Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Death and the heroine: Vinod Mehta does Meena Kumari

Two years ago, an excerpt from Vinod Mehta’s 1972 biography of Meena Kumari appeared in the anthology The Greatest Show on Earth. Reading it without context, I assumed Mehta’s book was a very personal project, which he was compulsively driven to write after years of fawning over Meena Kumari as a young man. His proprietary use of “my heroine” and “my tragedienne” to describe the then-recently deceased actress suggested this, as did the terms in which he celebrated her Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam performance: “Beautiful. How beautiful she appeared. For once the camera captured my heroine and did justice to a face that was now at its zenith […] Biting her man’s ear, ruffling his hair, caressing his neck, running her hands over his kurta, she created an environment of pulsating, titillating and mouth-watering sexuality.”

Now, reading Meena Kumari (republished more than 40 years after it first came out) in its entirety, the bench-posts shifted for me as a reader. It turns out the book was a commissioned project, and the repeated use of “my heroine” isn’t so much a marker of personal affection as a tic inspired by the New Journalism of Norman Mailer and others, which had so captured the young Mehta’s imagination. He is honest about this: it might even be said he takes introspection to showy extremes, repeatedly wondering about his own qualifications to write this biography; noting that having been away from India between 1962 and 1969, he was cut off from the Bombay film world for that period (though he had watched Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam just before leaving); and even admitting that his initial interest in the actress came via a larger fascination for another tragic, non-Indian movie star:
The source of my interest in Meena Kumari, I must point out, was not direct; rather it was nourished through another woman (white, naturally) who in my juvenile fantasy years exercised an erotic and emotional influence which I will not even begin to analyse. The woman was Marilyn Monroe and though my heroine and this woman performed thousands of miles apart, there were several parallels. Publically they had little in common; behind the scenes they were sisters. The same legendary physical powers, the same unfulfilled relationships, the same consuming irresistible wistfulness, the same self-destructive urges.
In this light, another of Mehta’s confessions is revealing. “The woman whose portrait I had been asked to sketch,” he writes, “interested me immensely – not while she was alive but once she was dead. I suppose this sounds callous, but it is true. In the timing and manner of her death my heroine assumed heroic dimensions.”

Which suggests a mild form of necrophilia underlying the relationship between the biographer and his subject. If that sounds morbid, there is something apt about it: consider how even Meena Kumari's defining role as Chhoti Bahu (which paralleled and foreshadowed aspects of her real life) involved her casting a spell of sorts on the film’s leading man from beyond her unmarked grave. When Mehta describes going to the actress’s grave shortly after her death and being shocked at how unkempt the Shia cemetery was, I thought of Chhoti Bahu’s sad fate – a melodramatic response perhaps, but an inevitable one when the line between a movie star and an iconic role becomes so blurred. And he is probably right that Meena Kumari would have seemed a less interesting figure to us today if she had lived to a ripe old age, not fully undone by melancholia and alcoholism but half-heartedly doing underwritten mother roles in the 1970s and 1980s.

Once you move past the disappointment of realising that this book is not a product of intense, no-holds-barred fandom, there are two things that work very well for Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography (as it has been re-titled). First, Mehta clearly worked hard on it as a journalist, researching meticulously, speaking to nearly all the key figures in his heroine’s life (a notable exception being Dharmendra, who granted him no audience despite repeated tries) and then trying to reconcile their often-contradictory stories into something resembling a narrative. The re-printing makes sense too: such an endeavour is arguably more useful today than it was immediately after the actress's death, when fans and voyeurs had easy access to many in-depth stories and interviews in film magazines.

Second, the author is a palpable presence in this book. Back in 1972, this apparently did not appeal to many readers and critics – in his new Introduction, he recalls some of the initial response: “I had produced an over-sentimental, maudlin life story compromised by the gratuitous insertion of my own personality into the narrative.” Today it should stand a better chance, partly because authorial presence in narrative non-fiction is more widely accepted and partly because Mehta himself – as one of the country’s leading magazine editors – is a person of greater interest now than he was then.

And given the way this book is written, that is no small matter, for his voice – a distinct, opinionated one, sometimes acerbic, often bombastic, mixing sympathy with snark – comes through on nearly every page. Even on the ones dealing with dry biographical facts: a section about Meena Kumari’s (or Mahjabeen Bano’s) early years as a child artiste includes the aside “Purely on a personal level, I find my heroine’s film name nondescript, sterile and flavourless [...] She deserved something better. I think we could all spend an intriguing evening finding substitutes for ‘Meena Kumari’.” Offering a sociological summary of the year in which she was born, he notes: “You could get nicely drunk for 84 paise (a bottle of beer costing 28), buy a kilo of sugar for 3 paise, smoke a packet of Gold Flake cigarettes for 10 paise, get a woollen suit stitched for Rs 3, find a decent whore for Rs 4. This then was the scenario.” And after quoting from her account of how helpful her much senior co-star Ashok Kumar was during the Parineeta shoot, he can’t resist throwing in a “Like me, you are probably wondering where the director was while these lessons were going on.”

The book’s first section, which takes up 140 pages, is mostly linear and contains the biographical meat: the early years in penury, the first dalliances with the movie camera in films by Vijay Bhatt and Homi Wadia, the rise to stardom as an adult with Baiju Bawra, the tempestuous relationship with her husband Kamal Amrohi, the anecdote about a dacoit-fan who asked her to autograph his hand with his knife, the years of alcoholism and increasingly erratic behaviour – all of it leading up to a bleak portrait of Room 26 in the nursing home where she had her “deedaar” (last audience), and rounded off by an anecdote about the non-payment of medical bills, which brought a depressingly farcical quality to the last act of her life.

Having got the chronological stuff out of the way, Mehta then moves on to more abstract things in Section Two, commenting on his own feelings about his subject (which, one assumes, must have deepened during the writing of this book) and then assessing her as an actress and as a person. I don’t myself agree that Meena Kumari was miles ahead of her contemporaries, including Nutan and Waheeda Rehman, but there is little faulting his ability to make and sustain an argument. If the book’s first section was sprinkled with very superficial analysis that suggested Mehta had not closely watched or re-watched many of Meena Kumari’s films (“the music was good, the direction showed promise and my heroine was magnificent”), here at last we get something deeper and more thoughtful. He notes some of her special qualities such as a respect for phonetics and the cadences of speech (“too many of our present-day stars speak from the area of the mouth; my heroine went down a little and from some mysterious inner reserve produced the sounds of music”). And again, he gets personal in a good way. (“I find nuances of sadness on a woman’s face fatally irresistible.”)

But the final segment – about “the woman” – is possibly the weakest, because Mehta is placed in the bothersome journalistic position of providing a summary, of neatly tying together a life’s strands into a Narrative (even though he has spent a large part of the book protesting that this cannot be done). What emerges here is a casual sentimentalism that is at odds with much of the rest of the writing. Take this contradiction at the very end: the line “I do not ask you to worship Meena Kumari” is followed immediately by “if you have [understood her], you must join me in proclaiming that she was not only a great actress but a great human being”. Sounds like a case of proselytising to me! The book is at its strongest when Mehta is tentatively exploring, conjecturing, wondering out loud – telling the reader it was impossible to collect even one “undisputed” fact about this woman, or decode her mystery – and at its weakest when he is pronouncing judgements as if from a position of objectivity.

As for the actual writing, it is uneven – fluid and spontaneous at times, self-conscious at other times; showiness and grammatical awkwardness run together in sentences like “She set foot on this earth, head first, in the early hours of 1 August 1932”. (When Mehta writes “I was coming in a taxi a few nights ago”, one hopes it IS a case of grammatical slackness!) But the honest curiosity, the willingness to go off on an entertaining tangent every now and again, make up for the flaws in the prose. More problematic is the condescending tone of passages like the following, which Mehta himself – four decades older and wiser now – must now be embarrassed about: “All right, she was a third-rate poet. But does Raakhee write poetry? Does Hema Malini write poetry? Does Sharmila Tagore write poetry? Did Vyjayanthimala write poetry? Meena Kumari was not only the greatest actress of the last 20 years, she was also the most literate.”

Still, there is something refreshingly contrapuntal about a book on the Great Tragic Hindi Film Heroine being written in a humorous (but also affectionate and probing) tone by a UK-returned 30-year-old hung up on Gonzo Journalism. Still among the most unusual entries in the sparse body of accessible writing on Hindi cinema, Meena Kumari is whimsical in its range of references: Mehta brings up foreign films (from the work of the comedian WC Fields to Anouk Aimee in A Man and a Woman) and literature (the Dharmendra-Meena Kumari relationship is likened to the one between Lady Chatterley and Mellors in D H Lawrence’s novel!). And this naturally means it is show-offish in places. But I’ll take a biography like this – however esoteric or indulgent it might get at times – over a dry, prosaic, impersonal one. We already have too much of that sort of film writing.

[A somewhat related post: a long review of Lois Banner’s biography of Marilyn Monroe]


  1. uffff. very hard to make up my mind about this. at the moment, I am quite ambivalent about it. I think I might read an excerpt or two, before I buy it. With so many books vying for shelf space, I don't wanna pick up that, despite "having its moments", is flawed.

    Question: given that a lot of fans of Meena Kumari are of my parents'/gandparents' age, and are not well versed in English, do you think they should have printed a Hindi translation of it too?

  2. Anon: I get what you mean, but how can you possibly guarantee that the other books you pick up won't be "flawed" too?

    About the translation: good question. I'm tempted to say a straight yes, but Mehta's whole New Journalism approach and the self-referencing makes me feel that his writing style might not appeal to most Hindi readers who are fans of Meena Kumari films (unless the translator were to seriously tone down some of the stylistic choices in the book).

  3. About the flawed book thing, of course there's no guarantee. Its nearly impossible to guarantee, even after reading excerpts , how the book as a whole would turn out to be. Sometimes, I have stopped reading books when I was 2/3rds done because I didn't quite like the way the book was about to come to an end.

    Regarding the translation, I am surprised that this book got published (originally, and even now). Although it is good that an actress like Meena Kumari was chosen to be the subject of a detailed biography, my contention is that Meena Kumari was not popular. Let me explain that: compared to Asha Parekh, Nootan Hema Malini etc, Meena had a "bad girl" image (by those days standards), which meant that openly expressing admiration for her (by buying a biography) was likely to be met with raised eyebrows. Back then, parents/elders were critical of what their children were reading, and my guess is that in a highly regulated household, for a 22-28 year old person to buy Meena's biography would not have been well received. Same goes for women: college girls were supposed to be the "adarsha bhartiya nari", and idolizing someone (that's how it would have seemed, the purchase of the book)like Meena would not come across as "adarsh".

    Now, the problem is that very few people have watched her movies. Given the reading habits of young people, it seems unlikely to me that this book will ever make it to the the bestseller section. (I'd be pleasantly surprised if 5000 copies are sold). Which again means that its a foolhardy decision (business-wise) to publish this book.

    Waiting for your thoughts...

  4. Anon: all interesting points, though perhaps the original publishers thought the book was a good idea precisely because the content might be salacious. There was a clear voyeuristic interest in Meena Kumari at the time.

    Also, if a cinema book published in paperback in the current Indian market sells 5000 or even 4000 copies, it will have been a good business decision. Especially if it is just one among hundreds of mid-list titles by an established publisher like HC.

  5. A star no doubt.
    Seen about a dozen of her flicks lately. Maybe one should call her the Dorothy Malone of Indian cinema? A smouldering, irrational presence.

    I especially like her films with Rajendra Kumar. Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, Zindagi Aur Khwab, Dil Ek Mandir. Weird stories that offer a window to traditional societies - the way people thought and lived. These aren't fanciful melodramas as some people would have it. These are authentic oriental films that illuminate our past. Some of these unheralded films probably deserve monographs/essays.

  6. Oh. And forgot to mention her films with Raaj Kumar. Especially Ardhangini which should be a camp classic of sorts. These are great termite art works in my book.

    Also Sharada - a very messy Raj Kapoor starrer where she is RK's girlfriend who becomes his step mother!

  7. Your piece has whetted my appetite for a book I've wanted to read for some time now. Plus, I've learnt a new word and giggled at the "coming in taxi" bit. In other words, your post has ticked all the boxes (had originally written "ticked all my boxes," but something made me reword...)

  8. Radhika: glad you reworded. This post may have collapsed under the collective weight of "ticked all my boxes" and "coming in a taxi" (even given that I left out some of the spicier anecdotes about Meena Kumari, such as the one about her telling an ardent swain "Raat gayi, baat gayi" the morning after).

  9. Shrikanth: Dorothy Malone? I don't know. But since that puts me in mind of Douglas Sirk, I do think Meena Kumari would have been well-cast in the Jane Wyman role in All that Heaven Allows, wishing for Rock Hudson to be more of a "man" (something MK was constantly doing with Dharmendra in Majhli Didi, incidentally).

    Not giving this much thought just now, but there's also something a bit Irene Dunne-ish about Meena Kumari, in my view.

  10. The "raat gayi, baat gayi" bit was excerpted somewhere; I recall reading it. I also remember being pretty tickled by the lady's insouciance. It was a rather welcome change from her long-suffering on-screen persona.

  11. Jai : I feel MK is too oversexed and irrational a presence to play the good natured roles that Irene Dunne essayed on the screen. Hence the comparison with Malone whose screen persona also had this self-destructive streak. Though yes, MK was a far bigger star than Malone, hence the comparison probably sounded odd.

    MK is I think one of the four major female stars of the late 50s-60s. Along with Nutan, V'mala and Waheeda. Among the four, MK and V'mala have a lot of messy termite-like films to their credit (that are often badly made but make you think real hard about this country of ours). Nutan and Waheeda have starred in more white elephant works - sanitized works with big name directors that haven't aged too well.

  12. I am quite ambivalent about it. I think I might read an excerpt or two, before I buy it. With so many books vying for shelf space, I don't wanna pick up that

    Anon : Nothing against books. But I feel the best way to learn about cinema is to watch lots and lots of films. Something film students don't do enough? Just a thought. And I don't mean the "acclaimed" films that have aged well as per critics. But messy flicks that one has never heard of.

    For eg: After having seen so many of MK's films I find that Guru Dutt film - Sahib Biwi Ghulam among her least interesting works. Too self-consciously serious for my liking.

    This has been my experience with Hollywood as well. When I got started on Bogie I was recommended Casablanca, Treasure of Sierra Madre. But today I don't really remember him for these films but for relatively unknown works like In a Lonely Place, The Roaring Twenties, Beat the Devil

  13. Same goes for women: college girls were supposed to be the "adarsha bhartiya nari", and idolizing someone (that's how it would have seemed, the purchase of the book)like Meena would not come across as "adarsh"

    She is very much a conservative screen presence in her films. Doggedly traditional - hidebound in fact. There you is only by watching films that you learn about these stars. Don't go by the critics who will keep recommending Sahib Biwi Ghulam and Pakeezah.

  14. She is very much a conservative screen presence in her films. Doggedly traditional - hidebound in fact.

    Shrikanth: I wouldn't make a blanket statement like that. I probably haven't seen as many of the lesser known MK films as you have, but it does seem to me that for every "doggedly traditional" role, there is a Parineeta or a Majhli Didi. Also, I think we are in danger of simplification when we label a woman character in a 1950s or 60s film (and keep in mind MK appeared in many period movies too) as "traditional" or "hidebound". And things did get a bit confused at times because even when MK was playing relatively strong characters, she had a weepy, inward-looking persona.

    But in any case, by "bad girl" image, I think Anon meant her off-screen reputation.

  15. @ Jai - It would have been very interesting if Dharmendra had spoken. So many rumors about his relationship with MK and is it true that she had selected him in a talent hunt competition in Punjab?

  16. I rarely read the books you talk about. And I confess that , even if i buy , its probably months when I get to read them . but I love this blog. Always.

    thanks for all the posts and the amazingly entertaining posts.

  17. A great column that has me salivating to read the book. I thought the excerpt in "Greatest Show" was one of the best pieces in the collection. I am especially handicapped with Kumari because I've seen only a handful of her films, though "Sahib Bibi" is one of my all-time favorites. It's very difficult to see the more obscure ones in the US.

    I love the Dorothy Malone comparison; the same made-for-tragedy face, the increasing webwork of lines as the drinking took its toll, the similarities between the Douglas Sirk films and golden-age Bollywood melodramas.

    Tangent: my favorite Dorothy Malone movie is "The Last Voyage", a sinking-ocean-liner film (also one of my favorite genres) starring Robert Stack and the great Woody Strode. Kumari would have been superb in the role.

  18. Lively review, Jai. It almost makes me want to read the book.:-) But I think I'll pass since I'm more interested in the "work" rather than the "life" of an actor. And it doesn't sound like Mehta has seen enough of MK's films to offer an interesting or substantive analysis of her performances.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your caution to resist blunt generalizations of MK's career and roles. She was far more versatile than she's given credit for. Indeed, no one who's seen "Miss Mary" or ”Kohinoor” would characterize her as "oversexed" or inherently "tragic."

  19. She was far more versatile than she's given credit for. Indeed, no one who's seen "Miss Mary" or ”Kohinoor” would characterize her as "oversexed" or inherently "tragic."

    I was only referring to her dominant strain in her screen persona. Miss Mary is a curiosity. Love the songs in it.

    Chand is another film where she essays an atypical role. A fine film spoilt by the ending where MK ends up spouting a lot of left-wing nonsense.

  20. Tangent: my favorite Dorothy Malone movie is "The Last Voyage", a sinking-ocean-liner film (also one of my favorite genres) starring Robert Stack and the great Woody Strode

    Sounds interesting. My favourite Malone film is Artists and Models - one of the finest Lewis-and-Martin films.

  21. I was never a MK fan, and always had trouble tolerating her. while growing up, I wished they had made a movie starring her, Rajendra Kumar, Naaser Husain, AK Hangal and Padmini Kolhapure.. and all my enemies to be forced to watch it in a never ending loop.
    But jokes aside, I thought she did pretty good in poetry/Shayari. I still rememeber these lines :
    Tukde tukde din beeta, tukde tukde raat hui.
    Jiska jitna aanchal tha, utni hi barsaat hui.

    And, having suffered from alcoholism, I can now understand her shayari more than what I did when I was young.

  22. Watched yet another MK film yesterday - Aarti co-starring Ashok Kumar and Pradeep Kumar. An overwrought melodrama with excellent performances.

    Btw Jai - what are your thoughts on Ashok Kumar? Seen lot of his films lately. A very high class star actor. Possibly the greatest star actor in the history of Indian cinema if one considers the sheer mass and consistent quality of his ouevre. His persona is so very worldly and modern. A curious combination of Bogart, George Sanders and James Mason.

  23. Shrikanth: I think he's a giant. Like any other actor who worked so long and prolifically, he did some mediocre work (he did get miscast often, and there was a point in the late 50s/early 60s I think when he was becoming a little slack and falling back too much on his star stature) - but his best work is up there with any great actor anywhere in the world. In my recent posts about Aashirwad - this one especially - I mentioned how brilliant he was as a performer in the context of the "Saaf Karo" musical sequence.

    Also saw Mili recently, and he was SO good. Probably haven't seen as many of his earlier films as you have though.

  24. Probably haven't seen as many of his earlier films as you have though

    I haven't seen many either. Only seen Jhoola among his 40s films. 1941 movie co-starring Leela Chitnis (who has to be the greatest of all screen mothers). It was interesting. Clearly inspired by Lubitsch's Shop around the Corner. I love his roles in the 60s as well. He was insanely brilliant in Jewel Thief. Also very good in films like Aarti, Kanoon and Phoolon ki Sej. And ofcourse Bandini.

    Actually I like him more than Balraj Sahni - his great contemporary. A more worldly, modern screen persona than Sahni. Less politics as well in his roles.

  25. What a poor actor she was...interesting, certainly, and major, etc, but very poor. Not as incredibly bad as Mala Sinha maybe, but still quite poor. Haven't gotten around to reading the book - have to, sounds interesting.

  26. This is intriguing to me -"I don’t myself agree that Meena Kumari was miles ahead of her contemporaries, including Nutan and Waheeda Rehman, but there is little faulting his ability to make and sustain an argument."
    Could you please elaborate a bit?Slightly Off topic, but after years of movie watching and reflecting, I think Sharmila tagore is my current favorite, from her generation.For example, her work in two movies of the Basu Bhattacharya trilogy of marital discord is nothing short of amazing.
    I think Meena Kumari IS the Chhoti bahu in Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam. It is impossible to separate the character from the real life persona. The appeal of MK to Vinod Mehta's generation is complex, and multi layered. I know, because my father was also fascinated by her. He probably still owns a scrapbook of her pictures collected from magazines like the Illustrated Weekly.And that, when he does not care much about films. Whenever I used to go to movies with him, he would disappear for long stretches of time, coming back with samosas etc.
    He was 15 when Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam came out. I suspect, The persona of Choti Bahu was liberating to young adults growing up in a conservative setting. She was the chhoti bahu to their bhootnath. This was the generation that grew up during the reactionary politics of Lohia and Jai Prakash Narayan. The poet and tortured soul of MK was a perfect idol.

  27. Rahul: what do you want me to elaborate on exactly? Was just saying that I didn't think Meena Kumari was better than Nutan and Waheeda Rehman. She was, of course, excellent in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam and a few other films - no questioning that.

    Am a Sharmila Tagore fan myself: especially liked how she fit into very different types of films made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray and Shakti Samanta, often within the same 2-3-year period. (Remarkable to consider that Anupama, An Evening in Paris and Nayak were all made around the same time.) But she is a slightly different generation from the others mentioned here, even though she was acting in prestigious films in her early teens.

  28. Sorry, I meant this part -
    "but there is little faulting his ability to make and sustain an argument."
    How exactly has he argued that MK is a better actress than Nutan ,Waheeda etc. I agree that this is not a popular view.
    By the way , Q's Tasher Desh is playing at PVR on August 23, if you are interested.

  29. If we really go deep into knowing the life of indian heroines, most of them must have been with a tragedy life. No doubt, India has produced many great heroines of all times and one such is Meena Kumari. I am a south indian and knowing about the bollywood movies and other stuffs puts me into lots of interest and this book written by Mr Metha is a excellent master piece of all times. I had gone thro all pages of this book and it is heart touching. WOnder many times, why god has played with many lives, when he wants to pass time.. Life has many ups and downs but it shouldnt lead to catastrophes. Such a life was meena kumari's.. A lovely and homely faced heroine had such a tragedy life, god, i cant imagine. Neatly articulated about her life in this book and it might be of great interests for many people who are really intersted to know about the lives of great lives... After all, many of us would like to know about the heros/heroines rather than our technicla stuffs!!! Great book indeed!!

  30. I read this book earlier this year – and I think it was fitting for me to read it, knowing absolutely nothing of Meena Kumari and her films (apart from her name and ‘Ajeeb Daastaan’).
    I rather enjoyed the first part of the book, the actual biography; Mehta’s insertion of himself is hugely enjoyable. What particularly struck me was how at the end he added a small touch about her death. As her body was being taken from the home, somebody switched on her song from Pakeezah – ‘Inhi Logon Nay’ – a rather poignant way of saying that perhaps Meena’s death wasn’t only because of alcoholism…