She made her debut in 1939 as Baby Meena in Vijay Bhatt’s Leather face and did many costume dramas like Veer Ghatotkach and Aladdin and his wonderful lamp in the late 1940s. It was a career leading to nowhere, until Vijay Bhatt cast her in Baiju Bawra (1952). As Gauri, the muse of musician Baiju willing to annihilate herself for his advancement, Meena Kumari broke into popular consciousness and won her first Filmfare award in the inaugural awards held in 1953. During the shooting of the song Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamuna ka dhaara, Meena Kumari escaped a major accident as she was rowing furiously, lost in her role and unaware of a major diversion that lay ahead in the river. Luckily, the boat hit a rock and a few spot boys leapt into the river to save her. The very next year, she played Lalita in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta and won the hearts of the audience and another Filmfare Award for Best Actress.
Meena Kumari with Ashok Kumar in Parineeta in the scene where Lalita exchanges a garland with Shekhar
Even before the release of Baiju Bawra, she had got married to the already married Kamal Amrohi and in 1953, she acted in his home production Daera. The film, which talked about the frustrations of a young woman wedded to an old man failed at the box office but established her talent once again. Through the decade, she did numerous comedies like Azaad, Miss Mary and Kohinoor, where she took on the might of Dilip Kumar and matched the comical timing of Kishore Kumar. In 1957, she starred opposite Raj Kapoor in Sharada, playing a woman who is forced to marry her lover’s father. Towards the late 1950s, Kamal Amrohi launched his most ambitious project about the life of a courtesan Pakeezah, with Meena playing the lead. The film was reshot many times, with every new technology that hit the market.
The decade of 1960s belonged to Meena Kumari. Every great actor has one film which defines his or her career and his image is preserved for posterity by that one role. Nargis had that role in Mother India, Madhubala had it in Mughal-e-azam and Meena Kumari’s film was Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam. She looked stunning in this film, with brilliant shots by V K Murthy, in an interplay of lights and shadows. The performance did not come from a rehearsed actor, but emanated from a suffering soul, which was looking for an utterance. As the alcoholic Choti Bahu trying desperately to win over her man, Meena Kumari delivered the performance of a lifetime, becoming the greatest ever tragedienne of Hindi cinema. In 1963, at the Filmfare awards, she created history by winning all the nominations in the Best Actress category for Aarti, Main Chup Rahoongi and Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam. She finally won the award for Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam.
Kamal Amrohi had a huge say in the choice of her films and she looked up to him in every respect. There is no doubt that Meena Kumari was in awe of her husband. But she also ended up foregoing some plum roles when things did not go well between Kamal and the filmmakers who were dying to cast her in their movies. In 1955, Bimal Roy wanted to cast her in the role of Paro in Devdas. But since Kamal had issues with Bimal da, Meena Kumari lost the role to the Bengali sesnsation Suchitra Sen. Similarly, she could not travel to Berlin for the screening of Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam due to reservations from her husband. There was also supposedly an increasing insecurity in Kamal owing to the popularity of his wife. People say Kamal Amrohi felt that some cronies were poisoning Meena’s ears against him and one day, she walked out of his home, without informing anyone and tried to make a picture out of the broken pieces that lay in her hand. Pakeezah was shelved (refer to the post on Pakeezah). One of her poems express the anguish of this separation….
Talaaq to de rahe ho nazar-e-qehar ke saath
Jawani bhi meri lauta do mujhe mehar ke saath
(You have divorced me with rage in your eyes,
Return my lost youth also along with the alimony)
Playing the lonely Choti Bahu in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam
A pose of seduction in her swansong Pakeezah
Meanwhile, she continued to take huge strides in her career. Meena famously played the temptress and philosophical Chitralekha in Kidar Sharma’s 1963 classic. In 1966, she won another Filmfare award for Kaajal.
But Meena Kumari soon was caught in an image trap. She seemed to gain some masochistic joy in the idea of tragedy. Dil ek mandir, Phool aur Patthar, Bahu Begum and Majhli Didi reinforced her histrionics. In all these movies, she played the central character and mostly ran the entire show on her shoulders.
Meanwhile, alcohol had taken a heavy toll on her health and she started playing character roles to sustain herself. She hopeless fell for the charms of Dharmendra and the relationship left her in a deeper pit. Towards the late 1960s, Nargis and Sunil Dutt, who watched the rushes of Pakeezah, asked Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi to forget their differences and complete the movie. Given her deteriorating health, Meena too knew that her days in the film industry were numbered. Pakeezah was re-launched, now in colour. Meena even took keen interest in the production and designed the costumes for the movie. But she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of liver and was unable to do some of the mujras in the movie. The team located a budding newcomer Padma Khanna to complete the songs Chalo Dildar Chalo and Teer-e-nazar dekhenge. Pakeezah, set in the background of a Nawabi culture in the last days of its glory, was in many ways, symbolic of her own life. Like the protagonist Sahibjaan, she was also seeking a final vindication in a world where she had been wronged time and again.
The movie was released in February 1972, and Meena was congratulated for her stupendous performance. Yet, things were not to last for long. She was admitted to a hospital and on March 31, she breathed her last. Even her death is mired in myths and no one knows how she spent her last moments. However, Pakeezah was declared a superhit and became a cult classic, perhaps, the finest courtesan film ever made. Theatres replayed Baiju Bawra and her fans flooded cinema halls across the country. Baiju’s Gauri seemed to live again. Her death was as dramatic as her life.
It has been four decades and yet, Meena Kumari’s voice, laden with coquetry and a hint of melancholy, refuses to fade out. In 1971, she did Mere Apne with Gulzar, for whom she had taken a liking. Encouraged by him, she even released an album of her songs under the pen name Naaz. Meena Kumari was a neighbour of Kaifi Azmi and often went to his place to get her poems corrected by him. Gulzar released her poems in the book titled Tanha Chaand.
Chaand tanha hai aasmaan tanha, dil mila hai kahaan kahaan tanha
Chup gayi aas, bujh gaya taara, thartharata raha dhuaan tanha
Zindagi kya isi ko kehte hai, jism tanha hai aur jaan tanha
Humsafar gar koi mile bhi kahin, dono chalte chale tanha tanha
Raah dekha karenge sadiyon tak, chod jayenge ye jahaan tanha
Literary critics might complain that her poetry has nothing to offer but pain and sorrow. Perhaps that is what she herself got. She was a lonely moon in the Bombay film industry.