'My Father Never Divorced my Choti Ammi Meena Kumari': Tajdar Amrohi on Meena Kumari
Today is legendary actress Meena Kumari's 85th birth anniversary. Her step son Tajdar Amrohi remembers the woman who gave us the immortal Pakeezah – the woman who took his mother's place in his dad's life
Tajdar Amrohi’s story of how he came close to his father, the monumental moviemaker Kamal Amrohi’s second wife Meena Kumari is stuff classic Hindi films are made of.
Tajdar Amrohi says, “Agar main na hota toh Pakeezah shayad ban nahi paati. A lot of people have taken credit for the film finally being completed. The truth is Choti Ammi loved me unconditionally and illimitably. She ironed out her differences with my father and completed the film because of her love for me. People may say I am indulging in self-glorification. But the truth is, Pakeezah would not have been completed were it not for me. There is a false belief that my father Kamal Amrohi had divorced my Choti Ammi, Meena Kumari. Please get this straight: THEY WERE NEVER DIVORCED. Did anyone see them getting divorced? This was just a rumour spread by his ill-wishers. They only lived apart when they had differences. These same ill-wishers have spread the rumour that Baba (dad) used to beat up Choti Ammi. Arrey, he was so kind-hearted he couldn’t hurt a fly. The only time he slapped me in my entire life was when I was rude to a cook in our family.”
Recalling his first meeting with his biological mother’s soutan Tajdar says, “Choti Ammi came to our native village Amroha (Uttar Pradesh) only once in her entire life. But when I left Amroha at age 6 to visit her I never returned to my village. That was the magnetism of my Choti Amma, Meena Kumari to the world. You won’t believe this. But my biological mother played a very big hand in introducing me to my Choti Ammi. She urged me to visit Mumbai and get close to Choti Ammi. She never resented my father’s second marriage. She said Dulhan wohi jo piya man bhaye. I was in Amroha and I had no clue about my father’s second marriage in Mumbai. I got to know about it from a film magazine. The magazine said my father was ill. My mother told me I must leave for Mumbai with my father’s brother. I left without protest. It was destiny. That visit introduced me to my mother’s soutan my beloved Choti Ammi. During the train journey of 48 hours I was petrified about meeting my stepmother. I didn’t eat during the train journey. I didn’t even step into the loo. I had heard stepmothers torture children. I had gone for just a few days to check out my mother’s home-breaker. It turned out to be a lifetime’s bonding with my Choti Ammi.”
Tajdar remembers every detail of his first meeting with the legendary actress. “I reached my father’s home in Mumbai with my uncle. I was led into the bedroom. In the bedroom 4 beautiful women dressed in pristine white were tending to my ailing father. (My father loved beauty. In Pakeezah you saw no ugly junior artistes).There was a woman sitting besides my father. I recognized her immediately. Back home in Amroha I had seen Meena Kumari secretly in a film called Chandni Chowk.I had gone to see the film to see who had stolen my father from my mother. Anyway, there I was standing close to her. She beckoned me on to the bed. I clambered on inch by inch. I couldn’t bring myself to open my eyes to look at her. When I was close to her she placed my head on her bosom and held my chin. She said, ‘Main hoon tumhari Choti Ammi’ . No one else suggested I call her that. She said it at that moment. And from that moment she became my beloved Choti Ammi.It was love at first sight.She left me speechless. I remember saying, ‘Choti Ammi, aap toh japani gudiya hain’.
Baba laughed.I fell in love with the woman who had usurped my mother.I had come to be with her for four days.But when I was ready to leave I went into her room where she had just emerged from her bath and was applying makeup.When I said I was leaving she stopped and stared at me, ‘What If I said I won’t let you go?’ I blurted out, ‘But what about my clothes, books, school?’ She burst out laughing and called my father who was in the other room, ‘Chandan—that’s what she called my father, and he called her Manju—please get our Tajdar’s books and clothes.’ I remember I was sitting on her lap. She turned to me and said, ‘Do you know Mumbai is a big city. There’re many big schools here.’ My father summoned his brother and said, ‘Bhai, I am keeping back Tajdar. Tell Tajdar’s Badi Ammi that she has two other children of ours. I’d like to keep one.’ Today when I look back I realize my father wanted me to stay back with him in Mumbai. But he wanted that invitation to come from Choti Ammi. I began staying with Baba and Choti Ammi and a special tutor was kept for me.”
Recollecting his golden moments with the mythical woman her stepson says, “She couldn’t sleep without me besides her to cuddle up. And she would have me snuggled to her with the fragrance of mogra flowers wafting across the room,while she read herself to sleep with Agatha Christie’s novels .She loved reading Agatha Christie. That’s where she learnt English. Mere masoom mohabbat ko seene pe rakh kar woh kitaab padhte-padhte so jaati thi.I don’t think those memories can ever be erased from my mind.Such was my love for Choti Ammi that as soon as I’d hear her car enter the building after shooting I’d run outside to greet her running falling stumbling down the steps. Then I’d put my little arms around her waist. And we’d both go up the stairs together. Baba was much relieved that we loved one another.Even when I went to boarding school in Dehra Doon Choti Ammi remained with me in spirit. Her letters and gift parcels of goodies kept me going away from home. Any request of mine would be fulfilled within a week.” Recalls Tajdar, “Even today I can’t forget a single detail of that moment when I first met Choti Ammi.Even when I am dying that moment will be with me. Let me state this without mincing words. If Choti Amma had not come under my father’s influence she would not have been the woman that she was.My father was both a faqir and a nawab. Choti Amma imbibed that combination of humility and royalty. Her famous dialogue delivery was taught to her by my father. There were no artistes in Choti Ammi’s paternal home.Unke baap-dada shayar nahin they.”
The proud son feels injustice has been done to his father’s memory. “It pains me to say this.Both the film industry and the government of India never gave him his due recognition.My father learnt to write from his mother’s womb.Iss aadmi ne likhna apni maa ki doodh peekar sikha. He never assisted anyone. At age 17 he wrote Pukar and became a big-name writer in Hindi cinema. It was his elder brother who was 18 years his senior who was instrumental in instiling discipline in my father who was very mischievous as a child.My father was a pioneer and a trendsetter. In Mahal he brought the suspense genre to Indian cinema.And if in Mahal my father had not given Lata Mangeshkar the song Aayega aanewala (in which her name was in the credits of the film) would the legend called Lata Mangeshkar have happened? Main unhein bahot izzat deta hoon. I call her Lata Baaji .She is is like my mother.The venus of Indian cinema Madhubala was given her legendary aura in my father’s Mahal. Do you know the studio Bombay Talkies which was on verge of bankruptcy who produced Mahal didn’t want to sign Madhubal? They wanted Suraiya who was a big heroine at that time. But my father insisted on Madhubala. And my father’s Daera was the first arthouse film of India even before Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali. But Bengal knows how to honour their artistes to the extent that they make gods out of them, as though no other artiste stands up to the Bengali stalwarts.And his last film as director Razia Sultan is the most talked-about flop in the history of Indian cinema. Even the most renowned poets who worked in my father’s film allowed him to change words and lines. They knew there were poets and writers, and then there was Kamal Amrohi.’
Speaking about Kamal Amrohi’s most celebrated film Pakeezah, Tajdar who witnessed the film’s making says, “Kya main nahin hota toh film poori ho paati? Unlike the other heroine-oriented classic Mother India, Pakeezah cannot be made again. And let me tell you something truly surprising. The third acknowledged classic of Indian cinema Mughal-e-Azam couldn’t have been possible without my father . He wrote 90 percent of the dialogues. Agar likhi nahin jaati toh Mughal-e-Azam banti kaise?...Pakeezah took 17 years to complete and not only because my father and Choti Amma had differences. This is the same film whose music today is considered perhaps the best ever in a Hindi film. And yet, during that time distributors insisted that the music of Pakeezah be changed. Baba refused arguing it would be injustice to the music composer Ghulam Mohamed who was dead.”
About the separation between Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari ,Tajdar reveals, “Choti Ammi’s ears had been poisoned against my father.I was in boarding school at Dehra Doon when they separated. I know the people responsible for their rift. But I don’t want to name them.Maybe some say after I die.She regretted the separation.The question was, how to patch up without losing face? Image was a big thing for the stars of yester-years. Choti Ammi was no exception.But I was very hurt by her departure. I left Mumbai to study in Pune. Once I was home in Mumbai for a vacation I was sitting in Baba’s office when there was a call from Choti Ammi’s stepsister, Shama saying Choti Amma was very ill and that she wanted to meet me. I refused to talk to Shama. I was very upset with Choti Ammi.. How dare she leave home without telling me?! She was angry with Baba, not me. What happened to our bonding? Later I got to know that all the reports of Baba beating her up, divorcing her were wrong. Anyway Baba urged me to go and see her.”
What followed was a mother-son reunion straight out of classic literature. “This was 1967.I went straight into Choti Ammi’s residence in Janki Kutir. The sight of her lying down ill on bed is etched in my mind for eternity.The way she looked at me...(here Tajdar breaks down)....Due to the illness her hair had thinned.She tried to get up, failed. I helped her up and embraced her .She broke into sobs. She took my face in both her hands and said, ‘Tum roothe ho mujhse?’ (Tajdar breaks down again).Then we together went upstairs to a large room from where the sea was visible. Then she rested my head on her lap.I told her I was upset. ‘Aap hoti kaun hai ghar chhodne wali?’ I asked her if she hated my father. She replied in the negative. Neither my father nor my mother ever spoke a word against one another.That evening she cursed all those who had poisoned her against my father.People said my father ill-treated her. But there was no truth to this. She loved her husband and home. People would see her having baasi roti and say she didn’t get food. Array Bhai, Choti Ammi loved baasi roti. What could anyone do about that? She loved mirchis and would gobble down many of them during one meal .No one refused her anything. About the years when she was away from my life I told her, ‘I used to be a good student. But because you were gone I became a mediocre student.’ It was almost as if she was my beloved. She was. One doesn’t only love one’s mashuqa . One can love one’s mother with the same intensity.She completely changed the definition of stepmothers. After our reconciliation she would visit me at my college in Pune. Instead of staying at a luxury hotel she’d stay in a humble hotel because it was close to my college.She’d chat with me from evening till morning feeding me with soups and juices.After one such visit I impulsively said, ‘I want to pick up you up in my hands and carry you home. That way your ego won’t be hurt.You can say you didn’t return home. Tajdar forced you home.’ She agreed to accompany me back home to Baba.She was wearing a long shapeless dress .We got into her car and drove to Baba’s home.But she didn’t go up to meet him.She declined saying she wasn’t dressed for the occasion and was also not well. ‘Agli baar,’ she promised. But it never happened.
Vested interests influenced her to not keep her promise to me. She left me standing at our home that evening after much crying .I still remember her peeping at me from the back seat of her car as she left. Then I went up to my father. It was 3 am.I told him Choti Ammi was here. I told him, ‘Baba she loves you...and Baba, please prepare to resume the shooting of Pakeezah.’ He asked, ‘Kya Manju ne kaha?’ I said, ‘Nahin yeh main keh raha hoon.’
The shooting of Pakeezah which has been stalled due to the differences between Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari was resumed, thanks to Tajdar’s intervention. Says Tajdar, “With due respects, music composer Khayyam and Sunil Dutt Saab had tried to persuade her to resume the shooting.The shooting resumed with the song Mausam hai aashiqana at Filmalaya studio with Choti Ammi in a lungi.She was seriously ill.At the premiere of Pakeezah at Maratha Mandir I remember holding her hugging her kissing her...Onlookers wondered who this 5 feet 11 inch tall admirer of the mythical Meena Kumari was. ‘Yeh kaun aashiq hai jo unke shauhar ke saamne mohabbat jataa raha hai?’ Throughout the 3 and a half hour film, Choti Ammi sat clutching Baba’s hand so hard that her nails sank into his skin. But not once did my father complain of the pain. Shayaad unhe pataa ttha woh haath jald hi hamesha ke liye chootne wali hai.”
Meena Kumari died soon after the release of Pakeezah.
Sighing and introspecting in a swirl of emotions Tajdar says, “People believe Pakeezah became a hit because Meena Kumari passed away. That’s false. Pakeezah was released on 4 February 1972. Choti Ammi died on 31 March 1972. The film was going full from Day 1.If the death of a leading man or leading lady can make a film successful then every producer would pray for such a thing to happen.” Says the proud son, “Baba passed away 21 years ago and Choti Ammi went 41 years ago. But they continue to live in people’s minds. I’d say Choti Ammi’s best most successful films came after she married Baba.Before marriage she worked in mythologicals. It was the advent of Kamal Amrohi in her life that brought on the best phase of her career.It is believed that Baba went and whisked Choti Ammi away from her home for marriage. Not so. It was Choti Ammi who came to Baba’s home. And let me tell you,they fell in love without meeting secretly. During those days lovers from the film industry met in dark corners of studios. Not my parents.Their love blossomed on the phone. His voice was magnetic that she fell in love with him. He never kept her in the dark about his first wife and three children.And do you know what was their main bone of contention? Not that my Baba took all her money. But that she never touched a penny of her earnings no matter how urgently he needed funds.He reminded her, ‘Mere paise tumhare paise hain, lekin tumhare paise mere nahin hain.’ He also made it it clear that he’d never be seen on the roads in her car , nor would she be seen commuting with any of her male co-stars.None of her co-stars was allowed in her makeup room and she had to be back home at 6 pm. Tell me, where these spousal demands unreasonable? People made her seem like a bird in a golden cage.Completely baseless. It wasn’t as if we never went out in the evening.Baba, Choti Ammi and I had fun times watching Hollywood films.While coming back she’d stop at the traffic lights, buy her favourite mogra flowers bring them home and place them all over our home. I can still smell the fragrance of those flowers.”