Meena Kumari: The Life & Times of a Poetess

Meena...

Closed her eyes and went to sleep

Bidding life adieu!

Never once did she breathe there after

After a trying life

Full of struggle and strife,

Wasn’t it a remarkably stark and easy death!

- Gulzar

Meena Kumari breathed her last in a nursing home on 30 March 1972 after the release of her landmark film Pakeezah. She was not only an iconic star of Hindi cinema but also a poet of great flair and delicacy for which she was never given her due in her lifetime.

In my long career as a journalist, I have heard many stories of Meena Kumari the poetess, some flattering, some patronising but all interesting nevertheless.

It is said that Meena Kumari never traveled to outdoor locations without her books and her favourite set of pens and papers. After pack up, she usually spent her time in her room jotting her thoughts on paper and when she got exhausted, she went down for a stroll in the hotel garden because she liked watching the moon.

Her friends reveal that when she was happy with what she wrote, she shared her poetry via long letters to her writer friends, seeking their feedback and they responded via letters and sometimes a surprise visit to her shooting location.

Meena Kumari on the cover of Filmfare magazine in 1959. (Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Those were days of trunk-calls and telegrams and outdoor locations usually meant a long drive to any of the nearest hill stations that is Lonavala and Khandala.

For a long time Meena Kumari lived in Janki Kutir, Juhu and in those days the cottages were mere shacks overlooking the sea. She loved the sound of the sea and when she was not shooting, she looked forward to writing or sharing her work with respectable writers.

Poet Kaifi Azmi and Vishwamitra Adil were her neighbours and they often met up for an impromptu kavi sammelan at home. It was Azmi and Adil who encouraged her to pen her thoughts and participate in mushairas.

Meena Kumari looked forward to such occasions, she looked forward to listening to great poets but not all of them were encouraging. Some of them, the superior poets were dismissive of her as a glamorous presence in a gathering of serious literateurs. She was aware of their distaste and made an effort to not let it affect her outpourings. She was grateful that she had many genuine supporters who believed her poetry was poignant and her style of expression original and unique.

Dharmendra with Meena Kumari.

Everybody agreed that she was a sensitive performer who had the ability to make her audience cry with her every performance in every film. Her critics, however, believed that that no matter how compelling the characters, Meena Kumari had the reserve and the resilience to always protect the private from the camera. In her poetry Meena Kumari revealed a side of her personality that was never evident in her screen persona. As a poetess, she was devoid of any inhibitions and shared her vulnerability as she experienced it, which is why her writing was extremely discomforting to her near and dear ones.

Over the decades many books have been penned on the actor, more elaborating on her controversial lifestyle and very few on her marvellous performances and almost none on her as a poetess except, A Life Beyond Cinema, published by Roli Books that focuses on the actor as a poetess. The book has introductory essays from two respectable historians Daisy Hasan and Philip Bounds who describe Meena Kumari’s poetry as a barbed critique of Indian popular culture.

Quoting from the essay:

“It is hardly surprising that a woman of Meena Kumari’s intelligence and sensitivity should have bridled at the limitations of her onscreen persona. Introverted, perceptive and more than a little self-obsessed, she knew perfectly well that her characters’ emotional lives contained none of the ambivalence, guilt or self-doubt to which real people are vulnerable.

Meena Kumari gets a congratulatory note from Lux. (Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Indeed, there are moments when her dismay at Bollywood sexism becomes apparent. There is no better example than the famous scene in Pakeezah in which she addresses the song ‘Chalte chalte yunhi koi mil gaya tha…’ to the dazzlingly handsome male interlocutor. At first sight her performance seems entirely orthodox. Garlanded in gold jewellery and wrapped in a vivid orange veil, Meena Kumari holds her hands out in supplication as she intones the reverential lyric. But the more one watches – the detail of the performance – the more one realises that her heart is not really in it.

Meena Kumari was usually a highly sinuous and compelling dancer, surrendering herself utterly to the spirit of the music. In this case her movements seem strangely divorced from the emotions she purports to express. As her hands describe ornate patterns in front of her face, the impression she subtly conveys is one of perfunctoriness and boredom. Her curiously distracted eyes merely emphasise the fact that this is a woman who would rather be anywhere than in the company of the man to whom she is obliged to make obeisance. For a few brief moments the sexist core of Bollywood ideology is exposed for what it is.

Meena Kumari’s problems in the industry extended to her behind-the-scenes relationships.

In 1952, she married Kamal Amrohi, one of the most gifted and talented directors of his day. The couple was passionately in love but their marriage was by no means unaffected by the gender hierarchies endemic in their profession. Fifteen years older than his wife, Amrohi occupied a prominent position in the industry and refused to treat Kumari as an equal. Even her deepest needs were a matter of indifference to him if they interfered with his freedom.

Meena Kumari with Kamal Amrohi. (Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Although Kumari willingly and happily accepted Amrohi’s children from an earlier marriage, they never had children of their own. The resulting sense of emptiness, exacerbated by the inherent incompatibility of the relationship with her husband, did more than anything else to increase her reliance on alcohol. Her descent into full-blown alcoholism probably began after her rancorous divorce in 1964.

Her health had been compromised beyond repair by the time Meena Kumari remarried Amrohi after a long break. Despite continuing to play the virtuous woman on screen, she became the object of much unpleasant and unfair gossip during her later years. Egged on by journalists, critics and other members of what the Canadian songwriter Joni Mitchell might have called Bollywood's ‘star-making machinery’, her fans seemed to delight in enumerating her failings as a wife, mother and citizen. The woman once perceived as morally exemplary was now an object of public scorn.”

Meena Kumari on the sets of Pakeezah. (Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

Meena Kumari’s poetry is published in Urdu with a translation in English by Noorul Hasan, author of Thomas Hardy: the Sociological Imagination, who has also translated the poetry of Firaq Gorakhpuri. Hasan describes Meena Kumari as a ‘chameleon poet’ and when you read the verses below you understand why.

The Empty Shop

Why has Time spread out its wares before me?

Where are the things

I used to buy?

These spurious toys of pleasure

Paper of fame

These wax dolls of wealth

Locked in glass cases

(That can melt at anyone’s touch)

These are not the things I wish to buy

A handsome dream of love

That can cool my in my eyes

A moment of perfect intimacy

That can soothe my restless soul

I came looking for nothing but these

And the shop of Time supplies none of these things.

Unseen Footsteps

I wonder

How long ago

The moon was born

Look

The young moonlight

Has made a pathway

On the ocean

On which

I see no traveler

But

Hear the sounds of footsteps

Endlessly

The sound of unseen footsteps…

(Excerpted with permission from the publisher)

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. Her Twitter handle is @bhawanasomaaya)

(This story is from The Quints archives and was first published on March 28, 2017. It is being republished to mark Meena Kumari’s birth anniversary.)

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