Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Meena Kumari

Episode Summary

Meena Kumari (1933-1972) was one of the most acclaimed and decorated actors in Bollywood history. Known to audiences as “The Tragedy Queen,” she has been described by critics as a "historically incomparable" actress.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leading Lady is one of the most acclaimed and decorated actors in Bollywood history. Known to audiences as “The Tragedy Queen,” she has been described by critics as a "historically incomparable" actress. Though her own life often mirrored the tragedies she played out on screen, she managed to make more than 90 films in her short lifetime, leaving an indelible mark on Indian film. Please welcome Meena Kumari. 

Mahjabeen Bano was born on August 1, 1933 in Bombay, India to father Ali Bux, a Sunni Muslim from a province in what is now Pakistan, and mother Iqbal Begum, a Bengali Christian convert to Islam. Both of her parents were struggling actors in Bollywood. Ali played harmonium, worked as a music teacher, and composed music for films to help the family get by.  

Mahjabeen’s acting career began at just six years old when she landed a role in the 1938 Vijay Bhatt film “Leatherface.” Though she later said that she had no interest in acting, Mahjabeen noted that she was proud of being the bread winner for her family at such a young age and was content to continue working at her father’s behest. From 1939 to 1942, she acted in seven films. It was on the set of one of these films in 1940 that she took the name Baby Meena.

When Meena was just 14 years old, she starred in her first “adult” role as the heroine in the film “Bachchon Ka Khel,” which featured a number of major Bollywood stars of the era. She received significant critical and popular praise for her breakout  performance. It was around this time that she started going by the name Meena Kumari. 

Meena worked on a series of box office hits from 1946-1952, including a number of big films in the mythology and fantasy genre. While on the set of the film “Tamasha” in 1951, legendary Bollywood actor Ashok Kumar introduced Meena to director and screenwriter Kamal Amrohi. Amrohi subsequently offered Meena the starring role in his next film, and she accepted, but it was not to be. Just a couple of weeks after signing on to the new movie, Meena was in a serious car crash while on her way back to Bombay and ended up spending four months recovering in the hospital. 

Amrohi began visiting Meena at the hospital nearly every day, and when he couldn’t come in person they would communicate through letters. Amrohi and Meena, who was only 19 at the time, fell in love, and after Meena was released from the hospital, the two decided to get married. There were just a couple problems- Amrohi already had a wife and children, and Meena knew her father wouldn’t approve of their union. The two ended up marrying in secret, but after only a few months the media found out and broke the news. Meena’s father demanded an immediate divorce, as expected, but Meena, who was still living in her parent’s home at the time, refused.

That same year, Meena officially became one of the most famous and in-demand actors in Bollywood after starring in the film “Baiju Bawra.” This was the first film that really allowed Meena to show her star power and significantly increased her value at the box office. Meena received her first Filmfare Award for her work on the film, the Bollywood equivalent of an Oscar.

The following year, Amrohi asked Meena to star in his next film, but Meena’s father wouldn’t let her work with the man who was technically her husband. Instead, he told her to take a role in a different film, but she only lasted five days on set before instigating a fight with the director and leaving. The following day, she told her father that she was heading to Bombay to star in Amrohi’s film instead. Her father told her that if she left, she would no longer be welcome to live in his home. He kept to his word, refusing to open the door for Meena when she returned after shooting. With little choice, Meena moved into Amrohi’s house in Bombay. 

According to Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena, Amrohi became a very oppressive and even abusive husband once the two began living officially as a married couple. He imposed strict rules on who Meena was allowed to have in her dressing room on set, regularly sent his personal assistant to spy on her, set a nightly curfew for her, and was constantly upset at being upstaged by her greater stardom. There have also been accusations of physical abuse. At the same time, Meena was funding her husband’s ever more lavish productions out of pocket, and trying to convince him to have a child with her, which he refused. Suffice it to say, the marriage was extremely rocky. 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Meena began starring in films that more closely mirrored her own life. She was particularly drawn to dramas that featured women leads exhibiting great strength in the face of tragedy. As a result, she became known as "The Tragedy Queen” of Indian Cinema. The films during this period showed off Meena’s incredible range and brought her significant critical acclaim. In 1963, Meena made history when she was nominated for an award in all three of the Best Actress categories at the Filmfare awards.

On March 5, 1964, while on the set of a new film, Meena was slapped across the face by her husband’s personal assistant after she invited a famous male lyricist into her makeup room. Enraged at this latest indignity forced upon her by her husband, Meena told Amrohi that she wouldn’t be returning to his house ever again. The two remained separated for the rest of their lives. 

Following the separation, Meena suffered from severe depression and began drinking heavily. Though she continued acting in major productions, and received significant acclaim for her work throughout the 1960s, her drinking worsened considerably over time. In 1968, Meena was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, and subsequently traveled to London and then Switzerland for advanced treatment. After returning to India in late 1968, she resumed work contrary to her doctor’s orders. 

By 1972, Meena’s health was deteriorating rapidly, but she was determined to finish one last film- a movie she and her estranged husband started all the way back in 1954 called “Pakeezah.” The movie premiered February 3, 1972 and became the most famous and most highly acclaimed film of Meena’s career.

 Just three weeks after the release, Meena was admitted to a nursing home. She died on March 31st, 1972 at only 38 years old. 

For her epitaph, Meena requested the following lines:

She ended life with a broken fiddle,
With a broken song,
With a broken heart,
But not a single regret.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady!

Special thanks to my favorite sister and co-creator, Liz Kaplan.

Talk to you tomorrow!