Usual Disclaimer: Everything I am about to say may or may not be true. I don’t know these people and have no inside knowledge. But this is the generally accepted story, and if you are new to Hindi films, or somehow missed this part, it is a good one for you to know.
In my last section, I got through to the end of Meena’s marriage. She went straight from being under the thumb of her father to being under the thumb of her much older husband. With the difference being that her husband was a lot smarter and a better businessman than her father. He kept Meena working, but he made sure she picked good scripts and went to work and came home on time, and had plenty to eat and plenty to sleep and generally took care of herself. He also lived off her money and possibly hit her. So it was a mixed bag, but certainly the 11 years of marriage were her creative peak.
The marriage had been dying for years before there was a final blow-up and Meena moved out. She moved in with her sister and brother-in-law (the comic actor Mehmood). But shortly after she joined their household, her sister’s marriage ended as well, and Meena and her sister and her sister’s lover (the secretary/manager Kishore Sharma) had to move out and find a new place to live.
(According to The Internet, this is the building they moved into)
Kishore found them a house, Meena paid for it, and soon dogs, children, lover, divorcing sister, and a second divorcing or widowed (I’m not clear, but she brought along children too and no wage-earner) all joined the household. For the next 8 years they continued to have a revolving door of hangers on, distant relatives, servants who never seemed to do any work, and sometimes lovers.
Before moving on to talk about the lovers, I want to talk about Meena’s career at this point. I already mentioned that she had started and then stopped due to marital discord her work on her husband’s classic film Pakeezah. But, although Pakeezah is the classic Meena Kumari film, it is arguably not her greatest performance, or the greatest film she was ever in. That would be Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, which came out a year before she left Kamal.
(I don’t usually put videos in this post, but really, you have to see it!)
Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is one of those movies that is so classic, it created an archetypical plot. Based on the love triangle described by the title, “Master, Wife, and Servant”. Meena Kumari played the wife of a fading aristocrat. She is tragically simple and sweet and naive. She loves her husband and just wants him to love her back. But her husband spends all his time with dancing girls and ignores her. Guru Dutt is the young man who she sees as only a “servant” who is renting space in their crumbling mansion. She comes to rely on him as her support, asking him to bring her secret things like a special brand of sindoor that is said to make any man love his wife. Eventually, in her desperation, she tries to turn herself into the dancing girls her husband loves, forcing herself to drink with him and dance for him. In the end, her husband has reformed but she is unable to save herself from the drink that she is now addicted to. It’s an amazing classic performance in an amazing film, and it’s why now we have movies like Sahib Bibi Aur Gangster or even Om Shanti Om, in which our humble hero is the only one to fully see the torment our heroine goes through at the hands of the husband she adores.
Speaking of Om Shanti Om, we are now entering the point in which Meena came as close as she ever did to finding her “Om”. She was a woman who just had to be in love. We all know people like that, right? The ones who never go more than 2 months between break-ups? Meena was a lot happier now that she was free of Kamal’s tyranny and could live her life like she wanted. And she was still reaping the benefits of Kamal’s tyranny, in the best health of her life (she was always sickly), with a booming career and plenty of new movies lined up. And she needed was a man.
Enter Dharmendra! Now, on the surface, it looks like their relationship was all about him using her. She was the biggest star of the day, he was some handsome nobody who had been in a few movies without making a big impression. And he was married with no intention of leaving his wife.
But remember, this is all coming from a book written right at the time. And everyone Vinod Mehta spoke to confirmed that it was Meena who made the first move. They had already been cast opposite each other before they met the first time. Dharmendra was nervous and respectful, Meena is the one who suggested “private rehearsals” at her house.
And yes, Dharmendra’s career benefited from all the buzz once they were in a relationship. But his career wasn’t doing so bad to begin with, he got his first job opposite her without any help at all. He was also clear from the first that he cared about her, but he was never going to leave his wife.
(He was also smoking hot, totally can see why she picked him for her post-marriage fling. Also, you should watch Phool Aur Patthar, the movie this still is from, they both give great performances)
But the biggest reason that Dharmendra comes off well is that he stayed in her life even after it was all over. They had this quick hot passionate affair, that lasted maybe 2 years at the most. While she was in love, she was completely totally in love, willing to do anything for her lover. And then it was over just as suddenly and she didn’t want him any more. But Dharmendra kept coming around. Not to romance her or beg for her to take him back, or to beg for anything at all. But just to talk and visit and maybe try again to get her to stop her drinking. He kept coming around all the way until she died, years after their relationship was long over and when his career had reached it’s peak and hers was essentially over. Vinod found a servant who remembers him coming by close to the end, going into Meena’s room and talking for hours, and then as soon as he was out of the room, he would burst into tears, this big beautiful muscleman sobbing and sobbing because it was just so sad to see what had happened to Meena.
So, what did happen to her exactly? Back when she was still married to Kamal, she had trouble sleeping. One of her many health problems, Meena always had health problems (probably because she’d been working since she was 3 years old). She also, by the way, had two abortions while with Kamal, the second one done by some inexperienced unofficial woman from the streets. And after that second one, her reproductive system was so messed up, she would never be able to have children. Another reason for sorrow, and another reason for her to need doctors.
Anyway, with her trouble sleeping, her doctor “prescribed” drinking a glass of high quality scotch every night before bed. Which did seem to help her. Remember, this is back when India was still more or less dry. So there was alcohol, and then there was “country liquor”. Country liquor was made up of whatever poisonous horrible thing there was lying around. It could eat through your insides in no time flat. But imported expensive black market alcohol, that’s just what we drink today, unless you are an alcoholic and drink a ton of it for years and years, the effects don’t really show.
For the first few years, while Kamal was watching her, Meena didn’t really have a drinking problem. There were even stories about how hard she had to research for the Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam role, because she had no reference for what being drunk or addicted was like. But then she moved in with her relatives. Dharmendra kept her on balance for a while, but there wasn’t really an even power dynamic in that relationship and he couldn’t exactly tell her what to do. Heck, that’s probably why she liked him! Because for once she was in control.
(another picture of them together! Look how into her he is!)
After Dharmendra came “Rahul”, no one is quite sure who he was or where he came from. But he was a lot younger than her, and he didn’t seem to care what she did, so long as she kept giving him “gifts”. And after “Rahul” came another aspiring actor, who used Meena for her connections. And then she became too sick even to fall in love.
Along with all these men in and out of her life, there was also Gulzar. He was her mental lover, as it were. They would share poetry together (Meena wrote her own poetry under the name “Naaz”). And when she died, she left her diaries to his keeping.
Beyond the men, there were the relatives. Those are the ones that Vinod Mehta ends up blaming the most in his book. And his argument pretty much holds together. She went into that household healthy, successful, with one peg of brandy every night before bed. She came out 8 years later having drunk herself to death. In 8 years!
Vinod argues, which again seems reasonable, that it was the alcohol they would give her which made the descent so rapid. She would hand over a huge wad of cash for imported liquor, and they would promptly pocket most of it and come back with the cheapest moonshine version possible. Meena quickly got addicted to this poison version and soon she was drinking all the time, even on set.
Everything started suffering. Her work firstly. Within a few years of leaving Kamal, she went from playing heroines to playing sisters, even mothers! She was still working all the time (all those people to support, after all), but she wasn’t building a career any more.
(Here she is playing the doomed widowed older sister of the hero, molested by the villain and dead by intermission)
Her relationships too, after Dharmendra there was never really anything that serious again. And eventually nothing at all. The one thing that never seemed to suffer was her relationship with her family. Which, again, seems to indicate that they were enabling her.
I don’t want to say her family didn’t love her at all. They did try, eventually, to help her. By the late 60s, she was so poisoned that her liver has essentially stopped functioning. She would go through phases of bloat and water retaining which lasted longer and longer. She wouldn’t be able to lie down in comfort, would just be propped up in bed half sitting. Unable to hold down any food and barely able to drink juice. Finally, in desperation, they found a doctor in London who said she might be able to help. Meena was flown to London with the assistance of Kishore Sharma. The doctor managed to put her own a radical series of treatments to get her body working again, but said she would be dead within a few years no matter what they did. From London, Kishore and Meena went to Switzerland for another few months of detox. She remembered it later as one of the happiest times of her life, alone in Switzerland with no demands and no pressure.
And then Kishore brought her back to Bombay. And it all started up again. This is also when she went back to working with Kamal, her ex-husband. Well, current husband, they never officially divorced. Although, even with all the long hours and heartbreak, she still lived longer than her London doctor ever anticipated. So maybe it was the work that kept her alive? She kept going just long enough to see through the completion of her latest and greatest film, and then slipped away.
Which you will read about in Part 4 on Thursday!