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Meena Kumari – “The Tragedy Queen of Indian Cinema”


Meena Kumari born on 1 August 1932 as Mahjabeen Bano, was a prominent actress of Hindi Cinema and also a poet. During a career spanning 30 years starting as a child artiste she acted in more than ninety films. She is best known as “The Tragedy Queen”, for her frequent portrayal of sorrowful and tragic roles in films and her real-life story.  Her life and prosperous career were marred by heavy drinking, troubled relationships, and her death from liver cirrhosis.

 When she was born, her parents Ali Baksh and Iqbal Begum who were small time actors were unable to pay the Doctor’s fees for her delivery and left her at a Muslim orphanage; however, her father took her back after a few hours. In 1939 when she was 7 years old though she wanted to go to school her parents forced her into movies for the need of money. Entering films as Baby Meena she matured to adult roles as Meena Kumari and attained stardom with her role in Baiju Bawra (1952). She was the first actress to win the Filmfare Best Actress Award for this performance.  Around that time, in 1952 she fell in love and married film director Kamaal Amrohi who was 15 years elder and already married.

 In Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), produced by Guru Dutt she played Chhoti Bahu, an alcoholic wife. The role was famous for its similarity to her life as she herself like her character, began to drink heavily. For four more years, she was successful. However, after getting divorced in 1964, her addiction to alcohol increased and she also had affairs with younger men like Dharmendra. Her subsequent films did not do well. Heavy drinking badly damaged her liver, and in 1968 she went to London and Switzerland for treatment. Due to heavy drinking, she had increasingly lost her good looks, and began mostly playing character roles in movies. Along with Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha she played the lead role in writer-lyricist Gulzar’s directorial debut Mere Apne (1971).

Pakeezah, starring Kumari and directed by her ex-husband Kamal Amrohi, took 14 years to complete. The film shooting was abruptly stopped after their divorce in 1964, when it was more than halfway complete. In 1969, Sunil Dutt and Nargis previewed the shelved film and convinced the estranged Amrohi and Kumari to complete it. Released in 1972, Pakeezah opened to a lukewarm response; but, after Kumari’s death, people flocked to see it, making it a box-office success. The film gained a cult and classic status, and Kumari’s performance drew major praise. Pakeezah was the inaugural film telecast by Doordarshan, India’s state-owned television station, when it began broadcasting from Amritsar in the 70s. It was specially beamed towards Lahore nearby, in Pakistan. Thousands flocked at Lahore, from as far as Karachi, hundreds of miles away, to see Pakeezah on television screens placed at strategic points on virtually every street corner!

Three weeks after Pakeezah’s release, Meena Kumari became seriously ill, and died on 31 March 1972 of liver cirrhosis. Just 40 years of age at the time of her tragic death, she was in more or less the same circumstance as at the time of her birth: It is said that when she died in a nursing home, there was no money to pay her hospital bills.

It was said then that audience smile when Madhubala smiled on screen and they cry when Meena Kumari cried on screen.