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31 August 2016

The Many Moods of Meena Kumari

As I've remarked before, I'd had such plans for the summer. I would post this review, and that song list; I'd even decided which ones. August had been earmarked for a month-long celebration of one of my favourite actresses. Alas! If you want the Gods to laugh, tell them your plans, says one proverb. Closer to earth, John Lennon said 'Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.' Long way short of saying 'Nothing worked!' I've chronicled the reasons in another post but suffice it to say that I did not deliver on a self-promise. 

August is Meena Kumari's 'birth' month - she was born on the 1st. I could not let the month end without a post to mark my respect to an actress who has given me hours and hours of enjoyment. Before she became synonymous with tragedy, however, before she let her kohl-lined eyes fill with tears, and her husky voice drip pathos on screen, Meena Kumari performed a gamut of roles that made one realise how unfair it was to slot her as 'tragedy queen'. 

I decided that just as I had reviewed films where she was not perpetually weeping or put upon, the songs that I would select for this post would also reflect her myriad moods (with the exception of sadness, which explains the absence of 'Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh'). So, here, in no particular order, are ten of my favourite songs in which Meena Kumari gets to portray disparate emotions, most of them happy.  

1. Maternal
Aa ja ri aa nindiya
Do Bigha Zameen (1953) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Salil Choudhury Lyrics: Shailendra 
Meena Kumari was known to love children, and various erstwhile child artistes who worked with her have attested to her affection towards them. Meena Kumari, who was shooting for Parineeta at the time, is said to have begged Bimal Roy for a role, any role, in Do Bigha Zameen. The ace director obliged, and Meena appeared in a song sequence as the Thakur's wife, who's singing a lullaby to her baby son. Her expression, as she gazes at the little baby asleep in her arms, is full of maternal affection. There's a serene happiness about her beautiful face that is underlined by the movement of the baby's hands as it caresses her face. A delicious irony underlies this scene, because, outside the window, is Paro (Nirupa Roy). It is because of the Thakur, that Paro's husband, Shambhu (Balraj Sahni) has had to leave home in search of employment. Do Bigha Zameen was Salilda's gateway to a career in Hindi films.  

2. Devotional
Jyoti kalash chhalke
Bhabhi ki Choodiyan (1961) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Sudhir Phadke Lyrics: Pandit Narendra Sharma
One of my favourite bhajans, as much for its lyrics and the way it is sung, as for its picturisation. Unlike most other songs of its ilk, Jyoti kalash chhalke is sung in the background, while Geeta (Meena Kumari) gets up at sunrise, and then goes about her chores. She is helped by her little brother-in-law, Mohan (Master Aziz), who tags along behind his beloved bhabhi, bringing her water, watching her as she cleans the courtyard, draws a rangoli, plants and waters a tulsi plant. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, Geeta's devar faithfully follows her around, watching and emulating her every move. Geeta's affection for the motherless little boy is clear in her actions, and Meena Kumari aces the role of a woman who, married to provide a mother to a young lad, is faced with the prospect of barrenness, herself.  

3. Playful
Na bole na bole  na bole re
Azaad (1955) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: C Ramchandra Lyrics: Rajinder Krishen
Now, Meena Kumari was no great shakes as a dancer, but she was immeasurably graceful, and could carry off the moves if they were not too complicated. Here, she's a daughter dancing in front of her mother, who's disposed to be pleased, anyway. It's a charming dance number, where Shobha (Meena Kumari) enacts the role of Radha, who is upset with her Krishna. For Krishna had broken her water pots near the river, when she went to fetch water. So, now, Radha will not lift her ghoonghat, or talk to him. No, not unless he apologises to her, and places his flute at her feet. Then, perhaps, she might forgive him for his naughtiness. Much  more than her steps, it is Meena's expressions that capture the gamut of emotions that a young girl, angry with her lover, feels.  

4. Teasing
Ye mard bade bedard
Miss Mary (1957) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Hemant Kumar Lyrics: Rajinder Krishen
Meena Kumari plays the titular 'Miss Mary' who has to pretend to be Arun's (Gemini Ganesan) wife in order to get a job. Once there, she is extremely cross at her employers who treat her like their elder daughter (who was abducted as a little child), and interfere in her life. What's more, their daughter, Sita (Jamuna) is learning music from Mary's 'husband', and flirting madly with him while she does so. Irritated by Sita's interest in Arun, and assuming/fearing that Arun is encouraging her (or at least, not discouraging her), Mary flounces off to the piano to sing of all the ways in which a man is bad news. What's more, she makes some fabulous faces while she does so. Sauce for the gander being sauce for the goose, an irritated Arun does get his own back a couple of minutes later, and we are treated to some more of Meena's ability to twist her face into incredible expressions.  

5. Entrancing  
Thare rahiyo
Pakeezah (1972) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Ghulam Mohammed Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri 
What does a courtesan do but enchant the men who come to visit her? Sahibjaan dances, her every move calculated to entrance; each ada polished to perfection, performed to drive the men mad. She's had an excellent teacher, Gauharjaan (Nadira), one who not only knows the art of fascinating men, but is also adept at spotting the ones with the most money. So here, gazing possessively at 17-year-old Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari), is the Nawab (Kamal Kapoor).

Within minutes of spotting the young girl, the Nawab is sufficiently  besotted to mark her for his own, pulling out bags and bags of gold coins to signal his interest. Sahibjaan's aunt, Nawabjaan (Veena) is happy to encourage that interest, but Sahibjaan's disinterest is clear. And annoying to the Nawab, who also takes umbrage at the other aristocrats, who are also throwing their moneyed purses at the courtesan's feet. Sahibjaan may not be aware of it, but she's being sold to the highest bidder. The Nawab makes it clear that he claims her by the simple expedient of shooting the man who makes a counter offer.  

6. Romantic
Meri jaan meri jaan
Yahudi (1958) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Shankar-Jaikishan Lyrics: Shailendra
What's a young girl to do when she falls in love with a stranger? The man, whom Hannah (Meena Kumari) knows as Moshe (Dilip Kumar), however, is Marcus, the crown prince of the Roman empire. And he's betrothed to Octavia (Nigar Sultana), Brutus's niece. 

For now, however, Hannah is happy to be in love, but wonders what to do. She does not abdicate her own responsibility in losing her heart to the dashing young man, however. If she hadn't smiled at him, he wouldn't have dared approach her. So how can she complain? It's nice to see Meena Kumari look so cheerful and sprightly, as she tries (but fails) to hide her happiness at having fallen in love.            

7. Anticipation
Piya aiso jiya mein
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) Singer: Geeta Dutt Music: Hemant Kumar Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Chhoti Bahu, tired of her husband's lack of interest in her as a woman, had turned to Mohini sindoor to save her marriage. Now, sure that her husband will be seduced by its charms, she sits eagerly at the dressing table, making herself up carefully, leaving the pièce de résistance - the sindoor - for the last. The restlessness of a woman in love, waiting for her husband to return, dressing up in anticipation of his arrival, listening to footfalls outside and wondering if it is him after all, her anticipation veiled by her innate shyness... each separate emotion finds itself mirrored on Meena Kumari's exquisite face. 

8. Bewildered
Woh jo milte the kabhi
Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Madan Mohan Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
What's a girl to do when the man she's in love with and who, she assumed, was in love with her, refuses to even meet her? Not only that, he doesn't remember the words to the love songs they once sung together. Why is he acting like a stranger? Especially when he was the person who persisted in following her around until she fell in love with him? Especially when she's come away with him to his palace on his request? Seema (Meena Kumari) is quite rightly bewildered at the change that has come over her beloved. Is he even the same person with whom she fell in love?

9. Restless
Sakhi re mera man uljhe
Chitralekha (1964) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Roshan Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
There is so much pleasure in dressing up for the man you love. Like Chhoti Bahu in another film, Chitralekha (Meena Kumari) , the court dancer of Samrat Chandragupt, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her beloved. Samant Bijgupt (Pradeep Kumar) has just arrived in the capital after a long campaign on behalf of his emperor. At the emperor's court, he had succeeded in winning Chitralekha's heart, but she is unsure of his intentions. Unlike other men, he has neither praised her beauty nor has he vowed eternal love to her. Back in her chambers, Chitralekha is restless as she bathes and makes herself up for him - will he come visit her? Her anxiety will only be assuaged if she meets him. 

10. Sensuous 
Dil jo na kah saka
Bheegi Raat (1965) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Roshan Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Meena Kumari looked ethereally sensuous, mingling playfulness and seductiveness as she explicitly states her feelings, hitherto kept hidden, in verse. It's not just Ashok (Pradeep Kumar) who will find the scarf around his neck a tad too tight. Their desire burns hotter than the fire near which they are drying out, caught as they were in the titular bheegi raat. Meena Kumari's expressions mirror her rising desire, and it's more than her beloved can resist. One of the many films in which Meena Kumari, Pradeep Kumar and Ashok Kumar starred together, Bheegi Raat meandered through a melodramatic plot and was saved only by the acting and by Roshan's music. 

What other songs can you add to this list? For once, the rules are simple: Meena Kumari can be anything but sad. 

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