A quiet little girl is Meena Kumari, a girl gifted with a pastoral beauty behind which lies the practical, mature mind of an artiste who has won success the hard way.
Meena Kumari is often called the “Cinderella of the Indian films. It is probably because she has known hard times. It may be because ill-health and bad-luck have dogged her footsteps. Or is it because she has so often played the part of the waif? Again it may be explained in her conspicuous absence at social functions and parties which somehow frighten unsophisticated Meena.
Whatever the reason Meena Kumari has always had the largest slice of sympathy from the film industry. For is she not the plainest looking, plainest speaking of glamour girls of the Indian screen?
But let no one misjudge her capacity. A fifteen-year apprenticeship from that day when she appeared before the camera has matured her as an artiste. Moreover she has an excitingly photogenic face —the sort that cosmetic manufacturers dream about for their advertising campaigns. And with it goes the light, lithe figure that appeals so to the present generation of filmgoers. And so at the age of 19, walking surely towards fame, Meena Kumari finds herself with two significant and much talked-about films, “Footpath” and “Baiju Bawra”, in which she has played the feminine lead, on the verge of completion. She has been signed to play the leading lady in Bombay Talkies’ “Koh-i-noor” to be produced in Gevacolor. More contracts are pouring in each week. But Meena Kumari wants to defer signing them till “Baiju Bawra” is released.
Meena Kumari was born in Bombay on August 1st, 1933. Her father, Ali Bux, was a music director in the film industry. Meena was named Mahjabeen by her parents who lived near the Ranjit Studios. Her childhood years were marred by a series of domestic misfortunes which wrote a tale of tears and tragedy into her early life while they governed her film future.
Her father became seriously ill and went to Punjab for the rest and treatment he needed, leaving his work behind. The family followed suit and a year’s illness saw all Ali Bux’s savings expended. When the family returned to Bombay, they were without friends or funds. Meena’s mother, Iqbal, was both a beautiful woman and a talented stage artiste. She took to the films to become one of the top stars of her days. But when she decided to marry off her eldest daughter, Meena’s eldest sister, the malicious remark— “the girl may be rich and beautiful—but after all, she is only an actresses’ daughter” —came to her ears. It hurt her deeply and she decided to abandon the screen not to harm her daughters’ futures. Her daughters sensing her feelings, coupled with the fact that their mother was in failing health, persuaded her to retire. They volunteered instead to keep the pot boiling.
Thus, at the age of four, Meena Kumari entered the Prakash Studio to work. On her first day she was paid Rs. 25. It made her happy and proud that she was helping her parents. Meena’s younger sister, Madhuri, followed in her sister and mother’s footsteps and blossomed forth as another talented child-star. But the family had to face days of great difficulties and hardships even though the two little girls carried the burden bravely on their slight shoulders.
Slowly but steadily their fortunes changed and their ultimate departure from their unpretentious flat at Dadar to their own green bungalow at Bandra, named “Iqbal” after their mother was final evidence that they had left hard times behind. But the mother did not live to see her daughter making the star grade. Through misfortune and tribulation she had cheered the two girls and their father on, encouraging them to greater effort. She was their symbol of hope and courage. But before she could see their ascendancy to stardom she died.
A few pictures in the drawing room of Iqbal remind the visitor of the medieval beauty and the heart-warming smile that at one time made her the filmgoers’ sweetheart.
Meena Kumari’s father took over the job of their mother. He abandoned his work even though his last picture, “Dost”, proved to be a musical hit to fill the void created by his wife’s death. He became the girls’ business-manager. He chaperoned them, looked after the house and saw to it that they had all the comforts of life.
Meena Kumari’s first leading role was in “Bachon-ke-Khel”. The lead in “Magroor” and “Madhosh” followed and she was regarded as one of the most promising among the younger’ generation of stars. She acted in so many mythological films and played so many goddesses that she soon became familiar with the Hindu pantheon. Success rode in the wake of success and she was signed up by Vijay Bhatt to play the leading role in his colossal “Baiju Bawra”, then by Zia Sarhady for his “Footpath”. Bombay Talkies have enlisted her for its forthcoming productions. Today Meena Kumari has probably more offers than many of the top-ranking stars.
But stardom hasn’t altered her accepted way of life. She doesn’t attend any parties, social functions and receptions because she finds herself ill at ease at gatherings of filmland’s elite and glamorous. She doesn’t have many intimate friends and spends most of her time at home. She has a slight knowledge of English and Hindi, but is at home in Urdu and devotes a good deal of time to the Urdu poets. She doesn’t play cards and many other indoor games in deference to her father’s wishes. He thinks them a waste of time. Neither does she swim, play tennis or other outdoor games.
She was once very fond of driving but since the day she disfigured her hand in a car accident she has more or less given up driving her car herself. She retains a passion for punctuality. Light colors are her favorites and she is very fond of jewellery. She is not insured for her father thinks that insurance shortens a person’s life! She is thrifty and saves all the money she can in preparation for rainy days that may be round the corner. Prayers in the morning and pictures in the evening contrast sharply to consume her off-hours. She is afraid of pets but she says, “I am never afraid of snakes. I sort of feel safe with them”.
Meena Kumari’s simple tastes extend to her roles too. She would like to play any part except those “which are unnecessarily sexy and vulgar”. “I refuse to show my bare legs and uncovered shoulders. I consented to appear in a brief one-minute bathing scene in `Footpath’ because Zia Sarhady said that it would lend a ‘realistic’ touch to the song that I had to sing” says she.
Meena has definite views about marriage too, “I haven’t yet taken a decision, but I know that I cannot escape it. Whether a woman is a star or not, she must marry. I will marry the man I love irrespective of his profession. But he must be a man sober and of simple tastes”, she says.
Meena Kumari has often suffered from ill-health—“so much so that medicines have become an integral part of my routine”. Yet surprisingly, she has a happy, healthy look at all times—and a healthy appetite too. “I am a glutton”, she confesses.
On the screen, Meena Kumari, young, charming, beautiful, is the starlet of today, star of tomorrow. On the screen she is gay and vivacious, exciting, brimming with youth. At home she is ever Mahjabeen, a Cinderella at home.