Tragedy Queen: Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari was without doubt one of the most sensitive, creative and impactful actresses ever to have flashed on the Hindi silver screen. Sadly she left the world too early, not even living half of a complete life. The story or theme of her life was all about tragedy. I place her amongst the greatest Hindi film actresses ever, in the calibre of Nargis or Nutan. Few faces were more appealing or expressions more soul searching or contemplative than Meena Kumari’s. In my view few film artists more fitted the bill of flawed genius.

No Hindi film actress ever penetrated tragedy at such a magnitude as Meena Kumari .She portrayed tragic roles with the intensity of an inferno, shaking the souls of the audiences.Meena Kumari took sadness or grief to magical proportions, looking like a manifestation of the divine. I doubt even any Hollywood actress gave a definition to tragedy in such a magnitude.Meena Kumari’s performances on screen resembled different types of monuments being sculpted. One often got the sensation that God sent her to earth to act. I hardly have an adjective to describe the sheer expression in her eyes, which was reminiscent of the turbulent waves of an ocean. Her facial expressions had the depth of an Ocean floor and created a magnetic effect on the audiences. No actress made you feel like the earth shaking below more than her.Meena Kumari had energy of a very rare type, where even in the most tragic scenes there was a powerful element of liveliness. The sum total of her grace, intensity, composure and sensitivity was poetry in motion. Even in tragic scenes Meena Kumari lost none of her balance, grace or composure, able to even lighten up a funeral procession. Very few heroines looked more like in state of meditation on the screen .No Hindi film actress weaved romance and tragedy together as artistically. Rarely have I seen artists who were more natural than Meena Kumari, reminiscent of a sun setting or the movement of tree leaves. Such was her genius that she could even make a grave appear like a bed of roses. Many compared Meena Kumari to Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe. Her acting had subtle element of mystery which kept the audiences guessing, like very few artists. Meena Kumari took  creativity to dimensions rarely explored in acting.

To me it is of great regret that she virtually confined herself to tragic roles as she had all the qualities to become a consummate actress like Nargis or Waheed Rehman. In certain roles she extricated herself from tragic trends and gave most artistic portrayals. In many ways she was the female equivalent of Dilip Kumar. or an anti-thesis of the ever smiling Madhubala. Few actresses ever could carry artistic films or portray virtuosity in the depth of Meena Kumari.If she had let herself go like Nargis or Waheeda Rehman she may well have been the perfect actress. Film historian should gauge on the causes of Meena Kumari not blossoming into a versatile star. She endowed as much as natural ability  as Nargis or Nutan.

Her most memorable acting performances  to me are when enacting a drunken female Choti Bahu trying to seduce Bhootnath, in ‘Sahib Bibi or Gulam’, In ‘Mere Apne’ when guiding young members of gang with subtle tenderness and sympathy in ‘Pakeezah’ when even in grief expressing love in regions of the divine ,in ‘Phool Aur Pathar’, when touching lover Dharmendra’s heart to turn him into a new man, in ‘Bajiu Bawra’ in her scene when she pleads for her lover to marry him and preceding her commiting suicide, in ‘Dil Ek Mandir’ when pleading for her husband’s life to be saved from an ex-lover ,in ‘Parineeta’ when her artistic genius is an essential component of a cross-class romantic classic of a and in ‘Foothpath’ where co-starring with Dilip Kumar she gives the fuel to the theme of moral justice .In some of these films she took morality to a crescendo like a priest bowing before a pulpit, in others she had a powerful element of mischief in entrapping a lover.

Superstar Dharmendra’s career was fascinatingly shaped to a great extent by Meena Kumari,,who was his life partner at one stage.

It is anybody’s guess what would have been the destiny of Meena Kumari’s career had she lived on till today. Arguably it was travesty of injustice that she never got a chance to prove her versatility. I would have loved to see Meena Kumari in  character roles in art films portraying social opression like Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil.I would have loved to see her co-star with artists like Raj Kapoor and Balraj Sahni in her time, and later Sanjeev Kumar and Naseeruddin Shah. The course of her own life was as mysterious as her art. Ironic that her personal life was as tragic as the roles she casted.


In my view Meena Kumari’s best performances when she took art to regions of genius were in ‘Parineeta’, in ‘Footpath’, in ‘Sahib Bibi or Ghulam’, in ‘Dil Ek Mandir’  in  ‘Baiju Bawra’ and ‘Pakeezah” I challenge any actress to have matched her sheer malleability or penetration into the character.

Baiju Bawra (1952): Meena Kumari made a name for herself as a child star and scored her first big success as a leading lady with this blockbuster hit. Although this iconic musical was very much about two warring male musicians, she has a key role as the devoted love interest of the lead. She would win the first ever Filmfare Best Actress award for her performance in a movie that scored big at the box office. Heartouching schemes when she proposes to her lover and before she commits suicide.

Parineeta (1953):  Most modern-day audiences will know about the 2005 Bollywood movie adaptation of Sarat Chandra’s 1914 novella starring Vidya Balan and Saif Ali Khan, but this classic was the finest version of it. The cross-class romantic drama was a huge success and at the heart of it was a wonderful performance from Kumari, which won her the second ever Filmfare Best Actress award. In my view Meena Kumari’s most artistic and sensitive portrayal, where she has penetrated layers of expression unprecedented, like a meditation. She played an integral part of a chemistry that weaved a cross-class classic.

Lalita (Meena Kumar)is an orphaned niece of an impoverished clerk named Gurucharan (Nazir Husain ). Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), is the son of their rich landlord neighbor. Shekhar had a liking for Lalita. Gurucharan has to mortgage his house to Shekhar’s father in order to get one of his daughters married as he is heavily debt-ridden. Shekhar’s father often chides him about his overdue loan and a day comes when completely pressed on all sides, Gurucharan is forced to take advantage of the altruistic offer of an interest-free loan made by a wealthy young man named Girin. This gives rise to an ugly misunderstanding that Lalita has been “sold” to Girin. What happens thereafter forms the gripping conclusion of this great story of perfect love. The beautiful part of this movie is dialogue and communication between Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar..

Footpath (1953): Bollywood’s arguably two most technically gifted A-list stars Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari played the lead roles in this powerful drama set in the underbelly of a big bustling city.

The story weighs up wanting wealth to escape abject poverty versus doing the right thing. The characters and themes covered in this acclaimed drama would find their way into many subsequent films that followed. Her role and chemistry with Dilip Kumar had a great moral bearing and gave the movie it’s ethical theme..

Phool Aur Patthar (1966): Although the highest grossing film of 1966 is best remembered for the path-breaking scene of Dharmendra removing his shirt, Meena Kumari very much had top billing and garnered herself another Filmfare Best Actress nomination. She plays a devastated widow, who melts the heart of a career criminal and forms a unique bond with him. This is another massively influential film that would inspire writers to create similar stories in subsequent decades. Rarely have I seen such a subtle chemistry with a co-star or such sensitivity and simplicity.

Mere Apne (1971): The A-list actress was just in her thirties when she did the unthinkable and played an old lady in this drama, heavily inspired by National Award-winning Bengali film Apanjan (1968). The directorial debut of acclaimed writer-director Gulzar had a strong supporting cast of future stars like Vinod Khanna.Morality illustrated or virtuosity crystallised in heavenly proportions, in the manner of a silent crusader.

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962): Although Pakeezah is her career-defining role, I feel this performance is perhaps her finest. Kumari is superb as an upper-class woman descending into alcoholism and tragedy in the big-screen adaptation of a classic novel. The classic won multiple honours, including a Filmfare Best Actress award for Meena Kumari, and was unlucky not to make the Oscar’s shortlist. At the 1963 Filmfare Awards, the remarkable actress had all three Best Actress nominations, including for this film. I admired the sheer balance in her acting ,never going overboard and giving the cutting edge to the theme of the film.Rarely have I witnessed such malleability of an actress in such kind of roles.As Choti Bahu she tries to seduce Bhootnath as a drunken girl.She brilliantly illustrates the psychology of women subjugated by feudalism and what turns them.

Dil Ek Mandir (1963): The remake of Tamil film Nenjil Or Aalayam (1960) is an interesting romantic drama about a woman whose husband has cancer and is being treated by her former lover. With both men desperately in love with her, what follows is a unique romantic triangle that weighs up duty versus desire. She would get yet another Filmfare Best Actress nomination for her wonderful performance in the film. With great artistry she crystallises the theme of this film and weaves it’s chemistry.

Pakeezah (1972): Last, but not least, is Meena Kumari’s career-defining film, regarded as one of the greatest ever made in Bollywood. The colourful courtesan drama, which took 16 years to complete, sees her play the double role of a courtesan and her daughter, who grows up in the same circumstances. The multi-layered film has colourful costumes, great music, unforgettable dialogues and the last great masterful turn from Bollywood’s greatest tragedy queen, who remains alive through her wonderful work.

Meena Kumari proved why she was truly a classical actress who could crystallise the fabric of a theme. Romance in metaphysical depths as though touching an ocean floor.Gives vibrations of witnessing a classical monument, inspite of minimal movements.

Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist. Toured India, particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and

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