One of the biggest Bollywood stars of all time, Mahjabeen Bano was born into a poor family in the Indian city of Bombay (now Mumbai) on 1st August 1932. Her father, Ali Bakhsh, a Muslim who worked as an actor and musician, and her Hindu mother Iqbal Begum, a dancer, were already struggling to provide for their older daughters Khursheed and Madhu, and in desperation left the infant at outside an orphanage. They returned to collect her only hours later.
Ali Bakhsh pushed his youngest child to follow in his footsteps and go into acting, rather than pursuing her education. At the age of 7, she landed her first minor role in the 1939 swashbuckler Farzande Watan. Other successes followed, including Pooja (1940) and Bahen (1941). For the latter, the studio changed her name to ‘Baby Meena.’ Regular film appearances throughout the 1940s meant that Meena was able to financially support her entire family.
In 1952, by then using the full name Meena Kumari, she was cast as the lead actress in the renowned producer and director Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra. It was a massive hit with movie-goers across the country and propelled Meena into nationwide superstardom. Loosely based on a legend from the Mughal Empire, Bashu, a musician, seeks revenge upon the man who killed his father, but almost forgets his vow when he becomes enchanted by the beguiling Gauri, played by Meena. So powerful was her performance as the heartbroken Gauri who sacrifices herself so that Bashu might realise his ambitions, Meena received the moniker the ‘Tragedy Queen’ from her rapidly growing legion of fans, and won the first ever Filmfare Best Actress Award in 1954. On the other hand, her memorable portrayal of the anguished Gauri meant that Meena began to be typecast, largely being offered the parts of unfortunate and often victimised women in films like Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Bandish (1955).
Above: Meena Kumari in Baiju Bawra (1952) Continue reading