They met to play out destiny’s blueprint.
Their courtship was the stuff of flowers, rubaiyats and sacred promises. Almost 15 years her senior, acclaimed filmmaker and writer Kamal Amrohi was the alchemist, who calmed young Meena Kumari’s restless yearnings. The rebellious romance culminated in a late night nikah.
But soon the superstar grew weary of the white flowers and the snowy curtains that veiled her from the limelight. The mentor was alleged to have turned tormentor with his rule-book and regimen. Meena Kumari, in a take-off from her image of a tragedienne, walked out of his ivory citadel, rumours of exploitation and domestic abuse, adding to her make-believe halo.
12 years later, they united again. Both weary with the lacuna in their lives.
He with the aftermath of a failed marriage and career. She with alleged alcoholism, ruptured relationships and a grave ailment.
Their dream, Pakeezah, aborted more than a decade ago, was resurrected.
The film eulogised her as the bejewelled courtesan Sahibjan, pining for the legitimacy of her love. Kamal created a Tanjore painting embellished with music, verse and heartache as a tribute to his muse.
Her potion of pain and his portion of poetry created a masterwork that benefited hugely after her tragic death – nine weeks after its release! With Pakeezah, the two hopefully, found closure. Much like the haunting alaap in the film that ceases when Sahibjaan unites with her love…
Meena Kumari, as her remuneration for Pakeezah, had asked for just one ‘ashrafi’ (gold coin). Cynics mourn that even that was not paid to her. “One ashrafi is no big deal. Maybe, Baba wanted to remain indebted to her. He was the mentor, she the muse… Pakeezah was their child,” Tajdar Amrohi reportedly summed up the indefinable relationship between his father Kamal Amrohi and stepmother Meena Kumari…
Filmmaker and writer Kamal Amrohi first met Meena Kumari in 1938. He was writing a film for Sohrab Modi, for which they wanted a seven-year-old girl. Kamal went to meet Master Ali Bux at his house in Dadar as his daughter was a child artiste. The little girl came rushing into the room with mashed banana all over her mouth and hands. She was Mahjabeen (Meena Kumari’s real name).
Years later, he was introduced to Meena on the sets of Tamasha (1952) at Filmistan, unaware she was Mahjabeen. She was 19, he was 34 and twice married (his second wife Mehmoodie had three children Shaandar, Tajdar and Rukhsaar).
Later, Kamal was to make Filmkar’s Anarkali with Madhubala, which fell through. Kamal then suggested Meena Kumari’s name. But before the shooting began, the actress met with an accident. She was in a hospital in Pune for five months. Meena was doubtful if he’d still consider her for the role. But Kamal used to visit her during the weekends.
To reassure her, he wrote ‘Meri Anarkali’ on her wrist and signed his name below. The film never took off but their romance did. Fearing familial opposition, Meena would cover herself with a blanket and talk to Kamal in hushed tones over the phone through the night.
One day Meena, after an altercation with her family, left home forever and reached Kamal’s. A kazi was arranged and a nikah was reportedly performed that very night, on 15 February 1952.
But before that Kamal put forth a few conditions. “That she wouldn’t act once the ongoing films were completed. That she wouldn’t wear revealing clothes. That she’d return home after 6 pm and never accept a lift from a co-actor. Choti Ammi (Meena) agreed to all,” shared stepson Tajdar Amrohi, who shared an affectionate equation the actress, in an interview to Filmfare.
But soon she began to miss the ‘roshni’ (lights) having worked since the age of four. Her career soared. Parineeta (1953) and Sharda gave (1957) her the image of a ‘devi’. People worshipped her photograph. Apparently, some even made a talisman out of her hair. But some ‘vested interests’ around Meena, wanted a share in her earnings. They insinuated her against her ‘controlling’ husband calling her a ‘pinjre ka panchi’.
“After she became successful, she did not remember any of the promises made to my father. She said that she couldn’t be a housewife or a child-bearing machine,” said poet and stepdaughter Rukhsaar Amrohi to Dawn, who too was nevertheless extremely fond of Meena.
Apart from allegations of Kamal being controlling and marital abuse there were rumours of her growing alcoholism and closeness with her co-stars. It was alleged that she hid her drink in Dettol bottles kept in the bathroom. “Once Choti Ammi fell in the bathroom. She was given stitches. When she went for the shooting the next day, she was asked what went wrong. She kept quiet. They assumed that she was beaten,” said Tajdar in his father’s defence.
“She had begun to live the roles of the tragedy queen that she became so famous for. She wanted people to believe that she was also a tragedy queen in real life. Her face was also that of a suffering woman, a sad woman,” Rukhsaar was quoted saying to Dawn. “They just couldn’t live together due to ego clashes… People poisoned Meenaji against my father and the two grew apart,” added Rukhsaar.
In March 1964, Meena finally left Kamal for her sister Madhu’s (actor Mehmood’s wife) place. Kamal went to fetch her but she didn’t open the door. “Tum jo darwaze khule chod gayee ho woh aaj bhi khulein hain, tum jab chaho aajaao (The doors that you have left open are still so. You can return whenever you wish),” he apparently said.
Apart from losing face, Kamal was also upset that his magnum opus, Pakeezah (which had just began shooting in 1964) lay incomplete. Through time a series of unfulfilled relationships, alcoholism, indifferent relatives and spiralling health made Meena a lonesome figure as well.
Well-wishers like Khayyam, Sunil Dutt and Nargis urged Kamal to complete Pakeezah. In 1967, Meena too asked him to re-start Pakeezah. But time and trauma having taken its toll, she was nervous about her changed looks and asked, “Chandan (her pet name for him), kya tum mujhe waisa bata sakoge?” He assured ‘Manju’ (her pet name) he would.
They resumed shooting in 1968 by first filming the song Mausam hai aashiqana, written by Kamal. The tent was set up in Filmalaya and later the shots were juxtaposed with the outdoor scenes.
Her stomach was bloated due to liver cirrhosis. To camouflage that, she was made to wear a lungi-kurta. Though tired, she’d perk up when the shot was ready. After every shot, a unit hand would rush to her with a chair.
Padma Khanna was used as her body double as her silhouette and face structure matched that of Meena. Padma’s eyebrows and lips were made to look like Meena’s.
One of the background dancers in the song Chalte chalte… was also used as a body double in the scene when Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) runs away from her nikah with Salim (Raaj Kumar). As also in the scene where she flees from the thekedar and runs on the railway tracks. The song Chalo dildar chalo didn’t focus on her face even once, yet the picturization is mystical.
During the last song Aaj hum apni duaon ka asar dekhnege, Meena had to twirl around and drop in Veena’s arms. That was strenuous for her. Her close-ups were taken in sitting position.
Pakeezah was like a reunion of sorts for the estranged couple. During the shooting, Kamal and Meena ate from the same tiffin. But they stayed in separate rooms and maintained a respectful distance.
Initially shot in black and white, then re-shot in colour, and finally in CinemaScope, Pakeezah premiered on 4 February 1972 at Maratha Mandir. Dressed in a white gharara, Meena was showered with flowers and compliments.
“I remember at the premiere, Meena Kumari entered the hall holding my father’s hand. I saw her crying throughout the movie, saying ‘Chandan, you have made me so beautiful. I can’t believe it’!” recollected daughter Rukhsaar. After watching the film, she held Kamal’s hand and said, “Chandan promise me you won’t make a film after this.”
The film, however received a lukewarm response. Given her fast deteriorating health, Meena was hospitalised in March. Through her last days she kept saying, “I will not forgive those who ruined my home.” She’d watch the sunset every day and say she didn’t want to die.
Kamal recalled Meena Kumari’s last words before she went into a coma at the nursing home on the evening of Wednesday, March 29. “Chandan, I will not live longer now. My last wish is to die in your arms,” she reportedly said (Cineplot).
Finally, when she slipped into coma, the doctors asked Kamal to grant permission to pull off the plug. Cineplot also mentions, “On the afternoon of 31 March, 1972, at around 3:20 pm, 31 March, Kamal gently touched her forehead, then ran his fingers through her hair. The next moment her heart stopped beating.”
It was Good Friday. Meena was 40.
Being still married to Kamal, she was laid to rest at his family burial at Rehmatabad, Mazgaon. Pakeezah, in its ninth week then, got a new lease of life after her death. Kamal died two decades later on 11 February 1993. He was buried next to Meena.
“Unlike today’s stars, she had many dimensions – she read poetry, had literary friends, aspired to the higher life and was an alcoholic…. Meena Kumari also thought of herself as a Marilyn Monroe, ‘unlucky and unloved’,” author Vinod Mehta, the biographer of Meena Kumari The Classic Biography, aptly summed up the mystique of the much-loved actor.