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Remembering Meena Kumari: A Star Confined Between A Successful Career & Tragic Life

Popular as the ‘tragedy queen’ of Hindi cinema for her poignant performances, Meena KumarI is still remembered for her extraordinary screen presence.

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Meena Kumari in a still from 'Pakeezah'.

NOT many Bollywood stars have the potential to create an unforgettable legacy. But Meena Kumari, a screen goddess like none other, belonged to the segment that could, not specifically for her era, but for decades to come. The powerhouse performer was a massively successful star of her generation who was loved by millions of fans. Yet her life was full of pain and heartbreaks.

Amidst the news reports confirming that Meena Kumari’s biopic will be directed by fashion designer Manish Malhotra, with Kriti Sanon as the protagonist, we tell you how the timeless beauty rose to fame in Bollywood by creating magic on screen, battled several struggles, misfortunes and challenges, and built an iconic identity that still remains unrivaled.

A Child Artist Who Financially Supported Her Family

Lauded for being an incomparable actress, Meena Kumari was born as Mahajabeen Bano on August 1, 1933. She kicked off her film career as a child artist (at the age of 4) in the 1939 film Leather Face, which was also known as Farzand-e-Watan. As a child artist, who suddenly emerged as the breadwinner of the family, Meena had no access to formal education, but supporting her family gave her immense satisfaction. In an interview given in 1962, Meena explained that she was admitted into a regular school, but because of her work, she couldn’t attend school in any meaningful sense. Some of the other films, Meena was featured in included Adhuri Kahani (1939), Pooja (1940) and Ek Hi Bhool (1940). Bhatt rechristened Mahjabeen as “Baby Meena” during the filming of Ek Hi Bhool (1940).

Stellar Acts Bore Testament To Her Talent

With Baiju Bawra (1952), Meena bagged her first big success at the box office. The film revolved around two musicians played by Bharat Bhushan and Surendra, and featured Meena as Baiju’s devoted love interest. The actress also won her first-ever Filmfare Best Actress award for her impeccable performance.

Parineeta (1953), still remembered as the best version of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Parineeta, helped Meena bag her second Filmfare Best Actress award for her flawless performance as Lalitha.

Meena’s performance in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is also is considered one of her best. The musical drama featured her in a role of an upper-class woman descending into alcoholism.

If Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960) featured Meena playing the role of a nurse who doesn’t get married to her lover, Kaajal (1965) saw her as a heartbroken woman who marries a man with an agenda. She bagged several awards for her performance in the multi-layered drama Kaajal.

But nothing can be pitted against Pakeezah (1972). Featuring Raaj Kumar and Ashok Kumar, Pakeezah is referred to as Meena’s career-defining film. The movie was considered a masterpiece as it featured Meena in dual roles of a courtesan and her daughter. It went on the floors in 1956 and took about 16 years to make it to the big screen. Released on 4 February 1972, the actress posthumously received the Filmfare Best Actress award.

Some of her other iconic roles included Azaad, Mere Apne, Dil Ek Mandir and Chitralekha.  

Personal Life No Less Dramatic Than Her Roles

One of the biggest controversies of Meena’s life and career was her marriage with film director and screenwriter, Kamal Amrohi. This was Amrohi’s second marriage. The couple got married in 1952 (post Baiju Bawra release) and parted ways in 1964.

According to film critics, the couple’s separation resulted in Meena’s addiction to alcohol. According to Meena’s step-son, Tajdar Amrohi, who is also a popular producer and director, it was “false belief” spread by “ill-wishers” that Kamal uttered the words ‘talaq talaq talaq’. In an interview, Tajdar said the couple “only lived apart when they had differences.”

In the same interview, Tajdar recalled how he met his “Chhoti Ammi”. “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,” he said in an interview with National Herald.

“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 Chhoti Ammi’. No one else suggested I call her that. She said it at that moment. And from that moment she became my beloved Chhoti Ammi,” Tajdar said.

Unlucky In Love?

According to reports, a young Dharmendra, who was trying very hard to establish himself in the Hindi film industry, used Meena Humari to bag film offers.

The actors had first met for the first time in Hrishikesh Mukherji directed Purnima and worked together in several projects like Kaajal, Chandan Ka Palna, Majhli Didi, Main Bhi Ladki Hoon, Baharon Ki Manzil and Phool Aur Patthar. But the rise in Dharmendra’s popularity and Meena’s deteriorating health was the reason why the former distanced himself from the actress. Amidst the troubled times, Meena was even linked to Gulzar.

Also A Tragedy Queen In Her Poems

When Meena wasn’t busy with her films, she would write Urdu poetry under the pen name Naaz. Meena had given her diaries to her friend, lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar. After her demise, Gulzar asked Hind Pocket Books to publish her poems. Meena Kumari Ki Shayri was massively popular in India and Pakistan.

After a few months of her demise in 1972, journalist Vinod Mehta published his biography Meena Kumari. He had referred to her poetry as sad and morbid. “Her poetry is sad, joyless, pessimistic, morbid – but then what do you expect from a woman of the temperament of Meena Kumari?” Mehta wrote. He referred to Meena as an amateur poet whose poems channeled her uneasy marriage, link-ups with younger men and her addiction to alcoholism, which led to her death.

Died A Lonely Death

Meena Kumari, who was clearly bigger and impactful than many male stars that were cast opposite her, continued her critical and commercial run after her separation with husband Kamal Amrohi.

She breathed her last on March 31, 1972 just three weeks after the release of Pakeezah because she was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. Despite bad health condition, the star shot the film. It’s also said that there was no money to pay her hospital bills.

A woman who won millions of hearts with her grace, beauty and voice, passed away in poverty and loneliness. Popular song Pakeezah, Chalte chalte yuhin koi mil gaya tha immortalized the star after death.

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