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Meena Kumari: An enigma

A tribute to Meena Kumari on her 85th birth anniversary (1 August 1932 – 31 March 1972) by guest author DP Rangan

(SoY readers are now familiar with DP Rangan’s prolific guest posts. So far, he has focused on themes. He now forays into film personalities. Several readers have suggested that I write on songs picturised on specific heroes or heroines. I have been generally hesitant, because my primary classifications are music directors and singers, and any new category becomes overlapping. Our 70-year-old-going-on-17 Mr Rangan is not deterred by such challenges. The tinsel town is full of stars who were at the height of name and fame, but who had a most unhappy personal life, finally dying in penury. Meena Kumari is the foremost example of such tragic figures. It is befitting that Mr Rangan chooses her to pay tribute on her 85th birth anniversary. He also introduces us to her less known singing talent; and true to SoY’s tradition, he presents a good number of her vintage and unknown songs. Thank you Mr Rangan for another excellent article. – AK)

Meena KumariIt was about a year ago that my ‘writing’ was first published, thanks to the generosity of AK in accepting it for this august blog. It was a wonderful moment for me, and enthused by this success I wrote a number of posts on different themes. Emboldened by my new-found confidence, I decided to foray into areas other than themes and plunge into the field of biography, even though I knew it to be a minefield.

Among the many personalities I mulled over, it struck me that my favourite actress of great histrionic talent, Meena Kumari, would be eminently suitable for study. I would hereafter call her ‘The Lady’. I thought it would be an easy job, but juggling through the enormous material available on the Internet required calisthenics workout on my part. There were many grey areas on several aspects of her life with no authoritative pronouncements on them. For a contemporary artist, who lived in the current times, this was quite unexpected.

At the outset, it is essential to go back in time and probe the ancestral links of ‘The Lady’. The story begins from Calcutta. Sukumar Thakur Tagore, younger brother of the legendary Rabindranath Tagore had the misfortune to be burdened with a young widow daughter by name Hem Sundari. This is the start of the tragedy which continued without a break further down the generations. Young widows of those times had to lead of a life of misery shunned by the society and kept in seclusion to waste away their life. Hem Sundari was made of sterner stuff and refused to be buried in misery, and left the house in search of her destiny, least bothered that she was guilty of lèse-majesté.

There are two versions of what happened next. According to the programme ‘Virasat’ aired by Rajya Sabha TV, she landed in Meerut and met a journalist Pyare Lal, a Christian by faith. They got married and had two children and one of them was a girl named Prabhavati. However, Javed Akhtar’s presentation on the actress in another programme differed in some details. According to this story, Hem Sundari landed in Lucknow and started working in a hospital. There she met one Pyare Lal Shakir Meerati, a Christian by faith and an Urdu journalist by avocation. After embracing Christianity, she married him. They had two boys and four girls. Pyare Lal’s death left a widow with heavy responsibilities. Because of sheer inadequacy of carrying on with her meagre remuneration in the hospital, she returned to the stage in Calcutta, a calling very familiar to her. One of the girls was Prabhavati who inherited the artistic temperament of the mother and became a good dancer.

An adult Prabhavati drifted to Bombay, lodestar of attraction for aspiring artists who wanted to climb up the ladder of success and fame. She became a stage dancer of repute known as Kamini. Ali Bux, a Sunni Muslim, and native of Bhera, Punjab, but now a part of Pakistan came to Bombay for better prospects. He was a good harmonium player and was a part of the orchestra at Parsi Theatre during the era of silent movies and wrote Urdu poetry. He composed music for small films like Shahi Lutere and did occasional bit roles in films like Eid Ka Chand.

Ali Bux and Prabhavati ran into each other while pursuing their profession and got attracted towards each other leading to their union in holy matrimony. As per custom, Prabhavati embraced Islam and changed her name to Iqbal Banoo. She was his second wife. Ali Bux was already married and separated and brought his daughter Khursheed aged around 13 to the new home at Meetawala Chawl, Dadar East, Bombay which can by no stretch of imagination dubbed a bijou residence. Their married life was not exactly a bed of roses. Ali Bux did not rise in his profession. His aspiration to garner an actor’s role in nearby Rooptara Studios never fructified. With the arrival of talkies starting with Alam Ara (1931), his role as harmonium player became insignificant and it was a virtual struggle for both from thereon.

A baby was on the way and Ali Bux eagerly waited for the arrival of a boy, a common wish among the Indian and Chinese parents from time immemorial. The momentous event took place on 1st August 1932. To Ali Bux’s disappointment it was a girl that came into this world in Dr. Gadre’s clinic. He did not have the wherewithal to defray delivery expenses and left the new born in a Muslim orphanage. Unable to meet the reproachful eyes of the mother, he went back and retrieved the baby girl, which was a stark tragedy for her as subsequent events in her life was to prove. They christened her Mahjabeen. Her pet name was Munna. In due course another girl made her entry into the family and she was named Mahliqa alias Madhu. Poor Ali Bux’s dream of playing with a bonny boy was never realized.

The budding family of five was going through trying times. Both the parents had to work hard to sustain themselves. The mother had no time to prepare food in a proper manner and it had to last for more than a day. Thus, Munna from her childhood days had only crude chapatis and she developed a liking for it for the rest of her life. By the age of six years, she had grown up into a lovely girl. Ali Bux was reluctant to act on the suggestion of his wife to expose little Munna to films. Mahjabeen did not have a normal childhood. She was very keen to study and go to school like other children. But the mother took her to Vijay Bhatt of Prakash Studios tanquam ovis and requested a role for the child. Impressed with her looks, he concurred. Thus, at the tender age of seven, she was introduced as a child artist in the film Farzand-e-Watan or Leather Face (1939), directed by him. She was awarded a remuneration of Rs. 25, which came in very handy for the impoverished family. The poor child was denied her wish to study in school and instead had to act as a breadwinner for the family. On the sets of Ek Hi Bhool (1940), her mentor Vijay Bhatt christened her ‘Baby Meena’. Over the next four years, she acted as a child artist in films likes Adhuri Kahani (1939), Pooja (1940), Nai Roshni, Bahen and Kasauti in 1941 and Garib (1942), all under the banner of Vijay Bhatt Productions. Next in line were Pratigya (1943) and Lal Haveli (1944).

The domestic situation was turning tense. There were frequent quarrels between her parents. She felt very neglected and started to sleep with stones as her companion and marked them ‘M’. On a query by a visitor, she seems to have said that she found them better company as they were in full harmony with her emotions and accepted her rebukes without retaliating. Financial security, thanks to the earnings from her acting career, did not bring any peace or happiness in the house. She had to live amidst turbulent atmosphere. Suddenly her mother passed away on 25th March 1947 rendering her lonelier, with a father who always neglected her since infancy. Kamal Amrohi was in search of a little girl for a role in the film Jailor produced by Sohrab Modi and called on her father Ali Bux to have a look at Munna. She came in his presence with ‘kela’ plastered around her lips. The first meeting between them was not fruitful in landing a role for Munna. She was an avid reader and used to carry books while on film shooting. Her school life got terminated due to frequent interruptions on acting commitments and she studied under a private tutor. She had a natural talent for writing Urdu poetry and became a noted writer afterwards. Her father was grooming her for greater roles to ensure a constant flow of lucre to sustain the family in comfort.

Throughout forties, she had a steady stream of films to exhibit her talent. In the film Bahen (1941), the 9-year-old Baby Meena joined Beena Kumari to sing this beautiful song.

1. Tore kajra lagaaun mori Rani by Baby Meena and Beena Kumari from Bahen (1941), lyrics Safdar Aah Sitapuri, music Anil Biswas .

She donned the role as a heroine in the film Bachhon Ka Khel (1946) under the name Meena Kumari at 14 years of age and got a good review from filmindia which predicted a bright future for her. Further films she acted in added to her lustre and steady rise. In the film Piya Ghar Aa Ja (1947), she sang six solos and two duets with Karan Dewan.

2.  Ankhiyaan taras rahin un bin by Meena Kumari from Piya Ghar Aa Ja (1947), lyrics Pandit Indra, music Bulo C. Rani

I am presenting a song from the film Bichhade Balam (1948) sung in her own voice.

3. Aata hai dil pe pyar kyon by Meena Kumari from Bichhade Balam (1948), lyrics Narendra Sharma, music Bulo C Rani

As a sweet sixteen Meena Kumari looks petite and alluring with youthful innocence.

She acted in a few mythological films, such as Veer Ghatotkach (1949), Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950), Lakshmi Narayan (1951) and then in the Arabian Nights fantasy Alauddin Aur Jaadui Chirag (1952), produced under the banner of Homi Wadia. It is said she received Rs. 10,000 for the last film and bought a second-hand Plymouth car. Here are a few songs from her mythological stream. The first three are from the film Veer Ghatotkach (1949).

4. Aao sakhi mangal gaao by Saroj and Shanti Sharma from Veer Ghatotkach (1949), lyrics Ramesh Joshi, music SN Tripathi

Meena Kumari is bedecked as an expectant bride. She looks very coy and shy.

5. Sandesh mera paake by Mohantara Talpade and Mohammad Rafi from Veer Ghatotkach (1949), lyrics Anjum Rehmani, music SN Triptahi

This is one of the earliest long-distance duets of separation with the lovelorn couple not in sight of each other. AK has brought out a post on such type of songs (My list of LDDS contains several songs of very early vintage, several years prior to 1949 – AK)

6. Kahan chali O Brij ki bala by Rohini Roy and Mohantara Talpade brom Veer Ghatotkach (1949), lyrics Moti, music SN Triptahi

A music opera on Radha and Krishna of Vrindavan. If you listen to the song you will see a trace of Mera piya gaye Rangoon of Patanga.

This song from the film Laxmi Narayan (1951) portrays her in a jubilant mode picking flowers from the garden.

7. Gayi birha ki raat aya hai naya prabhat by Geeta Dutt from Laxmi Narayan (1951), lyrics Ramesh Pandey, music SN Tripathi

Her mastery over pathos at such an young age is revealed from the following song from the same film.

8. Kaun bool mujhse hui…O bhool jaanewale by Geeta Dutt from Laxmi Narayan (1951), lyrics BD Mishra, music SN Tripathi

I will round off this genre with the following song from the film Shri Ganesh Mahima.

9. Sakhi ri mera mann nache mera tann naache by Geeta Dutt from Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950), lyrics Anjum Jaipuri, music SN Tripathi

Her career would now upsurge in 1952, annus mirabilis for her. Once again Vijay Bhatt was her godfather. He cast her in the role of Gauri, a village belle in the film Baiju Bawra, ignoring the criticism that a girl who was acting in mythological films would fail. His confidence in her was upheld by ‘The Lady’ by her splendid performance in her role as an entity prepared to sacrifice her life to ensure her hero Baiju emerged as a singer of repute. It was full of soulful and haunting songs composed by the redoubtable Naushad/Shakeel Badauni pair. Here is an example from the film, where she invites a bite from a venomous snake at the end of the song, Mohe bhool gaye saanwariya.

10. Jo main aisa jaanati….Mohe bhool gaye saanwariya by Lata Mangeshkar from Baiju Baawra (1952), lyrics Shakeel Badayuni, music Naushad

She began her journey into fame with a film which ended in a tragedy. Her out of the world performance got her the inaugural Filmfare Award for the Best Actress in 1953. In hindsight, we may conclude that fate had already mapped out her future life path of pathos.

In the role of Lalita, a poor orphan married secretly to her rich neighbour’s son portrayed by Ashok Kumar, her performance in Parineeta (1953) as a silent sufferer was superb. She demonstrated her inaugural 1953 Filmfare award was not merely a flash in the pan by again capturing it in the year 1954 for the second consecutive time, a feat not achieved by anyone thereafter till now. Parineeta had many great songs under the music direction of Arun Kumar Mukherjee and lyrics by Bharat Vyas. Mirror and reality embraced each other, i.e., in real life she was secretly married just then. Such twists were to be a regular occurrence in her subsequent life.

Coming back from her reel to real life, by 1950 she was 18 years old, a vivacious and literate lady with experience of more than ten years of film life, but frustrated with the living conditions in her home. Fate decided to intervene; alas, not in her best interest. It is said that she saw a picture of Kamal Amrohi in a magazine and started dreaming about him like Madhubhala in Mahal. Thereafter, there are some discrepancies with regard to chronology. It is stated that she saw Kamal Amrohi in the flesh after introduction by Ashok Kumar on the sets of the film Tamasha (1952), in which she was working. Impressed with ‘The Lady’, Kamal suggested the role of heroine for the film ‘Anarkali’ to be produced by Makhanlal. He rejected her, but after threats and persuasion by Kamal, agreed to her acting and a contract was signed on 13th May 1951. Kamal proceeded to Delhi to scout for locations. Meena Kumari’s family went to Mahabaleshwar to celebrate, but on the way back on 21st May 1951, the car with a tyre burst met with an accident. Meena Kumari was the worst affected. She convalesced in Sassoon Hospital, Pune for four months. Kamal reading about the accident from a paper rushed to the hospital to console her. Their mutual love flourished steadily as ‘Chandan’ (Kamal) and ‘Manju’ (Meena Kumari). Meena Kumari’s left hand was severely damaged and she had to live with a banded left pinky for the rest of her life and she concealed it effectively thereafter in her films. After return to Mumbai, it was billet doux and telephonic talks of love galore between them. She shared this with her sister Madhu and declared she will marry him only. She reflects it in a delightful manner in the film Ardhangini (1959) in the song Tera khat le ke sanam.

11. Tera khat le ke sanam by Lata Mangeshkar from Ardhangini (1959), lyrics Majrooh Sultanpuri, music Vasant Desai

The love affair could not be protracted further. The die was cast. A wedding conspiracy was hatched between the two and on 15th February 1952, Meena and her younger sister Madhu dropped her father late in the evening for his yogic exercises and rushed to the assigned locale where both of them were picked up by Baqar, Man Friday of Kamal Amrohi. The marriage was performed by the Kazi following Shiite tradition and, thereafter, Sunni tradition. No doubt it was a harum scarum act on her part. As planned, the affair was kept under wraps and Meena Kumari continued to live with her father. She wrote about Kamal after the marriage which had an element of presentiment.

Dil sa saathi jab paya
Bechaini bhi saath mili

In due course Ali Bux came to know of this, thanks to a maid informing him after eavesdropping on Meena’s tete-a-tete over phone with Kamal. An infuriated parent demanded immediate dissolution of the marriage, but for once Madam Meena stood firm with her commitment. Thereafter, an uneasy truce prevailed. The next crisis was in the offing. Kamal wanted Meena to act in his film Daaera. Ali Bux forced Meena to act in Mehboob Khan’s Amar. Meena went for shooting for 5 days and then declined. Despite father’s threat to bar her from the house if she attended the sets of Daaera, she did so. When she returned to the house in the evening of 14th August 1953, she was refused admittance. She straightaway proceeded to Kamal’s house and started living there from then onwards. Now Chandan and Manju started their married life openly. She did write to her father a passionate letter not to reject her. Daaera dealt with the frustrations and travails of a young girl married to a man much older than her and was a tragedy. It was a reflection of her own eventual real life. A film far ahead of its time, it ended as a damp squib despite Jamal Sen’s great musical score. Meantime, she was gushing happiness in the company of Kamal without realizing it was to be a short-lived one. Her aspirations to motherhood were snuffed out by Kamal allegedly on the ground of her being a Sunni Muslim.

After her path breaking role in Baiju Bawara, she acted in around 35 films during the rest of the 1950s. Some of the notable films were Aazad, Naya Andaaz, Mem Sahib, Miss Mary, Shararat, Sahara, Sharda and Yahudi. She exhibited great talent in portraying light roles as well as serious ones. She had just started on a path to acquire the sobriquet as ‘Tragedienne of Bollywood’ through films, such as Sahara, Sharda and Yahudi in which she played stellar roles. Her ability to play light roles with perfection, ‘joie de vivre’ can be gleaned from a few songs.

This duet from Azaad (1955) and the scene with thespian Dilip Kumar to keep her company shows how well she shines as a happy go lucky girl.

12. Kitna haseen hai mausam by Chitalkar and Lata Mangeshkar from Aazaad (1955), lyrics Rajendra Krishna, music C Ramchandra

Miss Mary (1956), an outright comedy from start to finish, was a roaring success and Meena Kumari played her role as a pseudo wife of Gemini Ganesan to perfection.

Equally at home in serious roles, this song from the film Sahara (1958) is a true example of what Indian womanhood is about, i.e. the bulwark of family, self-effacement and subservient to male interests.

13. Har dukhda sahnewali by Bela Mukherjee and Hemant Kumar from Sahara (1958), lyrics Bharat Vyas, music Hemant Kumar

She was at the crest of her career with still more peaks to conquer. Relations at home started to sour around 1960. Kamal with his monstrous ego and feudalistic ideas about how Meena should blindly obey his dictates was creating trouble. He did not have any significant film assignments as a writer or director. Meena continued to be a milch cow for him. This probably galled him. Meena, equally adamant and with a strong will of her own, was not so easily to be cowed down in pursuit of her acting career. She compromised with the harsh conditions he imposed like returning by evening daily in her own car alone and allowing none in the makeup room during shooting. Baqar was constantly watching her and she felt hemmed in. In the 1960s, she acted in 28 films and there was a sharp contrast with her 1950s films. Fewer of them were lighter ones and majority had type cast her as an actor who excelled in tragedies. In Kohinoor (1960), she played the role of a fun-loving princess to perfection in the company of Dilip Kumar and Naushad created wonderful songs. As a silent suffering nurse in love with the doctor (Raaj Kumar), she lifted the film Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi to epic heights. Her one perfect song in boat cruise, Ajeeb dastan hai ye will live forever in the minds of listeners.

14. Ajeeb daastan hai ye by Lata Mangeshkar from Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960), lyrics Shailendra, music Shankar Jaikishan

Her vexed domestic life made her insomniac and Dr. Saeed Timurza prescribed a peg of brandy at night to induce sleep. What started as a medication grew into addiction by and by as her misery overwhelmed her and had bad consequences. Her role as Chhoti Bahu in the Guru Dutt film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam catapulted her to great heights. When she portrayed her role as a lady addicted to drinks to win her dissolute husband’s affection, it was nothing more than a mirror of her actual condition in real life. She had the unique distinction of being nominated for Filmfare best actress award in 1962 for her role in three films, a feat never achieved by anyone so far, and took her third award for this film. I do not want to delve into too many films, to describe her kaleidoscopic skills of portrayal, whether it be grief or joy, which she brought into her roles. She acted as a composer of ghazals in the film Ghazal (1964). Listen to the song Naghma-o-sher ki saugat wherein Madan Mohan weaves his magic wand and creates a wonder to last forever.

15. Naghma-o-sher ki saugat kise pesh karun by Lata Mangeshkar from Ghazal (1964), lyrics Sahir Ludhiyanavi, music Madan Mohan

On 5th March 1964 at the muhurat of the film Pinjre Ke Panchi, she was probably conversing with the upcoming artist Gulzar for a long time. The ubiquitous Baqar forced himself inside when initially refused admittance. What transpired is not clear. It is alleged he slapped her and she in tears told him she would not return to the house and went to Mehmood’s residence. He was married to her sister Madhu at that time. A completely upset Kamal visited her late at night and urged her to return home. She refused to comply with it. The rift was now complete and they never lived together again.

We now enter into another grey area, i.e. her alleged divorce. Many sources mention that Kamal in a fit of frenzy, uttered the fatal words of ‘talaq’ and immediately regretted thereon. Meena, the poetess, is supposed to have told him as follows:

Talaaq de to rahe ho ghazab-o-qahar ke sath
Mera shabab bhi lauta do mere mehar ka saath

Actress Tabassum in her programme ‘Talkies” says Meena Kumari herself confessed to being divorced by Kamal. The YouTube link is given below.

Till date it continues to be one of the great unsolved mysteries of Bollywood. She had a habit of keeping diaries and her entire collection is with Khayyam and could contain the key to this.

Her life now was in total disarray. Drinking was her sole refuge and she started quaffing more and more. She shifted to her house – Janaki Kutir – and led a lonely existence amidst her shooting engagements. She was looking for new relations and in stepped a youth from Punjab looking for a career in acting – Dharmendra. They cottoned on to each other. Meena recommended him for roles and Purnima (1965) was their first film together. Kaajal (1965) with Raaj Kumar and Dharmendra as co-actors had a strong story line and her excellent portrayal as Madhavi garnered her a fourth Filmfare Award for best actress. Phool Aur Patthar (1966) with Dharmendra was a blockbuster. But, her drinking habit never wavered and her health and looks started to deteriorate. Crisis arrived in 1968 when she was flown to London first and then to Switzerland for rehabilitation. She returned to India with the advice that drinks were taboo. Dharmendra, now well established, abandoned her. She was shattered mentally and took to drinks again.

She was no longer the centre of attraction having lost her looks, and acted in character roles in Jawab, Dushman, Mere Apne. Gomti Ke Kinare was her last film.

Making of Pakeezah would be a post by itself. It was her magnum opus which was conceived in 1958 but completed in 1972 when she was in terminal illness. She saw its premiere with Kamal Amrohi at Maratha Mandir on 4th February 1972. It was released on 20th February 1972 and was poorly received by the public much to the consternation of the producer and financiers. After Meena Kumari’s demise, it got a new lease of life and became a huge hit. Thus, even in her death she refurbished the image of Kamal among cine goers.

A summary of her achievements is awe-inspiring and the Olympian heights she reached in all her endeavours in a film career spanning from 1939 to 1972 will remain unmatched in Bollywood.

No. of films acted                                                    –    94
Filmfare Award as Best Actress Won                 –     4
Filmfare award as Best Actress Nominated      –     8
Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Award    –     4
Sole nomination for Filmfare Best Actress from 3 films in 1962

Her liver, already damaged by liquor abuse, gave up on her and she was admitted to St. Elizabeth Nursing Home on 28th March 1972. She passed away due to liver cirrhosis at 3.25 pm on 31st March 1972. She was born in poverty in 1932 and departed in 1972 in the same status. She had left no resources to pay for the medical bill. As per Kamal’s wish she was buried at Rahemetabad Kabristan located at Narialwadi, Mazgaon, Mumbai.

She was an accomplished writer of Urdu poetry. Gulzar published a collection of her poems under the title Tanha Chand (Lonely Moon) in 1972 after her demise. Eight poems composed and sung by her under music direction of Khayyam were released as a disc in 1970 entitled ‘I Write, I Recite’. Please listen to one of them, Poochte ho to suno.  How much pain she must be suffering that even her tears have dried: Saans bharne ko to jeena nahi kahte ya rab/ Dil hi dukhta hai na ab aasteen tar hoti hai! This poem of hers sums up the tragedy that was Meena Kumari.

Poochate ho to suno kaise basar hoti hai
Raat khairat ki sadqe ki sahar hoti hai

Saans bharne ko to jeena nahin kahte ya rab
Dil hi dukhta hai na ab aasteen tar hoti hai

Jaise jaagi hui aankhon main chubhen kanch ke khwab
Raat is tarah diwanon ki basar hoti hai

Gham hi dushman hai mera gham hi ko dil dhoondata hai
Ek lamhe ki judai bhi agar hoti hai

Ek markaz ki talash ek bhatakti khushbu
Kabhi manzil kabhi tamhid-e-safar hoti hai

This post is my humble tribute to one of the greatest actresses of our films. I profusely thank ‘Virasat’ of Raj Sabha TV, Javed Akhtar’s talk on Meena Kumari and numerous other sources from the Internet for this brief sketch.

This post first appeared on Songs Of Yore - Old Hindi Film Songs, please read the originial post: here

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Meena Kumari: An enigma


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