Remembering the iconic actress who died on this day 47 years ago. My birthday today, March 31, coincides with Meena Kumari’s 47th death anniversary. Immortalised as the Tragedy Queen of Hindi cinema, Meena Kumari died at the all-too-young age of 39. Back in 1972, I was watching a film at Minerva cinema when her demise was announced through a white title card flashed in the midst of the screening. I was still a teenager and had seen only a few of her films then; but, as I matured, I watched more of her incredible oeuvre and became forever entranced by the tears in her beautiful eyes and the music in her voice.
Meena Kumari had an incredibly successful career spanning 20 years between her first superhit, Baiju Bawra in 1952, and her legendary swansong Pakeezah in 1972. In an era crowded with classic heroines that included talents of the calibre of Nargis, Nutan, Vyjayanthimala and Madhubala, she bagged both of the first two Filmfare Best Actress awards ever announced … for Baiju Bawra and Parineeta (1953) over two successive years. Subsequently, she took home the trophy again for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) and Kaajal (1965).
I regret not meeting Meena Kumari, though I have a faint recollection of her being in the same elevator of my building in Worli when I was in my teens. By the time I realised she was ‘the’ Meena Kumari, we had reached the ground floor and she had quickly walked away to a waiting car with a driver in attendance and was gone.
But I have pieced together Meena Kumari from the various interviews of her close associates that we did for a special 24-pages segment on her under my editorship in Movie magazine in 1997 and during the course of interviewing her co-actors while I was co-authoring (with Jitendra Kothari) the screenplay book of her classic film, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
Rekha remembers Meena Kumari as an impassioned shaayra. Rekha was just a 17-year-old youngster who had made her debut with Sawan Bhadon (1970) when she began her association with the senior star. Rekha had told me: “I first met Meena Kumari in 1971. With Yogeeta Bali in tow, I would drop in often at her residence at the sea-facing Landmark building in Bandra. Once she told me, ‘Yogeeta Bali bahut meethi hai aur tum bahut namkeen.’ Meenaji was already bed-ridden by then. I remember her room very clearly. It was furnished with wooden pieces — a coffee table, a bed, a dining table — all in off white. Behind was a collection of stones and sea shells and there was also an album filled with dried leaves collected from various locations.”
Rekha says she often saw Meena Kumari scribbling into a little diary. “She would recite this high-funda Urdu poetry,” says Rekha, admitting that it would go over her young head. But subconsciously the junior actress did get influenced. She sighs, “Her words, ‘There is no friend like your shaayri’ still echo in my head.’ As an actress, Meena Kumari was fabulous because you connected with her onscreen.”
Contrary to her tragic image, Meena Kumari successfully carried off light roles with comic insouciance in Fifties films such as Azaad and Miss Mary. She had command over her craft. Her husband, renowned filmmaker Kamal Amrohi, has revealed that Meena Kumari would never get startled… If anyone shouted, she would only slowly turn her head. Perhaps this explains the control she exercised over her actions and emotions onscreen.
In the Sixties, Meena Kumari became identified with tragic roles. She separated from her husband, and as a result Amrohi’s ambitious directorial venture Pakeezah was put on indefinite hold. But good friends like Sunil Dutt intervened and the couple resumed work. By the end of the Sixties, Meena Kumari’s liver had begun to fail. She went abroad for treatment but to no avail. She completed the dubbing of Pakeezah with great difficulty. In this magnum opus, Meena skilfully played a courtesan craving love and respectability. It was the crowning glory of her career. But within weeks of its release, Meena Kumari was no more.
Late actress Nadira had spent months together with Meena Kumari for the shooting of Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai and Pakeezah. A close friend of mine, Nadira would get emotional whenever she spoke of Meena’s death even years later. She told me, “When Meena died in St Elizabeth Hospital it was my first experience with the death of a close industry friend. With a countless number of tubes inside her — oedema had already set in — she suddenly got up and snatched them and threw them out of her. Gave up. I collapsed. She was a dream, a fairy tale. And left like one. If I were to describe her in one word, it would be Afsana Pasand.”