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19 September 2017

To Her, With Love

Meena Kumari is one of my favourite actresses of all time, possibly the most favourite of my favourites. So, when, a few years ago, I saw a book touted to be ‘The Classic Biography of Meena Kumari’, I had to pick it up. For various reasons, I didn’t review it then. Better late than never...

Meena Kumari’s enduring image is that of a tragedienne – the role she enacted in the latter part of her career only served to enhance this image. Her loneliness in her later years, and her tragic, untimely death, of cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by her excessive drinking, only enshrined her as the living embodiment of a suffering artiste.

HarperCollins India
Rs: 350/-
Pages: 227
However, her life and indeed, she, herself, cannot be entrapped in stereotypes. For someone who lived her life honestly and openly, it is only fit that her biography chronicles her life, her achievements and her troubles. ‘Meena Kumari – The Classic Biography’ is not a new work, but a dusted off version of an old one, written almost immediately after the actress’s death in 1972. It was republished by HarperCollins in 2013, 41 years after Meena Kumari’s untimely death. 

‘Meena Kumari – The Classic Biography’ is veteran editor Vinod Mehta’s ode to the heroine he adored, the actress to whom his dedication reads, ‘Wish I’d known you’. Written at a time when he was a struggling copywriter, the book was delivered in seven months; too short a time when you look at the life it was meant to chronicle. The difficulty was not just the short deadline; it was that ‘Everything connected with her life had at least four versions…’ However, Mehta persisted, and despite the challenges of finding people willing to talk to him (even if only to give him one more version of an incident), managed to elicit the different facets of Meena Kumari as a person and as an actress.
In a conceit that seems, well, conceited, in present day, Mehta writes of the late actress as ‘my heroine’, a possessiveness that sometimes made me cringe with its twee-ness. He also begins at the end – with her death, and works his way backwards towards her early childhood and career. Yes, the young Mahjabeen had already begun working to support her family.

The first part of the biography is a linear narrative tracing her life and career – her birth in 1932 to Ali Bux and Iqbal Begum, their early days of penury, her initiation to the film studios at the age of 4 (by the early 40s, young Meena (so named for the screen) was charging a stupendous amount of Rs10,000 per film), her rise to stardom with Baiju Bawra, her love affair with the much-older, already-married Kamal Amrohi, her marriage to him in opposition to her father’s wishes when she was barely 20, the resultant estrangement with her family, her years of alcoholism and her lonely, tragic death.
Mehta raises the curtains on the marriage of ‘Chandan’ and his ‘Manju’, the glorious love affair that was doomed not to last. Meena appeared to have changed one gilded cage for another –  gender roles were as firmly entrenched in her marriage, and Amrohi’s expectations restricted Meena’s independence. His restrictions on who could enter her dressing room, the curfew he imposed on her shooting hours, the imposition of his assistant trailing his actress wife wherever she went – all this eventually led to an acrimonious split. Her personal conflicts were in direct contradiction to her professional trajectory – the 1960s were her era, and Meena Kumari ruled the marquee with stunning performances which embraced both critical acclaim and box office success. She reigned supreme.

The second part of the biography sees Mehta assessing his heroine both as an actress and a person. He remarks on her wonderful voice and the cadences of her speech, the ability to do with one glance what would take others several pages of dialogue to impart. He concludes that she was 'the greatest actress of them all'. You may or may not agree with his conclusions but one has to admit that he makes a good argument and defends it well.
 
At the peak of her career came her most riveting performance as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. In an excerpt from her diary, Mehta gives her voice: This woman [Chhoti Bahu] is troubling me a great deal. All day long – and a good part of the night – it is nothing else but Chhoti Bahu’s smiles, hopes, tribulations… Oh, I’m sick of it!’ 
Mehta also devotes an entire chapter to Pakeezah – its genesis, its making affected by the bitterness between its two ‘owners’ – the film that Meena completed despite her ill-health. She was devastated when it opened to poor reviews, but her death changed the film’s fortunes. In death, as in life, Meena had ‘made’ the film (she had put in her own money to make it, and had taken as her fees, one gold mohur). 

Mehta chronicles Meena’s boredom with the ostentatious parties that were part of her professional world, and how she was deemed a snob by those who didn’t know her. He writes of her intelligence, her multi-lingual skills, and her interest in books by all accounts, she was a voracious reader. She was also a decent poet, and egged on by Gulzar, released an album of her poetry titled 'I Write, I Recite'. Interspersed with these are interesting  anecdotes – a run-in, for example, with a dacoit who turned out to be her fan (and asked her to autograph his arm with his knife). 
Mehta also chronicles her involvement with Dharmendra and with Gulzar, one romantic, the other intellectual. In doing so, however, Mehta is constrained by lack of information given that neither Dharmendra nor Gulzar agreed to speak to him about their relationship with Meena. However, Gulzar remained a loyal, steadfast friend till the end, and Meena willed her poems and diaries to him. Gulzar has remained a loyal guardian of its contents. Meena's involvement with men is also the subject of some of the spicier (though not salacious) anecdotes in the book, and I had to admit I laughed out loud at her insouciant remark, ’Raat gayi, baat gayi’ to an ardent admirer. How refreshing to see the human side of an archetypal Bharatiya Nari!

Mehta does state at the outset that ‘it would be a brave, possibly foolish man’ who would attempt a biography of the actress, but his version is meticulously researched, and he has spoken to all the key figures in Meena’s life (except Dharmendra, who refused to talk to him), and then reconciled their contradictory versions to a cohesive whole. He's quite scathing about her numerous relatives, all of whom, in his estimation, treated Meena as the proverbial golden goose.

Mehta’s writing is at once subjective and detached (as must any commissioned work of art be), and he himself had little to do with the film industry at the time he wrote this book. In fact, much though the use of ‘my heroine’ makes it seem like he’s writing a purely opinionated piece on the actress, he confesses that the woman whose portrait he had been asked to sketch, ‘interested me immensely – not while she was alive, but once she was dead…. In the timing and manner of her death, my heroine assumed heroic dimensions.’

He also writes in this newly updated version that he had compromised his narrative by ‘the gratuitous insertion of [his] own personality’ and that he could have improved his work if he had been more detached. I’m glad that in revising the text for the re-release, Mehta did not rework his original text to make it more impersonal or prosaic. Indeed, he makes no effort to mask his distinctive voice, and is, by turns, opinionated and sympathetic, even snarky. Witness this gem, for example: [After quoting from Meena’s account of how helpful Ashok Kumar was during the shooting of Parineeta, Mehta remarks:} ‘Like me, you are probably wondering where the director was while these lessons were going on.’ That said, I do wish that, being an editor of some note himself, Mehta had bothered to – from the vantage point of four decades’ experience – brush up some of his flawed prose, rhetorical flourishes, and awkward grammatical structure.

However, flaws and all, ‘Meena Kumar: The Classic Biography’ is a very engaging, remarkably sympathetic look at a woman who wanted to love and be loved, a woman who deeply missed the things that life didn’t give her. Mehta makes no bones about his admiration for the legendary actress, and makes it clear that Meena lived her life according to her wishes, and like many of us, regretted the consequences of some of her actions. Certainly, she paid a tragic price. ‘My heroine’ comes across as an intelligent, complex woman, multi-talented and engaging.

'Wish I had known you...' Yes, I wish I had, too.

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