The closest I am likely to get to heaven was over forty years ago. I found myself alone in a room with Meena Kumari. All five minutes of it. It was in an office, not a bedroom. Still. She was not as pretty as, say, Madhubala, but she was the most sensual woman I have ever met. The secret lay in those magnificent eyes and a voice that magically combined come-hither with an aching sadness. By the time I met her she was a wreck, but, my word, what a gorgeous wreck she was!
Some of you have probably seen Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam a dozen times. See it again. In the sequence in which she tries to lure her husband’s affections through a love potion, she is covered from neck to ankle but oozes more sex than the semi-clad bimbos who gyrate on multiplex screens today. “I have not seen in Indian cinema a face more beautiful than I saw in those few seconds,” writes Vinod Mehta in this fine biography of the actress.
Three women held the centrestage in our films six decades ago—Nargis, Madhubala and Meena Kumari. All three started off as child artistes, providing meal tickets for their impoverished Muslim families. Of the three, Meena Kumari’s story is the most tragic. Mahajabeen, her real name, was born in a tenement in Bombay that was “spectacularly unfit for human living”. She was an unwanted child, her parents desired a son. She started working from the age of seven.
Meena Kumari blossomed late. In her earlier films—most of them cheaply produced mythologicals—she looks quite plain. As Mehta puts it, “She did not have a pretty face, she had something much better—an interesting face, and it became even more interesting when she reached the age of thirty”. Once she was in the right hands, she became a remarkable performer. In 1962, three of her films competed...