Fragrance of Yesteryears: Meena Kumari

This edition of Fragrance Of Yesteryears shines the spotlight on one of most recognizable and beloved faces in India, that of an actress who earned a permanent place in the history of Indian cinema with her immense talent.

This edition of Fragrance Of Yesteryears shines the spotlight on one of most recognizable and beloved faces in India, that of an actress who earned a permanent place in the history of Indian cinema with her immense talent. We're going to talk about none other than the legendary "Tragedy Queen", Meena Kumari.

Mahajabeen Bano began her career as a child actress with the moniker Baby Meena. She began acting at an early age to alleviate her family's financial problems, and her early films were low budget, low impact projects of the mythological genre. In the years to come she progressed towards more mature roles such as Vijay Bhatt's evergreen film Baiju Bawra, after which she carried forward a trend of the times by taking on the stage name, Meena Kumari.

During a brief cameo in Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin, she portrayed a gentle mother who tenderly sings her baby to sleep and leaves the protagonist (played by Nirupa Roy) standing outside of the door spellbound. Audiences, too, stood up and took notice of this shining star who could bring so much charisma to a special appearance. The real turning point in her career was Parineeta (1953), the evocative portrait of a woman given to strong passions, engagingly dramatic and unabashedly erotic all at once. For this role, she won the Filmfare Best Actress Award that year.

A gifted poet and dancer, her enigmatic voice and delicate features pierced many a viewer's heart and satisfied their hopes of a complete woman onscreen - one in possession of style and substance in equal measure. Her eyes shone with a deep sense of melancholy that was well suited to many of the characters she brought to life on the silver screen, giving her the title of "Tragedy Queen" with which she is identified even today.

Unfortunately, life imitated art as Meena was a victim of alcoholism which gradually led to her decline and demise. As Choti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), the actress followed step by step the fate of her character in an eerie concurrence between her private life and the one she enacted in the film. She married filmmaker Kamal Amrohi, who directed her in the masterpiece Pakeezah, however the couple divorced in 1964.

Although involved in some happy films, her name is irrevocably linked to the intensity of her dramatic archetypes, chief among which are the following: the woman faithful and firm in her principles (Mein Chup Ke Rahungi, Sharada, Kaajal), the angelic presence that redeems a bandit from his crimes (Phool Aur Patthar), the mother whose nurture brings about virtuous heroes (Ek Raasta, Mere Apne), the victim of society, physically and mentally devastated (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam), the pure-hearted prostitute who dreams of love (Pakeezah) and many more.
As indicated earlier on, she was a great poetry lover and wrote several poignant verses of her own. They were published by Gulzar after her death in 1972, upon the success of the actress's tour de force Pakeezah. Meena Kumari had spent 14 years of loving labor on that film, which underwent delay after delay because of technical ambitions her then husband and director wished incorporate into the film, followed by their painful divorce. Initially the film released to poor figures at the box office, but after her death it gained due appreciation. She died three weeks after Pakeezah's release because of liver cirrhosis on 31st March, 1972.

Meena Kumari lives on through her admirable body of work, through which she was able to arouse a multitude of emotions in audience regardless of the generation or cultural background to which they belong. That haunting combination of angelic beauty and desperate longing gave her performances an almost mystical quality that no other actress has been able to replicate to date. That such powerful emotions could emerge from such a delicate countenance is a mystery that viewers of Hindi cinema will forever relish getting lost in.

Curiosity corner:
*Meena started working at the age of six years and became of the breadwinner of her family.
*At the Filmfare Awards event of year 1963, she was the only one nominated actress in the category of Best Actress as a leading role. She was also nominated for three of her characters that belong to three different films - an achievement still not duplicated by any other actress.
*During the shooting of Pakeezah, Meena's ill health prevented her from being able to perform the film's complex dance sequences. As a result, director Kamal Amrohi had the classically trained Padma Khanna execute the moves with her face veiled in a ghunghat.
Author: Parm K.
Editor(s): Lola & Jenifer.
Graphics: Sanober.

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Meena Kumari Thumbnail

Meena Kumari

Gulzar Thumbnail


Nirupa Roy Thumbnail

Nirupa Roy

Baiju Bawara poster

Baiju Bawara

Kaajal poster


Pakeezah poster


Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam poster

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam

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