Pure: Meena Kumari’s Sorrow

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

Sunsets: The Strings Of Manolis Hiotis

Born on 21st March 1921 (some sources claim 1920) in Thessaloniki, a port on the Thermaikos Gulf of the Aegean Sea and Greece’s second largest city, the speed at which he mastered the guitar and violin left his parents in no doubt that Manolis Hiotis was a musical prodigy. Wealthy restaurateurs, they encouraged their son’s exceptional talent, and paid for him to leave home at the age of 14, to study music in Athens. In 1936, Hiotis met the folk singer Stratos Pagioumtzis, one of the country’s biggest stars thanks to his fashionable Rembetiko style and remarkable voice. Pagioumtzis hired the teenager to play the bouzouki, an instrument that had been popularized by the influx of immigrants from Turkey during the late nineteenth century. It was the main instrument in Rembetiko, and Hiotis discovered that he was a true virtuoso.

A year later, Hiotis recorded his first song, το χρήμα δεν το λογαριάζω (The Money Does Not Count) and it proved to be a hit. Influenced by Rembetiko, which was often considered a somewhat lowbrow form of entertainment, Hiotis pioneered his own, more refined version of the original genre, which came to be known as Archontorebetiko.

Above: Manolis Hiotis – το χρήμα δεν το λογαριάζω (The Money Does Not Count) (1938)

A string of successes ensued for Hiotis, as a soloist and when working with fellow artists, such as the singer Apostolos Nikolaidis, and composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis. Continue reading

Le Grand Jeu: René Daumal’s Peradams

Like his literary hero the poet Arthur Rimbaud, René Daumal was a native of the Champagne-Ardenne region of north-eastern France. His brilliance and tragically early demise, were also shared by his predecessor. In the seventy years since his death, Daumal has become a cult figure, with his influence evident in the works of other ideologists and truth seekers, notably the legendary Chilean film maker and guru, Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Hailed as ‘a hallucinogenic daydream’ by The New York Times, the underlying cinematic inference of Jodorowsky’s psychotropic creation, The Holy Mountain (1973), is in fact far more numinous and esoteric than such a description implies. The film can be viewed as an extension of Daumal’s remarkable vision, for as the French writer and poet believed, and Jodorowsky himself has suggested, the irrefutable reality of human existence is that, ‘Every one of us lives in a different world, with different space and different time.’

Above: Trailer for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973)

Born on 16th March 1908, in the village of Boulzicourt, Daumal’s childhood was an unsettled one, given his parents’ propensity to routinely uproot the family. The most stable figure for the young boy was his paternal grandfather Antoine, a bee keeper whose interests included freemasonry and spirituality.

Moving to Reims in 1921, Daumal befriended a group of fellow students, and their shared bond would provide each of them with an enduring source of personal and professional inspiration. Originally known as the Phrères Simplistes, Daumal along with Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Roger Vailland and Robert Meyrat would go on to form the collective, Le Grand Jeu. Continue reading

More Than A Woman: The Ascension Of Aaliyah

Aaliyah Dana Haughton was born in Brooklyn on 16th January 1979. Of both Hebrew and Arabic origin, her name literally translated as ‘highest, most exalted one,’ or ‘to ascend’ and its meaning was a source of motivation and inspiration for Aaliyah throughout her life. With a mother who had forfeited her dreams of becoming a singer for her family, and as the niece by marriage, of soul legend Gladys Knight, Aaliyah had a natural proclivity for music as well as important industry connections. Encouraged by her parents, Aaliyah was given singing lessons from an early age, even before the Haughtons moved from Brooklyn to Detroit when she was 5.

Still only 9 years old, Aaliyah and her extraordinary voice were unleashed upon the American public with her appearance on Star Search, where she gave her own unique rendition of the 1937 Rodgers and Hart standard, My Funny Valentine. She failed to win on the show, but it granted Aaliyah national exposure, and further cemented her determination to become an entertainer. Gladys Knight’s then husband, Aaliyah’s uncle Barry Hankerson, agreed to manage her and in 1991, she performed a week long stint with her famous aunt in Las Vegas, closing with a duet of Believe in Yourself, originally sung by Diana Ross in the 1978 film The Wiz.

Above: Aaliyah on Star Search (1989)

Hankerson founded Blackground Records in 1993, with Aaliyah as the label’s principal artist. At the same time, Hankerson started managing R. Kelly, a singer and songwriter from Chicago who had won the television talent contest Big Break in 1989. R. Kelly had put out his first album, Born Into The 90s (as R. Kelly & Public Announcement) in 1992, and several hits ensued, including She’s Got That Vibe, Honey Love and Dedicated. Continue reading