Reminiscing the tragedy queen of the Indian Cinema

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Meena Kumari

Indian Cinema and Meena Kumari, are two terms that cannot be separated. The mesmerizing Tragedy queen, Meena Kumari, is known for her tragic roles in Hindi cinema. She is one of the greatest actresses to appear on the big screen entertaining audiences from age 4. The iconic star with an outstanding range of films, who portrayed phenomenal skills on the sets of Pakeezah or Pareeniti was actually a much of a tragic queen in real life as well.

Her life was filled with sadness both on and off screens. During the span of 33 years in her career, Kumari appeared in 92 movies and diverse roles such as in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Pakeezah, Mere Apne, Aarti, Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, and Kohinoor.

Meena Kumari depicted the struggle of Indian women, especially in the 50s and 60s.

Born in 1933 as Mahjabeen, Kumari was the daughter of poor theatre artists, Ali Bux and Iqbal Begum. Her birth was not well received by her father who wanted a son and thus left Mahjabeen at an orphanage. However, a few hours later he fetched her back regretting his decision. Because of poverty, Mahjabeen started working as a child artist under her father’s guardianship and goes by the name Baby Madhuri. Though she wanted to study, her parents instigated her on working.

Her first film was ‘Leatherface’ for which she was paid Rs. 25 on her first day. Mahjabeen became the breadwinner of the family since then and went on to appear in three more films as a child artist. Vijay Bhatt rechristened Mahjabeen as “Baby Meena” during the filming of Ek Hi Bhool (1940). But despite her regular work, Mahjabeen never compromised her studies and went to school and even attended private tuition when her filming schedule interrupted her regular school. In all sense, Mahjabeen was self-educated who often bought books on the set to study in her free time.

Meena Kumari

She appeared in five more films namely Nai Roshni (1941), Kasauti (1941), Vijay (1942), Garib (1942), Pratiggya (1943), and Lal Haveli (1944). In Ramnik Production’s Bachchon Ka Khel (1946), Mahjabeen for the first time was cast under the name Meena Kumari. She then appeared in  Duniya Ek Sarai (1946), Piya Ghar Aaja (1948), and Bichchade Balam (1948). Meena suffered a massive blow after the death of her mother in 1947 and entered the phase of depression. Nevertheless, on her father’s wish, she kept working in the industry. But her emotions did impacted her performance and films like Magroor (1950) or Hamara Ghar (1950) failed at the box office.

The turning point of Meena’s career was Baiju Bawra (1952) which was a massive hit and established her name in the industry. She received several brand endorsements, magazine shoots, and even more high-budget movies. The 1953 film Pareeniti led Meena to win her second Filmfare Best Actress Award. Meena then went on to appear in Daaera, Chandni Chowk,  Baadbaan, Ilzaam, Azaad, Ek Hi Raasta, Mem Sahib, and Halaku, all of which received positive Box office responses.

In 1957, a role refused by several actresses of the time due to its powerful genre was accepted by Meena as her first venture with Raj Kapoor in Sharada. Her performance gained critical success and the movie became the ninth highest-grossing film at the Indian Box Office in 1957. It was noted as her best performance to date. Films like Sahara, Yahudi, Farishta, Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, Char Dil Char Rahen, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, and Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan established Meena as the Tragedy Queen of the Hindi Cinema.

But much like Meena’s life on screen, her life was also tragic off the screen.

On the sets of Tamasha, Meena was introduced to Kamal Amrohi, while he was searching for a female lead for his upcoming film Anarkali. The contract was signed but Meena, unfortunately, suffered a car accident and was hospitalized for four months. She was regularly visited by Kamal Amrohi in the hospital. They would often write letters to each other and that’s when the love between the duo blossomed.

On 14 February 1952, Meena Kumari, 18, and Kamal Amrohi, 34, secretly got married in a simple marriage ceremony. The news of their marriage was kept secret even from their families. At the time of the marriage, Amrohi was already married and had three children from his previous wife. After months of their marriage, the news was leaked to Meena’s father and he demanded a divorce, however, Meena refused. She was roped for Amrohi’s new venture Daaera to which her father objected. Yet Meena secretly went for shoot due to which she was abandoned by her father.

Meena Kumari

Kumari started living with her husband from then on. And though Amrohi allowed her to work, there were several conditions included. First, Meena would only allow her makeup artist inside her room, and second that she would return home by 6 in the evening in her private car. But Amrohi’s restrictions didn’t stop here and he even assigned his right hand, Baqar Ali, to keep an eye on her on set. Amid all the troubled times, things escalated when she was linked with actors Dharmendra and Gulzar.

Meena Kumari was subjected to physical abuse in her marriage, and Amrohi would often argue with her over trivial things. In one incident, Baqar Ali slapped Meena Kumari when she allowed Gulzar to enter her makeup room. Kumari called Amrohi, but he didn’t show up and that’s when she decided, she have had enough. She drove directly to her sister’s home and since then, the duo were separated.

Because Meena Kumari was suffering from chronic insomnia, the doctor had prescribed her a small peg of Brandy. But after her separation from Amrohi, she started consuming alcohol in high quantity and soon it became a habit of her. Later in 1968, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, for which she received treatment in London and Switzerland. When she returned to India, Kumari resumed working. However, she was much more ill and weak than before.

Her last movie was Pakeezah and three weeks after its completion, Kumari was hospitalized and went into a coma. Meena Kumari died at the age of 38 on 31 March 1972. It is said that throughout her life, she greatly empathized with Marilyn Monroe, particularly because she was reminded of her ill marriage that was similar to Monroe.

Meena Kumari was indeed the greatest actress in the history of Indian cinema. Once Amitabh Bacchan said, “No one, not anyone, ever spoke dialogues the way Meena Kumari did, no one, not anyone to date and perhaps never will”.  

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