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Meena Kumari traversed realms rarely explored, symbolised women's oppression


By Harsh Thakor* 
On 31st March we commemorated the 50th death anniversary of legendary Meena Kumari, who perished after a prolonged illness in a private hospital in Mumbai in 1972. Although labelled as a ‘tragedy Queen’ Meena Kumari was morally a most consummate actress, capable of enacting a huge spectrum of roles. It may be regrettable that she was made to play tragic roles almost unanimously, inhibiting her innate ability to portray humour.
Kumari took sensitivity in film acting to realms rarely traversed as though her very soul was speaking.It was simply remarkable the manner she immersed into the very skin of a character ,being as natural as the waves of an ocean.. When enacting tragedy she gave vibrations of lightning and thunder being struck but still portrayed a subtle stillness or composure which made an audience detached. In many ways her work had overtones of the Brechtian acting methods. It was most admirable the manner she displayed restraint in her acting, not trapped into the morass of overacting. Her sheer simplicity, innocence and conviction in roles were unsurpassed.
In important ways her roles reflected the opression of women in an exploitative society or their subordination and also symbolized the progressive aspects of a woman. Few ever better portrayed the patriarchical, feudal or male-chauvinist nature of society.
Unlike Nutan, Nargis or Waheeda Rehman she did not cap her acting with a style or panache ,like giving an icing to the cake . She was close to a female equivalent of Dilip Kumar in her time or the equivalent of a Madhubala in tragic roles. Even 50 years after her death her soul shimmers in Bollywood.
Even when portraying grief she never lost that touch of liveliness and could sprinkle vibrations of beauty, like a lotus blooming within a thundersorm. Although most of her films lacked Socialist overtones they most illustratively projected the suppression or subjugation of woman to male chauvinism in no uncertain terms.
It is ironic that her personal life was more tragic than her tragic roles on the silverscreen be it the manner she was inducted into her acting career in childhood as result of poverty or her marriage with Kamal Amrohi, which was a disaster. In the end she was victim before the age of 40 of being an alcoholic, as a result of depression. Even a book would not do adequate justice to the extent she was subdued. More than any female actress, she reflected how ruling the silver screen hardly meant brimming with joy in one’s personal life, and thus conveyed the superficiality of film industry. Her relationship with star Dharmendra was simply striking, the manner she shaped his illustrious career. She was also involved in a relationship with Gulzar.
Meena Kumari was deeply disturbed by her close friends in the film industry not giving her enough attention or even deserting her, with quite a few artists exploiting her for their promotion. Her life story tells us about the alienation of true and sensitive female artists in society with the screen a total cover of the internal reality .It is poignant that Meena Kumari did not end up selling her body at any cost like the actresses of today and till her death maintained her dignity. Her real life story itself is a lesson even today.
We greatly missed a Meena Kumari in later eras when a woman was westernized or modernised and with dramatic changes in the economic and political scenario. I am certain like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil she would have championed art films, particularly projecting oppression of a woman. Actresses could still take Meena Kumari as a model of acting, portraying the traumas of woman hood. In the age of globalisation and liberalization I would have loved to see her prowess in exposing the superficiality of consumerism, how the chains on women were tightened further and the hypocrisy of glamour. I would have also loved her portrayal as character confronting woman sold as sex symbols, casteism and communal chauvinism.
Her biography by Vinod Mehta written in 1972 and updated in 2013 is a must read which dwells into the very thick of the skin what circumstances shaped her life and penetrates the very essence of her soul. It illustrates the total dichotomy between an artist’s glory on the screen with his real life and the sheer narcasm or ruthlessness within the film world.

Best Films

Even if ‘Pakeezah’ was the most artistic movie in the classical sense in my view her best performance was as ‘Choti Bahu ‘ in ‘Sahib.Bibi or Ghulam.’
‘Sahib Bibi or Ghulam’ is one of the most defining movies reflecting Bengali feudalism. or the Brahamo Samaj society. It is a narrative of a zamindar family unable to keep up with the pace of the changing times, and of the flux of inter-personal relationships within the family or and how feudal values governed relationships .The alienation of Bhootnath and Jaba, enacted by Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman.are an abject reflection of the society. A lower-class yet educated Atulya “Bhoothnath” Chakraborty(Guru Dutt) arrives in the colonial Calcutta looking for work and along with his brother-in-law, he lives in the haveli of the Choudhury zamindar family.
Meena Kumari as Choti Bahu was the perfect foil for Waheeda Rehman as Jaba,a woman of great integrity . Meena Kumari enacts ‘Choti Bahu ‘with great artistic flair portraying a woman trapped into the morass of seduction and drunkenness in pursuit of love of her husband Chote Babu(Rehman) ,who is entranced by a prostitute dancing. She brilliantly portrays her evolution from a lover to an alcoholic.
With great subtlety she contrasts her acting style when trying to win over her unfaithful husband who fails to fulfil her with her bonding with.Bhootnath’. One can simply never forget her attempt to seduce her philandering husband from visiting the Kotha with heart touching pathos. The scene when she forces herself to drink in order to nullify her inhibition and please her husband ,holding on to Rehman’s hand or throwing flowers at him to attract attention, was simply acting skill of sublime proportion .
‘Pakeezah’ virtually ushered a new epoch in Hindi film history. In ‘Pakeezah’ in a double role as a female courtesan and a daughter Meena Kumari simply blossomed like a lotus giving classical overtones. In spite of being terminally ill Meena Kumari still looked as beautiful as ever. Film was sculpted in the manner of a Michelangelo work, with each scene appearing like a different statue. The dialogues captured the imagination of the nation. making it one of Bollywood’s most memorable movies ever. Most artistically she distinguishes her roles as a frustrated tawaif wishing her daughter Sahinbjan marry her lover Shahbudin.
In remarkable setoff sequences Shabudin tracks down Sahibjann when she turns into an adult, when she works as an entertainer at Nawbjaan’s brothel. and In spite of as series of turbulent events her face expressed serenity of a lark’s voice. It is a most touching scene when she opens the note written by a stranger, Salim and discovers it is him, like a gravitational force acting. Salim goes on to elope with her after a chain of events.. However She refuses to marry Salim who after being heartbroken invites Sahibjaan to perform a Mujra at the wedding . During the event, Nawabjaan recognises Shahbuddin and calls him to witness the irony of the situation; his own daughter dancing and entertaining his family. Shahbuddin’s father tries to shoot Nawabjaan to silence her but instead kills Shahbuddin while trying to protect her. With his dying breath, Shahbuddin asks Salim to marry Sahibjaan. Salim’s doli (vehicle) defies all conventions and arrives at Sahibjaan’s brothel, fulfilling Shahbuddin’s wishes.
In ‘Parineeta’ most sensitively she plays apart in a cross class romantic drama with Ashok Kumar, with continuous ebb and flow. to throw light on the contradictions within the social sytem.Lalita (Meena Kumari) is an orphaned niece of an impoverished clerk named Gurucharan (Nazir Hussain). Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), is the son of their rich landlord neighbor. Shekhar had a liking for Lalita. Gurucharan has to mortgage his house to Shekhar’s father in order to get one of his daughters married as he is heavily debt-ridden. Shekhar’s father often chides him about his overdue loan and a day comes when completely pressed on all sides, Gurucharan is forced to take advantage of the altruistic offer of an interest-free loan made by a wealthy young man named Girin. This gives rise to an ugly misunderstanding that Lalita has been “sold” to Girin. What happens thereafter forms the gripping conclusion of this great story of perfect love. The beautiful part of this movie is dialogue and communication between Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar.
In ‘Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan’, she literally touches the soul of the audiences in realms rarely traversed .The movie illustrates patriarchal values within family .Geeta (Meena Kumari) is married to Shyam (Balraj Sahni), but is unable to bear children. Orphaned as a youth, Mohan (Sailesh Kumar) is raised by his elder brother Shyam and his wife, Geeta, who offers the boy motherly love and devotion. Mohan marries Prabha (Seema Deo), Prabha is from a wealthy family and her life is ruled over by her dominating mom (Durga Khote). Mohan’s youthful bride becomes jealous of his loyalty to his family. Misunderstandings arise to such an extent that Prabha moves out of her home, and back to her mom’s. She gives birth to a baby, and not even her husband comes to visit her or to see the baby. But when the infant falls ill, Prabha must set aside her apprehension and learn to trust.
In ‘Majahli Didi” most courageously she challenges her sister-in-law, Kadambini , and her husband, Navinchandra in manipulating property and defending step brother step-brother, Kishan .She again bring virtues of womanhood to the fore, in overcoming patriarchy. Kumari portrays an educated city girl who marries into a very traditional family and gets caught up in the crossfire of family politics. Bipinchandra (Dharmendra) breaks family tradition by marrying a city girl, Hemangini (Meena Kumari), much to the chagrin of his sister-in-law, Kadambini (Lalita Pawar), and her husband, Navinchandra (Bipin Gupta). Things are delicate even after both women give birth to two children each. Then Hemangini testifies against Navinchandra in Court, leading to the division of the property. Things get worse by the arrival of Kadambini’s orphaned school-going step-brother, Kishan (Sachin), who is beaten and abused not only by Kadambini and Navinchandra, but also by their overweight son. When Hemangini objects to Kishan’s ill-treatment, Bipin takes the side of the rest of the family, and may probably force her to abandon Kishan to his fate or divorce her.
In ‘Dil Ek Mandir’ she projects virtuosity at a crescendo in movie with the theme of a love entanglement interwoven in a most moral social theme.In the hospital scenes it appeared as though her very soul was speaking. The remake of Tamil film Nenjil Or Aalayam (1960) is an interesting romantic drama about a woman whose husband has cancer and is being treated by her former lover. With both men desperately in love with her, what follows is a unique romantic triangle that weighs up duty versus desire. She would get yet another Filmfare Best Actress nomination for her wonderful performance in the film.
In ‘Footpath’ co-starring with Dilip Kumar she plays an important role in a theme illustrating the evils of the social system. The story portrays theme of pursuing wealth to escape abject poverty in contrast to moral values.
In ‘Sanjh or Savera’ enacting ‘Maya’ reflects the ebb and flow within marriage, be it love or sexual relationship and the gravity behind it. Shankar arrives home one day and discovers that Prakash and Maya are missing; his search for them proves fruitless. He later learns that his wife is an imposter and that she is probably married to Prakash.
In ‘Dil Apna aur Preet Parai’ a surgeon who is obligated to marry the daughter of a family friend, while he is in love with a colleague nurse, played by Meena Kumari. It is one of the most telling performances of lead actress Meena Kumari’s career.
In ‘Mere Apne’ she is an embodiment of morality when re conciliating two political gangs who were engaged in a tussle, and her death in a crossfire defines the theme of the film. which in it’s own way reflected the culture of those times.
Other memorable movies of Kumari include ‘Kaajal’, ‘Beju Bawra,’ ‘Phool Aur Pathar’ Meena Kumari also displayed flair for humorous films like ‘Azad’, ‘Kohinoor’, and ‘Mother Mary’ .

*Freelance Journalist

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