The life and works of Bollywood’s original Tragedy Queen, Meena Kumari


You might have come across a phrase much popular these days, ‘the Meena Kumari complex’; it is used to define someone with a sad story. That’s something to think about, did the legendary actress Meena Kumari live a sad life? Wasn’t happy or loved? Was she the ‘hero’ in a Man’s World? Or just another mythologised vulnerable woman defeated in love? Well, it’s too late to know now but on the occasion of her 85th birth anniversary, we can at least remember her for the great time she’s had and the loneliness she been through.

Meena Kumar was also a poet under the pseudonym “Naaz”

Meena Kumari lived a glamorous life with all the comforts of the world but she also had a roller coaster life with every possible ups and down. Thanks to Vinod Mehta’s adoring Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography, the late journalist-columnist has revealed much about her as “my heroine”. Born in a Sunni Muslim family of Master Ali Bux, Meena's mother Iqbal Begum was originally a Bengali Christian but later converted to Islam.

Going by the popular Bollywood legend, Meena's father left her at an orphanage as a child. However, he did return after some time and went numb when he found ants crawling all over Baby Meena's body. Analysing this horrific incident, Mehta observed, “I believe that moment remained in her subconscious mind. Here was a traumatized soul. She could not have been a happy person. Life had decided that she will suffer. She was fortunate that this unhappiness was appreciated in her roles. She understood this emotion so well.”

Meena had her acting debut at the tender age of four. Her presence on stage and on-screen was regarded as “historically incomparable” actress of Hindi cinema by Indian film critics. In a thirty-three year long career, Meena starred in 92 films including some of the most iconic movies, Pakeezah, Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Foot Path, Dil Ek Mandir and Kaajal.

Irrespective of the grand success and fame, there was still something not right in Meena's life. She died a tragic death at the young age of 38. She passed away just weeks after the release of Pakeezah (1972)- arguably her most-loved film. Even today, Meena Kumari brings many emotions- melodrama, tragedy, pain, loneliness, alcoholic movie star but she still evokes the image of a quintessential Indian woman as well.

Bollywood’s original Tragedy Queen has been nominated for the prestigious Filmfare awards 12 times and has won four awards in the Best Actress Category. She made history at the 10th Filmfare (1963), by receiving all of the nominations for Best Actress and won for her performance in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

She secretly got married to filmmaker Kamal Amrohi in 1952, in a simple Niqah ceremony. What started as a lovely whirlwind, ended dreadfully. They never had children of their own, though Meena willingly and happily accepted Kamal's children from an earlier marriage. After the wedding, Meena was allowed to continue her acting career but Kamal surely had some conditions; including she should not remit anyone in her makeup room but her makeup artist and return home in her own car by 6:30 every evening. Meena agreed to all but as time went by, she even broke them. One can't really say what had happened but their incompatibility and loveless marriage were visible to the world.

During a premiere at Eros cinema, Sohrab Modi introduced Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi to the governor of Maharashtra. Sohrab Modi said, "This is the renowned actress Meena Kumari, and this is her husband Kamal Amrohi". Whereupon before greetings were exchanged, Kamal Amrohi interjected: "No, I am Kamal Amrohi and this is my wife, the renowned actress Meena Kumari". Saying this, Kamal Amrohi left the auditorium. Meena Kumari saw the premiere alone. Such was the painful incidents Meena went through, no wonder she turned to alcohol for support.

Apart from being the ruling Queen of Bollywood, we all know that Meena left her poetry in the close custody of her loyal friend Gulzar. The poems were a rueful rumination of her own life and failed romances. Meena somewhat reflected Marilyn Monroe, you ask how? Well, both the ladies were naive and uneducated but they married intellectual men like Arthur Miller and Kamal Amrohi. Meena's marriage to Kamal was anything but happy. She threw herself in love with a series of men, most famously with a young and upcoming Dharmendra. “Meena got a certain kick in picking up people struggling in the industry,” wrote Mehta in his book. “She always liked having a few puppies around her,” Mehta added.

In Javed Akhtar words, “People like Meena Kumari are paradoxes. We try to understand them, we appreciate them, we criticise them, we pity them, we laugh at them, we admire them. But they remain paradoxes.” She breathed her late in St Elizabeth's Nursing Home on 30 March 1972. On screen, Meena was the most perfect example of a Bharatiya Nari but in the real-life, she had other surprises! Happy Birthday, we miss you!

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