Meena Kumari: Profile of a Tragedy Queen

Meena Kumari: Profile of a Tragedy Queen

March 31 was the 48th death anniversary of Meena Kumari. Sadiq Saleem writes about the off screen tragic life of the screen idol

Master Ali Bukhsh, desiring a son, put away the new born girl on August 1, 1932, the day she was born, in an orphanage till his wife cried to bring the child back home. This baby was named Mah Jabeen by her mother due to her forehead resembling a moon. That girl who was abandoned at birth by her father, soon became the meal ticket for the entire family as Meena Kumari.

The public first fell in love with Meena in Vija Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra (’52). She moved from strength to professional strength with Parineeta (’53), Ek hi Rasta (’56) and a tour de force performance as Raj Kapoor’s lover who becomes his step mother in Sharda (’57). However, the 60’s marked a new phase beginning with Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (’60). Now the star did only sedate roles, earning for herself the unchallenged mantle of “Tragedy Queen”.

She once said in her interview that ‘… Like a cub tasting blood, I have tasted fame and popularity and I have liked it’. This was 1960. She was riding high on the success of her films. She also created history by being the only Filmfare nominee for three of her super hit films in 1962. A director once said about her that ‘If she is matched with men who cannot dominate, Meena will swallow them with half a glass of water’. That was her on-screen impact. But life wasn’t well at the homefront. Her filmmaker husband, Kamal Amrohi, couldn’t stand with his wife’s rising popularity and started mistreating her. He bristled with anger when a famous director, Mehboob Khab had introduced him to the Government of Maharashtra as ‘Meena Kumari’s Husband’ and their long-imminent split took place in 1964; while they were working on Amrohi’s dazzling swan song Pakeezah.

Meena Kumari was always something of an emotional gypsy. She increasingly relied on the kindness offered by a line of intimate strangers from Dharmendra to Gulzar, dulling the senses with a bottle of brandy. She had always been clever at cultivating an image- after an early accident had damaged the little finger of her left hand; she conspicuously hid it on screen, turning it into a two-decade long game of “can you spot it?” She was widely seen as the eternal martyr. Even if their icon did something detrimental like drinking excessively, the adoring public was quick to excuse it as her way of medicating the pain of unmet needs.

Not many know that besides her performances that are regarded as the peaks of histrionics in Indian Cinema, she also left behind ‘Tanha Chand’ a disc of her recorded poems under the pseudonym ‘Naaz’.

She briefly reconciled with her husband to give the last touches to the film. Even 17 years in the making could not ravage Pakeezah’s poetry. Within weeks of its release, Meena’s death wish lay fulfilled. Her earnings having been drained by relatives, it was left to her doctor to pay the medical bills ! She was not even forty when she passed away.

In the words of the critic Areefa Banu, Meena Kumari was ‘an object of fantasy and a motif of melancholy’. The world has made much of Meena Kumari’s pain-lashed image and indeed, has anybody else ever looked so beautiful with tears in her eyes?

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