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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.