Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh: The tragedies of Meena Kumari's life, work and verse (August 1 is Meena Kumari's 85th birth anniversary)
Termed the "Tragedy Queen" of Bollywood for her immortal, iconic portrayals of a varied gamut of wronged, silent and long-suffering but dignified Indian women from passed-over love interests to neglected wives, Meena Kumari was however a most unfortunate actress whose grief did not end when the shooting was done.
The barely four-decade life of Meena Kumari, whose 85th birth anniversary is on Tuesday (August 1), was no less tragic as her roles in cinematic classics, spanning "Baiju Bawra" (1952) to "Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam" (1962) to "Pakeezah" (1972). In these and more, she could evoke such a lifetime of melancholy and anguish that it was difficult to believe that she was only in her 20s and 30s when she played these roles.
But then, her circumstances had a great deal to contribute to this. Nearly abandoned at birth by her father (before a twinge of conscience made him return), her childhood was cut short by her parents' demand that she work to support the family, a fairytale romance soon soured too, and she was starved of genuine love and support. This led to a habit of heavy drinking that ultimately proved fatal when she was in her prime.
Meanwhile, her onscreen career saw her typecast as a quietly-suffering woman in thrall to a dominant male figure. But even she left an undeniable legacy, not only in winning the first two Filmfare Awards for Best Actress (1954 and 1955), but also had the unparalleled -- and so far unbeaten -- record of securing all the nominations in the category at the 10th edition in 1963.
Her strong roles and fame made even established male stars chary of appearing opposite her, while her biographer, renowned journalist Vinod Mehta, noted that even Dilip Kumar grew flustered in her presence and Raaj Kumar frequently forgot his dialogues. But she was encouraging to newcomers, and some of the earliest successes of Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra and even Vinod Khanna were opposite her.