The tragedy queen of Bollywood, Mahajabeen Ali Bux (Meena Kumari) was born on 1st August 1933. Meena was known for her epic emotional roles in various films and it is true that she had a mystical quality about her. It is also believed that the audience smiled when Madhubala smiled and they cried when Meena Kumari cried. With deep expressive eyes, a mystical smile and a unique voice, she could easily become anyone’s mother, sister, daughter or beloved. Let’s find out more about her.
Meena Kumari was born as Mahjabeen to all-rounder Ali Bux, who worked for the Parsi Theatre and his Hindu wife Iqbal Begum (Prabhavati Tagore), a stage artiste. Being born as their third daughter, her birth could not become the reason of joy for her poor parents. She was even abandoned for a few hours in a Muslim orphanage before remorse forced her father to bring her back.
As a kid, Meena loved to read and write but she was forced to visit studios and be the bread winner for her family and was stopped from going to school. She later fulfilled her craving by writing beautiful poetry after she became a star. Impressed with the 7-year-old Mahjabeen’s confidence, director Vijay Bhatt cast her in Leather Face (1939) as Baby Meena. She became heroine Meena Kumari with Bachchon Ka Khel (1946).
After a host of mythological and costume films, she bagged Vijay Bhatt’s unforgettable Baiju Bawra (1952) and became a star. Kamal Amrohi approached Meena Kumari for his version of ‘Anarkali’. It never got made but during filming they fell deeply in love. Her father was against it as it could end her career, besides Kamal Amrohi was already married and had children.
Meenaji in her poems wrote about Kamal Amrohi:
Dil Sa Jab Saathi Paaya,
Bechaini Bhi Woh Saath Le Aaya.
They married on 15 February 1952, even before the release of Baiju Bawra.
With Baiju Bawra the suffering Indian woman found a new face in Meena Kumari. Marriage proved lucky for her as she scaled new heights with unconventional roles in Parineeta (1953), Daera (1953), Ek Hi Rasta (1956) and Sharda (1957).
Releasing in the same year as Mother India, Sharda had Meena playing Raj Kapoor’s beloved who eventually becomes his step-mother. Her performance was at par with Nargis’ in Mother India. She proved her versatility in the light-hearted roles of Azaad, Miss Mary, Shararat & Kohinoor. Meena was keen for a film that would immortalize her. Hence Kamal Amrohi planned Pakeezah in 1958.
But soon there were tensions between the couple, largely because of their independent natures. They separated in 1960, divorcing later in 1964. Pakeezah, which was more than 50% complete, came to a standstill.
Meena during that time wrote:
Talaaq To De Rahe Ho Nazar-E-Qehar Ke Saath
Jawani Bhi Meri Lauta Do Mehar Ke Saath.
Aghaaz To Hota Hai
Anjaam Nahin Hota
Jab Meri Kahani Mein
Woh Naam Nahin Hota.
Meena rose up even stronger after this phase to became the pioneer of ‘The Woman’s Picture’ after Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayee (1960) and began to be cast in roles of an eternal martyr. In fact, she looked beautiful with tears. She enjoyed doing central roles and did not mind losing out on films with either of the Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand triumvirate.
She rose to unprecedented glory in 1962 with 3 superhits Aarti, Main Chup Rahungi & Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and was nominated for Filmfare’s Best Actress Award for all 3, a record of sorts. She won it for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam for the superb portrayal of ‘Choti Bahu’, which found an echo later in her real life. She assured her distributors with ‘1-good-Meena-Kumari-film’for the next 5 years – Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Chitralekha (1964), Kaajal (1965), Phool Aur Patthar (1966) & Bahu Begum (1967). She also recorded a disc of her Urdu poems - I Write I Recite set to music by Khayyam.
A German cinematographer had recommended a shot of brandy before dinner on being told about a pleurisy patch on her lungs. Within months Meena was hooked and later on, her loneliness increased her addiction to alcohol while the emotional gypsy within her craved to be understood and loved.
“Humsafar Koi Gar Mile Bhi Kahin
Dono Chalte Rahe Tanha Tanha
Chand Tanha Hai
Jalti Bujhti-si Roshni Ke Pare
Simta Simta-sa Ek Makan Tanha” wrote Meena during this phase.
Alcoholism destroyed her. She lost her looks and her liver was badly damaged. She had to be flown to London for treatment. With no hopes of recovering, she returned and started accepting strong character roles. At the insistence of Sunil Dutt and Nargis, both Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari patched up and decided to complete Pakeezah.
Pakeezah (1972) met with a lukewarm response initially but went on to become a super hit, just 3 weeks later, when Meena Kumari breathed her last, on 31st March 1972. Though she died penniless with no money to pay her hospital bills, Meena Kumari immortalized her swan song Pakeezah with her death.
Gomti Ke Kinare (1972), was her last released film while Tanha Chand, a collection of her poems under the pen-name Naaz, was compiled by Gulzar and published after her death. Her story was revisited by Sohrab Modi in Meena Kumari Ki Amar Kahani (1981).
She won various awards too for her tremendous performance.
Filmfare for Parineeta, Baiju Bawra, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Kaajal for Best Actress.