It was on 31 March 1972 that the immensely talented Meena Kumari died, aged 38, leaving behind a rich cinematic legacy.
7 greatest roles of Meena Kumari – Special
New Delhi - 31 Mar 2022 23:56 IST
Updated : 01 Apr 2022 2:33 IST
Described by the critic Afeefa Banu as ‘an object of fantasy and a motif of melancholy’, Meena Kumari captured the hearts and imagination of millions of people with her exceptional talent.
Born Mahjabeen Bano, she was led into the world of cinema at the age of six to fend for her family and appeared in Vijay Bhatt’s Leatherface (1939). As an adult, she worked in a few mythological and fantasy films. Her big break came once again with Vijay Bhatt in the musical Baiju Bawra (1952), which won her the Filmfare award for Best Actress.
This was followed by another big success, Bimal Roy’s Parineeta (1953), for which she won her second Filmfare award. The 1950s saw her in such acclaimed films as Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Daaera (1953), Azaad (1955), Miss Mary (1957), Sharada (1957) and Yahudi (1958). But it was the 1960s that brought her career-defining roles with Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Main Chup Rahungi (1962), Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Kaajal (1965), Phool Aur Patthar (1966) and many others, culminating in her swansong Pakeezah (1972).
The great tragedienne, as she was christened by the film media, had the strange fate of fiction meeting reality when her own life started to echo the doleful strains that so often accompanied the grief-stricken characters she would portray so movingly on screen. Exploited by various people in her life, shattered by a lengthy estrangement from her beloved husband Kamal Amrohi, and burdened by medical ailments, Meena Kumari’s on-screen and off-screen personae became inextricably linked, her innocence and sadness elevating her to the status of a revered woman. She even said once that people would pluck strands of her hair to make talismans out of them.
She died aged only 38 on 31 March 1972. In Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography, the late journalist Vinod Mehta recounts some reactions to news of her death, which acknowledged the unparalleled mastery of her craft as well as the sorrowful events in her life that took a toll on her. Even Satyajit Ray conceded, “I have not seen most of her films, but I saw Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam which impressed me. She was undoubtedly an actress of the highest calibre.”
But it was, perhaps, the lines by BK Karanjia, long-serving Filmfare magazine editor, that encapsulated her life best. He wrote, “She made a lot of money and lost it, she knew great love and lost that too. Across those exquisite sculptured features, the marble made flesh, flustered the bemused query: ‘Is it true they say it is better to have loved and lost?’
On Meena Kumari's 50th death anniversary, we take a look at some of the best roles of her luminous career.
Baiju Bawra (1952)
This blockbuster hit became a turning point in the young Meena Kumari’s career. Baiju Bawra starred Bharat Bhushan in arguably his best known film role as the titular singer determined to challenge the glory of the legendary vocalist Tansen. Vijay Bhatt’s film featured Meena Kumari as Baiju's love interest, Gauri. Acclaimed for its music by Naushad, the film was a hit with audiences and critics alike and won Meena Kumari her first Filmfare award for Best Actress in 1954, the year the awards were instituted.
Based on Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s eponymous story, Bimal Roy’s engrossing film featured Shekhar (Ashok Kumar) who is love with his neighbour’s niece Lalita (Meena Kumari). His father is opposed to Lalita's family, which creates the central tension in the film. The film won Meena Kumari her second Filmfare award.
While Roy was completing the film, he formed his own production unit and made Do Bigha Zamin (1953), which he produced and directed. Meena Kumari played a small part in that film as well.
Written and directed by Kamal Amrohi, Daaera is another film from 1953 that is significant in Meena Kumari’s career. One of her lesser known films, it featured her as a young woman named Sheetal who is married to an old man who is unwell. Her neighbour, played by Dilip Kumar's brother Nasir Khan, falls desperately in love with her, thinking the old man is her father, but she is caught within the bounds of morality and convention. Although the film did not do well commercially, it remains a powerful performance by Meena Kumari, who played the quiet, reticent woman exquisitely, capturing the silent suffering and inner turmoil of her character. Daaera is said to have had strains of the relationship shared by Amrohi and her.
Dil Apna aur Preet Parai (1960)
Who can forget the immortal song, 'Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh', sung by Lata Mangeshkar, with lyrics by Shailendra and music by Shankar-Jaikishan? The song was picturized on Meena Kumari in Kishore Sahu’s superhit film Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, a romance between her character, a nurse, and a doctor played by Raaj Kumar. Shot by Josef Wirsching, the intensity of the film is highlighted by the understated performances that capture the yearning in love.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)
Arguably the crowning glory of Meena Kumari’s storied career, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, directed by Abrar Alvi and produced by Guru Dutt, is still remembered for her masterly performance as Chhoti Bahu, the achingly lonely wife of a decadent zamindar (Rehman) who takes to alcohol in a desperate but eventually futile bid to keep her husband from consorting with courtesans.
Based on Bimal Mitra’s eponymous novel, the role was fated to be Meena Kumari's. The actress had refused the role when it was offered to her in 1958, largely on her husband Kamal Amrohi’s insistence. However, around 1960, when Guru Dutt came to her again with the offer, she read the script and immediately agreed. Fittingly, she won her third Best Actress Filmfare award for this film.
Meena Kumari’s role in Ram Maheshwari’s Kaajal fetched the actress her final Filmfare statuette. Also starring Dharmendra, Raaj Kumar and Padmini, the film was based on a novel by Gulshan Nanda titled Maadhavi. In the titular role, Meena Kumari once again played a doomed woman who is misunderstood and mistreated and whose fate is dictated by those around her.
Meena Kumari’s swansong was an exceptional Muslim social that is part of film lore. Conceptualized in 1956, when work on the film began, Pakeezah was shelved due to the deteriorating relationship between the film's writer-director Kamal Amrohi and his wife and leading lady, Meena Kumari. Shooting was resumed in 1969 with an ailing Meena Kumari struggling to complete the film.
The story of a courtesan and her forbidden love, Meena Kumari brought an emotional charge to her sublime performance, conveying the yearning that her character feels for a life that she so desires but which remains elusive for her.
The film was released in February 1972 at Bombay's Maratha Mandir theatre to tepid response. But after the star died on 31 March, fans began flocking to cinema halls to watch the film, making it a huge success. Pakeezah is often counted among the best films in Hindi cinema and remains one of Meena Kumari’s most riveting performances.