Sunday, Oct 24, 2021

'Her Story'

On Meena Kumari's 81st birth anniversary, a look back on the making of Pakeezah, the film her estranged husband made for her the way ‘Shah Jahan made Taj Mahal for his wife’

'Her Story'
'Her Story'
Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography
By Vinod Mehta
HarperCollins Publishers 248 Pages/Rs 350/-

First published in 1972, Vinod Mehta’s riveting account of Meena Kumari’s life begins with her death, weeks after the release of her  swan-song Pakeezah. A revised edition of the book is being released 41 years after first publication with a fresh introduction by the author. On Meena Kumari's 81st birth anniversary, we present as an extract the chapter titled Pakeezah


First Meena Kumari made this film with her money. Then with her death.

— Mr Habib Khan
(taxi driver)

They thought he was mad. To find locations that matched his script he travelled the length and breadth of the country. So extensive and far-reaching were his journeys that they became a joke. Someone remarked that a more appropriate name for this film would be ‘India trip’. Not deterred by ridicule he continued his discoveries and to obtain jewellery he travelled first to Benares, then to Jaipur, and then to Trivandrum. He found what he went looking for.

In quest of a ‘kabrastan’, the man of these travels, Kamal Amrohi, landed at the Chambal river. Here he discovered precisely the spot of his choice. Situated correctly on a height, this cemetery was just what Kamal had in mind. He liked the location immensely but he was in two minds. Supposing he selected this unbelievable strange-looking place, would there be a danger that the audience would think it a fake, erected in a studio? Not wanting to take this risk, he abandoned what was otherwise an ideal site. I bring this up just to indicate the sort of pains Mr Amrohi took to ensure realism.

Much much earlier, on 18 January 1958, there had been an unostentatious mahurat. Sitting on the ground, Kamal and Meena had folded their hands and asked for blessings for a new film. It was then called Pakeezah (the name has a fascinating history too. It was changed many times due to superstitious reasons, but finally the original stayed), and at that time it was envisaged in CinemaScope and black-and-white.

After the failure of Daera, Pakeezah as an idea was roaming Amrohi’s mind. The concept, he says, was irretrievably fixed with his love for his wife. He hoped to create a film which would be worthy of her as an actress, and worthy of the love he felt for her as a woman. Thus the creation had only one central character and around the fortunes of this character the fate of the film revolved.

Kamal declares that every line he wrote he had Meena in mind. He wished to present her on the screen as no one had before: beautiful, sad, sanguine, dejected, calculating, sexy, he ambitioned to capture as many dimensions of her as he knew of. ‘Shah Jahan made Taj Mahal for his wife,’ said Amrohi’s PR man, ‘Kamal Sahab wanted to do the same with Pakeezah.’ In their chambers they talked about it. He read her the lines, asked for her opinions and found she was usually in full agreement with the direction of the story.

What both Amrohi and my heroine had fallen for was the idea of the ‘nautch girl’.

As a starting point the idea was superbly seductive. Although before Mr Amrohi, scores of film-makers had attempted something similar, they had all trivialized it, vulgarized it, commercialized it. A treatment which blended the aesthetic with the authentic was lacking. There was much fertile material lurking around the life of a dancing girl and most of it had been untouched.

By 1960 he had written every line of the script. From the titles to the last frame all was on paper. It is characteristic of the way Kamal works that not many commas or full stops or words were added to the script. The 1960 idea on paper can be seen unchanged on the screen in 1972.

Despite the fact that Amrohi wished to make a realistic, unvulgarized film, he was ambitious. He saw in Pakeezah an epic, a larger-than-life film with hundreds of extras, with expensive and exotic sets, with superhuman effort made to preserve period flavour; and all this he wished to do with the collected professional proficiency he had acquired in nearly two decades. This was no do-it-yourself cinema; instead, it was visioned as the ultimate in spectacle and pageantry.

I suspect Amrohi set himself a standard to beat. K. Asif had earlier made Mughal-e-Azam (Kamal had written most of the dialogue) and Amrohi was determined to cross Mr Asif’s effort as far as grandeur and visual craft were concerned. If Asif had memorable battle scenes, Amrohi would have memorable dancing scenes. If Asif had a memorable historical plot, Amrohi would have a memorable human plot. This rivalry existed in real life too, and its antecedents went back to the days when Mr Amrohi was thinking of Anarkali. I have a feeling that he always felt that his interpretation of this love story, had it been completed, would have been better than Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam. Legitimately, you might ask why I devote a separate chapter, the only separate chapter, to a Meena Kumari film. The reason is this: of all the seventy-seven movies my heroine made, she had a special niche for Pakeezah. My own view is that she was wrong; that Sahebjan was not her most gripping performance. However, intellectually and emotionally, of all the films she made, Pakeezah held her most.

Kamal Amrohi’s blurb for his film explains this best: ‘For her to fall in love was forbidden—it was a sin she was told. A nautch girl is born to delight others, such is her destiny. She preferred to die a thousand deaths than to live as a body without a soul. And yet when her restless soul could not suppress this surging desire to love and be loved, she took birth as Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah.’

You are right if you consider 90 per cent of this blurb as overwritten rhetoric. There is however one sentence worth considering: ‘the surging desire to love and be loved’. And it was this line in which Meena saw a reflection of her life. She too, she felt, was born with a surging desire to love and be loved. It seemed to her that the story of the nautch girl was her story, and really on the screen there was no need to act. In 1961, when the camera was set in motion, the following had been signed: Josef Wirsching as photographer, Ghulam Mohammed as music director, Ashok Kumar as the hero, Meena Kumari as the heroine, and a handful of Urdu writers as lyricists. Subsequently, only one change was made and that concerned Mr Ashok Kumar.

Of all the artistes, the speediest was Mr Ghulam Mohammed, the music director. Before the camera was set in motion for the first time, he had the entire music for the film ready and waiting. The music that is on top of the ‘Binaca Hit Parade’ today was written a decade ago.

Between 1961 and 1964 work continued unabated on Pakeezah, but there were problems. Even with unabated work the number of feet in the can was small. There were many reasons for this.

Meena was a busy and fully booked star in 1961 and although she tried her best she could only squeeze a few days each month for her husband. The husband on his part was not disposed to hurry. Pakeezah was his labour of love and he was such a stickler for exactness that the few days he got were invariably spent in getting things right. ‘If Mr Amrohi has something in mind, he will continue until he gets what he wants, no matter how long it takes,’ Mobin Ansari of Mahal Pictures explained to me.

The progress and culmination of Pakeezah was entrenched in the hands of two individuals: Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi—the others were expendable and could be substituted. Consequently, the personal relationship of these two people was vital in the continuing progress of this film. If the relationship was bad, progress was slow. If the relationship was good, progress was fast.

At the very outset, the film was commenced at a time when Meena Kumari’s marriage was breathing its last. And my heroine knew that her husband had put all his eggs in one basket, i.e., Pakeezah. She also knew she was indispensable to this film, the maker having himself pronounced, ‘Pakeezah is Meena Kumari.’ By early 1964 some work was complete. However, in these three years a terrific amount of money (Rs 40 lakh) had been spent, mostly in erecting and perfecting the many expensive sets. Therefore, when Meena’s departure from the Amrohi house was imminent, Kamal was faced with a perplexing problem. He couldn’t be entirely certain that Meena would continue to work in his film after she left him. The thought of scrapping what he had completed and starting afresh with a new heroine was too drastic to contemplate and perhaps impractical. To begin with, he had invested all he had, and without Meena in the credits he would have an impossible task raising money in the market.

Baqar, Mr Amrohi’s secretary, states that a few days prior to my heroine leaving Rembrandt he made her a proposition: ‘I know you are unhappy here and want to leave. I shall help you to leave. In fact I will find you a house where you can live independently. I only want one promise from you, that you will finish Pakeezah.’

After she actually left, my heroine repeatedly confirmed that only her personal association with Amrohi was severed. She was still available as a film star to him, if he desired. But so much bad feeling had been engendered during the separation that for a few months after, work automatically came to a stop. Amrohi says that he came to a stage where he thought of abandoning the film. Since he had conceived it 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. Pakeezah was a work of love and a man with a broken heart was not qualified to pursue it.

In 1964, Meena was still right on top. Her assignment book was full and her private life was miserable. She had little time to think of the worries of her Pali Hill husband reportedly in mourning over her.

A year it took for Kamal to regain his equanimity, and then he again seriously began thinking of Pakeezah. The film script which he had shelved for a year or so was dusted, and he reassembled his resources.

The important query was: who was going to approach Meena? Amrohi was too proud a man to go begging to his wife, and he made approaches to Meena through intermediaries, asking her to resume work. My heroine was suitably noncommittal.

She neither said yes nor no.

Chandan religiously visited her each Eid and gave her ‘Iddi’, but he never once raised the subject of Pakeezah. I am sure he wanted to.

In moments of desperation, Kamal thought of a substitute for my heroine. He even made some sort of search, but each time he came back from where he had started. The one and only woman who could play Sahebjan was Manju.

From1958 onwards Ashok Kumar was getting no younger. If in the late 1950s he still found main parts, they were now very scarce. Ashok Kumar had graduated mostly to elder brother roles and Kamal Amrohi was confronted with another difficulty. He had to find a younger leading man for his film.

Among the multitude Pakeezah humours, one concerns the hero. Filmfare joked that Amrohi changed his heroes ‘like his shirts’. I don’t know how many shirts Mr Amrohi has, but it is true that the part of the forest officer in his film was thrown around. Those who were in and out of the running included Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Dharmendra and Raaj Kumar.

Mr Dharmendra nearly got it. Amrohi was greatly impressed by this young man, and physically Dharam had all the attributes necessary for one who lives and looks after a jungle. However, when Dharam’s association with my heroine started swelling, someone warned him that if he got too friendly with Meena his chances of landing the coveted role would be jeopardized. He paid no heed, and so it came to pass. ‘Although he (Kamal) thought Dharmendra entirely fit for the role, he withdrew the offer. He couldn’t work with a man who was publicly having an affair with his wife,’ an Amrohi aide told me.

Raaj Kumar and Amrohi had worked previously together in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, and the one thing that Kamal liked about Raaj Kumar was his voice. Not only did he speak literate Hindustani, he spoke it well and deep.

Mr Raaj Kumar had his own doubts. ‘At first I was inclined to turn down the role for the simple reason that it had gone the rounds to certain other actors and landed back in the creator Kamal Amrohi’s lap.’ Eventually he agreed. He says he thought the role to be challenging, and the pleasure of working under Kamal Amrohi was also a reason.

Time moved on but Pakeezah didn’t. On 25 August 1968, Mr Amrohi wrote a letter to his estranged wife, ‘… only Pakeezah’s completion remains unsettled. You have made a condition that unless I give you a divorce you will not complete Pakeezah. Even this knot can be untied … I will free you from your marital ties. After this if you wish to help complete “your Pakeezah”, I would be most happy to do so. This is my request, that Pakeezah on which the fortune of many people depends, and which has the good wishes of so many people should not be left uncompleted if possible.’ The next few lines of this letter are particularly poignant and humble. ‘You have better means. You have power. You have box-office appeal, and most of all Pakeezah needs you personally … Pakeezah that is like a sinking ship will reach ashore under your care.’

Kamal Amrohi would not have written this kind of letter unless he was without options—and in 1968 he was. Somehow Meena Kumari had to be persuaded to resume work. Amrohi was fortunate in as much that in 1968 things for Meena Kumari, the film star, were not going too well. Her greatest problem lay in securing leading roles. Like Ashok Kumar, in 1968 she had fallen to elder sister roles. Very few wanted her to play the romantic lead.

This situation was further exacerbated by my heroine’s poor health. Word had spread inside the industry that Meena Kumari was suffering physically and this deterred those thinking of signing her on in a big way. In the year 1968 not only did Kamal Amrohi need Meena Kumari, Meena Kumari needed Kamal Amrohi—since he was the one man offering her a comeback as a leading lady.

Nargis argues that she was instrumental in restarting Amrohi’s unfinished film. Sunil Dutt also says he has a share. It appears Nargis asked Meena if she would complete Kamal Amrohi’s film. Meena said yes.

I do not wish to take credit away from Mrs Dutt, but I suspect my heroine had already made up her mind. Mr and Mrs Dutt were helpful in conveying messages. Nothing, I feel, more than that.

On 16 March 1969, five years and twelve days after she had left her husband, Meena Kumari reported for work again on Pakeezah. Kamal organized a great reception. He gave his wife a peda (sweet) as a peace offering, and made a documentary film of her arrival at the studio.

From March 1969 to December 1971, Amrohi and my heroine worked and worked and worked. The last three years were years of feverish activity. Meena now had time on her hands and she willingly gave any dates that her husband required.

Every film, I suppose, has incidents behind it. So has Amrohi’s Pakeezah.

On outdoor shooting, Mr Amrohi’s unit travelled in two cars, and these cars were poised in the direction of Delhi. Near a place called Shivpuri in MP, the cars all but ran out of petrol. There were just a few trickles left and for miles around there was nothing except a long, deserted, straight road. It was discovered that a bus passed on this route every morning from which fuel could be purchased. ‘Good,’ said Amrohi, ‘we’ll spend the night here.’

He said this without knowing that he was in the thick of India’s most notorious dacoit area. Mr Jayaprakash Narayan had not yet started his mission to reform the criminals and these dacoits were reported to be both ferocious and heartless. On learning where his cars had halted, he ordered that his unit roll up the windows of the cars and hope for the best.

A little after midnight the occupants of the vehicles were disturbed. They were surrounded by a dozen men. The men knocked on the closed windows and forced their way in. They said they were taking the cars to the police station. The unit did not believe this, but the men were armed and as Mr Mao has taught, all persuasion comes from the barrel of a gun.

The cars were led into a gate. There the occupants were ordered to get out. My heroine, already unwell, was in bad shape. She thought the dacoits meant bodily harm. Mr Amrohi, however, refused to get out of the car. Whoever wanted to meet him could come here, he said.

A few minutes later a young man wearing a silk pyjama and a silk shirt appeared.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘I am Kamal,’ Mr Amrohi replied, ‘we are on a shooting assignment. We ran out of petrol and are stranded.’

The dacoit thought shooting meant rifle shooting and Amrohi had to explain that they were film shooters. This relieved the dacoit and when he learned that one of the persons in the car was my heroine, his attitude completely changed. Even dacoits, on their day off, see films, and so did this robber. He turned out to be a Meena Kumari fan and welcomed his guests in true fan tradition. He organized music, dancing, and food. He provided place to sleep. He instructed his juniors the next morning to fetch petrol for the unit.

From my heroine he wanted a special favour. He sharpened his knife and took it to her. ‘Please autograph my hand with this,’ he requested. Meena was not new to signing autographs but she had never attempted anything as ambitious as a knife.

Nervously, she wrote her name on this man’s hand. He said he was grateful for this favour.

Once the unit left, they found at the next town that they had spent the night in the camp of Madhya Pradesh’s renowned and dangerous dacoit—Amrit Lal.

Snakes, bureaucracy, quicksand were other difficulties that Amrohi had to contend with. However, he was determined to shoot at only those places which harmonized with his conception and his script.

By November 1971, the entire film was in the can and the only work left was in the cutting room. What had happened to the people involved in this film between 1958 and 1972? Some had grown old, some had voluntarily quit, some had retired, some had died. Two conspicuous deaths were those of Ghulam Mohammed and Josef Wirsching.

Mr Ghulam Mohammed died a pitiable and harrowing death. In the mid-1960s the room for genuine Indian music had virtually disappeared in Hindi films. Cheap imitations of rock ‘n’ roll were in vogue and the ‘Yahoo’ type of melody reigned supreme. Ghulam Mohammed was a classical musician. To him ‘Yahoo’ was anathema and he continued to practise his type of music. Amrohi, recognizing talent, had signed him on but nobody else. Borrowing a tape recorder, Mr Mohammed made rounds to the producers. He played them his Pakeezah songs. ‘This is the quality of my music,’ he would say and ask for work.

The producers were unimpressed. This was no music, they said. This was out of date. Could he produce something more contemporary, more jazzy? Poor Ghulam Mohammed would return with his tape recorder.

In 1968 he was sick. He had no money to buy food. He had no money to buy medicines. Soon, Ghulam Mohammed was dead, unmourned and unremembered. He had died in sickness and in poverty and in shame. Next year, when they are distributing the Filmfare Awards and Ghulam Mohammed gets his for Pakeezah, as I confidently expect him to, he will take little comfort in posthumous glory.

The exact temperature of the Manju-Chandan relations after the restarting of Pakeezah is, predictably, inexact and open to dispute. A purely working relationship, or was a reconciliation reached?

According to Amrohi, he and Manju had come very close indeed. During the shooting journeys she cared after Chandan as a wife looks after her husband. On his part he says he ensured that Manju was provided all material comforts and conveniences. ‘Only physically we were not man and wife. Otherwise in every sense we lived like man and wife,’ Amrohi informed me.

Meena, Amrohi says, had by now realized the disastrous folly she had committed by leaving his house. One evening when they were alone she cried bitterly and regretfully. ‘Chandan, I can never forgive the people who broke up our marriage,’ she said. Such close emotional proximity existed between the two in 1970 that it was suggested Meena go back with her husband to live in Rembrandt. Mr Amrohi, although in favour of this move, felt that Rembrandt may revive painful old memories, and in Meena’s delicate health, this could prove to be fatal.

‘It was just work between them,’ Khursheed told me. ‘Meena had no feeling left for Kamal and if he thinks anything else he is fooling himself. How could she feel anything for him after the way he treated her during the shooting of Pakeezah.’ Complaints pertaining to lack of proper food, proper medical attention, proper staying arrangements have been made. They say he made her run down a hill twenty-six times for the purposes of a sequence (this complaint I know is false), they say he wouldn’t get her the tablets and pills she needed. I personally don’t think my heroine had a major change of heart about her husband. This is borne out by her subsequent attitude to him and by the stipulations in her will. (Mr Amrohi’s name in this document is conspicuously absent.)

About February 1972, Pakeezah was very much in Bombay’s air. The populace was wondering if this heralded and muchtalked- about film would live up to its great expectations. The Illustrated Weekly in its 30 January issue headlined: ‘Meena Kumari’s supreme test’. There seemed to be some doubt whether my heroine in her advanced age could do justice to a part which was reported to be grilling and grinding. On 3 February, in the Arabian Sea a ‘Pakeezah Boat’ was sailing and in Maratha Mandir the premiere was scheduled. A one-and-a-half-crore rupee film, CinemaScope, Eastmancolor, fifteen years in the making, was at last to be screened. Looking reflective and refined, my heroine arrived to attend the last premiere of her life. She let Mr Raaj Kumar, for the benefit of the press, kiss her hand and then she went in to see the film.

The next morning reaction was discouraging. The Times of India in an unflattering review called Pakeezah a ‘lavish waste’. Later, the resident critic of Filmfare, Mr Banaji, gave it one lonely star (this rating means very poor). Most of the so-called sophisticated critics of India had no time for the hackneyed story of a dancing girl.

My heroine, however, silenced the sceptics. At the age of forty, she had come roaring back to form and demonstrated that she was still in a class of her own. Sahebjan had come out with flying colours; Sahebjan’s creator with not so flying. The Urdu press, more in sympathy with the concept, was fulsome in its praise. They called Mr Amrohi’s effort sensitive, historic, moving, beautiful …

Pakeezah’s greatest fan was no other than Pakeezah’s heroine. ‘I have lived with Pakeezah almost as long as I have lived with its creator … to Meena Kumari Pakeezah means a performance. A great performance? That is not for me to say: that is for the people to decide. For me to say is this: it is a performance to deliver which I have, as an actress, had to delve deeper into the secret wells of being than any actor or actress normally delves in the process of his or her professional work.’

As she confesses, she lived with Pakeezah, she saw its fortunes rise and fall, and she was followed by this film wherever she went. Both Amrohi and Meena just had to get Pakeezah out of their respective systems.

This was also the biggest film of her career, and additionally she saw its story, as I mentioned earlier, as a reflection of her private aspirations. In a way in real life she was a nautch girl. People came to her for their quota of pleasure and departed. No one cared for her as a person. A film which crystallized this theme was ordained to attract and stay with her.

Meena Kumari’s Sahebjan is not my favourite. I don’t know why, I saw only competence in this part and not genius. While she was dancing. I would have preferred more lust. While she was playful, I would have preferred more frivolity. While she was briefly happy, I would have preferred more joy. While she was resigned, I would have preferred more fatalism.

I suspect, however, that long after she is dead and gone, millions in India will remember my heroine as the woman who danced and sang ‘Inhi Logon Ne’.

Raging controversy exists as to who is the true owner of Pakeezah. There is a large body which says that without Meena Kumari this film is nothing. Mr Habib Khan, the taxi driver whom I have quoted in the beginning, echoed the thoughts of many people who had seen this film.

Let me make my own position on Pakeezah clear. I thought it was a flawed but noble attempt. No one before Amrohi had captured honestly the dilemma of the dancing girl. Certainly many debased and unworthy commercial formulas were used. Certainly the story was unoriginal, and all that bit about the train stopping inches away from the heroine could have been avoided. But what makes this long-awaited film worthwhile is its devotion, its period authenticity. I don’t think I have seen any other film which evokes a strata of Muslim society with more correctness and realism than Pakeezah.

Of course the difficulty is that Amrohi’s is a minority film. Mr Banaji, the very worthy critic of Filmfare, and other worthy critics dabbling in Pasolini and Renoir are disqualified from comment. If you have no sympathy with Muslim folklore and if you can’t speak and understand Hindustani, you might as well not see Pakeezah. When one nautch girl says to another, ‘Sahebjan ham ko ek din ke liye apni kismet de do,’ the nuances of this request can only be relished by someone who comprehends the language, and by someone who has been to the ‘kotha’ of a dancing girl himself.

I don’t think Pakeezah is a great film. But compared to the likes of Hare Rama Hare Krishna it is a classic.

Nostalgia as a box-office ingredient is new. Those who do not like Amrohi say that this film is only running because of Meena’s timely death. The crowds outside Maratha Mandir and scores of other cinemas all over the country are crowds of reverence. These people have not come to see Pakeezah, they have come to pay respects to Meena Kumari.

Amrohi denies this. His film, he feels, is gathering crowds entirely on merit. Although I somewhat agree with him, I feel a small percentage of the crowd is possibly on a pilgrimage. The major percentage is there to see Mr Amrohi’s wizardry. No film can run house-full for thirty-three weeks, as it is today, on nostalgia alone.

This still does not answer the question, whose film? I think you have to be some sort of pervert to deny Kamal Amrohi his right to this film. He used my heroine at an age when she was lost, he used for his leading man an actor who was no Rajesh Khanna, he took for a music director someone who was in disgrace and unemployed—and from this he produced one of the greatest hits in recent times.

My heroine herself acknowledged Kamal’s ownership.

Pakeezah is the beloved which has been born of this film-maker’s imagination nearly two decades ago. Pakeezah is the vision which has haunted his soul for as long as I can remember.’ Ashok Kumar made the same point, a little more openly, ‘Actually and literally Pakeezah is Kamal Amrohi, and Kamal Amrohi alone. Every frame of it, every motivation, every plot-curve, every character in it, is exactly as its visualizer conceived.’

Good, bad, or indifferent, it is monstrous that we should take one film away from a man who has made only three in his life.


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