A household name now, Kumari’s life story is quite dramatic. She made her entry into the film industry as a child actor at the age of four. Fame followed, as did marriage to the director-producer Kamal Amrohi. A tumultuous family life and separation preceded her demise at an untimely age of 39 due to liver cirrhosis.
Even today, more than forty years after her death, there are few artists who have carved out a place in the public memory as she has. Her ability to emote the spontaneity and fragility that her characters required is unmatched. As filmmaker Deepak Mahaan wrote in The Hindu, even in the most ordinary films, her enactment helped induce a “willing suspension of disbelief” in the other mundane happenings on screen
In the course of 33 years, Kumari acted in over 90 movies in a wide variety of roles, which is why calling her the “tragedy queen” is selling her short, opines Gargi Parsai. “In each of her films, she essayed such complex emotions be it as a woman in love, bhabhi, bahu, mother or a troubled woman, that the audience yearned to go deeper into the mind of the character. Clearly she went beyond her brief for what she conveyed from the depth of her being, no director can order,” writes Ms. Parsai citing her roles in “Sharda” (in which Meena Kumari’s character is forced to marry the father of the man she loves) and “Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan” (Kumari transcends with ease from a loving wife to a misunderstood bhabhi with unfulfilled motherhood) as examples.
But Kumari’s most famous films are Guru Dutt’s ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’ and, her final work, ‘Pakeezah’. ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’, in which she plays the role of the chhoti bahu in a feudal landlord family, went on to achieve classic status and was India’s official entry for the Oscars in 1962. “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… ” wrote Vinod Mehta in ‘Meena Kumari — The Classic Biography’.
‘Pakeezah’ had a bit more complicated history. Directed by her estranged husband, the movie, which took 14 years to complete, initially bombed at the box office before it went on to be come a hit following her death a few weeks later. Kumari received her final Filmfare nomination for the movie posthumously and it was featured in the list of The Guardian’s film critic Derek Malcolm’s hundred favourite films ever.
Kumari was a constant fixture at the Filmfare awards from mid-1950s to 1960s. She won the Filmfare Best Actress for ‘Baiju Bawra’ in 1954, ‘Parineeta’ in 1959, ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam’in 1963 and ‘Kaajal’in 1966, and was nominated for the trophy eight times. But one of the highlights of her career was in 1963 when she was nominated in all the three slots for the award for ‘Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam’, ‘Aarti’ and ‘Main Chup Rahungi’, a feat that remains unmatched to date.