Meena Kumari was one of the greatest actresses in Indian Cinema of all times. Here is a biography on her…
“I do not want to work in films” was the statement of a small six year old kid in 1939 when she was asked to work in film Leatherface as a child actress at the age of six. But she finally did work in the film that she was asked, rather forced, to perform. However, it was also the need of time as the family had difficult finances.
The other aspect is that little Mahjabeen was one of those serious and sensitive kids who cry when hurt.
However, the real tragedy begins at the point of birth when she was left in an orphanage right after birth as she was the third daughter in succession. Though, the same daughter would feed the family very well one day and start a depressed eventless life as the child actress Baby Meena in 1939 in the Mahesh Bhatt film. Eventless is not the right word but the events were biased away from her. She, as if responding to it, went for an eventless life later on by transforming her personal life into films, the only thing possible for this failed life – the performance.
She never went to the school to learn and that remained one of her desires till the end – she wanted to learn the English language and her Radhakrishnan letter is a famous instance of her life. She did learn urdu, was a good poet and managed to learn broken English. The optimism was there but the thorns were more important to her then flowers.
The roles done by her also were generally serious though she was good at witty and humorous roles as well.
Perhaps this was a child who needed care and not bitter life. Some breathing space and not tight schedules. The seriousness was enhanced by her childhood sorrows and was clearly visible in her film roles done after Parineeta. Sunshines were far in between and a gloomy and serious face was what she mastered and even better mastered was tears.
Idealism and perfectionism was another side of her and her inside was perhaps not accepting to the real life drama. She would give away when there was a dispute and she would not then even raise her voice. The next moment you will find an encouraging and simple Meena Kumari. But then the only thing she got was popularity and money. To be added to her sorrows was her divorce that came in 1964 – one of the classic failed marriages. Two people, who were crazy for each other in the beginning were again crazy in the end – this time for separation. Divorce was Kamal Amrohi.
Later years saw her at the top with popularity and money but nights were lonely. There was an escape – alcohol which dulled her evenings and she was lost. She drank so much that it was difficult for her to know what was happening around her. In the end, this only fuelled her sorrows and flow of tears.
But then it would also give a more refined portrayal of her characters and made successful Sahib, Biwi aur Gulam where she even identified herself with the character of “chhoti bahu” in this film. The same phenomenon refined her in Pakeezah, the immortal film and many many other films some of which are filmfare award winners.
The increasing alcohol intake took toll on her health and she was flown to London for treatment where she stayed for some time. After coming back, she worked for some more time but with even more alcohol! She finished Pakeezah and left after it. The film was finished at a stage when she needed a double for even moving herself.
Here is some more on her story:
This was to be a period in her life when an unhappy, loveless Meena would be under the ruthless microscope of nosy neighbours like Janki Dass. His memory mercilessly offers pieces in Meena story. One morning, he took Mukherji to Meena’s bungalow at the far end of Janki Kutir. There was no one to stop them. No servants, no security guards. They walked in. Mukherji hesitated and sat outside in the vernadah, even as an informal Dass sauntered in. Meena was sitting on bare, cold marble floor with a half glass of whiskey near her. She was oblivious to surrundings, unaware of of her dishevelled hair or disturned blouse. She saw him entering. What came on her is difficult to know but looking at him with glazed eyes she picked up the glass and poured the golden liquid on her head. “Kyon Meenaji,any problem?” Dass asked. She wept, “Janki….He hasn’t come for days…I can’t live without him. All have left me. No one loves me.” She was pining for Dharam. Dharam was shooting abroad. Drinking alone was depressing. She wanted someone, anyone. Where had they all gone? Everyone was at her beck and call when she was on the top, when she could be useful to them, when they wanted something… Meena picked up the phone. Mechanically, she started dialing for Dharam and stopped herself. Pradeep Kumar…. “Pradeep…kabhi yeh khayal aaya hai ke dekhoon Meena kaisi hai?” She asked.She was drunk but her voice was steady. “Meena…?” “Haan Meena.” “I remember you a lot but there is a lot of work…” “Ab kya kar rahe ho?” “Kuchh nahin…” “To aa jao na…”
It was midnight by the time Pradeep arrived. They spent the night talking, drinking, reminiscing, crying… His memory is hazy but he remembers that Meena cried and said, “Purush hamesha matlabi hota hai…jab tak matlab tha sab mere paas aate rahe,matlab nikal gaya to Meena kaun hai? Tum sab matlabi ho…Meri zindagi mein jo bhi aaya hai usne mujhe istemaal keeya hai…sab kameene hain…Pradeep,bolo…main jo kehti hoon woh sach hai ke nahin?” Another time it was her old flame Raaj Kumar. She may have made fun of his twisted ear, prefering Rajendra Kumar over him but now a lonely, loveless Meena wanted Raaj Kumar. He had a cottage in the same neighbourhood. A prominent producer-director who doesn’t want to reveal his name was visiting him to narrate a story. Kumar liked the story and said, “Jaani, meri ghanti baj rahi hai lekin jab tak aap kahani nahin poori karenge, main bottle nahin kholoonga.” The phone rang. Raaj Kumar answered. ” Hello…” Pause. “Meena, kahani sun raha hoon….” Pause. “I’ll come in fifteen minutes. “he told her. The producer-director resumed the story. It was a long story. The phone rang, again. “Hello…” Pause. “I’ll come in five minutes.” he hung up. Raaj Kumar smiled smugly and asked his visitor to resume the narration. Ten minutes later, for the third time, phone rang. “Hello…” Pause. “Ab nikal raha hoon…It will take a minute. “he said and hung up. He grinned at the maker and said, “Bahut besabar ho rahi hai tumhari heroine. She can’t sleep till I give it to her. Jaldi karo bhai….” The producer-director swears that the story is true. It was during this week that Rahul – a young, handsome struggler from the industry – approached her.
“Meenaji,I want to work with you…”he said. Her weakness for young boys was well known by then. Relatives, friends, rivals, producers, directors, costars, unit hands, neighbours, media…everyone knew of her two major weaknesses: Men and alcohol. Rahul visited her when she was feeling very low…Dharam was away, and in any case she suspected that he had no use for an old, haggard alcoholic heroine when a young Saira Banu was a willing woman. She knew that she couldn’t compete with a younger, prettier woman. Rahul was one of the many faceless boys. Goodlooking, no doubt. He was a six feet plus healthy Punjabi from Jullandar. His original name was Mahindar and he was a small time villain in GP Sippy’s ‘Raaz’. She eyed him. He was tall, rugged and in his early twenties. “You should be a hero. Why don’t you come at seven in the evening?” Meena told him. She had to shoot during the day. The boy got the signal. He came, wearing a white safari suit, emitting perfume and entered Meena’s bungalow. He was seen leaving her bungalow in the morning. Here, in Janki Kutir, the word spread faster than jungle fire. Rahul and Meena were the talk of the town the next day. Like always happens, the lovers didn’t know it.
The next night, once again, Rahul arrived. Lets try to understand Rahul. A nobody, his only claim to fame is sharing a woman with the likes of Dharamendra and Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar and Kamal Amrohi, Pradeep Kumar and Bharat Bhushan.Was he in love with an image? The image of Meena Kumari. Or was it becoming a part of the legend that Meena Kumari was becoming? Or was he – like scores of the others – using, exploiting Meena Kumari? Or was Meena Kumari exploiting him? Old timers remember the way he would proudly display a diamond ring she gifted him. He would talk about her and in a way, he brought her more notoriety in a week than all her men friend did in her entire life. The line everywhere was, “Tch…tch…She doesn’t even care for her status! Rahul is a nobody.” Her brother-in-law Altaf saw in it an infamy he was not willing to accept and the night saw him angrily arriving at her bungalow with a lathi. Unaware of the fuming Altaf, they were sitting over drinks. Altaf entered and started shouting at them. “Munni,yeh kya laga rakha hai?…I won’t leave you alive…” He smashed the scotch bottle, broke the table and everything around with his danda even as a drunk Meena and Rahul rushed out. He lost them in the dark, but remained shouting, awakening the entire neighbourhood. The two took shelter in a neighbour’s house. From the next day Meena Kumari and Rahul became the hottest topic in the film magazines. Meena was hurt. She also was defiant. She knew her brother-in-law Altaf was a parasite…wanting to live on her earnings, and taking the advantage of the moral code, was blackmailing her into submission. She decided to legitimise her relationship……
Unlike a married Dharam who wasn’t ready to take the plunge, a younger Rahul was willing to marry her. Dharam had become too busy, often refused to answer her calls. Rahul was ready to wear his heart on his sleeve, unashamed of his relationship with her. It was the neighbour Dass who took the inebriated lovers to, Aman (to find out the complete name) who had co-scripted along with Kamal Amrohi for ‘Mughal-E-Azam’. “Manju, you can’t marry. Shariyat doesn’t permit an already married woman to marry again.” Aman said sternly. “What marriage? Who is married?” “Whether you like it or not, to me you are the wife of a friend…You’re Mrs Kamal Amrohi.” He ignored Rahul who took a gulp from the bottle of whiskey he was carrying. “We have been living separately for the last 4 years. Our marriage has ended long time back. Even Islam considers it a divorce.” (Meena had left Amrohi in March 1964.This was 1967-8 as Dharam was shooting for `Ankhen’ at that time.) “Kamal still considers you his wife. There hasn’t been any divorce, either.” “Amansaheb, there have been a divorce earlier too…technically, even if I take Baqar incident main talaqshuda hoon.” “What is this incident you’re talking about?” “Once Kamalsaheb declared `main tumhen talaq deta hoon’.Thrice. Later he regretted. He wanted me back. This wasn’t possible till I marry someone else and divorce him. This is our Shariyat. Everyone knows it.
I married Baqar, then he divorced me and Kamalsaheb became my husband again.” K Asif and Dass were non-plussed. This was news to them. Aman, however,said,” Phir to baat khatam. You’re still his wife.” “This means that you don’t know what Shariyat says, Amansaheb…” Meena was firm. She knew the law.” It is true that the wife has to marry someone else and then divorce him – before marrying her first husband again. But this is not done symbolically. There is a waiting period of 3 months after ‘talaq’ to be sure that the wife is not pregnant. Only after it is confirmed that she is not pregnant she can marry. Here again, the marriage is not symbolic. She spends at least one night with the new man, when they cohabit, and then they have to wait for a mandatory period of 3 months to be sure that she is not pregnant. The paternity of the child has to be beyond question. Do you mean to say that I spent nights with Baqar?” The argument went on. “Don’t I also have a right to happiness?” Meena asked softly. “Try to understand,Meena.” Aman wanted her to see reason. “Kisi ne kabhi mujhe samajhne ki koshish ki hai? Main kitni akeli hoon,maine kitna bhoga hai…” tears welled in her eyes.
She got up. Aman could see that though talking sense, she was high but that was no surprise to him. “Meena…Where are you going? Wait.” Aman didn’t want to let her go. In this frenzy she could do anything. He hurriedly pushed his feet in a mojdi and almost ran after Meena, Rahul and Dass. As they walked out of his bungalow, Meena placed the bottle over her mouth. Taking a long gulp, she put her arm around his slim waist to support him. Poor guy was no Dharam. He had reached his limit. “Rahul, shaadi to aaj hi karenge. No one can stop us. ” she said as Rahul almost fell in the car seat. ” Lets go to the Church. If Islam won’t let us marry, we will marry by Christian laws. We both will convert to Christianity.” Not a stranger to marriage laws, Meena knew that conversion would automatically nullify her marriage with Amrohi. It was midnight by the time they discovered a Church. However, the priest refused to convert an obviously drunk couple, urging them to return sober in the morning. “It has to be today. ” she said. Maybe her tears moved Aman. Maybe, he was playing games .He suggested, “Appa, why don’t you marry under Arya Samaj marriage rites?” They liked the idea. Dass knew Bakshi, the secretary of the Mandir. “Rahul, if you want to get married don’t drink any more. “Dass cautioned the young man, and they headed for Santacruz, where Arya Mandir was located. Buxi was willing. But the marriage could take place only if she was ready to embrace Hindu religion. The actress who had Hindu, Muslim and Christian blood flowing in her veins didn’t hesitate. “I’m ready. Khuda kaho Bhagwan kaho baat wohi hai…” she was casual as if they were discussing the change of her costume for one of her films. But Buxi knew the enormity of this conversion of Meena Kumari to Hindu religion. He insisted on four witnesses. “We will need two Muslims and two Hindus as witnesses to conversion and marriage.” he declared. It was 3.00 a.m.
The first call was to K.Asif. Like Aman, Kamal Amrohi too was the writer of K.Asif’s ‘Mughal-E-Azam’. In fact, Asif had a soft corner for Amrohi and knew that a conversion would put paid to any hope of saving poor Kamal’s marriage. More than that there would be no ‘Pakeezah’. As a maker of films, Asif knew how this would ruin Kamal Amrohi. Lakhs had been put in the film. Asif couldn’t tolerate the possiblity of the death of ‘Pakeezah’. Besides, being an orthodox muslim, he was totally against a Muslim woman marrying a Hindu. Unceremoniously, he asked Rahul to sit outside his room. “Meena, you’re committing a mistake…a blunder…Whatever reasons you may have for fighting with Kamalsaheb, you’ve no right to publicly humiliate him. I know he still loves you.I also believe that you too love him…Besides, your conversion and a marriage with a Hindu will anger the entire muslim community. They will never forgive you and they won’t leave Rahul alone…There may be communal riots. Anything is possible in these charged days.” Asif went on in now threatening-now reasoning tone.” Honestly, I can understand your involvement with Dharam. He has a social standing. He is a hero. But this boy…”
The contempt in his voice was clear. The door wasn’t closed. Rahul was within earshot. He heard it. So did Aman who, in the meanwhile, had telephoned film maker S.Mukherji to come as a ‘witness’ for this Hindu-Muslim marriage. Along with a Hindu Janki Dass and a Muslim K Asif, Aman and Mukherji would have made 4 witnesses. “Don’t let this marriage happen.” Mukherji warned on phone and promised to rush immediately. Aman looked angrily at Rahul,” Mukherji is totally against the idea. But he is coming in a matter of minutes.” Rahul rose. Meena had chosen a wrong man. The good looking boy didn’t have stamina to face so much hostility. “Meenaji…I don’t think these people will let us marry. It is better that I leave.”, trying desperately to sound dignified, he walked out even as Mukherji’s car stopped in the portico. The night was over. Dharam returned in the afternoon. This was the first thing he heard as soon as his plane landed at Santacruz.
Leaving Meena, Dharam had gone to Beirut for a week’s shoot of Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ankhen’. He couldn’t believe it. But everyone was talking about it. The incident of Altaf chasing Meena and Rahul with danda had even been reported in an evening paper. Dass, Asif, Aman and Mukherji were witnesses to her attempt to marry. No one knows who informed Dharam. But he came to know this too. An angry Dharam drove straight to Janki Kutir. He stopped his jeep on the access to her bungalow and stepped in. He was inside for two minutes. An ailing and aging alcoholic – in her late thirties – was more insecure than the young, healthy and beautiful Meena Kumari who could easily wrap men around her little finger. She tried her usual tactics and feminine wiles but Dharam refused to fall for her line this time .He realised that he was being used by a temptress… And as angrily as he had come, Dharam sped away leaving a dust of cloud behind. And a weeping Meena. Meena told her friends, “My Dharam didn’t wait for my reply. He only asked…Tell me whether the stories are true or false? I said true but….He refused to hear my side of the story…” Dharam swore that he will never go back and he kept his word. He never went back. Meena was a broken woman. Achla Sachdev, her closest friend heard: “Itna peeti thi ke maloom nahin rehta ke blouse kahan ja raha hai, sari kahan ja rahi hai…zameen par giri huee bhi dekhi gayee…” 1969 She had heard right. As Dharam was driving away in his jeep, Meena was pouring herself a Patialla peg of neat whiskey, perhaps telling her that this was her only solace. She was lying on the floor, unmindful of sorroundings when her elder sister Khurshid arrived. Rahul became untouchable for the industry. He returned to obscurity. He wasn’t heard of, again.
Dharam and Meena did meet once again – after the Janki Kutir episode – on the sets of ‘Mere Apne’ as he was shooting in the same studio and courtesy demanded that he should meet her…. But things were not the same. Meena too wasn’t the same. Dharam was a big name and perhaps already involved with Hema Malini…