Meena Kumari was the epitome of tragedy. In her short life of less than 40 years she had the adoration of millions but felt little love. She is remembered as an artist who achieved the highest peaks but spent much of her life stuck in a deep emotional pit. Like Judy Garland, she arrived sensationally on the screen as a young girl and passed away long before her time.
I remember my Hindi teacher, Saroj Kapadia, talking about a movie that was about to be released with excitement. For weeks she didn’t let a class go by without dropping a mention of it. She promised that when it finally reached Rialto in Kulri bazaar she would secure permission to take our whole class to see it. The movie of course was Pakeezah, one of the giant milestones of Hindi cinema.
In addition to mentioning the film’s name Mrs Kapadia kept referring to Meena Kumari and that she had died recently. Just a few weeks after the film’s release in fact. The circumstances under which the film had been made were difficult. Meena Kumari was married to the film’s director but it was not a happy marriage. And though production on Pakeezah had begun as early as 1956 changes in technology and the couple’s strained relations and eventual divorce brought the project to a premature dead end.
Meena had led a public life since the age of 6 when she appeared in the movie Leatherface as Baby Meena. Throughout the 50s she became one of the premier actresses of Hindi movies with leads in a number of classics like Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and Foot Path. Her performances were always powerful and compelling and recognised by her peers in the form of multiple Filmfare Awards.
Child stars must be some of the loneliest of people. Shoved into an artificial world of performance in which no one has time or need for the ‘real’ person, they become withdrawn, frightened, angry and self destructive. One need look no further than the horrific and sad life of Michael Jackson for a contemporary case in point. Meena’s family, it is said, saw her star status as economic security and offered up discipline and reprimand rather than love. Like Garland or Marilyn Monroe, Meena Kumari turned to love affairs and eventually substance abuse to quell her inner demons.
The relationship with Kamal Amrohi was rocky and their grand cinematic dream of Pakeezah came to a halt when they divorced in 1964. For long periods Meena didn’t socialise preferring to stay in and drink. Yet when Amrohi negotiated a deal to finish the film—after a 10 year gap—Meena was ill with cirhossis. But she insisted upon finishing the film which was finally released in early February 1972. Meena Kumari passed away at the end of March, the same year.
Meena Kumari like many stars both loved and hated her day job. Throughout her life she nurtured her interest in poetry and wrote her own verse quite well. Her grandfather had been a prominent Urdu poet in his day and perhaps she found the love she didn’t find in her immediate circle by following in his footsteps.
In 1970 Polydor released a recording of her singing some of her poems, with music scored by music director Khayyam. This is the album I share today.
It is an interesting one. The poetry is deeply felt if dark. At times it tends to self pity (at least to Western ears) but in other places it is compact and full of emotion. Throughout it paints a picture of a soul scarred with pain and resignation and as such is an authentic portrait of the artist.
The music is wonderfully conceived as accompaniment, surrounding the delicate, often shattered spirit and voice of the poet with warmth and solidity. Meena’s voice can best be described as rough. There is not much melody or range here. But that is more than made up for with feeling, feeling, feeling.
Shama hun/phool hun
Ya ret ka qadamon ka Nishan
Aap ko haq hai mujhe jo bhi chahe kahle
I’m the flam and the bloom
The footprints in the sand
Say whatever you desire about me, it is your right
This is sad stuff. But as with many sad and tragic things this record in all its beauty and raw despair cries out to something deep in all of us.
01 Akelay Pan
02 Tukray Tukray
03 Poochhtay Ho To Suno
04 Mera Mazi
05 Chand Tanha
06 Shama Hun Phool Hun
07 Aghaaz To Hota Hai
08 Abla Paa
09 Yeh Noor Kaisa Hai
10 Yun Teri Raah