I’m finally doing Meena Kumari! Because she was consistently the second choice every time I gave you options. And because I have this book (be aware, it’s written in an unusual style for a bio. But it’s still fun!) for a source, so it’s easy. The thing with Meena, is that she was never able to really live alone or control her own destiny, she just went from man to man, starting with her father.
Usual Disclaimer: Everything I am about to say may or may not be true, I don’t know these people. But this is commonly accepted version of Meena Kumari’s life, and if you are new to the films, or somehow missed this part of film history, it might be helpful.
I want to talk a little bit about my main source before I move on. Vinod Mehta was hired to write an autobiography within weeks of Meena’s death. Which was good, because he was able to interview everyone in her life while the situation was still fresh. And he was given somewhat unprecedented access, since the proceeds of the bio itself were meant to go to her estate.
(This guy. Back in 1971, he was 29, an up and coming journalist, who was almost randomly selected for the job. In the years since, he went on to become one of India’s foremost editors and writers and public voices. Kind of an odd choice for this bio, but a great choice, since his journalist ability to research and interview really shines through)
However, there are also downsides to talking with people in the moment, their stories are confused and don’t line up. It’s hard for the interviewer and the interviewee to separate truth from wishful thinking or perception. And some parts of the story hadn’t even ended yet. Pakeezah was still playing in theaters while the book was published, it hadn’t been nominated for FilmFare Awards yet, it hadn’t been the first film broadcast on Doordarshan, the soundtrack hadn’t become one of the bestsellers of the 1970s. Gulzar, one of Meena’s possible lovers, hadn’t yet married Raakhee. Meena’s young nephew hadn’t grown up to be Lucky Ali, successful singer and popstar.
Again, highly recommend this book, I don’t know if there’s another biography in the world quite like it. But be aware of the flaws of it. However, also be aware of the strengths. All the things I describe and you think “No, it couldn’t have happened like that!”, remember that it had JUST happened weeks earlier, there was no time for exaggeration or a legend to grow up. Meena really was that big.
But before she was big, she was little. A tiny little girl from a tiny powerless little family who was thrown out into the world before she was ready for it. Meena came from an artistic family. Nowadays, that might mean a solidly middle-class family, maybe connected to film, probably having college degrees and all the trappings of respectability. But in the waning days of the Raj, these were paupers, traveling entertainers whose traditional arts had been so denigrated by the colonial era that they could barely scratch out a living.
Her father, Ali Bux, was a urdu singer and musician from the north. He had a marriage at a young age, as everyone did, and then started traveling trying to make a living. He landed in Bombay where he met a beautiful young Bengali Christian dancer (supposedly related to Tagore, but I don’t know if I believe that). She was classically trained and talented. Again, today that would mean she was an educated upper-class daughter of loving parents who sent her to the best dance teachers in between med school prep classes. But then, classical Bengali dancing was just another thing men paid to see women do. Another kind of low class entertaining. Ali Bux fell in love with this dancer and convinced her to marry him, despite his existing first wife and their difference in religion. She converted to Muslim and married him, even welcoming his daughters by his first wife into their tiny household.
Ali Bux had daughter after daughter. It wore his wife out, she took to her bed and stopped dancing. Ali’s talent alone wasn’t enough to keep the family going, but he heard that he might be able to get some use out of his daughters through the new film studios that were beginning to open up in their neighborhood. So he took them there one by one, to help support the family, at ages 4-6-8.
Initially it was the oldest girl Khursheed who was most successful. Her parents lavished affection on her, chocolates and toys and treats. Meanwhile, the other two girls, especially young Meena who had failed in her first few performances, were ignored. And then Khursheed started to age out of child roles, and Meena became the star. Her parents spoiled her in turn, but also forbade her from reading books, playing with friends her own age, doing anything besides going back and forth to the studios with her father as chaperone.
Again, such a strange combination of high and low for little Meena! On the one hand, she was forbidden school. On the other hand, through her father, she received a uniquely high quality education in Urdu arts. Later in her life, she would actually write her own Urdu poems, and her favorite relaxation was to read complex classical poetry.
The big thing she learned early on, like a number of other child stars, was that work equaled money and money equaled love. Her father took charge of all her finances, picked her roles for her, managed her career. And in return she was given some small intermittent amount of attention and consideration. At age 4, she was supporting the entire household.
(Here she is a few years after that)
Meena’s career at this point was the same as any number of other children. The Irani sisters, for instance, who went on to be Farhan and Zoya and Farah and Sajid’s mothers, were also child stars in this era. A lot of these child stars have wonderful happy memories of their time on set. They were spoiled and adored by everyone on set, later Meena would spoil her own child co-stars. Even today, we just heard all those stories about how everyone from Salman to Kabir Khan spoiled Harshaali on the sets of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The work wasn’t the problem, it was everything else around the work.
The difference for Meena was twofold. Firstly, that her father was kind of terrible (supposedly he even tried to leave her at the door of an orphanage when she was a baby because she was born a girl, until he had a change of heart and went back to get her, finding her still outside and covered in ants). And secondly, that she was crazily talented. If she’d been like her sisters, her stardom fading as time went on, she might have been able to get off the treadmill of work-money-love. And if she had more loving and independent parents, they might have made her feel secure in herself so that she no longer felt the need to “earn” love.
Meena went straight from child star to heroine with no pause. She got her first leading role at age 14. It was a modestly successful film, but it got her noticed by Homi Wadia. Remember him, from the Nadia Wadia post? Same guy! He was looking for a young actress to use in his fantasy and mythological films and picked Meena Kumari. Her first hits as an adult were in ridiculous magical fantasy films. Somewhat surprising for an actress who went on to be known for her great sensitive realistic performances in social dramas.
(Stuff like this)
Once she started getting these bigger roles, the money really started rolling in. Her father bought the family a larger house in a better neighborhood, and a car. Shortly after the move to the new house, Meena’s mother died, leaving her father in total control of the household and Meena’s emotional life.
Meena spent the years 4 to 18 working day and night on films, and her first love affair was appropriately “filmi” as well. Probably not a coincidence, I am sure a dreamy teenage girl who was never allowed to interact with people her own age would have built up this kind of an idea in her head of what “love” is, based on all the scripts she had to act out.
Supposedly, she fell in love with a photo in a magazine. Kamal Amrohi was an up and coming producer/writer/director. He was brilliant, especially as a writer, no one disputes that. And in 1950 when Meena stumbled across his photo, he had just successfully directed his first film, Mahal. Meena fell in love with his poetry, and his photo, and then like fate, she was introduced to him a year later as a potential heroine for his next film.
(I guess he was handsome)
Okay, that’s the poetic filmi version. My cynical version is that dreamy lonely Meena probably had lots of magazine crushes of varying degrees, seeing as it was only in magazine photos that she could get to know any men. And that after she got to know Kamal in real life, she convinced herself that he was the only man she had ever loved.
My other cynical version is that Kamal was a man 14 years older than her who desperately needed a big name actress for his film. And that he was quick to leap at the opportunity presented to him to start up a different kind of a relationship with this beautiful and devoted and poetic and talented teenager.
(Both of them together. Notice how Meena is hiding her right hand, because of the 6th finger she has on it)
This is where fate takes a hand. Meena signed his film, but of course they never really got to be alone, because Meena’s father wouldn’t allow that. And then while on location, Meena had a minor accident. Nothing life threatening, but enough that she had to stay in the hospital for a few weeks. Kamal visited her as a courtesy towards his leading actress and brought her a glass of juice. He held the glass and she drank it in one gulp, and he claims that he fell in love with her by the time she had finished swallowing. After that, he was at the hospital every day, and by the time she was released, she was gloriously and joyfully in love.
Not that anything could come of it, because Kamal was already married. Married twice according to some records I can find. But he certainly had at least one wife, and three kids. And Meena wasn’t necessarily ready to go against her father either. So they kept the romance alive through long long phone calls. They would both be up in the middle of the night, sneaking out to their household telephones and talking until all hours.
Again, I kind of feel like this is what made Meena stay in love? The drama and magic of this forbidden love, the stolen moments, the poetic love notes they would secretly pass, it was all intoxicating! And, again, probably what Meena thought love should be like, since her only reference point was films.
Meena wasn’t the only actress of this era whose real life love story sounds like a film. Madhubala, for instance. Or Nargis (who was later Meena’s best friend). They were women who never had the chance for a “normal” human relationship because all they ever knew were the films they worked in. Meena’s two greatest onscreen performances are playing women like this, women who never quite got the chance to understand what love was because their lives were so restricted from it.
Speaking of Madhubala, according to this somewhat unreliable biography, she was the impetus for Meena and Kamal to finally get married. She had a crush on Kamal left over from when he was directing her. The book argues that this was due to Kamal’s poetry and handsomeness and so on. I wonder if it was due to Kamal’s tendency to use that handsomeness and poetry and so on to advance his professional relationships with young fragile idealistic actresses. Supposedly Madhubala had reached the point of writing “Kamal” in chalk whenever she had a free moment during shooting. She approached him and bluntly suggested marriage, offering him money to take her. Kamal turned her down. The book tries to make it poetic, but basically, it was a moment of “if I am turning down Madhubala herself, then I must be really really in love and I should do something about it!”
(Madhubala. Most beautiful woman in the history of Hindi film)
And so they were married in secret. Meena’s father dropped her off at a doctor’s appointment, she snuck out and jumped in a pre-arranged car to go to meet Kamal. It was a cross-religious marriage, sort of, Kamal was Shia’a and Meena was Sunni. But that’s not the reason Meena’s father would have objected. Probably he also wouldn’t have cared that Kamal was 14 years older, or already married. But having another man with legal and emotional powers over Meena’s earnings, THAT he would mind. And Meena knew it. Maybe the saddest thing in this whole book is that her plan for the elopement was to stay home and keep it all secret until she had made 2 lakh, which she would give to her father so he wouldn’t mind that she was leaving. And she didn’t even think this was sad! She thought this was just how families were, you give your father 2 lakhs and he doesn’t miss you.
They stayed in this holding pattern for several months, technically married but with Meena still living in her father’s house and under her father’s thumb. And then he found out. Somehow. And reacted in the worst way possible, with anger and recriminations which served to drive Meena straight to her husband. She grabbed a dozen saris, got in the car, and drove to Kamal’s house. He wasn’t home, but she moved right in anyway (conveniently, his other wife was back in the village at the moment), with her saris. And then sent the car back to her father’s house saying she wanted nothing else from him beyond her clothes. And thus at age 19 she went from being completely under the control of her father to the control of her husband.