It was tragic that Meena Kumari, who was termed as the “tragedy queen” of Bollywood for her immortal, iconic portrayals of a varied gamut of wronged, silent and long-suffering but dignified Indian women from passed-over love interests to neglected wives, was also one of the most unfortunate actresses whose grief did not end when the shooting was done.
Meena Kumari was no less tragic than her roles in cinematic classics, spanning Baiju Bawra (1952) to Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) and Pakeezah (1972). In these and more, she could evoke such a lifetime of unhappiness and anguish that it was difficult to believe that she was only in her 20s and 30s when she played these roles.
Or even, “Ab yahaan kuch nahi sannata hi sannata hai/Dekh ke veerana log abh bhi yehi kehte hai/Kisi dulhan ka maqbarah hai yeh khandar to nahi!”
Born on August 1, 1933, Mahjabeen Bano saw her father Ali Bux, a stage artiste who never made it big in Bollywood, and mother Iqbal Begum, a stage actress, who was the granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s younger brother) try to achieve their desires vicariously through her. When she was only four, they started taking her around film studios angling for a role for her.
Ultimately, director-producer Vikram Bhatt featured her the hero’s daughter in his costumed drama Leatherface (1939), where she was credited as Baby Meena. After a stint as a child artiste, it was Bhatt who eventually made her a household name with Baiju Bawra, for which she won a Filmfare Award.
The same year, she would go on to marry filmmaker Kamal Amrohi, 15 years her senior, but the marriage soon went on the rocks as he tried to set rules for her film career and even allegedly mistreated her, and they eventually separated.
But even as her personal life went miserable, Meena Kumari went on to set milestones in Indian cinema with her roles in Halaku (1956), Yahudi (1958), Char Dil Char Rahen (1959), Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960), Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Main Chup Rahungi, Aarti (all 1962), Benazir (1964), Bahu Begum (1967), Mere Apne (1971) and eventually her swan-song, the long-delayed Pakeezah, completed just before her death in 1972.
While known as a tragedienne, she could do comic roles with perfect timing too as seen in films like Miss Mary (1957), Shararat (1959) and Kohinoor (1960) but never got much of a chance in this genre. This was perhaps the biggest tragedy for Meena Kumari.
Always a creature of the night, she was a veritable owl — the difference being that she did not sleep in the day either — who since the days of her telephone romance had found difficulty in closing her eyes. Dr. Saeed Timurza, her physician, then prescribed a peg of brandy as a sleeping pill, and this was officially how she came into contact with the habit that was to kill her.
If she took to drink initially it was because she was exhausted. According to Kamal Amrohi, the one peg of brandy increased to many more. One day he apprehended Meena’s maidservant pouring out the doctor’s medicine and he noticed the glass was nearly half full. On reprimanding the maidservant he discovered that this measure had become my heroine’s standard, and further, the bottles of Dettol in the Amrohi bathroom did not contain antiseptic but brandy. From that day onwards Kamal says he checked the Dettol bottles and ensured that Meena did not have any drink handy.
Meena Kumari was one of the finest actresses we had and her place in the film industry no one can ever take. She entertained her fans and audience with tragedy but her life itself was full of sadness and tragedy. But we will always remember her as an ultimate actress with dignity, versatility, beauty, and courage.