Hindi Film 101: Meena Kumari Part 4, Pakeezah and the Epic Death

Final part!  Which is really just Pakeezah, and her death.  Both those two things are such big stories, that they are more than enough to fill an entire post.  At least a sort of short post. (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here)

Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know this people and I have no inside knowledge.  Everything I am about to say may or may not be true.  But it is the commonly known and accepted story, and if you are new to these films, or somehow missed this bit of film history, it might help fill in some gaps.


Most of these Hindi Film 101 posts are primarily based on one particular source.  With gaps filled in based on interviews I’ve read over the years, or blind items in gossip magazines, or wikipedia if I just need to check a date or name.  This series is based on a book  (this book) that was written by a young journalist Vinod Mehta and published within weeks of Meena’s death.  That is particularly relevant for this section, so you can trust that the stories of her death and funeral are not exaggerated, because it had JUST happened, and there hadn’t been time for a legend to grow.

In the last section, I got Meena through her post-divorce slide.  She started strong with a happy and caring rebound relationship with Dharmendra.  And then she started to slide into a series of affairs with younger men who wanted her money more than herself.  She was leaving with a whole array of relatives who seemed to also only care about her money.  They lived in her house, and in return gave her a series of increasingly cheap and illegal alcohols which brought her to the brink of death within 4 years.  Her brother-in-law traveled with her to London, where a doctor managed to save her temporarily, and then sent her to Switzerland for a several month detox.  But Meena couldn’t just stay away, she had to come back to Bombay and back to her work.  Especially that one last picture she still hadn’t finished.

Over the years, her ex-husband Kamal had periodically reached out.  Not about their marriage, but about his incomplete dream project, the film he had written for her.  It was half finished already, and had already gone through a whole series of changes.  For one thing, the original hero Ashok Kumar had aged out of the role and was recast as the heroine’s father, he was supposed to be replaced by Dharmendra, but Kamal refused to work with him once stories of his relationship with Meena came out.  Finally, Raaj Kumar stepped in as the new hero.  The original “Madam” actress was no longer available either, locations had changed, sets had been torn down, but Kamal was still sure he could finish it if he could just get Meena back on board.

Image result for meena kumari pakeezah raaj kumar

(Raaj Kumar!  So handsome!)

Finally, he wrote a letter asking her to come back, but saying he couldn’t afford to pay her until after release.  Meena replied that she would do the role for the price of one gold guinea.  A meeting was arranged, Kamal handed over the guinea, and Meena came back to the film.

Pakeezah is a remarkable film.  A simple plot, but it’s the execution that makes it soar.  Meena Kumari is a Tawaif, a courtesan in old Lahore.  Courtesans, as I have said before, weren’t the same as simple prostitutes.  They were highly educated and talented and intelligent.  Their clients were the top of society, even royalty.  But they were only accepted if they stayed in their own places and homes.  That’s the tragedy of the Tawaif, she lives in glorious luxury, but she is not allowed out of it.  Meena Kumari tries to leave, she falls in love with Ashok Kumar and leaves the brothel with him.  But his family does not support them, and Ashok leaves her.  She spends her remaining days living in a cemetery, finally giving birth to their daughter and then dying.

Meena-Kumari-the-daughter is raised by her aunt in a brothel.  Her father tries to find her, but her aunt refuses, and says that this will be his punishment, to see his daughter dancing in a brothel.  She grows up beautiful and graceful and all of that.  Her aunt sends her away from her hometown to stay at a luxurious “pink palace” brothel out of town.  On the train between the two brothels, she is seen sleeping by Raaj Kumar.  He writes her a note apologizing for coming into her compartment by accident and complementing her beautiful feet, the only part of her body he was able to see.  At the new brothel, Meena attracts the attention of a local prince.  He offers a huge sum for her, and Meena leaves with him on his pleasure boat to, presumably, lose her virginity.  The boat is attacked by elephants, and Meena ends up drifting to the remote camp of forest officer Raaj Kumar.  She falls in love with him and he with her.  He is willing to marry her even after knowing that she is a Tawaif, but she cannot bring herself to do it, feeling that it is wrong to saddle him with her status.  In the end, it turns out that Raaj Kumar’s uncle is her own father, Ashok Kumar, who still regrets leaving the woman he loves and losing his daughter.  With Ashok’s encouragement, Raaj finally completes the promise Ashok made years early, and brings a full wedding procession to the door of the brothel to take Meena to her rightful home.

During the start and stops of filming, I think we can trace some script changes that Kamal must have been forced to put through.  Using some early filmed pieces of Ashok for the flashback part.  Using the filmed parts at one set, and explaining why the end and beginning is at a different brothel with a different madame because of a mid-narrative move to a different city.  Even the “dying” Meena scenes at the beginning of the film, clearly filmed towards the end of her life when she was dying in reality.  Pakeezah only works because of Meena’s brilliant performance, but more than that, her life story is woven into the fabric of the narrative, the end of her marriage, her illness, it all affected things.

Image result for meena kumari pakeezah

(Here she is, dying onscreen and in life.  See how her face doesn’t look quite right?  And it’s not just the bad wig, she can barely move for this whole sequence)

And finally we reach the very end!  Meena managed to finish Pakeezah and Kamal was preparing to release it when she took a sudden turn for the much worse.  She was slipping in and out of consciousness, and her doctor recommended that she be taken to a hospital.  The word went out around the neighborhood that she was leaving, probably for the last time.  A crowd of a 100 had gathered by the time the ambulance arrived a few minutes later.  Meena said a farewell to the lift operator, and the guard at the gate, who promptly burst into tears.  As the ambulance was preparing to leave, one final person arrived, the local sweeper woman who had heard Meena was leaving.  She came rushing up and stood in front of the ambulance.  Meena got down and gave her a small amount of cash from her embroidered bag, and then the bag as well.

Image result for india street sweeper

(In case you can’t picture it, this is the kind of woman I am describing.  Hard workers, proud, but not usually the type a movie star would speak to, let alone give away her last possession)

At the hospital, the family and doctors gathered around.  They drained gallons of water from her stomach, but that only relieved the pain, it didn’t fix anything.  Kamal was there by now, along with Meena’s two sisters and other relatives.  They all crowded into the hospital room along with doctors and nurses.  At one point, as she got weaker, there was a sudden thought that maybe putting holy water from Mecca on her lips would help.  Her brother-in-law offered to run and get it from their house around the corner, but the 20 minutes he would take to get there and back would be too long.  Luckily another actress, Kammi, who was waiting in the hallway had mecca water in her apartment, much closer.  Of course, it made no difference, it was too late for any miracle cure.

There was another attempt, they telephoned the doctor from London who had saved her 4 years earlier, whose response was “you mean she’s still alive?”  She suggested a possible medication, but it was only available in London.  A producer waiting in the hall called a friend in London and ordered him to take the next flight out, no expense spared.  He arrived, but hours too late.  Meena called out one time “I don’t want to die!”, and then slipped into a coma and never awoke.

After her death, all those people who had previously been united in their efforts to save her immediately started bickering again.  For instance, there was the hospital bill.  Everyone has a different story, hard to arrange funds, weren’t aware, so on and so forth.  But the fact of the matter is that the hospital wouldn’t release the body until the bill was paid, and in the end the only person willing and able to pay it was her own doctor.  He sent an urgent message home to his wife, asking her to come round with the payment so Meena could leave.

That was just the beginning.  After her death, it was discovered that she had left her money in trust for charity.  But the money couldn’t be released because the income taxes hadn’t been paid.  And no one seemed to care about that either.  Nargis Dutt, Meena’s old friend and fellow actress, and wife of her old friend Sunil Dutt, now a rising politician, was trying to use her personal connections to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to get it cleared when Vinod interviewed.  Meena’s family’s response was that it was none of her business and she should leave them alone to take care of their own.

Image result for indira gandhi nargis dutt

(Here’s Nargis, the Prime Minister, and Sunil Dutt.  Totally unbelievable and unreliable rumor has it that Nargis and Indira are actually cousins, thanks to an affair India’s grandfather had with Nargis’ Tawaif grandmother.  I don’t believe it necessarily, but they really do look alike, don’t they?)

Once the bill was paid, the question then arrived of where Meena’s body should go after.  Kamal declared that she should be buried in his family grave, far away in his home village where she had never been in her life.  He even had video evidence, a TV interview given years earlier in the happy period of their marriage where she declared she wanted to be buried with him.  Meena’s family claimed that she wanted to be buried in Bandra, near her home.  Finally a compromise was reached, she would be buried in a Shia cemetery (Kamal’s religion, not Sunni like Meena’s family), but in Bombay.  And in the meantime, the body would be taken back to her home.

There was a formal laying out and viewing, and then she was carried out.  As her pallbearers (Kamal, one of his sons, Rajendra Kumar, and a producer) carried her to the lobby, Dilip Kumar pulled up in front.  He entered the building and lent his shoulder to help carry her out.

Image result for rajendra kumar

(Rajendra Kumar.  He was in Sangam)

In front of the building, there was a crowd of 3 thousand strong.  So large that the hearse had a hard time getting through, the police had to disperse them.  At the cemetary, the crowd was even larger.  At least 6 thousand.  The police had no hope of making a dent.  In the end, Dilip had to go out and speak to them, beg them to disperse using his own star power.

Dharmendra hadn’t come to the family farewell, or the hospital, or the public funeral.  But he quietly appeared at the private prayer ceremony in the tiny cemetery Masjid, with his head properly covered, to raise his hands and join in the prayer for peace for her soul and forgiveness of her sins.

And then she was buried.  And forgotten.  The author of the book went to visit the grave, just months after her death.  It was already overgrown and untidy.  Two schoolgirls were there, leaving flowers.  He asked the priest who cared for the cemetery if anyone visited.  He was told her older sister came sometimes.  Kamal, who had insisted that she be buried in this tiny forgotten cemetery because it would let him win a point over her family, never visited.

Image result for meena kumari grave

(Here’s the grave)

Meanwhile, Pakeezah was still playing in theaters.  For weeks, and then months, it was playing.  It had done well critically and commercially before her death, this was the first major role for Meena in years and it was a throwback to a slower more poetic era of film.  The Meena fans came out for her, and the critics complimented Kamal’s poetic vision.  But after her death it became something else, it was like a kind of mass wake in every theater in the country.  One last chance to give Meena the love from her fans that she never got from the people in her life.


Now, you should all go watch Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam and Pakeezah, and then come back and vote on what I should cover next!

  1. Zeenat Aman
  2. Mukherjee Family (Rani, Kajol, Ayan and their ancestors)
  3. Samarth Family (Nutan, Tanuja, Kajol, etc.)
  4. Nargis Dutt

30 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Meena Kumari Part 4, Pakeezah and the Epic Death

  1. I may have shed a tear or two while reading this last part. It’s so very sad. The stuff about her relatives and people she trusted basically feeding her poison for years, for a few extra bucks, is disgusting. She probably would have given them extra money had they only asked. It doesn’t seem like she denied anyone anything. For your next installment, I vote for the story that is the happiest! The sexy waterfall song from Satyam Shivam Sundaram is on B4U Music at the moment, so maybe Zeenat Aman?


    • Oooo, Zeenat is not the happiest! Not the saddest, especially now when she is semi-retired with a vast real estate fortune. But back in the day, ugly affair rumors.

      I don’t know who would be the happiest actually. Twinkle and Akshay maybe? But I already covered them. For pure weirdness, maybe Vinod Khanna and his sex cult?


        • I should clarify, he didn’t actually found and run a sex cult. He just joined one. And it wasn’t officially a “sex cult”. But that was certainly my big take away from it! Also, the mass poisoning attempt.

          Boy, now I am all excited! Maybe at the least I do a one off just about the cult? Vinod was the biggest name, but there were a lot of people in the industry who were (and still are, now that it has calmed down and turned into more of a regular religious group) involved.


          • Have you watched Lahu Ke Do Rang? I haven’t seen it yet, but what piqued my interest was the song Muskurata Hua Mera Yaar. Vinod is following Shabana Azmi around, climbing up her terrace, spying on her in the bathtub, all the while taking photos obsessively. He seemed like the biggest creeper ever! Shabana didn’t seem to mind much, so I figured that maybe there was a bit more to it? You know, context and all. Still, really weird (and it’s a really nice, melodic love song, which kind of makes it more odd).

            So yes, I would definitely like to hear more about this cult that Vinod was involved in! Sounds like a fantastic one off installment!


          • I had never even heard of Lahu Ke Do Rang before just now! I wiki’d it, and the plot looks crazy. Now I kind of want to see if I can track down a copy!


  2. Thank you! Pakeezah was the first classic Hindi movie I watched and I noticed the heavy makeup and bright lighting (I think–don’t know much about lighting) used to make her look younger and healthier in some scenes. Then I Wikipediaed it, and her, and it made more sense. I love the movie and I think it started my obsession with old Hindi movie songs.

    I hope the part about her giving her money and bag to the sweeper is true. It sounds like something Chhoti Bahu would do, which makes it a bit suspicious, but I can totally see Meena identifying with someone like that.

    I would like to hear about Zeenat Aman–eventually. Next let’s hear about happy relationships! Nargis? It seems like she was in the driver’s seat with Raj Kapoor at least.


    • Oh no, common wisdom is that she wanted to marry Raj and only walked out when she finally gave up on that. But I do like her finding someone taller! Raj’s biggest personal insecurity being his height.

      Liked by 1 person

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  19. I would like to know why didn’t kamal amrohi pay for her hospital bill which was i believe to be 3500…i have seen a documentary on her by rajya sabha tv saying kamal had arrived at the hospital with a bag full of cash for the treatment and that the producer of dushman(1972) had sent Rs10,000 which was Meena kumari’s pending payment for the film.
    Everything is very contracting…
    And really sad that such a Great actress and human being is subjected to so many false rumors.


    • The book I read was written within weeks of her death, so at least with things like this it was strictly accurate. The author was able to simply go to the hospital and ask who paid the bill, and the answer was her doctor. Everyone claimed that they were ready to pay, that there was a confusion, that they were planning on it, but the basic fact was the body wouldn’t be released until the bill was paid, and it was the doctor who stepped up and took care of it, not anyone else.


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