Song for a lonely heart

Down Memory lane
Last Updated 30 March 2013, 15:31 IST

For today’s generation, Parineeta would instantly connect with Vidya Balan and the song Piyu Bole. But if you were a movie buff from the 50s, Meena Kumari would be your Lolita... Innocently seductive, wide-eyed and awed by her years older co-star Ashok Kumar.

She was the daughter of Ali Bux, a small-time stage and film actor, who played the harmonium and taught music. Her mother, Iqbal Begum, had also acted and danced on stage under the name of Kamini. And even though Mahjabeen Bano, rechristened Baby Meena, had been acting since she was six, at 20, she was still to master the craft.

“I had to constantly remind her to look at me while speaking her lines,” Ashok Kumar had reminisced. He was her ‘guru’, and she turned to him every time she got stuck with a difficult scene. They went on to several films together, including Pakeezah (1972), in which he played her long-lost father Shahabuddin, who finally takes her out of the brothel and gives her the respectability she had yearned for.

Pakeezah, written, produced and directed by her husband Kamal Amrohi, was launched in 1958. Within a month, colour came into Hindi cinema and Amrohi decided to re-shoot his film in colour and cinemascope. Even though he put every rupee he earned into the film, even selling off his ancestral property and family antiques to fund it, he constantly faced a financial crunch and the film limped along till one morning in 1964, Meena left for the studio to shoot Pinjre Ki Panchhi (1966) and didn’t return home. There were speculations of ill-treatment and domestic abuse. Talks of Amrohi cashing in on his third begum’s star power to mint money, rumours about a clash of egos, and gossip about Meena’s drinking. Whatever the reasons, she moved in with her younger sister Madhu and her actor-husband Mehmood.

It was ironical because this had appeared, even to her, a match made in heaven. While flipping through a magazine, Meena had come across a photograph of movie moghul Amrohi, and decided at that instant that this was the man she was going to marry. It didn’t matter that he was twice married and was the father of three children. He was her Chandan and she was his Manju. And she was even willing to give up movies for him.

But that proved difficult and eventually they compromised. Every film would be first approved by him, she would not work beyond 6.30 pm, never accept a lift from a male co-star, and when they went together for a public function, they would always take his car. However, despite every precaution, as Meena’s popularity peaked, her relationship with her filmmaker husband hit one roadblock after another. Finally, after 12 years of marriage, she walked out, and in ’64, Pakeezah ground to a halt again.

The split hit her badly and she drowned her sorrows in alcohol. According to her actress friend Nadira, Meena had started drinking on the suggestion of Amrohi’s German cameraman Joseph Wirsching, after the doctor discovered a pleurisy patch on her lungs.

But what started as a shot of brandy before dinner, an appetizer, soon became an addiction. One of the Tragedy Queen’s most iconic roles was chhoti bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam (’62). Na Jao Saiyan Chhudake Baiyan Kasam Thumhari Main Ro Padoongi, hair spilling over her shoulders, bindi smudged, kohl-lined eyes mirroring a desperate loneliness, she lurches drunkenly, pleading with her zamindar husband to spend the night with her. It was an unforgettable act and perhaps a little too real for comfort.

She drowned her loneliness in the bottle and the liquor took its toll. The verdict was grave, cirrhosis of the liver, Meena had only a few months left. A devout Muslim, she decided she was not going to leave behind any debts. So on March 16, 1969, five years and 12 days after she had walked out, Meena Kumari returned to complete Pakeezah.
It took 14 years for the film to wrap up. It opened on February 20, 1972, to empty houses. The trade announced that it was a disaster, but Amrohi wasn’t disheartened. It would pick up, he assured all those who came to pay their condolences. And slowly, the collections did pick up. But the mourners were back in a month’s time and this time their condolences were for real.

On March 31, Meena, despite wanting desperately to live, passed away. It was Good Friday. People flocked to the theatres to bid adieu to Sahibjaan and Mahjabeen. Chalo Dildaar Chalo, Chand Ke Paar Chalo (Let’s go my darling, to the far side of the moon), Hum Hain Taiyaar Chalo (I am ready, let’s go), Aao Kho Jaayen Sitaron Mein Kahin (Come let’s lose ourselves in the stars).

On February 11, 1993, Amrohi passed away. He was buried next to her grave. And finally, Manju and her Chandan were united, in a world beyond, forever.

(Published 30 March 2013, 15:31 IST)

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