aching heart and deteriorating health to finish the film. The film opened to lukewarm response, but the news of her death saw the audience rushing to cinemas almost as a homage to the actor.

Between Leather Face and Pakeezah, she starred in films that attracted attention — the early brush came with a number of mythologicals she did in pre-Independence India, where she often played a Hindu goddess. It left many, who could not understand the fine line between real and reel, indignant. As Vinod recalls in Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography, “A Sunni Muslim, without even the rudimentary knowledge of Indian scriptures, conducted herself with such familiarity that people on the sets often mistook her for a Hindu girl. She was so perfect in these mythologicals that the early Meena became an essential feature of this genre.” Back in the 1930s and 40s, she made a killing, her earnings ranging from Rs. 25 for a day’s work to Rs. 10,000 for a film.

With success came a Plymouth car which she drove with zest. Once, as Vinod tells us in a beguilingly simple manner, while reading an English magazine — an achievement by itself for somebody who hardly had any formal schooling — her eyes fell on a photograph of Kamal Amrohi. The writer-director was riding a wave following Mahal, the film that gave Lata Mangeshkar more than a foothold in the industry with ‘Aayega Aanewala’. Soon, “love began with a glass of mosambi juice” and she “discovered in him areas of gentleness, humanity and loyalty”. The two wrote letters to each other which they did not post. Instead, they exchanged them in person. Then came the night-long telephone calls.

It could have been yet another love story. It wasn’t. They met. They married. They parted. Then came Dharmendra — the joy was fleeting, the sorrow enduring. Amidst all this, Meena Kumari chiselled a series of heart warming, eye-brimming performances in films such as like Parineeta, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and, of course, Main Chup Rahungi. Her repertoire was better than those of her contemporaries — Madhubala had a Mughal-e-Azam, Nargis a Mother India but only the tragedienne of Hindi cinema had a consistently loyal fan following.

It seemed whenever she shed a tear, the box office overflowed in sympathy. She traded in angst, she sold sorrow. And then, there was Pakeezah, a courtesan so fetching, so beautiful that the lasting image of Meena Kumari is of an anarkali/gharara-clad woman, complete with a teeka, a jhumar and a haath-phool. Soon, she breathed her last — the union of reel and real life was complete.

Then started Vinod’s love affair with the tragedienne. Like Lord Meghnad Desai’s book on Dilip Kumar, he never met the subject. But, he still manages to provide more than a snapshot of her life — reluctant child artiste, tragedy queen, top actress with a gift for comic timing, unlucky in love, a sensitive poet….He says it all with a natural flair and remarkable honesty.

As for the last note: Thanks for the memories, Vinod. Thanks for conveying the joy of melancholy.

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