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.

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. […]