Born in Bombay to performer parents – her father was a Parsi theater actor, singer, and music teacher, her mother a dancer – who fell upon hard times, Meena Kumari was introduced to films at the age of six in order to help support her family. Originally named Mahjabeen, she was renamed Baby Meena and cast in Vijay Bhatt’s Leatherface (1939). She became the main earning member of her family and starred in a number of mythologicals in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Her first big hit was Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra in 1952, where she was renamed Meena Kumari. During the 1950s, Kumari acted in both comedies (Azad, Ilzaam, Miss Mary) and dramas (Daera, Parineeta, Ek hi Raasta), but from 1960 onwards most of her roles were of a melancholic and despondent nature, earning her the nickname, ‘Tragedy Queen’.
Her main screen persona was shaped by films where she was unlucky in love (Daera, Yahudi, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam) culminating in her most famous film, Pakeezah, in which she played a courtesan yearning for true love and a place in respectable society. Kumari’s off-screen life extended her image as the lovelorn woman who drowns her sorrows in alcohol. Though her troubled marriage with filmmaker husband Kamaal Amrohi broke apart in 1964, the couple eventually completed Pakeezah, which they had jointly conceived and took 15 years to make. Within weeks of Pakeezah’s release, Kumari died of cirrhosis of the liver on March 31, 1972. Audiences flocked to see the film – her death confirming the martyr-like image that had become such a dominant feature of her reputation in her later years. She also wrote poems in Urdu under the pen-name Naaz – Tejaswini Ganti