Book Review: Vinod Mehta’s ‘Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography’

On 31st March, 1972, a Good Friday, Meena Kumari died, after a long and painful battle with cirrhosis of the liver. She had been admitted to St Elizabeth’s Nursing Home in Bombay on 28th March, and died three days later surrounded by the people who had played an important part in her life, both personal and professional. Her sisters Khursheed and Madhu; her estranged husband Kamal Amrohi; and various luminaries of the film world, including Begum Para and Kammo, from whose house the Aab-e-Zamzam (holy water from Mecca) was fetched to be spooned into Meena Kumari’s mouth as she was dying.

Over the next few days and weeks and months, Meena Kumari’s name dominated Hindi film news. Her magnum opus, Pakeezah, had just been released, having been 15 years in the making; Meena Kumari’s death served to make the film a success: thousands went to watch Pakeezah simply as a way of paying tribute to the much-loved actress. Praise was lavished on ‘India’s greatest tragedienne’ and there was much speculation about who, really, was responsible for her lifelong misery, and the alcoholism that had finally taken her life. People who had worked with her—co-actors, directors, and others—paid homage.

And Vinod Mehta, based on the success of a book he’d already written (not a biography) was asked if he would be up to writing Meena Kumari’s biography.

Vinod Mehta's 'Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography'

Vinod Mehta makes it a point to explain that he took up this commission without really knowing very much about Meena Kumari beyond what the average Indian cinemagoer might know. To interview the people who had known her, who were related to her and worked with her; to trawl through many years of film magazines and other publications for mentions of Meena Kumari; to try and dig deep into her filmography: all of this must have taken a good deal of time and effort, and the result of it is this book, first published in 1972 by Jaico and then re-released in 2013 by Harper Collins.

Mehta traces Meena Kumari’s birth and childhood (she was born Mahjabeen Bano, to a man named Ali Bux and his wife Iqbal Begum, who had been a Bengali Christian before converting in order to marry Ali Bux). He describes how the Bux family had wanted a son, and Mahjabeen, the second of three daughters, found herself utterly unwanted—until, after several rounds of the studios and much pleading with contacts, when little Mahjabeen became a child star, her family’s fortunes changed and suddenly she became the goose that laid golden eggs.

Baby Meena, age eight

Her career as a child star (who was renamed Baby Meena, by director Vijay Bhatt on the sets of Ek Hi Phool) is discussed, and then her initial, largely unsuccessful films as an adult. Until Baiju Bawra, which proved the breakthrough for Meena Kumari.

Baiju Bawra, in fact, is one of the very few films of Meena Kumari’s that Mehta discusses in any depth (the others are Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam and Pakeezah). In his discussions of these films, too, Mehta tends to steer clear of trying to analyze the film or provide any very special insight. No synopsis is provided, and he assumes that you are familiar with the film as well as Meena Kumari’s role in it. Mostly, Mehta just skims over even these three films, only occasionally providing some amount of background information and a little behind the scenes trivia (for instance, how much Kamal Amrohi travelled the length and breadth of India looking for settings for Pakeezah, and one interesting episode involving dacoits while actually shooting the film).

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah

Instead of discussing Meena Kumari’s cinema (which, I must admit, was the main reason I wanted to read this book), Mehta focuses on Meena Kumari’s personal life, and how that personal life affected her professional life. And, in a relentless cycle of cause and effect and cause, how her professional life affected her personal life. Her passionate love for the much older Kamal Amrohi, the night-long telephone conversations between the two, his visiting her at Pune’s Sassoon Hospital when she was recovering from the road accident that damaged her hand forever, the way they got married secretly… the ‘Chandan-Manju’ romance (which was what they called each other) sounds like the stuff of fairy tales.

Meena Kumari with Kamal Amrohi

But of course this was no fairy tale, and Mehta tries to piece together the falling apart of the marriage, as well as Meena Kumari’s subsequent search for true love: a search which seems to have haunted her through her tragically short life. In between, there were the films she continued to make, the growing dependence on brandy, and the moving about from one house to another. There was, too, the vast contingent of relatives who lived with her, sponged off her, and who seem to have done little to help her emotionally or psychologically.

Mehta devotes one chapter to discussing why Meena Kumari should qualify as a ‘great actress’; he uses a definition (by the English critic CE Montague) and tries to show, with examples, how and why Meena Kumari could measure up to that. He also devotes a chapter to analyzing Meena Kumari as a person: what sort of woman was she, who was the real Meena Kumari, and so on.

I found this book a little unsatisfactory in some ways (though good in others; I’ll come to that). Firstly, I found Mehta’s use of ‘My heroine’ to refer to Meena Kumari as rather corny. Then, there are points in the book where he seems to go completely overboard with an idea. For instance, the way he goes on and on about how plain Meena Kumari’s looks were, until 1962. Granted, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder (a point which Mehta makes only in passing near the end of an argument which aims to convince the reader that she was successful despite her homely looks); but Mehta simply won’t stop saying how plain she was.

(Which, seriously, I cannot agree with. I do feel that a more mature Meena Kumari—the one of Aarti, for example—is more beautiful than a younger avatar, but I think it’s a little far-fetched to call her ever plain.

Meena Kumari in Aarti

But yes, that’s subjective, so let’s leave it at that).

The major grouse I had with Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography was that it had so little about the films she acted in and the roles she played. Barring Sahibjaan of Pakeezah and Chhoti Bahu of Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, Mehta has so little to say about her other roles that I find it odd. When he does write about her roles, it’s to prove a point: she liked to do tragic roles and those were the roles she was best at (I beg to differ); she was indifferent at being the comedienne. But when I look at Meena Kumari in films other than Kohinoor, Miss Mary, or Tamasha (about the only non-tragic films Mehta mentions), like Majhli Didi or Bandish or Azad, I see an actress who certainly has good comic timing and a flare for comedy, besides pure and simple strength of character (Majhli Didi).

Meena Kumari with Sachin in Majhli Didi

For me, reading a biography of a film star and finding mostly only their personal life discussed rather than their professional, is a turn-off. While Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari has a good bit of her personal life on display (especially with Kamal Amrohi and Dharmendra, the two main men in her life), I did appreciate that this exposition of her personal life goes towards explaining how Meena Kumari the woman influenced Meena Kumari the actress. How the pain and lack of fulfillment in her personal life reflected in the sort of characters she ended up portraying, and how her onscreen personas tended to meld with the woman she was.

This, really, is where Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography scores. It manages to give us a good insight into the woman she was. Flawed, yes, but so very human (and so good a human too, essentially: the anecdotes about her generosity and her respect for even the lowest of on-set staff, and her love for children, touched me).

This book is flawed, too, but on the whole, I don’t regret reading it. Don’t expect to learn much about cinema, or actually, about every titillating detail of Meena Kumari’s personal life; but read it if you like Meena Kumari and don’t know much about her beyond her films.

40 thoughts on “Book Review: Vinod Mehta’s ‘Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography’

  1. I read the book in 1985. Or was it 1986? A Jaico paperback version which I bought at the Techmarket at IIT Kgp. Had lots of info for its time. Helped me write a quiz as well in 1987 in the Illustrated Weekly. Later I checked at the National Library, Calutta. Most of the stuff was sourced from the Filmfare copies of the early and mid-1960s, including Chhoti Bahu’s diary.

    I hate value judgment, but I felt that this was a book by someone who has nothing much to do with cinema. Won’t complain there, as the majority of writers judge music by the lyrics of the songs.

    Did not like the writing style at all, too much jee Haan jee haan variety. My heroine, my heroine, what the hell… didn’t mind when a friend took it in 1989 and did not return the book.

    • “My heroine, my heroine, what the hell…

      I totally agree! That really got my goat too. And I agree too about his book coming across as having been written by someone who didn’t know cinema really.

  2. Don’t want to read the book post your review, Madhu. Not keen on reading about her relationships. Filmfare has already educated me on that.

    Meena Kumari was definitely not plain to look at. She exuded a calm intelligence and dignity when older, and was rather sweet. And she was a damn good actress.

    Thank you :-)

    • “She exuded a calm intelligence and dignity when older, and was rather sweet.

      Agree totally! She was never plain, not even in her younger days (which Mehta seems to think).

      The relationships angle does serve to show her personality a bit more clearly, but personally, I could have done without that – after all, her personality does come through pretty well through interactions with people who came in contact with her in other ways – like her makeup man, fellow actors, and so on.

      Thank you for reading, Harini!

  3. Meena Kumari was ,sans doute, a victim of misogyny and also child labour as we understand today having started acting to support her impecunious family when she was barely six years old . She was a fine actress with a unique voice, which was not only haunting , but which oozed ineffable pain. She was a natural dancer too. She was related to Poet Tagore through her grand mother, who was the niece of Tagore. She was a poetess in Urdu . However , aficionados of movies were deprived full exhibition of her talent on the screen as vicissitudes of her personal life cast a shadow on her professional life too. The tragedy was that in just 39 years of living she went through hell, though much of it was due to her own folly. Yes, education and upbringing shapes lives of people.

  4. The Death of Meena Kumari triggered a massive wave of nostalgia for her. Pakeezah had been released 2-3 weeks before her demise and the response was quite lukewarm. However it picked up massively and was a Golden Jubilee Hit. The only thing great about Pakeezah was its divine music, by Ghulam Haider. and the irony was that the Filmfare Best Music award went to a shady film called Sanyasi. This was a travesty!
    I have read the book (in 1975) but do not remember whether the famous episode of MK and KA being introduced to the Governor of Maharashtra was described in the book. Was it?
    Nitin

    • I tend to agree with you about the music of Pakeezah being its greatest highlight. I know a lot of people will probably disagree with us – like Guide (another film I like mostly only for its music), Pakeezah has a huge fan following that loves the film for everything. Such a shame that it didn’t win the Award. Some shady work happening there, I should think, behind the scenes…

      There’s nothing in the book about MK and KA meeting the Governor of Maharashatra, though I was interested to read that she was presented one of her awards by the Hollywood comedian Tony Randall, whom I’ve seen (and liked) in several films.

    • Sorry for butting in.
      Nitin ji,
      Music of Pakeezah was composed by Ghulam Mohammad. And the best MD award that year was given to Beimaan, if i remember correctly. And I agree pakeezah deserved it.
      :-)

  5. It’s the Meena Kumari of Azaad and Miss Mary that I would rather remember.
    Beautiful. Sprightly. Brilliant expressions on a mobile face.
    In finding a tragedienne par excellence we lost a comedienne for the ages.

    • I agree so completely with that! She was definitely a brilliant comedienne, and it’s a pity that her getting slotted as a tragedienne deprived us of her skill at comedy.

  6. Her life was so harrowing. This book does not sound appealing, what do you read a book like that for if not to find out behind the scenes movie stuff? But this often happens with women, where stuff about them is about their relationships more than anything else.

    Also both the my heroine thing and his weird thing about how she was plain (how????? and if she was, who cares???) are totally mystifying to me.

    • “Also both the my heroine thing and his weird thing about how she was plain (how????? and if she was, who cares???) are totally mystifying to me.

      Yes! The point Mehta tries to make is that ‘despite her [lack of] looks, she succeeded’. Which is really rather objectifying women, isn’t it? As if you need to be pretty in order to be taken seriously as an actress. Ugh.

      I found myself subconsciously comparing this to Jerry Pinto’s biography of Helen, also written by a man who didn’t know the woman whose biography he was writing – and ended up writing a very good book indeed.

    • I had forgotten about the review on your blog, Anu, though I’d noticed that you’d posted a review on Goodreads – which I deliberately steered clear of since I didn’t want it to even inadvertently influence my own review!

  7. Madhu,
    I am not surprised that you were underwhelmed by the book. Vinod Mehta was a political journalist and editor. In that role he had a sharp, sarcastic style. Film was not his line, therefore, he has done what he was good at.
    AK

    • I have not read very many, but among my favourites are Gautam Chintamani’s bio of Rajesh Khanna, Akshay Manwani’s bios of Sahir Ludhianvi and Nasir Husain, Balaji Vittal-Aniruddha Bhattacharjee’s bios of SD Burman and RD Burman, Jerry Pinto’s bio of Helen, and Jai Arjun Singh’s bio of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. I hate bios which are all about the personal life of a celebrity and not about their professional life, so these are bios that have an excellent focus on their careers.

  8. Madhuji, I ahve not read this book. But the problem with celebrities is that after a point, their private and professional arenas merge. The cinemagoers too are more interested in their personal lives than professional. This perhaps explains the lop sided focus of the book.

    • “The cinemagoers too are more interested in their personal lives than professional.

      Which is a shame for me like me, who have no interest in knowing about other people’s personal lives. :-( But yes, I agree with you that that’s why bios like this get written.

  9. Oh!
    To call Meena kumari plain is not acceptable to me. But this is all subjective. To my eyes, she was one of the gorgeous and beautiful lady, who was fine actress of her times. I agree with Anitaji, after a certain period a celebrity’s personal and professional lives merge, and to put a separate line is difficult. And readers always look for gossip than the real personality of a celebrity.
    I’ve read a biography of meena kumari in Marathi, which was good, but I forgot its details.

  10. I wonder if ignorance is bliss with respect to private lives and stories of people we only know through their work. I read about half of Raju Bharathan’s book in which he tries to dig up every anecdote of singers and music directors not getting along. It felt so intrusive and tabloid-y. And I found that it spoilt my enjoyment of these artistes. For example, he had a story of Salil Choudhury not liking the way Mohd. Rafi sang Tasveer Teri Dil Mein in Maya. I love Salilda and that song but I I draw the line at criticism of Mohd Rafi. I find myself fast forwarding it when it appears on my playlists muttering to myself- who else could have sung this song, huh? Yo Yo Honey Singh? Himesh Reshamiya? Just kidding there, but anyway, I wish I hadn’t read that story.
    From your synopsis there seems to be quite a few parallels in her life story with Savitri, right? They were both so good at comedy, evidenced from the Miss Mary love in all the comments here, but got stuck with many tragic roles. How cool would it have been to see a Hindi version of Maya Bazaar with Meena Kumari :) (Shammi Kapoor as Gatotkacha, Sunil Dutt as Abhimanyu, Pran as Shakuni…)

    • I totally agree with you. This is the main reason I don’t want to know the personal details of people’s lives, because invariably I find something unsavoury that makes me look at people in a different way, tarnishing their image for me. Also, I feel that celebrities too are human, and will naturally make mistakes. To have their dirty linen aired in public and proclaimed far and wide is a bit unfair.

      “How cool would it have been to see a Hindi version of Maya Bazaar with Meena Kumari :) (Shammi Kapoor as Gatotkacha, Sunil Dutt as Abhimanyu, Pran as Shakuni…)

      That would have been a fabulous cast! I have watched the Hindi Maya Bazaar, in the hope that it would mirror the Telugu one, but it was such a let-down. It is the same story and all, but somehow the delight is missing. Here it is:

      • I had no idea about this movie! I watched about 15 minutes yesterday , but definitely missing the delight as you so well put it :) Anita Guha looks sweet, but Meena Kumari would have been so awesome.

        • Yes. Anita Guha is sweet, but the sort of pep that Savitri brought to that role was missing in her. The swagger of Ghatotkacha in Sasirekha’s body, for instance – just the memory of Savitri doing that makes me laugh. Meena Kumari would have been perfect for that role.

    • For example, he had a story of Salil Choudhury not liking the way Mohd. Rafi sang Tasveer Teri Dil Mein in Maya.

      Which, from all accounts, Bharatan made up but he was so well-known that the lies he made up became ‘facts’. That man often made himself seem more important than he actually was.

      • Oh goodness, really? I should burn that book. My brother is even more fanatic than me about Mohd Rafi. He refuses to listen to this song completely :) It is even more funny because my parents love Salil Choudhury so much that my brother was named Madhu because of how much they like Madhumati (the movie, the songs and Vyjayanthimala).

      • Anu, I think you mentioned this tendency of Bharatan’s to try and prove his own importance, when I reviewed his biography of Asha Bhonsle. That certainly seemed to hold true of that book; there was so much boosting of his own ego there, it seemed more like a bio of Bharatan himself. Not one of my favourite biographers!

    • Yes, it’s important to keep your expectations low for this one. I have to admit I haven’t read any of Nasreen Munni Kabir’s books, though the Guru Dutt one was actually recommended to me by her (I had the good fortune to share a taxi with her from Bangalore airport to the city once when both of us were attending a literary festival there – it was a big moment for me to sit with her for so long and chat!)

      • I have read and reviewed it too (it’s Hindi translation actually which is titled as Guru Dutt : Hindi Cinema Ka Ek Kavi). It is by no means a great book but not a bad one either. One positive of the book is that it contains an article penned by Guru Dutt himself (Classics and Cash).

        • “it contains an article penned by Guru Dutt himself (Classics and Cash).“. That sounds very interesting. I will put the book on my wishlist and order it sometime soon. Thank you for the recommendation!

  11. She may have been a great actress, but you cannot deny that the only reason Dharmendra actually advanced in his career was because of the casting couch demands of Meena Kumari. Here’s an anecdote from Shashi Kapoor:

    “The best thing that Shashi Kapoor ever said about a heroine was when he told me how grateful he was to Nanda for unconditionally co-starring with him in films like Jab Jab Phool Khile. She’d done this when he was floundering as a star and she was an established name. It wasn’t about working with him as much as it was about not making any casting couch demands on him that had really touched Shashi.

    Thirty years ago, one was naïve enough to wonder why a young man would have to go through the casting couch until Shashi Kapoor pointed out heroes like Sanjay Khan and Dharmendra. ‘You’ve no idea how they were blackmailed by senior actresses when they were newcomers,’ the candid Kapoor had explained to me. ‘I’m very grateful to Nanda that she was extremely gracious and decent with me.'”

    Source: https://www.telegraphindia.com/7-days/nanda-s-last-outing/cid/1669477

    At the same time, it’s unfair to only blame Meena Kumari, as there are numerous stories of Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Asha Parekh, Rajesh Khanna and co. indulging in these practices.

Leave a Reply to Songs Of Yore Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.