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Dec 07th 2023
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Home Reviews Books Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography

Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography

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An interesting and seemingly honest account of the enigmatic actress.


I was probably in class 7th or 8th when I first saw 'Sahab Biwi Aur Ghulam'. The intensity of Meena Kumari's performance was a completely different experience for me. The actress was in a league of her own. As I grew up and watched some of her other movies, I found out exactly why she was my father's favourite actress.

It's just a coincidence that a biography of her missed my attention all these years.

Vinod Mehta's 'Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography' is an interesting and seemingly honest account of the enigmatic actress. The author is not known to shy away from speaking his mind or showing a selective approach. These two qualities make all his work different. The biography of Meena Kumari is no exception.

It must have been a difficult task to present a balance picture of the actress, as 'everything connected with her life had at least four versions'. Mehta talks about how being an outsider helped him present 'an alien unattached view' that was 'closer to the truth about this woman than an inside one'. He sure did justice to his subject and that speaks for the effort.

A child artist (Mahajabeen) from a talented family, fallen on hard times, to becoming the brightest star of her time, Meena Kumari's story is both inspiring and sad. Inspiring for it showcases the true human spirit of survival, sad because she kept chasing those lost years for the rest of her life. The craving for 'baasi roti', sharing the house with her sisters, the constant effort to reach out to her staff and unit members, an ever readiness to help others in both cash and kind, showed her immense desire to be loved by all. It comes as no surprise then that her personal experiences made her performances so intense and real.

Mehta carefully handles the personal life of the actress that was marred by a broken marriage, an affair without the desired end, and alcohol abuse. What surprises many, including the author is the professionalism of Meena Kumari despite her drinking bouts.

The author also talks about another lesser known aspect of the actress - philanthropy. He calls her 'a lady of nearly foolish generosity' and provides numerous instances to carry home the point. The one that stands out is the way she asks for 'only one guinea' from Kamal Amrohi (knowing that he has fallen on difficult times) for Pakeezah.

Vinod Mehta has produced an overall engaging account of a universally loved and acknowledged actress of Hindi cinema. The section where he talks of her death transports you to the Bombay of March 1972. In fact, the chronology of events inside St. Elizabeth's Nursing Home gave me goose bumps. I was reminded of a similar death in the family.

One missing link seems to be Dharmendra, which the author himself confesses about in the beginning. I also do not agree with the author talking of Meena Kumari's performance in Pakeezah as one showing only her 'competence'. That she managed to give a superlative performance, in spite of carrying the burden of her past performances, speaks otherwise. As for the film, he himself sounds contradictory. One one side he doesn't think that 'Pakeezah is a great film' and on the other he feels that it 'evokes a strata of Muslim society with more correctness and realism' than any other film.

The biography will certainly give you some food for thought, and that 'bechaari' feeling for the great actress. Something that sadly seems to have stuck to her memory.


—Editor, The Other News


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