I think the best way to recapture the life of this famous tragedy queen is to read Vinod Mehta’s biography written a few months after her untimely death in 1972 at the age of 40 .
Now Harper Collins has come out with a revised edition, with a fresh introduction by the author who is much wiser and seasoned after all these years .
Mehta admits now, “It is an over-sentimental, maudlin life story compromised by the gratuitous insertion of my personality into the narrative. A cooler, detached view would have improved the biography immeasurably.”
But despite these flaws , I found the book surprisingly fresh , spontaneous , warm , even affectionate , balanced and even wise from the author who was then in his early 30s, an unknown, fresh from England dismissed by some as a hippie as he made efforts to write her biography.
Struggling in the advertising world in Bombay and yet not drifted into journalism to become one of the greatest editors of his generation .
When she died he quotes Dev Anand , “Meena Kumari was the greatest artiste of them all.”
Everyone in the film world paid tributes but the author says , “Fittingly , the only intelligent and perceptive comment came from Sahir Ludhianvi ——- an artiste with rare talent —— a soft spoken woman in white with a soul of a poet—- her whole life was a sacrifice of her own emotions , her personality , her own ego and their sublimation in the art that gives joy to millions. A cruel destiny put her lily-white soul on the cross of human emotion.”
Mehta says , “Of the mountainous films Meena made,her performance in ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’ stands on the pinnacle . If I wish to remember my heroine as a film star I would remember her as Guru Dutt’s Chhoti Bahu.”
And this character disturbed Meena Kumari so much that she wrote about it in her famous private diary .
All were in awe of her talent , Mehta was told by a director , “Even Dilip Kumar (the tragedy king)found it difficult to keep his calm in front of her.”
He says Dilip and Meena did only a few films together, these demanded no tragic skills . Speaking to informed people of the time about her great skills as a tragedy queen he says. “Had they matched she would have taught him a thing or two.”
She was so professionally dexterous that tears came to her naturally in front of the camera and unlike the rest she needed no glycerin.
Talking about her talent a director said , “A sequence that would take four hours to shoot with any other heroine would take just ten minutes with Meenaji.”
Quoting the magazines at the time of her death ,”Many people exploited Meena Kumari .There are people who exploited her financially. Worse, there are even people who used her physically and exploited her emotionally , leaving indelible wounds on her heart.”
Dharmendra her protege, pupil and lover was among the very few men who was genuinely good to her says the author .Each time he went to see her at her ‘landmark’ house he would come out of her room crying.
Mehta believed they were happy only for the first couple of years and after that dragged on the marriage for ten years.In the end she could not take it anymore and just walked out of his house empty handed ,never to return .
Then there was Gulzar the gifted writer and filmmaker who was also close to her. But the urbane and intense Gulzar gave nothing away to Mehta about his relationship with the tragedy queen.He only said, “We used to share artistic moments together.”
Meena Kumari admired his writing and his filmmaking skills . She worked in ‘Mere Apne’and thought very highly of the film .
Remember in the end she passed on her private diaries to Gulzar and as far as I know they remain private to this day .
We hardly have any good biographies of our actors . But this one despite its flaws is the most readable if not the best in the hindi film industry !