The year was 1939, Farzand-e-Watan had just opened in theatres and a 7-year-old girl had managed to catch the fancy of cinema-goers. She was credited as Baby Meena but no one had seen her before. The only thing that the audiences knew was that they wanted to see her again, and again. Did they get their wish? Yes! This girl grew up to become Meena Kumari, one of Bollywood’s most revered actresses.
Born Mahjabeen Bano, Meena lived a very interesting life. Sure, it was a life full of tragedy (which helped her emote perfectly onscreen and earn the title of Tragedy Queen) and controversies, but it was interesting. Meena Kumari loved and lost, wrote amazing poetry and acted in some of Hindi cinema’s most memorable films.
Meena’s love life was (is?) the stuff that films are made of. This aspect of her life forever kept tabloid reporters and paparazzi on their toes. It is often argued that Meena Kumari’s downfall, alcoholism and untimely death (she was 39 when liver cirrhosis took her life) were a result of a string of failed relationships. Her reel-life was full of romance but in real life, love eluded Meena.
The actress fell in love for the first time when she was barely 18. It is said that she saw a picture of Kamal Amrohi when flipping through a film magazine and was instantly besotted. Amrohi was Bollywood’s top director then and his film Mahal had just become a roaring success. It didn’t matter that he was 15 years her senior.
The two met about a year later when Meena signed Amrohi’s film Daera. She was 19 and he, 34 – older, successful, good-looking and married. However, we all know that nothing comes between love. The two fought all odds and tied the knot on February 14, 1952.
Did a fairytale come true? Not for long. Although the relationship lasted for little over a decade, it started to fall apart real soon. Amrohi, it turned out, was not really Prince Charming. Many say that he was not a good husband to Meena. He was suspicious, constantly kept tabs on his new bride, imposed regulations on every aspect of her life and interfered in everything from work to personal relationships.
Career-wise, things were awesome. Meena and Amrohi made a great professional pair. Personally, things were deteriorating every second. Many who were close to the couple have often talked about Meena’s love for children and Amrohi’s staunch refusal to have kids with her.
After Meena divorced Amrohi in 1965, she was free for the first time in her life. For the first time ever, she was not answerable to her overbearing parents or husband. Although happy at first, she soon realised that she cannot be alone. She was extremely lonely and need a companion. Thus came a string of meaningless lovers. Meena’s doctor had prescribed her a glass of brandy, which was to act as a sleeping aid. The prescription soon turned into an addiction. No one was asking her questions, no one was looking after her.
It was at this sensitive juncture that Meena Kumari struck a deep friendship with Gulzar; a friendship that had essentially started when the actress’s marriage was crumbling. It is believed that the actress would shower anyone who was willing to listen to her poetry with gifts, money, food. Gulzar, who shared Meena’s love for poetry and letters, soon become a confidant and an all time companion.
While the tabloids were filled with gossips of a possible torrid affair, nothing was confirmed. It is said that when Meena was on her deathbed, Gulzar was the only one with her. In fact, he refused to leave her side, no matter what. Love? A deep friendship? Mutual respect and admiration? We don’t know. All we know is that it was this relationship alone that brought Meena real happiness, for whatever little while.
While Meena was busy sharing her love for poems with Gulzar, a handsome young actor had appeared on the scene. He was cast with her in films like Purnima and Phool Aur Patthar. This young actor was Dharmendra. It is said that initially, he was so in awe of the senior actress that he could barely look her in the eye. However, things soon changed and he began to court her. Dharmendra was already married to Prakash Kaur but that didn’t deter him, and neither did it matter to Meena Kumari.
It is often said that Dharmendra was not in love with Meena. He was merely using her for his personal gains. Those who were close to the actress even warned her about it but Meena was done listening to people. Her growing fondness for Dharmendra soon became the talk of the town.
By the time the late 1960s rolled in, Meena Kumari’s health had deteriorated so much that one of the doctors that she met in London told her that one more drink would kill her. What she needed then was love and support; what she got was heartbreak. Dharmendra had decided to move on (a debutante called Hema Malini had reportedly caught his fancy).
With all love and hope lost, Meena turned bitter and refused to listen to her family or friends. She did as she pleased. This is when Amrohi came back to her; not to patch-up but to urge her to finish Pakeezah, the director’s dream project that had gotten shelved when the couple split. Meena agreed and gave the performance of a lifetime in this bittersweet, passionate story of a dejected girl, used by all but loved by none.
3 weeks after the release of Pakeezah, on March 31, 1972, Meena Kumari breathed her last. She was finally at peace. No more heartbreak, no more deceptions and no more struggles.
It is said that Meena Kumari somehow enjoyed the pain that life inflicted on her. She channelled it all into her acting. No wonder she gave such stellar performances. Those who were close to Meena always said that love was all that she craved in life. If only she could see just how many people love her unconditionally today.