When Meena Kumari died of cirrhosis of the liver (precipitated by excessive drinking), in March 1972, Vinod Mehta was working as a copywriter in an advertising agency. He accepted a commission to write about the actress and delivered the manuscript in October that year, and the book was published a couple of weeks later. (This edition is a reissue.)
Seven months seems an awfully short gestation period for the chronicle of a life, especially one whose aspects away from the arc lights were dispersed in the dark – something that Mehta acknowledges right away. “At every stage in the writing I found that it was impossible to collect even one ‘undisputed’ fact about this woman,” he says. “Everything connected with her life had at least four versions...” Nor were people lining up to talk about the deceased star.
The fact that Mehta barrelled past these obstacles and produced a book is enough to make Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography an unusual work – but there’s more. Mehta isn’t your average writer about Bollywood. He constantly looks Westward to make a point – a Walter Matthau quote, an Anthony Trollope epigram, a line of dialogue from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, a bit of Shakespeare (“slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”). He refers to Dharmendra as “a veritable Sir Galahad,” and he compares the Dharmendra-Meena Kumari affair to the relationship between Mellors and Lady Chatterley.
The style of writing, too, comes from the West. Influenced by the subjective and personal techniques of New Journalism, which burst onto the scene in the 1960s and placed the author at the core of his narrative, Mehta keeps referring to Meena Kumari as “my heroine.” Before he can present her to us, he makes her his – and this possessiveness imbues this biography with a curiously purplish hue. Through a conceit that was possibly daring then (and which appears laboured now), the author situates himself somewhere between a child bearing a crush on his schoolteacher and a stalker who’s constructed a picture-collage shrine to the object of his affection.
This is, therefore, as much a biography of the star as some sort of autobiography of the scribe. It isn’t an “objective” work – rather, a record of how such a man would view such a woman and her surroundings, the Bombay film industry of the era.
Mehta begins with the end, recalling an open-air party where a minor film star (who remains unnamed) strode in and said, “Do you know Meena Kumari died this afternoon?” We then flash back to Meena Kumari’s life and career. We meet the young child actor named Mahajabeen, who was already supporting her parents. The first section of the book is a yearly accounting of her films and their fate at the box office, and alongside we get personal details. Mahajabeen grows up, becomes a successful heroine, and marries the already-married Kamal Amrohi.
This, amazingly, did not affect her career. (Of course, Hema Malini has a similar story, but this was almost three decades earlier.) Meena Kumari soon became the face of Lux soap, and in the eleven years she lived with Amrohi, she completed nearly 50 out of her 77 films. Of these, Amrohi’s Pakeezah, unsurprisingly, gets the most attention, despite the author’s opinion of the film as “flawed but noble.” (Derek Malcolm, film critic of The Guardian, differed. He chose Pakeezah as one of his hundred favourite films, and called it “one of the most extraordinary musical melodramas ever made.”)
Along the way, we see almost as many faces of Mehta as we do of his muse. We see him as a diligent biographer, critic, film historian, number cruncher, vinegary gossip, and unabashed fan. About Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, he writes, “Of the mountainous films Meena made, her performance in Sahib Bibi stands on the pinnacle. If I wish to remember my heroine as a film star I wish to remember her as Guru Dutt’s Chhoti Bahu... I think back to a sequence lasting four minutes, where she is seen in various stages of adornment. “This culminates in a final shot and glory, my heroine is on the screen fully dressed. You probably think this is a biographer gone mad but I have not seen in Indian cinema a face more beautiful than I saw in those few seconds.”
Was Meena Kumari a great actress? Mehta, finally, takes on this question with some diligence, evaluating her eyes, voice, bearing, versatility, professionalism and technical cunning (she required no glycerine to cry), and concludes that even with poor material “there was always a minimum level of artistry.” As a comparison, he offers Sharmila Tagore. “I saw [Tagore] play an old woman... she gave no intimations of the fifty years she was supposed to represent.” But when it came to Meena Kumari in Mere Apne, “doddering along the street, her posture slightly bent, she looks every inch the woman she is supposed to be.”
Mehta doesn’t spare himself from the harsh light of his interrogation. In the introduction, he writes about the feedback he got, that he had “produced an over-sentimental, maudlin life story compromised by the gratuitous insertion of [his] own personality into the narrative. A cooler, detached view would have improved the biography immeasurably.” This is certainly true.
But that would have been a very different kind of book – a truer biography, perhaps, but a more conventional one. It would have been a portrait of an actress, not the portrait of an actress through the eyes of this particular admirer. Mehta says that “despite the naivety and exhibitionism and hurried judgments, I thought I had managed to capture some fleeting essence of the controversial actress.” He also managed to capture a fleeting essence of himself.
Meena Kumari — The Classic Biography by Vinod Mehta, HarperCollins Publishers, Rs.350