1 August 1932 was the day Mahjabeen Bano was born into an impoverished family. Here we take a peek into her tragic life. She was later named Meena Kumari when she stepped into filmdom and blossomed as an actress of substance.
What would have happened if Meena Kumari had met Robin Sharma, the author of “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”? Or if she had had a chance interaction with Eckhart Tolle who wrote the book The Power of Now.
As a masochist, Meena Kumari easily succumbed to negativity all around her. She withdrew into a cocoon that she herself had created and got subsumed by pessimism towards life. Wish she had realized that – “Howsoever large negativity is – it often gets dwarfed by positivity.”
I had a chance glance at Vinod Mehta’s biography on the late actress that was released in 1972 soon after her death at the age of 40 years. Even though she was only 40, Meena Kumari looked as though she was 60 plus. Meena was his favourite actress and the founder editor of Outlook magazine calls her “my heroine”. He even had access to her bedroom that was elegant and aesthetically furnished.
Critics have pooh-poohed the actress’s ability to write ghazals – nonetheless, the few nazms that she wrote were exemplary.
The Bollywood grist-mill insisted that she was a nympho – character actors like Janki Daas even openly spoke about her fascination for younger men. No one knows the real truth though. However, Meena Kumari spent the last day of the year 1971 in the company of the man whom she truly loved but could never think of marrying – Dharmendra. The latter was an upcoming hero but he was a married man.
Ironically, while Meena had less than four months to live in the new year 1972, Dharmendra had already started getting offers with a new heroine Hema Malini with whom he did Tum Haseen Main Jawan and Sharafat to begin with. Later the actor would relentlessly pursue this girl to get married to her. For Dharmendra, the relationship with Meena Kumari was more like a quid-pro-quo. She sought his companionship and he sought her mileage in sky rocketing his career.
Dharmendra’s biggest hit in his career was Phool aur Patthar
(1966) which could not have become the classic that it is now without Meena Kumari’s histrionics that fired the silver screen. It was also a movie way ahead of its time, portraying the theme that a woman and a man could stay under the same roof and still have a platonic relationship.
As a woman, Meena Kumari loved kids. There are mixed reports about her desire to have a child and her desire to put her career above motherhood. She got married to film maker Kamal Amrohi on an impulse only to regret the decision all her life.
Amrohi had met her as a kid when she was having a banana and the fruit was all over her face. Later she portrayed a memorable role in his Daeera (1953) along with Dilip Kumar's brother Nasir Khan.
Meena Kumari’s parents fought like hell and that had made her paranoid about marriage as an institution. Yet she allowed infatuation to overtake her senses and got married to Amrohi. She had better features than her sisters and was more eligible to become an actress in Hindi cinema. So she became the sacrificial lamb for her family and everyone else around her became a parasite sucking on her wealth and riches without any qualms.
So used to Meena was eating stale rotis during her childhood that stale rotis and raw onion was something that she preferred to have even when she became a big star with a huge draw at the box office.
Apparently, Meena started revelling in her own tragic circumstances often wallowing in self-pity. People die not because of injury or sickness – they die because they lose the will to live. There are reports on the net about how she pined for Rajkumar (her hero in many films) and how he made her wait interminably.
After Dharmendra moved away from her, Meena Kumari almost got married to a young Punjabi man and somehow this got averted when industry elders intervened and termed it a blasphemy. It appears that everyone else took the decision on her behalf.
Since she wasn’t educated she had no idea of what she earned. She never kept track of what she earned and so lost her wealth in no time. When Mumtaz’s remuneration wasn’t paid for a film called Gomti Ke Kinare in which Meena Kumari had acted along with her, Meena actually wrote a house that she had in Juhu in Mumtaz’s name. The house still exists!
Her marital life with Amrohi was turbulent beyond imagination. He forever suspected that she was sleeping around with all her leading men. He had spies all around to feed him stories about his actress-wife’s on-the-set behaviour. After she ran away from his home, Amrohi had his first wife to bank upon and Meena Kumari had to return to the wolves in her family. She said in a radio interview, “I couldn’t believe that my father could get married to this girl who was younger than me”. Meena Kumari’s mother had passed away and her father chose to marry a young girl who had joined their household as a maid-servant.
Meena Kumari shot for Pinjre Ke Panchhi (1965) and never returned home. Her husband’s secretary Baqar Ali had slapped her on the sets and that was the tipping point. Meena started living in the house of comedian Mahmood who was married to her sister Madhuri. The comedian had a palatial bungalow near Amboli in Andheri and a special room was assigned to her. But for Meena Kumari, it was like moving from one hell to another. No visitors were allowed to meet her. All her letters were screened by Mahmood’s family known to be vicious and wily. In fact Madhuri left Mahmood and got married to a man who unofficially became Meena Kumari’s personal assistant in her last days.
The medical advice given by her doctor to have a dose of brandy was taken so seriously by Meena that it became an addiction – something so similar to the character of the chhoti bahu that Meena Kumari portrayed in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962). Ironically, Geeta Dutt and Meena Kumari passed away in the same year (1972) within a gap of few months. While Meena passed away at Elizabeth Hospital in March 1972, Geeta passed away on 20th July 1972. Both had cirrhosis of the liver due to excessive abuse of alcohol.
Amrohi’s classic Pakeezah was stuck in the cans for a long time due to the feud between Meena and her husband. Nargis played the mediator and Meena agreed to complete the film despite the misgivings that she had about the way she would look on the screen. Actress Padma Khanna did the dances in Pakeezah and the sultry siren who had learned Kathak has fond memories of the time she shot for Pakeezah. Today, Khanna is in the US running a dance academy.
When Pakeezah had a special screening, Meena attended the event with Nargis and Sunil Dutt. After the screening, Meena told her husband, “Chandan, please do not make another film. Let the audiences remember you with this film”. Amrohi did not oblige her and later made Razia Sultan (1983), a magnum opus, that starred Dharmendra and Hema Malini.
Meena had become close to Nargis and had even jokingly told her friend, “I am going to steal your husband.” Sunil Dutt and Meena Kumari acted in Main Chup Rahungi and a Muslim social Ghazal. Dutt was a thorough gentleman and was chivalrous with the actress during their interactions. Suraiya was another actress who had deep connections with Nargis, her childhood friend. When Meena Kumari died, Nargis wrote an obituary saying how happy she was to know that Meena Kumari had finally found the peace that she had wanted all along. In fact, it was Nargis who had arranged for the funeral and bore the expenses. Amrohi and Dharmendra were allegedly missing in action when Meena Kumari’s hospital expenditure started hitting the roof.
Sawan Kumar Tak and Gulzar were other friends of Meena Kumari who had become close to her in her last years. When Gulzar wanted to remake a renowned Bengali film Apanjan that was directed by Tapan Sinha, he could not think of anyone else other than Meena Kumari in the title role. Bengali actress Sumita Sanyal and our own Yogeeta Bali had brief fleeting appearances in Mera Apne a film that proved to be a goldmine at the box office. Earlier, Meena Kumari played Jeetendra’s sister in a forgettable film called Jawab (1970).
She also acted alongside Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz in Dushman (1971) that was directed by Dalal Guha. But Pakeezah was her swan song. Meena Kumari seemed to have had premonitions about her death. She told her producers to complete the shots that involved her as she did not have much time on this earth.
Veteran actor Ramesh Deo recalled watching Meena Kumari struggling to climb down the stairs all alone after the screening of Mere Apne. Fame is ephemeral and no one can be immune to it. Despite the fact that she got the best treatment in England where she stayed for many months during her convalescence, it is not clear why Meena Kumari’s health deteriorated. May be she had the lost the will to live – Chalo Dildaar Chalo, Chand Ke Par Chalo….
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi Seshachalam started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)