Meena Kumari who ruled the Indian film industry for over two decades stood out amongst the likes of Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Madhubala, Motilal, Balraj Sahni, Ashok Kumar and other such towering personalities of her time. Her co-stars including Pradeep Kumar, Raj Kumar and Bharat Bhushan vied to work with her over and over again. Not only did her presence in a film ensure the movie’s success but each of the men loved her in his own way.
Pradeep Kumar was to say much later after her death at a young age of 39 years in 1972, that he loved her. Raj Kumar was so mesmerised by her that he often forgot his dialogue when he shared the frame with her. Bharat Bhushan was enamoured of her from their first film (”Baiju Bawra” in 1952) together. Actor Dharmendra’s off screen romance with her, in his struggling years in the film industry, is an open secret.
Not just her male co-stars, even the gifted Madhubala was an admirer. She said Meena’s voice was “unique”. Satyajit Ray described Meena Kumari as “an actress of the highest calibre”.
As her 46th death anniversary has just passed by on March 31, it must be said that calling Meena Kumari “tragedy queen” is selling her short for in each of her film she essayed such complex emotions be it as a woman in love, bhabhi, bahu, mother or a troubled woman, that the audience yearned to go deeper into the mind of the character. Clearly she went beyond her brief for what she conveyed from the depth of her being, no director can order. For example, in “Benazir”, she doesn’t utter a word, but with one tender sweeping gaze she conveys to young Shashi Kapoor that she had fallen for him.
The very first scene in “Dil Ek Mandir”, when she bumps into her ex-flame (Rajendra Kumar) with her husband (Raj Kumar) by her side, leaves the audience intrigued about what was going on in her mind. Who was she with?
Another similarly difficult film was “Sharda” in which Meena Kumari played a character, who by force of circumstances gets married to the father of the man she loves, played by Raj Kapoor. No other actress could have so convincingly conveyed the dilemma of a woman caught in a highly charged complex situation. These are films that must be seen to learn the art of acting.
Guru Dutt’s “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” was a classic and the role of “chhoti bahu” in a feudal, landlord family essayed by her is still remembered. Her confrontation scenes with her wayward husband (played by Rehman) or her attempts in an inebriated condition to stop him from visiting a nautch girl, are portrayals that are unparalleled.
In “Aarti”, we see Meena Kumari in the role of a selfless doctor who falls in love with a “muflis” poet played by Pradeep Kumar with Ashok Kumar in a negative role. She surpasses herself in scenes in which she reminds Ashok Kumar, a brain specialist, of his duties as a doctor which must be above his longing for her. This film shows her as a thinking woman, who stands up for herself.
“Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan”, is an under-rated classic – a film that can be seen any times over. Playing the central character, Meena Kumari with ease transcends from a loving wife to a misunderstood bhabhi with unfulfilled motherhood with Balraj Sahni as a perfect foil. She takes a stand in the film against attempts to show down her family status.
During a career spanning 33 years, Meena Kumari starred in about 92 films including “Daera”, “Parineeta”, “Ek Hi Raasta”, “Dil Apna Aur Preet Paraye”, “Kohinoor”, “Bahu Begum”, “Kajal”, “Zindagi Aur Khwab”, “Pyar Ka Sagar”, “Purnima”, “Bheegi Raat”, “Majhli Didi”, “Kajal”, “Gazal”, “Phool Aur Patthar”, “Baharon Ki Manzil”, “Chitralekha”, “Dushman” and “Mere Apne”.
Meena Kumari won four Filmfare Awards for Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Kaajal. She reached such heights in her performances that in 1963, she swept all the nominations for Filmfare Best Actress award for her films—Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Aarti and Main Chup Rahungi!
She died on a Good Friday at the young age of 39. A failed, childless marriage to producer-writer-director Kamal Amrohi and a string of impossible affairs left her broken-hearted and lonely. She took to drinking and ultimately succumbed to cirrhosis of liver. An extremely gifted actress, she worked till her final years and as a parting gift to her estranged husband, completed “Pakeezah” in which she played the central character of a nautch girl with Ashok Kumar and Raj Kumar as her co-stars.
This was a film that had begun when Meena Kumari was young, in love and together with her husband. But as has happened with many a famous actress, her husband wanted to curtail her freedom and control her finances. The actor refused to be cowed down, leading to their separation. It is said that in her last days, the top heroine of Indian Cinema had no money for treatment of her illness or even for her last rites.
Meena Kumar’s story has to be refreshed for today’s generation to know that a legend like her walked the Indian film screen. Her book of profound poems, which she willed to famous poet, writer-director Gulzar, speaks of her loneliness. The famous music composer Khayyam did a yeoman’s service to her fans by canning her poems in her own voice:
“Raah dekha karega sadiyon tak, chhod jayenge ye jehan tanhaa,’’ she wrote. (Even as generations of people look for me, I will leave this world alone.) Indeed, as everyone awaits another Meena Kumari, she was unique and there can be never be anyone like her.