A man and his muse

Posted on December 3, 2013


When Meena Kumari died of cirrhosis of the liver (precipitated by excessive drinking), in March 1972, Vinod Mehta was working as a copywriter in an advertising agency. He accepted a commission to write about the actress and delivered the manuscript in October that year, and the book was published a couple of weeks later. (This edition is a reissue.) Seven months seems an awfully short gestation period for the chronicle of a life, especially one whose aspects away from the arc lights were dispersed in the dark – something that Mehta acknowledges right away. “At every stage in the writing I found that it was impossible to collect even one ‘undisputed’ fact about this woman,” he says. “Everything connected with her life had at least four versions…” Even her year of her birth is suspect, though Mehta pegs it as 1932, a time when “you could get nicely drunk for 84 paise (a bottle of beer costing 28), buy a kilo of sugar for 3 paise, smoke a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes for 10 paise… and find a decent whore for Rs. 4.”

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Nor were people lining up to talk about the deceased star. Mehta was “ditched by the man who callously used and discarded her, Dharmendra. He gave me many appointments, none of which he kept.” The fact that Mehta barrelled past these obstacles and produced a book is enough to make Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography an unusual work – but there’s more. Mehta isn’t your average writer about Bollywood. He constantly looks Westward to make a point – a Walter Matthau quote, an Anthony Trollope epigram, a line of dialogue from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, a bit of Shakespeare (“slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”). He refers to Dharmendra as “a veritable Sir Galahad,” and he compares the Dharmendra-Meena Kumari affair to the relationship between Mellors and Lady Chatterley. And his interest in the subject of his book was nourished through another woman who, “in my juvenile fantasy years exercised an erotic and emotional influence which I will not even begin to analyse.” He’s talking about Marilyn Monroe.

The style of writing, too, comes from the West. Influenced by the subjective and personal techniques of New Journalism, which burst onto the scene in the 1960s and placed the author at the core of his narrative, Mehta keeps referring to Meena Kumari as “my heroine.” Before he can present her to us, he makes her his – and this possessiveness imbues this biography with a curiously purplish hue. Through a conceit that was possibly daring then (and which appears laboured now), the author situates himself somewhere between a child bearing a crush on his schoolteacher and a stalker who’s constructed a picture-collage shrine to the object of his affection. (When he went into her bedroom and saw her books – Alistair MacLean, Gulshan Nanda, Emily Brontë – and her gods in a little shrine, he kept telling himself, “Remember, India’s greatest actress lived here.”) This is, therefore, as much a biography of the star as some sort of autobiography of the scribe. It isn’t an “objective” work – rather, a record of how such a man would view such a woman and her surroundings, the Bombay film industry of the era.

Mehta begins with the end, recalling an open-air party where a minor film star (who remains unnamed) strode in and said, “Do you know Meena Kumari died this afternoon?” Noting how the group scattered and hearing tearful men and women commiserate with each other, Mehta was assured that “my heroine’s loss was not Mr. Amrohi’s alone.” We then flash back to Meena Kumari’s life and career. We meet the young child actor named Mahajabeen, who was already supporting her parents. “During the shooting of Leather Face, she was informed that Jairaj was her father. She… wondered how Jairaj could be her father when she already had one. In a fitting and poetic reversal fourteen years later, in Magroor, she became her make-believe father’s lover. Of course by then she knew what the game was all about.” The first section of the book is a yearly accounting of her films and their fate at the box office, and alongside we get personal details. Mahajabeen grows up, becomes a successful heroine, and marries the already-married Kamal Amrohi.

This, amazingly, did not affect her career. (Of course, Hema Malini has a similar story, but this was almost three decades earlier.) Meena Kumari soon became the face of Lux soap, and in the eleven years she lived with Amrohi, she completed nearly fifty out of her seventy-seven films. Of these, Amrohi’s Pakeezah, unsurprisingly, gets the most attention, despite the author’s opinion of the film as “flawed but noble.” (Derek Malcolm, film critic of The Guardian, differed. He chose Pakeezah as one of his hundred favourite films, and called it “one of the most extraordinary musical melodramas ever made.”) We follow Pakeezah from the mahurat (18 January, 1958) to its halting progress amidst the couple’s marital troubles (“he had conceived the film as a tribute to his wife and since his wife was no longer by his side the raison d’être of the film had disappeared”) to the pre-release excitement (The Illustrated Weekly, in its 30 January 1972 issue, called it “Meena Kumari’s supreme test”) to its becoming a major hit after her death. Her last days are described in detail, right down to the exhaustive list of film-industry luminaries who turned up to offer condolences.

Along the way, we see almost as many faces of Mehta as we do of his muse. We see him as a diligent biographer, noting that Meena Kumari’s first meeting with an up-and-coming writer named Kamal Amrohi occurred when she was six and had traces of mashed banana all over her face. We see him as a critic, declaring that in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta “it was my heroine… who held the shaky structure of this film together.” We see him as a film historian, recording that “the best thing that ever happened to Dharmendra happened – he met my heroine, and his entire life from that day onwards took a different direction.” We see him as a number cruncher, informing us that “no other actress has won more Best Actress awards than my heroine.” We see him as a vinegary gossip. When Gulzar told Mehta that he used to share “artistic moments” with Meena Kumari, Mehta said to himself, “I bet you did more than that.” And when, after Meena Kumari’s death, he spoke to Nargis about her, she was enjoying a fried egg on toast. “She did not even offer me a glass of water.”

And we see him as an unabashed fan. About Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, he writes, “Of the mountainous films Meena made, her performance in Sahib Bibi stands on the pinnacle. If I wish to remember my heroine as a film star I wish to remember her as Guru Dutt’s Chhoti Bahu… I think back to a sequence lasting four minutes, where she is seen in various stages of adornment. “This culminates in a final shot and glory, my heroine is on the screen fully dressed. You probably think this is a biographer gone mad but I have not seen in Indian cinema a face more beautiful than I saw in those few seconds.” Elsewhere we find this: “Filmfare on 31 October 1952 conducted a Beauty Poll… [The panel of selectors] voted Nalini Jaywant No. 1, Nargis No. 2, and Madhubala No. 3. My heroine trailed a poor No. 8, and the selection, as far as I am concerned, shows how uninformed the panel was when it came to matters of beauty.”

His fandom is chaste. About Footpath, the 1953 drama that paired Meena Kumari with Dilip Kumar for the first time, Mehta simply says that the film “was almost Godardian in content. A noble and socially committed offering, it attempted to portray the degradation, poverty and despair experienced by Bombay’s roadside dwellers.” There is no mention of the song Kaisa jadoo dala re, where “my heroine” undresses in front of the camera and goes on to bathe through the duration of the number, giving an impression of nudity that must have been shocking for the time. While talking about Meena Kumari, the woman, however, Mehta does refer to her “requirements of the flesh,” indulging in a bit of analysis to explain that she fell in love so often because she received no love as a child. And in her affairs, she was unlike other heroines, who wore dark glasses and slunk into hotel rooms under false names. “They were ashamed of what they were doing. Not my heroine, she was proud.”

Was Meena Kumari a great actress? Mehta, finally, takes on this question with some diligence, evaluating her eyes (“studded gems on her face”), voice, bearing, versatility, professionalism (she finished shooting for Char Dil Char Rahen in fifteen days) and technical cunning (she required no glycerine to cry; and there’s an interesting bit about the use of Eau de Cologne while shooting Sahib Bibi or Ghulam). Mehta concludes that even with poor material “there was always a minimum level of artistry, a standard below which she could never fall.” As a comparison, he offers Sharmila Tagore. “I saw [Tagore] play an old woman… [There was] no perception of age… she gave no intimations of the fifty years she was supposed to represent.” But when it came to Meena Kumari in Mere Apne, “doddering along the street, her posture slightly bent, she looks every inch the woman she is supposed to be.”

Mehta doesn’t spare himself from the harsh light of his interrogation. In the introduction, he writes, “I have to admit I was slightly embarrassed with my effort.” The New Journalism style did not go over too well with some readers, and the feedback he got was that he had “produced an over-sentimental, maudlin life story compromised by the gratuitous insertion of [his] own personality into the narrative. A cooler, detached view would have improved the biography immeasurably.” This is certainly true. But that would have been a very different kind of book – a truer biography, perhaps, but a more conventional one. It would have been a portrait of an actress, not the portrait of an actress through the eyes of this particular admirer. Mehta says that his “self-created proximity to the subject posed an obvious and clear danger. Nevertheless, despite the naivety and exhibitionism and hurried judgements, I thought I had managed to capture some fleeting essence of the controversial actress.” He also managed to capture a fleeting essence of himself.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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