No matter how old or young you are, the name Meena Kumari conjures up images of classic black-and-white films, with the actor delivering a heart-breakingly sad dialogue.
Known as the ‘tragedy queen’ in Hindi cinema, Meena Kumari is also one of the finest actors to have ever graced Bollywood, and for good reason — it is difficult not to feel for her characters. But not all her films were tragedies, and allowed Meena Kumari to show her range as an actor.
ThePrint looks at one such film, Azaad (1955), on Meena Kumari’s 86th birth anniversary this week.
Directed and produced by S.M. Sriramulu Naidu, the film tells the story of Shobha (Meena Kumari), a young woman who is brought up by her dead father’s best friends. Her foster parents’ son goes missing when he is just a child. Shobha grows up to be a beautiful, capable woman who has many suitors — especially the local thug, Sundar. While he plots to kidnap her, she is abducted by another criminal, Azaad (Dilip Kumar).
Everyone knows about his notoriety, but nobody has seen him and the police have never found him. Azaad takes Shobha to the forest where she meets his community members. Soon, Shobha falls in love with him. When she returns home, she insists she will only marry Azaad. All this while police try to capture Azaad and Sundar plots to get Shobha.
Azaad is special for a reason — it is one of those few films where Meena Kumari and Dilip Kumar, both known for building their careers on tragic roles, play happy, carefree characters. And, they both deliver. It’s no surprise that Meena Kumari was celebrated as a versatile actor. Dilip Kumar, with this trademark smirk and drawl, is perfect casting. Om Prakash, who plays a police officer, gets his comic timing right.
The film is fun – the storyline is similar to Robin Hood’s but with some interesting plot twists that catch you off-guard.
The film’s music is memorable with numbers like ‘Radha na bole na bole re’,‘Aplam chaplam chap laiteri duniya ko chod’, and ‘Dekho ji bahar aayi baghon me khili kaliyan’, all sung by Lata Mangeshkar and composed by C. Ramchandra.
The story goes, according to Raju Bharatan’s book Naushadnama, that Naushad was first approached to compose the film’s music, but he refused when the director asked him for 10 songs in 30 days.
Most people remember Meena Kumari for her tragic roles in films like Pakeezahand Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. It’s easy to forget that she had so much more than just melodrama in her repertoire.
She was a gifted singer, sometimes singing her own songs, and a dancer as well. Like in most of her films, tragedy struck her in real life too. And this is the image that has stayed with people.
That’s why it is important to remember films like Azaad, which break the stereotypes we have come to associate with Meena Kumari.