It has been more than 40 years since the great tragedienne Meena Kumari passed away. While alive, she provided fodder for umpteen rumour mills with her siren like charm and her dramatic death, soon after the release of her swansong Pakeezah, left most questions related to her life unanswered.
Vinod Mehta, in his inchoate days as a journalist, wrote this biography of Meena Kumari, almost immediately after her death. The publisher obviously wanted to capitalise on the grief that moviegoers were still reeling under after losing their favourite heroine. He never met his subject and feels that this has lent some degree of detachment in his writing. But in a span of just a few months, Mehta met as many people as possible to gather a picture of Meena Kumari – her siblings, husband Kamal Amrohi, contemporaries like Nargis Dutt, film journalists, personal physicians, make-up artistes and anyone who had a word to say about his heroine, as he calls her throughout the book. A notable exception in this list is Dharmendra, who refused the author an interview for this book.
Mehta begins the story with Meena Kumari’s death and the perfunctory reactions from the film industry fellows to her death, which Mehta dismisses as ritual hypocrisy. He finds the reactions of his domestic help and driver more credible, as these were the people who went multiple times to the theaters to make her films a blockbuster. The chapters that follow are devoted to her birth, rise in the industry, her fall after her split from Kamal Amrohi, the making of Pakeezah and her death. There are three more chapters, where the writer tells how he conducted his research and critically examines Meena Kumari, the actress and the woman.
Mehta devotes an entire chapter to the making of Pakeezah, as Meena Kumari saw it as the most important film of her life, which was made over a span of 15 years. As a taxi driver Mehta met put it, “First Meena Kumari made this film with her money. Then with her death.” A problem with a book of this kind is that there are two or three generations of readers, who have never been to a cinema hall to watch a Meena Kumari film and many might have seen hardly a film or two on television. This book was initially released when Pakeezah was still going strong in the theaters and audience was flocking to see reruns of her first blockbuster Baiju Bawra. He also spends considerable time describing the making of Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam.
But there is not a single synopsis for the young readers to familiarise them about the plot lines of films, though he describes scenes from these movies while relating anecdotes. Even with such an elaboration on Pakeezah, there is no mention of the fact that Padma Khanna was Meena’s body double in some of the song sequences or that Meena Kumari revealed another aspect of her talent by designing the costumes for this film! There is nothing new from what Mehta had written in 1972, except for a brief introduction.
Another problem is with the division of chapters. How can you talk about her stupendous performances and write about the mental agony that Meena Kumari, the method actress faced while portraying these tragic roles in a separate chapter? Meena Kumari’s fall in her personal life cannot be disassociated with discussions on Meena Kumari, the masochistic woman. He feels apprehensive of Gulzar (in 1972), to whom Meena Kumari had bequeathed her personal diaries, as he sees in him a competitor, who can write another and perhaps more credible Meena Kumari biography. To this date, Gulzar has not revealed the contents of the diary, save a few poems, which were published later in a magazine. Mehta even confidently declares that the Filmfare award for Best Actress and Best Music in 1973 would go posthumously to Meena Kumari and Pakeezah’s music director Ghulam Mohammed. Both these predictions fell flat.
Mehta writes that even the mighty Dilip Kumar felt uneasy when he had to act opposite Meena Kumari. Yet, there aren’t many inputs from Dilip Kumar to give us an idea of what it was to share the screen with her. Nargis shared with the writer a few personal anecdotes. But what did she think of Meena as a contemporary actress, we do not get to know. Meena Kumari spent considerable time with Kaifi Azmi to get her poems evaluated by him. While there is no mention of this fact in the book, no input from Kaifi Azmi is there to evaluate Meena, the poetess. The absence of Dharmendra’s inputs also leaves a void in the narration.
While there are ample comparisons between the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Meena Kumari in the book, there is another comparison in the Indian context, which most people are not aware about. Meena Kumari’s life is very surprisingly similar to that of Tamil thespian Savithri. Both were powerhouse performers, both of them could give goosebumps to their male co-stars, both settled for already married men and were left longing for love all their lives and both died of excessive drinking. Besides, Meena Kumari displayed her humorous side in LV Prasad’s Miss Mary (1957). This was a remake of the Tamil superhit Missiamma, where Savithri had done the same role.
However, this book will be treasured by Hindi cinema enthusiasts, for it gives rare insights into the thinking and state of mind of the legend at various points in her life. Present day artistes can find inspiring stories about her acting methodology and professional commitment. Even when she was in the jaws of death, she made sure all her pending projects were completed. Mehta relates anecdotes about her miraculous ability to transform herself completely once the camera was on and leave her physical illnesses aside. Most of those who were contacted for this biography are not there anymore and hence these interviews are of immense value. Besides, this came at a time, when biographies were not a well developed concept in the Indian literary market. The best thing about the book is that this does not deify Meena Kumari and instead, humanises her. While popular versions of her story hold Kamal Amrohi responsible for the mess in her life, Mehta gives his readers a well-told version from Amrohi’s point of view as well.
But all these inputs just end up being a bundle of “watertight stories” which are all contrarian. As Mehta himself puts it, every event in her life has at least four versions and there is hardly any event in her life, which can be called ‘undisputed’. In a scene in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, where the character of Choti Bahu is introduced to the viewers, Guru Dutt’s character looks at her in amazement, unable to decipher her thoughts. Perhaps, no biographer can ever unravel her enigma.
A shorter version of this review appeared in The Times of India