31 March 1972: Meena Kumari, legendary Indian film actress, died

Meena Kumari, one of India’s most popular film stars, was born on 1 August 1932. Known as the ‘Tragedy Queen’, both for her on-screen roles and off-screen persona, she died on 31 March 1972 at the age of 39.

Her father, Ali Baksh, a Shia Muslim, was a theatre personality who dabbled in music and poetry and played minor roles in films. Her mother, Iqbal Begum, was a dancer and stage actress before she met and married Ali. The youngest of three daughters, Meena Kumari was known as Mahjabeen Bano as a child.

When her parents got her into the film line, she was seven years old. Her debut as a child actor was in the 1939 film Farzand-e-Watan (alias Leatherface) directed by Vijay Bhatt, who gave Mahjabeen the screen name Baby Meena. It is said that during the screen test of ‘Leatherface’, when she was asked to emote, she wept without using any glycerine – and was immediately accepted.

Child no more

Meena Kumari’s initial roles playing an adult were predominantly in mythological films such as Veer Ghatotkach and folk adaptations such as Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. She shot to fame, however, with the 1952 film Baiju Bawra, starring opposite Bharat Bhushan, and won a Filmfare Award for Best Actress, the first of four such awards she bagged in her brilliant career. In the film, Baiju (Bhushan) is a young singer who is determined to take revenge on Tansen, the famous musician in Akbar’s court. Gauri (Meena Kumari), a boatman’s daughter, plays Baiju’s lover.

It was while shooting Baiju Bawra that Meena Kumari, still a teenager, rather dramatically, got smitten by director Kamal Amrohi, 15 years her senior. It is said that she was reading a film magazine on the sets when she came across his picture, and instantly took a liking to him.

She starred in Amrohi’s film Daera and soon after, they married. Interestingly, Daera is about a teenager (played by Meena Kumari) who is forced to marry a much older man.


Rise to stardom

In the following decade she went on to act in films like Parineeta, Ek Hi Raasta, Azaad, Shararat, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, and Kohinoor

Explaining her transition from the 1950s to the 1960s, the film critic Dinesh Raheja wrote in rediff.com: “In the 1950s, Meena sensibly alternated these high-octane roles with spirited characters. She gave the boisterous Kishore Kumar tit for tat in six films, including Ilzaam; she pranced gaily in swashbucklers like Azaad, and made expressive eyes in the light-hearted Miss Mary. By the 1960s, Meena’s screen image had crystallised into that of a stoic victim. The very successful Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (where her love Raaj Kumar marries Nadira) in 1960 can be seen as the Rubicon line.”

It was, however, in the 1962 film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam that Meena Kumari played one of the pivotal roles of her career. A Guru Dutt production, the film explores the friendship between a beautiful but lonely wife (Meena Kumari) of a landlord (played by Rehman) and a servant (Guru Dutt).

Reminiscing the film after fifty years, the film critic and writer Shoma Chatterji wrote in The Tribune: “The high point of the film remains Meena Kumari’s performance as Chhoti Bahu, a character she came to be identified with. . . . Chhoti Bahu offers a classic example of how confinement into the antahpur, socially coerced or conditioned by the rules of the zamindar home, need not necessarily be followed either in principle or letter. . . . Bhootnath’s class origins shape his thinking. But it is Chhoti Bahu who remains Indian cinema’s most supremely tragic heroine.”

The Tragedy Queen

Meena Kumari’s subsequent films included Dil Ek Mandir, Kaajal and Phool Aur Patthar. But after she split with her husband, she took to alcohol with a vengeance.

Her films did not do particularly well after that and her health deteriorated.

Reportedly suffering from liver cirrhosis caused by excessive drinking, she died on 31 March 1972. The film critic and writer-director Khalid Mohamed wrote in the Deccan Chronicle in January 2014: “Ironically, there wasn’t enough money to pay for the hospital bills of an actress who had had spent her life ever since she was seven-year-old at the film studios. Almost foreseeing her premature end, she had written, Tum kya karoge sunkar mujhse meri kahani/ Belutf zindagi ke kissay hain pheekay pheekay (Why would you want me to tell you my story? / It is the story of a joyless life, a colourless life), lines which could well serve as her epitaph.”

The public was not enthused by Pakeezah, in which Amrohi and Meena Kumari (playing the role of a courtesan) teamed up one last time as director and actress. But when she died a few weeks after the film’s release, people came in large numbers to see the film, making it a commercial success. 

Meena Kumari is remembered as among the finest actresses to have graced the Indian screen. In a tribute, Deepak Mahaan wrote in The Hindu in March 2013: “Unlike many actresses around the world, it is startling to note that Meena never did a ‘strip tease’ on screen nor ever made a lurid attempt to entice the audiences with her sexuality. Instead, she delved deep into the inner recesses of the mind, giving her characters a certain vulnerability….[F]ilm students who wish to expand their acting horizons would be well advised to introspect on the searing intensity and conviction that she brought to her roles with her subtle inflections of tone or precise movement of her hands.”

Also on this day: 

1934 — Kamala Suraiyya, Indian poet and writer, was born   

1938 — Sheila Dikshit, former Chief Minister of Delhi, was born   

1945 — Meira Kumar, Speaker of Lok Sabha, was born  

1987 —Koneru Humpy, Indian chess Grandmaster, was born

2005 — Om Prakash Jindal, chairman of Jindal Steel and Power, passed away

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