Published On: Thu, Mar 31st, 2016

Remembering Indian cinema’s legendary actress Meena Kumari on her 44th death anniversary today.


Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi on the sets of the movie ‘Pakeezah’ (1972).

On this very day, 44 years ago, Indian cinema lost Meena Kumari, the soulful, poetic timeless beauty who has come to symbolise love, loneliness and melancholy for generations of cinema lovers.

Months before her death Meena Kumari had written in an Urdu couplet, “I will leave this world alone, and then it will wait for me for centuries”. Perhaps she had a premonition of her death.

Meena Kumari was regarded as the Tragedy Queen of Indian cinemaOn March 31, 1972, Meena Kumari lay in Mumbai’s St. Elizabeth Nursing Home. Life was ebbing from her. When asked her last wish, she whispered, “Ek umda paan”. A very simple desire for a great actress. After some time, 40-year-old Meena Kumari was no more. She was covered with a white sheet, her favourite colour symbolising purity. Incidentally her last movie running at that time, was the unparalleled Pakeezah, meaning pure.

12924395_874234939351676_7642921917139249490_nNo one could give her the happiness she longed for. It was not in her destiny. Life had contrived to plunge her deep into melancholia from which no one could pull her out. Restlessness had also gripped her. She had once expressed, “Ek dhadka sa laga rehta hai dil ko hardam…. zist hamsaye se maanga hua zevar to nahin?”

Her childhood was far from normal. Born Mahajabeenara Begum on August 1, 1932, she was the second of the three daughters (others being Khurshid and Madhuri) of Iqbalbi (formally Prabhavati, a renowned dancer and stage artist) and Allahbaksh, a music director hailing from Sargoda, West Pakistan. No wonder acting came naturally to Meena Kumari. After Partition, poor Allahbaksh used to make daily rounds of Mumbai’s studios to get his little daughter roles to make both ends meet. Christened Manju, she was given the screen name of (Baby) Meena Kumari.

Beginning her career as a four-year-old child star, Meena Kumari soared high to become a shining star of the Indian silver screen. Starting with the unknown Leather Face, she reached the pinnacle of glory with her swan song Pakeezah. She won laurels with Filmfare Awards for Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam and Kajaal.

Cinegoers were captivated by her enchanting personality, her cultivated smile, unhurried gait, impeccable dialogue delivery and her regal, almost ethereal, charm. Sometimes she even went beyond the script, so totally immersed was she in her roles. With ease, she conveyed a gamut of emotions in over 80 films depicting both Muslim and Hindu cultural backdrops.

12523866_874226649352505_1592252458900139252_nMeena Kumari had acted in devotional films like Shri Ganesh Mahima, fantasies like Arabian Nights, historicals like Noorjahan comedies like Miss Mary and a variety of social films like Dil Ek Mandir, Bahu Begum, Manjhli Didi, Baharon Ki Manzil, Ek Hi Raasta, Aarti, Azad, Kinare Kinare, Yahudi, Kohinoor, Sharda, Dil Apna Preet Parai, Bheegi Raat, Phool Aur Pathar, Chirag Kahan Rohini Kahan, Shararat, Bhabhi Ki Chooriyan, Savera — to name a few.

It was in tragedies that she triumphed. She could cry without using glycerine, a great achievement in acting. Regarded as the greatest Tragedy Queen of Indian cinema, she portrayed a unique blend of sensitivity, pain, sacrifice and purity in her reel life. And there is a reason for this. It was because these tragedies pervaded her real life too.

Bringing joy to others through her films, she was herself a unhappy woman. She married Kamal Amrohi, a film director and writer who was 15 years her senior, already married and with children, much against her parents wishes. Realising her acting potential for certain kind of roles, Kamal chose the films she was to act in, thus controlling her life and finances. Meena Kumari relinquished her emotional and physical demands to fulfil his desires. But somewhere her soaring success made Kamal, suspicious as he was, feel threatened and insecure. Was this egoism or was it a desire to keep her under his own control? It was when the film ironically called Pinjare Ka Panchhi was in the making in 1964, that they finally parted, the dramatic marriage having an equally dramatic end.


Meena Kumari on Filmfare Magazine Cover  (Filmfare dtd.November 12, 1954 Diwali Issue)

Meena Kumari on Filmfare Magazine Cover
(Filmfare dtd.November 12, 1954 Diwali Issue)

She knew nothing of finances. Despite her successful film career she never kept any money for herself, always earning for others. Perhaps she was always deceived, especially by those close to her.

Though out of Kamal Amrohi’s clutches, Meena Kumari fell into a pool of loneliness and self-pity. She tried to find lasting friendship in Gulzar, Dharmendra and Sawan Kumar. Suffering from insomnia and depression, she turned to liquor as her last refuge, hankering and searching for that elusive happiness which never came her way. She identified with her role in Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam. She felt she had suffered greatly and then there was her dependence upon liquor.

A dreamer, Meena Kumari found solace in poetry. The last line she wrote was, “Kya meri maiyyat ka waqt aagaya?” How true these were words! She died of cirrhosis of liver caused by excessive drinking, leaving nothing behind except her poems, ghazals, nazms and diaries to be given to Gulzar. Her book of verses is aptly entitled Tanha Chand.

A legend in her lifetime, she lives on today four decades after she died.

(Courtesy: ‘Meena Kumari The legend lives on’ a printed article by Roshni Johar

About the Author

Syed Ammar Alavi

- is Lahore (Pakistan) based journalist & writer with 25-year experience in print, wire and broadcast forms of journalism. His major fields of interest are politics, film,tv,sports, climate change and technology