A full 50 years have passed since Meena Kumari left the world on 31 March 1972. Her will-of-the-wisp persona was much more than an ‘actress nonpareil’ — she was a playback singer, poet, fashion trendsetter, model, and more. From Leatherface in 1939, wherein she made her acting debut as Baby Mahjabeen (she was six then) to Gomti Ke Kinare (1972), her last release, and Mere Apne (1971), the last film she actually shot for, Meena Kumari, personally and professionally, was a story by herself — an ajeeb dastaan, just as one of her biggest chartbusters from Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960) went.
For someone who won seven acting trophies — across Filmfare, the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association or the BFJA, and the Shama magazine’s Shama-Sushma awards) — choosing her best five films of all time is a daunting task. We managed it though, narrowly skipping her wonderful performance as the exploited old widow in Mere Apne (1971) because Meena was about powerful acting as a leading lady.
Baiju Bawra (1952)
While Meena Kumari was making her transition from child actress to an adult, she had to do with second leads as well as some vacuous films as a heroine. After over 15 movies in her filmography, she got her breakthrough with Baiju Bawra as Gauri, the village girl in love with the gentle musician, Baiju (Bharat Bhushan).
One tangy aspect of the film was that it was directed by the same Vijay Bhatt who had introduced a young Meena in Leatherface. The other was that, as Gauri, she proved so accomplished as a performer that although Bharat Bhushan was the protagonist, it was Meena who walked away with a Best Actress award, that too in the Filmfare Awards’ inaugural year. Gauri was indeed sensational, and not just in the ‘Mohe Bhool Gaye Saawariya’ song.
A remake of the bold 1954 Tamil movie, Edhir Paradhathu, Sharada narrated the saga of two lovers, played by Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari, temporarily separated by a quirk of fate. When Kapoor returns, he is shocked to find that Meena is now wed to his rich father and has become his stepmother. What’s more, when he takes to alcohol in frustration, she talks him out of it and makes him marry another girl (Shyama), who later comes to know about their past.
Meena herself was quite progressive in her personal life. She was the first heroine to openly drink alcohol in public instead of concealing it in cola, as many of her contemporaries did then. And although she had mastered the game of playing the ‘adarsh Bharatiya naari’ in so many films, she could do every kind of role. She won the BFJA award for this L.V. Prasad directorial venture that also marked Prasad Productions’ entry into Hindi cinema.
Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960)
Many describe this Kamal Amrohi (Meena’s husband) production, directed by Kishore Sahu, as a Mills & Boon story, complete with a triangular romance and a (literally) cliffhanger kind of happy ending. As the nurse in love with Dr Sushil (Raaj Kumar), who is forced to marry his benefactor’s daughter (Nadira), she was the quintessential anguished soul who tries to make the best of her circumstances. A lesser-known fact about Meena Kumari — she never needed glycerin to shed tears on screen.
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)
Meena Kumari did only three films in 1962. She was nominated for the Best Actress award at Filmfare for all three movies — including Aarti and Main Chup Rahungi — but won for this film. And the odds were only too well-stacked in favour of this unforgettable essay of a wife deprived of love. This was another bold character—Meena’s ‘Chhoti bahu’, six decades ago, openly craved the fulfilment of her sexual needs even as she drowned her sorrows in alcohol.
The film was directed by Abrar Alvi for Guru Dutt, Meena Kumari’s co-star. The most Bengali-influenced of all of Dutt’s movies, it was India’s official entry in the ‘Best Foreign Film’ category at the Oscars. It was also selected for the Berlin International Film Festival.
The film was in the making since 1958 for multiple reasons. Kamal Amrohi decided to reshoot the movie in colour and scrapped whatever he had shot because of the discord between him and Meena Kumari, which ended in her moving out of his home. After this, her addiction to alcohol, deteriorating health, and preference for character roles kept Pakeezah in limbo. In 1968, Sunil Dutt persuaded the estranged couple to revive the partly-shot film, and Meena did everything her health permitted to complete the classic.
Her twin characters of Nargis, the mother, and Sahibjaan, the daughter, won her — perhaps fittingly — two posthumous awards from the BJFA as well as Shama-Sushma. Her dancing skills had already been lauded by no less than the eminent exponent Pandit Lacchhu Maharaj, and she outdid herself in the mujras of the film. But for Meena, acting involved her whole-body language, not just those soft intonations or those anguished eyes. And what a swan song it was.
Rajiv Vijayakar is a film and music journalist, critic and author. He tweets @rajivvijayakar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)