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The Real Meena Kumari

The soulfulness of India’s greatest tragedienne was born of an abiding love for reading and writing. 

Raza Rumi reviews a biography of the alluring star

The real Meena Kumari


Barri Bechari Hai
Meena Kumari
Jisko Lagi Hai

Dil ki Bimari Meena Kumari ruled the world of Indian cinema until her death in 1972 due to liver cirrhosis. Since her death her popular image has been that of a suffering tragic heroine who died of loneliness and excessive drinking. However, the story of Mahjabeen (Meena Kumari’s real name) is neither as simple nor stereotypical as painted by her panegyrists and detractors alike. I recall the days in my childhood when Meena Kumari’s last film Pakeeezah was scheduled to be shown on Doordarshan. The excitement was incredible and everyone I knew anticipated watching it via (illegal) TV signals from across the border. Such was her magic and appeal. And needless to state, sheer beauty.
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Harper Collins have republished well known Indian editor, Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography). This is a fine introduction to a larger-than-life person and performer. By no means authoritative it does give a fairly detailed account of her life, achievements and travails. As Mehta mentions at the start of the book, in 1972 he was a struggling ad copywriter “going nowhere. With false bravado which comes easily to a person who has achieved little, I accepted the commission and duly delivered the finished manuscript” in a few months. Mehta was “embarrassed at the effort” because the subject of his biography was not available for interviews, and Dharmendra — “the man who had callously used and discarded her” never gave him the time to hold detailed interviews. Having said that, the biography is fairly well-researched and brings forth lesser known facets of this exceptionally talented woman who remains a bit of an enigma to date. […]

Feryal Ali Gauhar – femme fatale

Conversations with novelist, filmmaker, feline aficionado, and femme fatale, Feryal Ali Gauhar, as she prepares to launch her second novel

Who doesn’t know Feryal Ali Gauhar? A novel at the top of The New York Times international bestseller list, years of television appearances and a highly publicised marriage to Jamal Shah that became fodder for countless gab sessions, have caricatured and made famous her persona. Had I not known her personally, I too may have fallen for the half-imagined tales littering the drawing rooms of socialites in this land of the pure. But I have had the pleasure of Feryal’s acquaintance for years, and not a moment of our friendship has resembled the images painted by petty gossip and lazy misinformation.

Feryal is a celebrated actor, filmmaker, journalist, activist, development worker and above all, a renowned novelist. Our recent meeting in her Zaman Park, Lahore residence took place after a long interlude. That afternoon, with the winter sun at our backs, we sat in her garden and talked with abandon while several of her cats and pet dogs meandered in and out of the plant-life; silent witnesses to our conversation and its occasional unfettered laughter.

Feryal is the youngest child of dynamic, accomplished parents. Her late mother, Khadija Gauhar, was a leading intellectual in Lahore who came to the city from South Africa after marrying her father, Sayyid was a military man from the NWFP who later retired from the army and took to farming. Her elder sister, Madiha Gauhar, is a talented theatre personality who founded theAjoka theatre group and has managed it for over two decades. Feryal was initially associated with Ajoka as its first female actor. The sisters also have an older brother, Aamir, an industrial engineer who operates a business in alternative energy products.

As a young woman Feryal attended the Lahore American School. Her experiences there included a reaction to the school’s requirement that all students, regardless of nationality, pledge allegiance to the United States. In response to this practice, the eight year old Feryal insisted that the Pakistani national anthem be played for the entire school as well. Later, Feryal was the first Pakistani and first female to head the school’s Student’s Council. She was an honour role student and captain of several sports teams. Several scions of leading feudal families at Aitchison College at that time remember Feryal leading her team into the school grounds to play soccer. What they especially remember is the soccer team uniform which revealed a rather shapely pair of legs. “Some have never forgotten that sight,” she chuckles. […]