Meena Kumari’s life was no less dramatic than her movies. Born in a chawl ‘spectacularly unfit for human living’, she came to be one of India’s biggest screen icons. Put to work in film at the age of seven to support her family, she won the Filmfare awards for Best Actress with her debut as a leading lady, had a Fairytale courtship and marriage with one of the era’s finest film-makers and was universally feted for landmark performances in films like Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Then came the gradual unraveling of the marriage, followed by a series of unfulfilled relationships, the descent into alcoholism, and finally her death from cirrhosis of the liver.
Vinod Mehta’s Riveting account of Meena Kumari’s life begins with her death, week after the release of her swansong Pakeeza. He goes back in time to Meetawala Chawl in Dadar East, where she was born, and to the flats and mansions she lived in, the studios where she worked, the hospital where she died and the cemetery she was buried. Having never met the star,Mehta talks to all those who were close to her – her much –maligned husband kamal Amrohi, her sisters, her in-laws, her much – to create a complx portair of a woman who carefully the image of someone ‘unfairly exploited and betrayed by her lovers and lady luck’. It was a picture that blended well with her on-screen persona. The media had, after all, already anointed her Hindi cinema’s ‘great tragedienne’.
First published in 1972, barely six months after the star’s death, this revised comes with a fresh introduction by the author – one of the most respected names in Indian journalism – and introduces a legend of Indian cinema to a new readership.
Vinod Mehta's is an extraordinary story. He grew up as an army brat from a
Punjabi refugee family in the syncretic culture of Lucknow of the 1950s-an experience
that turned him into an unflagging 'pseudo secularist'. Leaving home with a
BA third-class degree. he experiemnted with a string of jobs, including that
of a factory hand in suburdan Britain, before accepting an offer to edit Debonair,
a journal best known for featuring naked women. With the eclecticism and flair
that were to become his hallmark, he turned it into a lively magazine while
magagine to keep the fans of its centrespreads happy. The next three decades
saw him become one of India's most influential editors as he launched a number
of successful publications from the Sunday Observer to Pioneer to Outlook. Currently,
he is editiorial chairman of the Outlook Group. Vinod Mehta is the author of
the bestselling biography of Sanjay Gandhi, kThe Sanjay story, published by
Harper Collins India in 2012. His much acclaimed memoir Lucknow Boy was published
in 2011. In 2001, he published a collection of his articles under the title
Mr. Editor, How Close Are You to the PM? He lives with his wife Sumita and Dog.Editor,
in New Delhi.
Meena Kumari died of cirrhosis of the liver (precipitated by excessive drinking) in March 1972. I was still working as a copywriter in an advertising agency, and going nowhere. With the false bravado which comes easily to a person who has achieved little, I accepted the commission from Jaico and duly delivered the finished manuscript in October 1972. The biography of week later.
Meena’s husband’s magnum open – Pakeezah – fourteen years in the making and vulnerable to the turbulence of their rocky marriage, had hit the screen in February 1972. Pakeezah opened at Maratha Mandir in Mumbai to a distinctly lukewarm response at the box office and from critics. Immediately after her death, however, a box office miracle occurred. You couldn’t get tickets. The film became a roaring hit. Wild rumours abuzz at the time hinted that Kamal Amrohi had arranged the timing of her widely anticipated demise in order to rescue his tottering film. Homage to the famously tortured star was doubtless the prime reason for the film’s reversal in fortunes.
I got a few good reviews, particularly from K.A. Abbas in Blitz, but I have to admit I was slightly embarrassed with my effort. Besides the subject of the biography being unavailable, I was ditched by the man who callously used and discarded her, dharmendra. He gave me many appointments, none of which he kept. Somebody familiar with the film world said to me as a complaint, ‘how can you write a biography of Meena Kumari without talking to Dharmendra?’ True. Mr. D was the love of her life. His absence from my script constituted a big void.
One other reason for my discomfiture. Because I was new at ones I writing
game, I had few original or interesting ideas. The ones I did have were stolen,
mostly from Mr. Norman mailer, who had not yet produced his tribute to Marilyn
Monroe. Mailer’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Armies of the Night was all the
rage in the early 1970s. In a sense he created a new journalistic genre, which
allowed the author to place himself at the core of his narrative. It was highly
personalized rendering in which the word ‘I’ appears rather too often, while
objectivity pops up rather too rarely. It still remained journalism but heavily
author-centric. I lapped it up. At that formative stage of my writing career,
my susceptibility to trendy literary movements and the fancy mode of expression
of Anglo-Saxon writers should come as no surprise.
Although I have been an editor for nearly four decades, as a consequence of which my job almost on a daily basis involves grading manuscripts, I am a very poor judge of my own work. I need someone whose opinion I value to tell me whether I have written bullshit or a masterpiece. The feedback I got on my portrait of Meena kumara went thus: I had produced an over-sentimental of my own personality into the narrative. A cooler, detached view would have improved the biography immeasurably.
For the past ten year, more than one publisher has approached me with the offer of reissuing the book, with perhaps a fresh introduction. I have resisted the offer since I was not sure my biography merited the honor. Truth to tell, I had forgotten I had ever written such a book. More pressing matters-like learning the nuts bolts of editorship-engaged me. Indeed, I did not even possess a copy of the book, neither did I know or care whether there had been a second print. The biography was part of my mediocre past.
After my memoir Lucknow Boy appeared, for the first time in nearly forty years I reread what I had written in 1972. All the solecisms and structural weaknesses were cringingly visible, but-how can I put this?-it was not as bad as I as had thought. My self-created proximity to the subject posed an obvious and clear danger. Nevertheless, despite the naivety and exhibitionism and hurried judgements, I thought I had managed to capture some fleeting essence of the controversial actress. Was I being overgenerous to my own work? Perhaps. However, you must remember that in 1972 biographies of film stars were hagiographies. At least, I was able to puncture a few myths regarding the ‘great tragedienne’. Most of Meena Kumari’s multiple woes were self-inflicted as she convinced herself she was unfairly exploited and betrayed by her lovers and lady luck.
The ‘great tragedienne’, as the media called her, began to subscribe to her on-screen persona, it merged faultlessly with her unhappy real life. She fell for the oldest trick in the world. Meena considered herself to be uniquely cursed. And copious consumption of brandy provided the only relief. It is a delusion which many people, not just film stars, carry. Not surprisingly, without knowing much about her, she empathized greatly with Marilyn Monroe. The fact that Marilyn’s husband, Arthur Miller, had some passing similarities to Kamal Amrohi, made the identification closer.
How are Madhubala, Nargis and Meena kumari remembered? Nargis took early retirement after her marriage to sunil Dutt, produced three children and because a social worker promoting safe causes. In 1980, she was nominated to the Rajya Sabha, where she took on Satyajit Ray. She accused the great auteur of giving Indian a ‘negative image’ by pandering to Western sensibilities. Nargis mounted a ferocious campaign to ban Satyajit Ray’s films from being shown overseas, especially at film festivals. No one, including Ray, took much notice of her reactionary ratings. The lasting image of Nargis in the minds of most people is of the actress carrying an enormous wooden plough on her shoulders in Mother India.
Madhubala, by filmy standards, had a happy life-and mostly made happy films. Dev Anand remembers her as someone who was ‘always laughing’ she was adventurous in her choice of roles, agreeing to play an Anglo-Indian cabaret dancer. Before doctors discovered a hole in her heart, she had a busy love life; she was two-timing Dilip Kumar by seeing Premnath at the same time. A passing affair with Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is supposed to have taken place. Because most of her films are light, frothy comedies-with terrific music, she leaves behind a joyful ambience, although she had her share of troubles at the her deeply conservative, bankrupt father.
In contrast, Meena Kumari, whose films are seldom shown on TV, evokes victimhood, pathos, despair and consistent bad luck. She played grief-stricken roles in which true love is found but only briefly. In movies like Parineeta, Dil apna aur Preet parayi, she either dies or is abandoned by her man. I suppose the mental picture of Meena Kumari which comes readily to mind is from Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam. The scenes where she is seen pleading with her debauched and philandering spouse (played by Rehman) are unforgettable. He is trying to make her drink alcohol, something she abhors but consumes in the hope that her insobriety will persuade him to stay the night rather visit up market brothels. The word she is associated with.
I wonder what the new generation of under-thirty cinema-goers knows about
her. They might possibly recall Nargis and Madhubala. But Meena who? I don’t
think I would have agreed, if some publisher had asked me, to write a biography
of either Madhubala or Nargis. Meena Kumari was a diverting and more thought
–provoking challenge. I am not sure I did justice to it.
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