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Beyond a ‘tragedy queen’

deepak mahaan
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tribute Meena Kumari brought to her roles a conviction and fragility that eluded many others

poise and eleganceMeena Kumari
poise and eleganceMeena Kumari

Films are emotions unravelled in images. While directors are certainly the weavers of the overall look of a film script, its emotional quotient is completely derived from the spirited performances of the actors, and if they are able to strike a chord with the masses there is no doubt that the film will live long in public memory.

Precisely for this reason, probably few artistes have dominated public memory in as gripping a manner as Meena Kumari. Though it is 41 years since she breathed her last, the magnificent actress is still remembered by everyone because of her mesmerising performances that not only lent an earthiness to characters on screen but also gave them a distinct dignity. What is indeed praiseworthy is the fact that even in the most ordinary films her enactment helped induce a “willing suspension of disbelief” in the other mundane happenings on screen. Meena Kumari’s acting was, many a time, the only incentive to watch a mediocre film, something that cannot be said for many other acting practitioners of her tribe. Right from her beginning as a child artiste, Meena impressed everyone with her fragility, spontaneity and histrionics as these never got dimmed in the presence of a camera. Coupled with her hypnotic voice, captivating smile and deft expressions, Meena’s acting had the overwhelming power to captivate attention of critics and commoners alike. So whether it was as a silent bride in Daaera , a village belle in Baiju Bawra , an unfortunate stepmother in Sharda , a devoted wife in Dil ek Mandir or a courtesan in Pakeezah , Meena added an extra dimension to her role.

As an actress who had the rare ability to rise above the script, it is indeed silly to label Meena Kumari as only a ‘tragedy queen’, especially when she gave a fine exhibition of her skills in many comic and romantic roles as well, in films like Azaad , Kohinoor , Miss Mary and Shararat , to name a few. Of course, her personal tragedies and disappointments did lend an extra dimension to her pathos-ridden characters in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam , Kaajal , Chiraag Kahan Roshni Kahan , Phool aur Pathar and Ghazal but avid filmgoers know that she understood the nuances of language and character much better than many other practitioners of her craft.

Unlike many actresses around the world, it is startling to note that Meena never did a ‘strip tease’ on screen nor ever made a lurid attempt to entice the audiences with her sexuality. Instead, she delved deep into the inner recesses of the mind, giving her characters a certain vulnerability, and if only we look at the range of her histrionics we would realise why she could give life to Chhoti Bahu of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Chitralekha of Chitralekha as well as be everyman’s favourite mother and bhabhi with Mere Apne , Dushman and Bhabhi ki Chudian .

Frankly, film students who wish to expand their acting horizons would be well advised to introspect on the searing intensity and conviction that she brought to her roles with her subtle inflections of tone or precise movement of her hands. A few examples come to mind, like the court scene of Phool aur Pathar or the marital discord scene from Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam .

To me, it seems, poetry and acting were tools that she used to give expression to many of her stifled desires. An unwanted child of small-time actor Ali Baksh and dancer Iqbal Begum, Meena was forced into acting at the age of eight to support family finances against her wishes. Deprived of a normal, carefree childhood, Meena became a serious and analytic student of life which, unfortunately, she could not enjoy on her own behest. Like a caged bird, she longed for the distant yet rainbow horizons but was frequently duped in her personal domain by friends, relatives and colleagues. Cheated of domestic and marital bliss, Meena’s angst, pain and unshed tears found their way in her portrayals as well as her remarkable verses of Urdu poetry that are a delight to this day and age.

deepak mahaan


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