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26 April 2011

The Greats: Meena Kumari

01.08.1932 - 31.03.1972
This is taking ambition to a new level. I would like to choose actors and actresses who can rightly be called masters of their craft; and to showcase ten films that I like (and it is a very subjective choice) from their vast repertoire. And I am beginning the series with one of the finest actresses of all time, one who truly does deserve the tribute 'The Great'. 
It's hard to know where to begin when one is talking about Meena Kumari. Enshrined forever as the tragedy queen, kohl-rimmed eyes brimming, long-suffering, traditional bharatiya nari, many people tend to forget that Meena Kumari was one of the finest actresses of her time, with a range that went far beyond white saris and glycerine.

My father had a theory that it was the producers from the south who spoiled her image, and that of Nutan's by bringing the so-called 'family drama' into Hindi - remakes of three-handkerchief tearjerkers from Tamil and Telugu. I do not know how far that theory holds water, but it is true that she starred in many South remakes, mostly those starring Savitri, who bore an uncanny resemblance to her. It is also rather ironical that very soon, Savitri was starring in remakes of Meena Kumari starrers. 

She was one of the few actresses of her time who sold movies based on her own star power. She had very few films with the ruling troika of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand. And while she immortalised the roles of the alcoholic Choti Bahu and the heart wrenching Sahibjaan, watch Kohinoor, or Azad or Miss Mary, and you will soon realise that it was unfair to Meena Kumari to slot her only a tragedienne. Her comic timing is impeccable, and her range as a dramatic actress is truly remarkable.

1. Baiju Bawra (1952)
Meena Kumari's first major role as heroine, opposite Bharat Bhushan who played the fictional poet Baiju. Directed by Vijay Bhatt, and with music scored by Naushad, the film was a stupendous success. This was probably one of the few movies where the musical score was based completely on classical ragas. With songs ranging from Man tarpat Hari darshan ko to O duniya ke rakhwale, from Bachpan ke muhobbat ko to Mohe bhool gaye saawariya, music director Naushad walked away with a well-deserved Filmfare award, while heroine Meena won her first.  

2. Azaad (1955)
A swashbuckling tale of thieves and kidnappers and straight garden-variety villains, Azaad was a thundering success when it first released. Even today, it is well worth the couple of hours of complete entertainment. Add a fistful of songs by C Ramachandra (Radha na bole na bole na bole ni, Kitni jawaan hai raat, Ja re ja re o kaari badariya, Dekho ji bahaar aayi), a beautifully choreographed dance by Sai and Subbulakshmi, and what more can you ask for?

Meena played regulation heroine, albeit a spunky one. She is an orphan, brought up by her father's friend and his wife. They dote upon her, their own son having been abducted in childhood. Dilip Kumar plays the titular role of the neighbourhood Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give the poor. And Pran, good old Pran, is the man they all love to hate, leching after Meena Kumari as was his wont. No prizes for guessing whom the sprightly heroine will choose.  

3. Ek Hi Rasta (1956)
A social drama from BR Chopra, the film dealt with the controversial issue of widow remarriage. Sunil Dutt stars as Amar, the loving husband and father. Meena Kumari is Malti, his wife, and they live a happy life with their son Raju. Until Sunil Dutt is murdered by a co-worker whom he had helped put into prison. Her world turned upside down, Malti tries to keep the truth from her young son. She tells him that his father is badly injured and in hospital, and it will take a long time for him to return.

Ashok Kumar plays Amar's boss, Prakash, a man who has long envied the simple happy life that his employee led. Holding himself responsible for Amar's death, he visits Malti and assures her of any help that she may need. Malti gratefully accepts and soon Prakash is a frequent visitor to their home, making friends with Raja, and falling in love with Malti, though he successfully hides his growing attraction.

Unfortunately, society is not as kind. Soon rumours begin to spread about the illicit relationship between Malti and Prakash. Defying social norms, Prakash marries her. That stops the gossip, but they had not bargained with Raja, who begins to hate Prakash for usurping his father's rightful place.  

4. Parineeta (1953)
The Bimal Roy adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's novel of the same name, the film deals with issue of wealth, and how it should be used, with ethics and morality,  rich and poor. The love story is only the background to how these issues play out on screen and how the various characters deal with it. On the face of it, Parineeta is the story of Lalita, Shekhar and Giri Babu. Both Shekhar and Giri Babu are rich, the former is the spoilt younger scion of a wealthy family, while Giri Babu is Lalita's best friend's uncle. The source of the latter's wealth is never mentioned. Except by the scorn in Shekhar's voice, which makes you think that Giri Babu is 'newly wealthy', or a self-made man, as opposed to the 'aristocratic' Shekhar.

The orphaned Lalita, played with sincerity and vulnerability by Meena Kumari is no drudge; she is loved by her uncle and aunt who have looked after her after her parents' death, and is equally comfortable in her neighbour Shekhar's home - his mother depends on her for everything, and Shekhar himself has no objection to teaching Lalita or giving her free use of his money - what is his, is hers, and she has no reason to ask him before taking it.

Shekhar's father is a moneylender, who uses an old debt to hound Lalita's uncle to sell him the house. Giri Babu, who believes that one's wealth is not to be hoarded, but used for the good of society lends him the money to repay the debt. It is well-intentioned, no doubt, but that forms the crux of the misunderstanding between Lalita and Shekhar. 

Bimalda's Parineeta meanders quietly and lyrically to its inevitable conclusion when all boundaries are crossed, all walls are broken down, both literally and metaphorically. There is no melodrama, no overt histrionics and no scenery chewing dramatic scenes. Lalita is a strong woman, and a quietly loyal one. One of the best scenes in the movie is when she meets Shekhar as a married woman - he humiliates her, not knowing that she considers herself married to him. Her eyes express her hurt but there is an innate pride and dignity with which she answers him. 

5. Miss Mary (1957)
This is here simply because very few people know that Meena could be as zany as anyone else; she is sparkly and flirty and spunky and petulant by turns and an absolute delight to watch as she sets the screen afire. The remake of a Tamil film called Missiamma, Meena Kumari played the role that was essayed by Jamuna in Tamil and her doppelganger Savitri in Telugu, while Gemini Ganesan reprised his role from the Tamil version. Kishore Kumar as a bumbling detective  and Om Prakash join in the lunacy, and a great time is had by all. 

Mary and Arun are both unemployed and competing with each other for a job. They are not beyond resorting to subterfuge to diddle each other, but upon Arun's getting hold of an advertisement for married teachers, Mary is forced by the exigencies of her situation to agree to be his wife. The squabbling couple land up at the Rais, a couple who have lost their older daughter; upon seeing Mary, who resembles the lost child, they lavish their love and affection on her - a fact that irritates Mary. 

And Raju (Kishore Kumar) is busy trying to spot whether the Christian Mary is actually the Hindu Lakshmi, and whether she has a mole on her foot,  while Mary is seething because her supposed younger sister is flirting with Arun. She doesn't realise that her anger is because she is falling in love with Arun herself.

Hemant Kumar's music set the tone for this frothy comedy, with gems like Brindavan ka Krishn Kanhaiyya, Aayi re ghir ghir, Ye mard bade, So gaya saara zamaana and *this* zany song by Kishore etc.,

6. Yahudi (1958)
Yahudi is set in the period when the Romans persecuted the Jews. A well-written and well-directed (Bimal Roy) movie, it tells the story of Hannah (Meena Kumari) a Jewish maiden who falls in love with Marcus, a Roman prince. Hannah is actually Lydia, a Roman princess who had been kidnapped in revenge; when she is brought to the grieving father, he takes pity on her and brings her up as his daughter. 

Marcus is betrothed to Octavia (Nigar Sultana), but falls in love with the shy Jewish maiden while on a campaign. He pretends to be a Jew, a Yahudi, in order to win Hannah's love; a duplicity that has its inevitable consequences when Hannah discovers the truth. However, she cannot quench her heart's desires so easily. 

A period film without the flash of the genre, Yahudi is a muted lovestory that plays across barriers of race and religion, and both Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari bring the required subtlety and restraint to their performances. The latter looks almost impossibly beautiful in this, her eloquent eyes doing all the talking necessary.

Yahudi is one of the lesser known Bimalda films. The music by Shankar-Jaikishen included such melodies as Dil mein pyaar ka toofan, Aate jaate, Meri jaan, meri jaan, Aayi re kaise judaai, and... also watch a very young and beautiful Helen dance up a storm with her equally famous senior Cuckoo.

7. Kohinoor (1960)
The perfect entertainer, the film had everything that is necessary for a fairy tale - a beautiful princess who is not above hitting people on the head, a dashing prince, a wicked senapati, (a delicious Jeevan) an evil King, a court dancer who loves the prince, sword fights, coincidences galore... sigh. It is perfect for a Sunday night viewing.

When the ruler of Kailash Nagar passes away, his loyal commander-in-chief crowns the happy-go-lucky crown prince as the next ruler. The new king has no time for ruling the kingdom, preferring to spend his time in hunting, and music and dance. The commander-in-chief's wife who has brought up the prince as her own son, wants him to marry Princess Chandramukhi of Raigadh.

The raja of Raigadh is ecstatic. Raigadh's senapati however, has many objections to the proposed alliance; mainly, that he is in love with the princess himself, and would like both to have her as his wife and her kingdom as dower. When she disposes summarily of his proposal, he abducts her and keeps her captive until she is ready to consent. 

So crown prince Dhivendra Pratap swings to the rescue, and Princess Chandramukhi wastes no time in falling in love with him. However, the devious senapati is not quite done with the two of them. In the ensuing chase (oh, did I mention there were horse chases?), the princess is recaptured and the prince grievously injured. And he is looked after by Raigadh's court dancer, who finds, much to her dismay that while the prince may play for her while she dances, he is not in love with her.

Wonderful, wonderful songs (Naushad / Shakeel Badayuni), as was usual for that period , Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle at the peak of their careers, and a leading man who learnt to play the sitar for a song, so he would look authentic... definitely worth a watch. 

8. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
If Kagaz ke Phool was supposed to be it's director's autobiography, then Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, based on a Bengali novel of the same name, followed the tragic trajectory of its heroine's life.  Set during the British Raj, the metaphorical tale of a disintegrating society unfolds through the story of Choti Bahu, narrated by a rustic young lad who has come to the city to better himself.  A middle-aged architect Bhootnath (an aptly cast Guru Dutt) is reminiscing at the ruined site of an ancient haveli. The haunting strains of a dimly-remembered melody takes him back to the days when the haveli was inhabited.

When we first catch a glimpse of the Choti Bahu, we are only shown her feet. It is only much later that we see her face, as the camera follows Bhootnath's shy gaze, when she smuggles him into the ladies quarters - she wants him to do her a favour that will bring her husband back to her. 

When even that fails, the desperate Choti Bahu begs her husband to tell her what it is that will keep him with her. When he mentions alcohol, she is repelled but forces herself to drink, a step that will have dire consequences. 

This was a movie that Meena Kumari made her own. With her languorous voice, and her tear-filled eyes, she played a complex character, a woman who chafes at the feudal bonds that constrain her. She is desperate yet dignified, a woman unloved, fighting both rejection and a terrible addiction as she makes an anguished plea for her husband's love. 

9. Aarti (1962)

Another strong dramatic role that matched Meena Kumari with Ashok Kumar.  This, along with Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Main Chup Rahoongi won her three Filmfare nominations for Best Actress in a single year. She plays the titular role of Arti Gupta, a doctor who believes in using her skills and knowledge for the common good. Her fiance, Dr Prakash (Ashok Kumar), believes quite the opposite.  When Aarti is saved from drowning by an unemployed youth Deepak (Pradeep Kumar), it eventually leads to her falling in love with him and marrying him against the wishes of her father. 

Humiliated by the rejection, Dr Prakash vows to take revenge. (I love Dadamoni in his villainous incarnations!) Even though he gets married too, he still keeps in touch with Aarti, and, playing upon the husband's insecurities, subtly causes a rift between husband and wife. Aarti returns to her father's home. And when Deepak suffers an accident, Dr Prakash's is in a position to play God. Revenge, after all, is so sweet. 

10. Pakeezah (1972)
Meena Kumari's swansong. The muharat of the film was performed in 1956, and the first shot was canned in 1958. It finally released in 1972, but neither Meena Kumari nor Ghulam Mohammed, the music director, lived to see its success. Meena died two months after the movie released, disappointed by its lukewarm box-office response. Her death reawakened an interest in the movie, and it went on to achieve cult status. Ghulam Mohammed died during the making of the movie, leaving Amrohi to bring in Naushad to compose the background score.

Elaborate, lavish, splendid. Terms that come easily when one is viewing intricately designed kothas and havelis, glittering chandeliers, gauze duppattas,and exquisite jewellery. There is a distinct difference in Meena Kumari since the film took almost two decades to be finished. Ill health and alcoholism had marred her features to an extent that Kamal Amrohi, her estranged husband, shot Chalo dildaar chalo without once showing her face. While some of the later dance sequences had Padma Khanna standing in as body double in the long shots.

Playing the titular role of the 'Pure One', Meena Kumari utilised her lyrical voice to its maximum to reveal the hidden depths of sorrow at the duality of her life. She is mother and daughter, Nargis and Sahibjaan, the latter seemingly destined to follow in the footsteps of the former - both literally and figuratively. But while the mother flees to a graveyard to escape both the confines of the kotha and the ridicule of society, the daughter has a far happier ending - her doli leaves the kotha and she is a bride at the end of that journey. 

Meena Kumari's voice has rarely been used with such efficacy as it was here. The heavy urdu dialogues, full of pathos, tugged at your heartstrings because of the way she modulated her voice. Few know that Raj Kapoor helped her train her voice to perfection, while Meena herself gave Dadamoni credit for honing her histrionics.

Ghulam Mohammed gave Kamal Amrohi 12 songs for this film; he used only six of them. It would be interesting if whoever owned the rights to the songs today (my guess is it would be Amrohi's heirs) would release them. 

Though dated in some scenes, Pakeezah had a lyrical quality about it that has withstood the test of time.  

There are many other movies that were on my list - Dil Apna aur Preet Parayi (a guilty pleasure), Majhli Didi, Phool aur Patthar, Mere Apne, Footpath,  Ilzam (where she matched Kishore Kumar step for step in zaniness), Main Chup Rahoongi, Dil Ek Mandir, Sharda that were good to average (none of these were 'bad' films, though some of them were certainly tear-jerkers), and each of them had lovely songs, and consistently good performances.


  1. I'd always heard that it was Padma Khanna, not Padmini Kapila, who was Meena Kumari's dancing double in some of the shots from Pakeezah.

    But... what a great list. Some amazingly good Meena Kumari performances there (though I must confess I don't like Aarti as a film very much - nothing against Meena Kumari's performance, though). Two films of hers that I find irritating beyond belief are Akeli Mat Jaiyo and Chandan ka Palna - I find it hard to imagine why she acted in those films!

    By the way, one delightful film with Meena Kumari in non-tragic mode is Bandish, 1955, with Ashok Kumar and Daisy Irani. Great fun.

  2. dustedoff, thanks for spotting the Padma Khanna / Pdmini Kapila mix-up. I liked Arti solely for the acting, and for a slightly more progressive story - Meena's character is definitely not a doormat. I haven't seen Akeli Mat Jaiyo, but yes, Chandan ka Palna was b-a-a-d! And thanks for the Bandish recommendation; I have put it on my must-watch list (which, by the way, seems to be growing longer and longer).

    I have also added How to Steal a Million to my Netflix queue. I can't think how I happened to miss an Audrey Hepburn movie. There is a wonderful comedy called The Million Pound Note starring Gregory Peck - have you seen that yet? I watched it a long time ago, but I can't seem to find it anywhere now.

  3. I'd always heard that it was Padma Khanna, not Padmini Kapila, who was Meena Kumari's dancing double in some of the shots from Pakeezah.

    But... what a great list. Some amazingly good Meena Kumari performances there (though I must confess I don't like Aarti as a film very much - nothing against Meena Kumari's performance, though). Two films of hers that I find irritating beyond belief are Akeli Mat Jaiyo and Chandan ka Palna - I find it hard to imagine why she acted in those films!

    By the way, one delightful film with Meena Kumari in non-tragic mode is Bandish, 1955, with Ashok Kumar and Daisy Irani. Great fun.

  4. Anirudha. Dharwadkar3 January 2012 at 04:44

    The most amazing thing is that meena kumari's voice could be dard-bhara as well as sensual - AT THE SAME TIME.( especially in Pakeezah) . Just listen to her voice which appears in the background when ashok kumar is reading her letter. Or when she is lying in Rajkumar's tent after she sees him for the first time.


  5. You are right about that. Her voice certainly added to her emoting. Have you heard her reciting her own poetry?


  6. I am a die-hard fan of Meena Kumari but am sometimes put off by the never-ending flow of tears. Thanks for reminding me about some of the lighter roles she played. By the way I have seen all the 3 versions of "Parineeta". Top rank of course to the Meena Kumari-Ashok Kumar one but the latest version was good too. Vidya Balan did a good job there. But the one in between, the Jeetendra-Sulakshana Pandit version, was an absolute bad-egg and sadly I saw that one first.

  7.  I never even knew there was a middle version! From your description, I'm thankful I didn't.

  8.   I never even knew there was a middle version! From your description, I'm thankful I didn't.

  9.  Lucky you, I would like to forget it too. I watched it during the Doordarshan era when you saw whatever they dished out to you.

  10.  *Grin* I did watch a whole bunch of not-so-great and sometimes even awful films on Doordarshan. But I seem to have missed this one. Thank heavens!

  11. Add Baharon ki Manzil (a thriller), Shararat , Naya Andaz (both have Kishore Kumar and the latter has the song 'meri neendon mein tum), and Halaku to the list of Meena Kumari's non-tragic films.
    Now I have counted  some 15 odd films  of Meena Kumari where we don't see her 'tragedy queen' avatar.
    I can barely recall Nargis having done even half a dozen of such roles.

  12. Meena Kumari's tragic films are watchable and are deservedly well known. That is NOT the case with Nutan. I *cringe* watching most of Nutan's roles from 1964-65 to 1970.
    (except I don't remember much of Saraswati Chandra apart from the good music). From Seema and Bandini to the 'tragic Bharatiya Naari', its  unbelievable sometimes for me.

  13. Many people have that misconception about Meena Kumari. That she acted only in suffering, sacrificing roles. I remember my 17-year-old cousin, who, upon catching sight of Miss Mary on television remarking in astonishment: "You mean she actually laughed on screen?"

  14.  Don't remind me of Saraswati Chandra. Or Khandaan... I used to hate Nutan with a vim and a verve until I caught sight of Seema. (I'd the misfortune of seeing her later films first.)


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