Films are emotions unraveled in images. Greater the bond between the images and the emotions of a story, greater the chance of a film impacting the audiences’ collective consciousness for a lifetime. Though multiple factors like Director’s vision, cameraperson’s photography as well as writer’s pen impact in creating the bond, yet it is the dexterity of the artist’s portrayal that strikes a chord with the masses and makes a film live long in public memory. Precisely for this reason, probably few artistes have dominated the public memory in such a gripping manner as Meena Kumari since she provided legitimacy to most roles with her effortless portrayal.
Although fifty-one years have gone by since she breathed her last, the magnificent actress is still remembered by everyone on account of her mesmerising performances that not only lent an earthiness to characters on screen but also gave them a distinct dignity. What is indeed praiseworthy is the fact that even in the most ordinary films; her enactment was so riveting that it helped induce a “willing suspension of disbelief” in spite of other mundane happenings on screen. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Meena Kumari’s acting was many a time the only incentive or saving grace to watch a mediocre film, something that cannot be said for many other acting practitioners of her tribe.
Right from her beginning as a child artist, Meena impressed everyone with her fragility, spontaneity and histrionics as these never got dimmed in the presence of a camera. Coupled with her hypnotic voice, captivating smile and deft expressions, Meena’s acting had overwhelming power to captivate the attention of critics and commoners alike. So whether it was as a silent bride in “Daaera”, a village belle in “Baiju Bawra”, an unfortunate step mother in “Sharda”, a devoted wife in “Dil ek Mandir” or a courtesan in “Pakeezah”, Meena added an extra dimension to her role, thus carving a special niche in the viewers’ heart.
It is rather silly of dumb-headed critics to label Meena Kumari as only a ‘tragedy queen’ especially when she gave a fine exhibition of her skills in many comic and romantic roles as well in films like “Azaad”, “Kohinoor”, “Miss Mary” and “Shararat” to name a few. Of course, her personal tragedies and disappointments did lend an extra dimension to her pathos ridden characters in “Sahib, Biwi aur Ghulam”, “Kaajal”, “Chiraag Kahan Roshni Kahan”, “Phool aur Pathar” and “Ghazal” but avid film goers know that as an actress Meena Kumari had the rare ability to rise above the script and that in every role she proved her proficiency and brilliance since she understood the nuances of language and character much better than many other practitioners of her craft.
Unlike many actresses around the world, it is startling to note that Meena never did a ‘strip tease’ on screen nor ever made a lurid attempt to entice the audiences with her sexuality.
A remarkably attractive woman in her youth, Meena too once had a face and figure as fresh as the morning dew but she never tried flaunting raunchiness on screen. Instead, she delved deep into the inner recesses of the mind giving her characters a certain vulnerability as human beings and if only we look at the range of her histrionics, we would realise why she could give life to ‘Chhoti Bahu’ of “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam” and ‘Chitralekha’ of “Chitralekha” as well as be everyman’s favourite mother and bhabhi with “Mere Apne”, “Dushman” and “Bhabhi ki Chudian”. Frankly, film students would be well advised to expand their acting horizons by introspecting on the searing intensity and conviction that she brought to her roles with her subtle inflections of tone or precise movement of her hands.
There are scenes galore from yesteryear films wherein she has proved what a powerhouse of talent she was with her impeccable timing, facial gestures and remarkably precise but coordinated movements of body within the confines of the set and texture of the story. The numbers of extra-ordinary scenes of this majestic artist are too many to elaborate but just a couple of examples like the court scene of “Phool aur Pathar” or the marital discord scene from “Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam” are enough to drive home the point that Meena had an absolute mastery over her craft despite being unlettered as well as untutored by any film school!
To me, it seems, poetry and acting were tools that she used to give expression to many of her stifled desires. An unwanted child of small-time actor Ali Baksh and dancer Iqbal Begum, Meena was forced into acting at the age of eight to support the family financially. Deprived of a normal, carefree childhood, Meena became a serious and analytic student of life which unfortunately she could not enjoy on her own behest. Like a caged bird, she longed for the distant yet rainbow horizons but was frequently duped in her personal domain by friends, relatives and professional colleagues. Cheated of domestic and marital bliss, Meena’ angst, pain and unshed tears found their way in her portrayals as well as her remarkable verses of Urdu poetry that are a delight to this day and age. In fact, she was a poetess of high calibre and her rendition of her Urdu poems under Khayyam’s baton are a treat to listen and the “Khanak” in her voice, which was so exquisite and mellifluous even otherwise in normal conversation, heightens the poignancy of thought. She was probably the only actress who could make audiences swoon with her vocal inflections and the dramatic impact of her dialogues is a folklore for cinegoers of yesteryears. Connoisseurs have spent a lifetime just listening to her renditions of “I Write, I Recite” as it is intoxicating and illuminating at the same time.
Although she lived only for thirty-nine years, Meena Kumari strode upon the Indian film sky like a colossus and till this day we have found no able substitute. Ah, if only death had not come to her at such a tender age, perhaps we might have had several more outstanding performances but if what is important about an actor is the acting and not the life, then, it is indeed a great consolation that we still have Meena Kumari’s performances preserved till eternity for everyone to enjoy and seek nirvana!