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)
Meeting on a film-set, Meena wed the screenwriter and director Kamal Amrohi on Valentine’s Day in 1952. Despite her lack of formal education, Meena was exceptionally well read and also wrote poetry, seeing it as a way of expressing herself that acting could not provide. Soon after her romance with Amrohi began, she captured her feelings for him with the following lines, which roughly translated from Urdu as,
‘When I found a partner like my heart,
Discontent was also found with him.’
A year after they married, Amrohi wrote, directed and produced Daera starring his new wife as woman married to an older man, left pining for her youthful true love. Amrohi was fourteen years Meena’s senior and had already been married twice, with two sons and a daughter from his second marriage; he told Meena early on that they were not to have children, because although Meena was a Muslim like her husband, he believed she was not a Sayyid, a direct descent of their faith’s Prophet Muhammad. However, Amrohi’s son Taajdaar, who lived with them and became incredibly close to his step-mother, has refuted this, suggesting that it was Meena who was against having children as she felt it might harm her career.
To begin with, the marriage was a happy one, and they began working on another film together, Pakeezah in 1956. But Meena’s glittering success with cinematic sensations such as Halaku (1956), Miss Mary (1957), Sahara (1958) Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), became a source of discord, along with rumoured infidelity on both sides. As her relationship with Amrohi suffered, Meena turned to drink, with brandy being her preferred tipple after she was initially prescribed it by a doctor to help her sleep. Pakeezah was left incomplete and they separated in 1960, leading Meena to write in a poem,
‘You are divorcing me with rage in your eyes,
Return to me, also, my youth along with the alimony!’
Struggling to cope, Meena became a full-blown alcoholic; yet she never permitted her addiction to affect the total professionalism with which she conducted herself on set, and she was nominated for Filmfare awards for Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Kaajal (1965), and Phool Aur Patthar (1966). Nevertheless, a string of disastrous affairs with co-stars, notably the dashing Dharmendra, with whom she was hopelessly infatuated, resulted in a series of celluloid failures, and saw her drinking problem spiral even further out of control. In 1968, Meena was diagnosed with liver damage; she subsequently booked herself into a rehabilitation clinic in Switzerland, but her demons sadly overwhelmed her. Alcohol started to rob Meena of her once stunning beauty and the leading lady roles dried up; instead she was offered character parts, which she accepted as she was heavily in debt.
In 1969 the actor and producer Sunil Dutt and his wife, the actress Nargis stumbled across some old reels of Pakeezah, and were so impressed that they got in touch with Amrohi and Meena in an attempt to persuade them to finish it. Dutt revealed that when Meena and her estranged spouse were reunited, ‘Not much was said, but streams of tears were shed…Amrohi greeted her with a token payment of a gold guinea and the promise that he’d make her look as beautiful as the day she had started the film.’ Her precarious health notwithstanding, Meena agreed and shooting re-commenced, taking only six weeks to complete.
Above: Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (1972)
Pakeezah meaning ‘Pure’ in Urdu, told the story of a dancer and singer who maintained her innocence in spite of her upbringing in a brothel. It was released on 4th February 1972 and was deemed a flop by critics. A matter of weeks later, Meena’s condition worsened considerably and she was admitted to hospital, where she died from cirrhosis of the liver on 31st March 1972. Giving an elegy at her funeral, Kamal Amrohi, who had never stopped loving Meena said, ‘Once people took away my Manju after naming her Meena Kumari. Now this cruel death has snatched her away from everybody. But I know that she isn’t dead, she’s sleeping in my heart in an immortal sleep.’ She was buried at Rahmatabad Cemetery in Bombay and Amrohi was buried next to her after his own death on 11th February 1993.
The shocking demise of its star revived interest in Pakeezah. It went on to become a huge draw for audiences and many critics who had previously reviewed it harshly reneged, claiming instead that it was Meena’s greatest triumph. Soon after she died, the writer Vinod Mehta, an admirer of her’s since his childhood, published Meena Kumar: The Classic Biography, the first candid account of her life. Collections of her poems were published in Urdu during the 1970s, and in 2014, a volume was translated into English by the academic Noorul Hassan, entitled Meena Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema. Though the ‘Tragedy Queen,’ lived a life marred by sorrow, at the same time she embraced it, as her poem Puchte ho to suno kaise basar hoti hai conceded, ‘Sorrow is my villain but my heart hunts for sorrow if there is a separation from sorrow for even a minute.’
Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography – Vinod Mehta (1972)