Tum kya karoge sunkar mujhse meri kahaani
Belutf zindagi ke qisse hain pheeke pheeke.
In a 1965 recording, the brilliant American musical satirist Tom Lehrer said, “It is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” I have similar thoughts about Meena Kumari, who, when she died on 31 March, 1972, was five years younger than I am now. In a career that began when she was a child, she acted in some 90 films, won heaps of awards, and both popular and critical acclaim. She wrote poetry, and recorded it with music written by Khayyam. On screen, she was intense and beautiful. (Even in her lesser films, a friend of mine once noted, her eyeliner was always on point.) And she died just shy of 40, having succumbed to alcoholism.
Kumari's death struck an eerie parallel to the tragic descent of her iconic character Chhoti Bahu from Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Together with her sublimely sorrowful performance in Pakeezah, which came out just weeks before she died, it forever cemented her legendary status as the queen of tragedy. Meena Kumari had done a number of lighter films over the years, even a few with Kishore Kumar, like Miss Mary and Mem Sahib. In the silly swashbuckler Kohinoor, with Dilip Kumar, she took a comic turn that veered toward downright goofy. But mostly, it is the sad films for which she is remembered.
Along with the tragedies in these films, Meena Kumari characters shoulder a tremendous burden of sacrifice and selfeffacement. In Pakeezah, her character Sahibjaan is born into the tawaif's life; she is not only unable to escape it, but seems unwilling to think herself worthy of escaping it. When Salim Khan (Raaj Kumar) spies her asleep on a train, the note he leaves pleads that she not let her beautiful feet touch the ground. For a tawaif, who demonstrates her value by dancing, this note represents an impossible dream of redemption. Later in the film, when she dances on broken glass, it is an act of selfflagellation and punishment (not defiance and resolve, as Hema Malini's similar dance in Sholay). But it is also the negation of the dream, slicing to bits the very feet that made her wouldbe savior fall in love.
In Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam, Chhoti Bahu sees no value to her life, no use for her own existence if not to serve her husband and satisfy him with that service. And perhaps even more tragically, she longs for his love and the fulfillment of her own desire, to have a relationship with him beyond the nominal. And so Chhoti Bahu exists in a despairing twilight, obsessed with capturing and retaining her husband's regard at any cost. Her tragic spiral begins when she takes up drinking as a way to please him, to keep him staying home with her instead of carousing with his favorite tawaif. Her tragedy consumes her when even that is not enough to please him.
These are arguably Meena Kumari's most famous and most revered tragic roles, but there are others I love even more. One of her last films was also Gulzar's first as a director, the scathing Mere Apne. This rich film takes on many social evils – the doubleedged sword of neglect and exploitation of old people, the erosion of traditional values, the waste laid to the younger generation by the corruption and violence of politics. Though Kumari's character – known as Nanima by the gang of disaffected young men who join her in an impromptu family – begins the film as a stereotypical village bumpkin baffled by city life and put off by city morals, she comes to represent a uniting principle that can set the country back on a prosperous path, provided it is not left to decay. And when Nanima is struck down senselessly, it is more than just an individual's tragedy, not just one aristocrat's loneliness or one tawaif's misery, but a representative tragedy that reflects an entire generation's sense of hopelessness.
In another film of the sadtawaif type, Benazir, Meena's title character's subservience almost earns her a happy ending, as she wins the heart of the man she loves, Anwar (Shashi Kapoor), through tireless devotion and service. But in a display of selfsacrifice that is outrageous even on a scale of 1 to Meena Kumari, Benazir kills herself spectacularly, drinking poison on stage, freeing Anwar to marry Shahida (Tanuja), the girl he loved first, and who is a more appropriate match for him by social standards.
Not surprisingly for a career full of characters fixated on service and sacrifice, Meena Kumari made a number of movies that took place in or around hospitals. In Aarti, Kumari's title character is a doctor who chooses a life of poverty with the unemployed poet she loves (Pradeep Kumar) over a comfortable life as the wife of Prakash (Ashok Kumar), a brain specialist on the threshold of a lucrative practice. Aarti announces indignantly that she studied medicine to help people, not to make money; Dr Prakash's focus on the material is repulsive to her. In Dil Ek Mandir, Kumari's character arrives at a hospital with her ailing husband (Raaj Kumar) to find that his doctor is a lover from her past (Rajendra Kumar), whom she had been forced to abandon in yet another act of selfsacrifice. This film names her character Sita, and misses no opportunity for anguished dialogs about purity and sacrifice, eternal loyalty to her husband (named Ram, of course), and endless suffering. At one point she explicitly likens her trials to agnipariksha. In both these films, the spurned doctor must perform surgery on his rival, and in both of them Meena Kumari must express her absolute faith in the doctor's integrity.
Finally, Meena Kumari plays a nurse, Karuna, in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, perhaps my favorite of all her films, in love with a doctor (Raaj Kumar) whose family obligations see him married to another woman (Nadira). Karuna takes a far more earthy approach to her suffering in this film than many other of Kumari's tragedy-queen incarnations. She is not so much the tireless and ethereal Sita as a relatably frustrated young woman, who complains about her star-crossed lovelife to her girlfriends, and even occasionally indulges in snark toward the doctor – something most weepy and angelic Kumari characters could never consider. This film allows Karuna to live, not just fold in on herself, and allows Meena Kumari the happy ending that real life did not.