Meena Kumari – the tragedy queen of Indian Cinema.
Meena Kumari can be considered as the greatest actress of Bollywood during the golden age who had portrayed images and characters showing complexity of the mind of the Indian women and the social ostentations that they had faced during different periods of time. Meena Kumari, born on 1st August, 1932, known as Mahjabeen Bano, stormed into the Indian silver screen in 1952, with the sublime performance in Baiju Bawra. Although the film had been renowned for everlasting composition of Hindustani ragas by Naushad and supreme performance of Mohammad Rafi, with songs like “man tarpata”, “woh duniya ke rakhwale”, etc., Meena Kumari’s performance opposite Bharat Bhushan showed the filmlovers that she had come to conquer Bollywood with her soft style of acting.
In the 50s Meena Kumari’s performance in films like Parineeta, 1953, Footpath, 1954, Yahudi, 1958, etc. were appreciated by critics, but she had created her image of martyr in the film Sharda, 1957, where even after having an affair with Raj Kapoor, in the film she had to sarcrifice her affection to marry Raj Mehra, his father, who was much older than her. In Dil Ek Mandir, 1963, Meena Kumari after having affair with Rajender Kumar in her youth had to marry Raj Kumar, due to social pressure. But from the time she had married Raj Kumar, she fulfilled all the duties of a middle class Hindu woman, and brought her sick husband to the hospital at the mercy of Rajender Kumar. She prayed to God, for the recovery of Raj Kumar. Rajender Kumar sacrificed his life to treat her husband and died at the end of the film. The songs composed by Shankar Jaikishan and sung by Rafi and Lata, had not lost their significance even today.
In 1962, Meena Kumari, performed the role of choti bahu, in Guru Dutt’s Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam, the film showing the zamindari raj (dominance of Feudal lords) existing in the British capital in India, that is Kolkata. She was married to the youngest son in a family of zamindars who used to attend mujras in Jaan bazaar, in Kolkata, where performers from Lucknow, Benaras used to come and exhibit their skills of singing classical songs. She tried to retain her husband Rehman at home, and through her conversation, Guru Dutt, the observer came to know about the history of the family.
Meena Kumar’s performance opposite Pradeep Kumar, used to create a different dimension, as her pardanashin image had matched with royal style of acting of Pradeep Kumar. After the success of Aarti, 1962, Meena Kumari, acted in the blockbusters Bheegi Raat, 1965, and Bahu Begum, 1967, opposite Pradeep Kumar and Ashok Kumar. In Bheegi Raat, she loved Pradeep Kumar, yet due to an accident which made her legs paralysed she could not attend the engagement and worked in the house of Ashok Kumar as governess. When society boycotted Ashok Kumar, she agreed to marry her, but presence of Pradeep Kumar at the end of the film in the song “dil jo na keh saka” compelled Ashok Kumar to sacrifice his affair and go back to London. It was a film where, Rafi, Lata, Roshan and the actors all had provided their best performance possible. Meena Kumar’s other film with Pradeep Kumar titled Chitralekha was also successful.
Meena Kumari had become immortal with her classic performance in the film Pakeeza, 1971, opposite Raj Kumar, which took around 10 years to be completed. It was created on a subject related to women brought up in kotha and exhibited the class of women who could not give the recognition to their next generation as their father’s are not known. The music composed by Ghulam Mohammad, Lata and Rafi’s songs, Kamal Humrohi’s direction (the husband of Meena Kumari) all complemented each other, and the film became historical piece of document.
The greatest hallmark of Meena Kumari lied in her ability to depict the helplessness of Indian women existing specially in the 50s and 60s, when the patriarchal society dominated them and they had no independent income to live separately against the pressure of society. In her performances, beauty, aristrocracy, tragedy, personality all blended into one. Whenever we think about cine-classics like Dil Apna aur Preet Parayi, 1960, or Ghazal, 1965, Meena Kumari’s image automatically comes in our mind. She died in 1972, only at an age of 41. Meena Kumari’s films should be restored in an archive for future generations to learn the art of understanding the characters from the core of the heart the way Meena Kumari had done during the golden age of Indian cinema.