Remembering Meena Kumari – A Film Star Whose Life Was Anything But Starry

‘Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh, kahan shuru kahan khatam, yeh manzilein hain kaun si, na wo samajh sake na hum’, a heartbroken woman sang this song, celebrating the marriage of her lover to another. The black and white song, that picturized on Meena Kumari, Raj Kumar and Nadira – remains an all time classic, still hummed by the heartbroken or those trying to solve the mysteries of life.

My earliest memory of Meena Kumari was of her as the lady who was always shedding copious tears, her life so sad that you cried along with her, seeing her helplessness and questioning why did lady luck always bypass her. The one time I, as a child, saw her smile on screen, it had surprised me no end and my childlike heart was relieved for her sake. Such was the impact of this actress on screen, that she made reel appear real. So much, many a time if someone went a bit over with the tears and drama, the term “don’t do a Meena Kumari” was thrown at the person.

Yes, the tragedy queen of Hindi films, her name evokes many things for many people, melodrama, pain, loneliness, helplessness and of course, tragedy. Ironically, the lines between reel and real were blurred in her case, one often wondered was she born to suffer? Was misery her best friend, who refused to part from her? Was there nothing worth celebrating in her life?

The story of her life nothing less than those filmi narratives, abandoned at an orphanage by her father, who later went on to fetch her only to see ants crawling over the baby’s body. Vinod Mehta, who wrote Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography, had made an observation that incident could have been deeply imbibed in her subconscious mind, somewhere she unconsciously had accepted the fact that she would always been abandoned and traumatized. No one expressed pain as well as she did on screen, as seen in several of her films – Dil Ek Mandir, Dil Apna Preet Parayee to Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam and her swan song Pakeezah – the success of which she didn’t live to see. A child star for whom the studios were the playground she could never visit, a breadwinner for an extended clan, Baby Meena transformed into Meena Kumari, a film star whose life was anything but starry.

“Aagaaz toh hota hai, anjaam nahi hota, jab meri kahaani mein who naam nahi hota”, these lines were penned by the actor under the name Naaz. In the volumes of shairs and nazams which she left to her close friend and confidante Gulzar, who later published a few of her writings, the melancholy was apparent. Her quest for love and acceptance found voice through her words.

Her loveless marriage to Kamal Amrohi or her involvement with men usually younger and strugglers never fulfilled her, there was always a longing and a need for love. As Vinod Mehta says, she lived her colourful life in public glare and she apparently chose to pick up people struggling in the industry.

She was troubled. The breakdown of her marriage, the dependency on sleeping pills and then alcohol, which would finally take its toll on her. Diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1968, she breathed her last in March 1972, she was only 38 years old.

The prose on her tombstone as per her request, “She ended life with a broken fiddle with a broken song, with a broken heart, but not with a single regret.”

Maybe this was the way she had accepted her life to be. She was a woman who chose to live life according to her own terms. A paradox who maybe we never got to know too well.

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