Saturday, December 14, 2013

Book Review: Meena Kumari by Vinod Mehta

Title: Meena Kumari - The Classic Biography
Author: Vinod Mehta
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Pages: 248 
Price: Rs 350
Genre: Non Fiction / Biography / Films
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

I read about this book somewhere and then chanced upon a chapter in The Greatest Show on Earth. Life of a movie star is intriguing and there is a dearth of such biographies about any Indian film star. I don’t know why I wanted to read about Meena Kumari. I haven’t even seen too many of her films, and it was from my mother. I first came to know that Meena Kumari was known as the tragedy queen. In fact, people of her generation had started using the term ‘Meena Kumari’ as a word for ‘sad’ [in the way, the term ‘Devdas’ is still used]. So, when people would say “don’t be a Meena Kumari”! They would mean ‘sad and melodramatic’. Whether she was one of the best actors of all times is highly debatable, but certainly her life was intriguing.

This book was written in 1972, immediately after her demise [republished in 2013]. The author confesses “I found that it was impossible to collect even one ‘undisputed’ fact about this woman. Everything connected with her life had atleast four versions" [quoted]. He never met the actor. He admits that facts and opinions were piling up and weighing him down, and without being over-ambitious, what he sought to achieve was to offer a few glimpses of who Meena Kumari really was; for who can really claim to know a person completely.

The book begins with everyone’s reaction on Meena Kumari’s death. The chapter is interestingly titled “Lies” to connote how all the reactions by film industry as well as media were superficial. The various chapters in this book tell us about the circumstances she was born into, her family, her early life, her romance with Kamal Amrohi, her journey as an actress [which started at the tender age of seven] as well as her turbulent personal life, her various relationships, her addiction to alcohol, her self-inflicted depression, the most important movie of her life - Pakeezah, Meena Kumari – the actress, Meena Kumari – the woman, and her death [few weeks after Pakeezah’s release]. Even with her disturbed personal life and poor health, she worked relentlessly and did very well professionally.

“Despite unreliable lovers, despite unreliable alcohol, despite unreliable dinner, despite unreliable friends, she had Bahu Begum, Manjhli Didi, Noor Jehan, Abhilasha in various stages of completion. All of which goes to prove that India’s No. 1 tragedienne did not live by bread alone.” [Quoted]

Her alcoholism is legendary. But surprisingly, she drank seriously only for three years. What started as a small peg to cure her insomnia later became addiction. This continued till she died of cirrhosis of the liver.

“The question is how could she stop drinking. She had as she saw it, no emotional support; her family life was not exactly ideal; and the possibilities for the future looked extremely grim. In these circumstances she needed a crutch, and for people the world over in her state the bottle has been the most potent, if disastrous, crutch.” [Quoted]

Meena Kumari as a person was known to be generous, attentive and empathetic. The author believes that most of her pain and depression was self-inflicted because she felt she was let down by her relationships. She did not get love, and fell into the trap of her screen image. Perhaps she always missed a part of her life she never lived – a normal childhood. Isn’t it widely known the world over, the fate of most of the child actors?

“The great tragedienne Meena Kumari became the great tragedienne not only in front of the camera but behind it. And this is the real sorrow, she aided the latter.” [Quoted]

I liked the book. May be I haven’t read any outstanding biography to compare it with, but generally speaking, I liked reading about the many aspects of Meena Kumari’s life. There aren’t too many biographies or autobiographies of Indian film stars, and if you like this genre, I certainly recommend it. It is always interesting to know interesting people. 

Read an excerpt from the book here.

Review Book courtesy: HarperCollins India 
Image source: Flipkart


  1. Very few Child actors really get it right - look at what happened to the Home Alone kid... and what is Miley Cyrus doing (!) Meena Kumari's life sounds intriguing, and you have written a lovely review!

    1. Someone would think I am a huge fan of Meena Kumari. I reviewed books related to her back-to-back. Very valid point about child actors. You remember 'Different Strokes'? Apparently all its child actors had difficult lives. It had such a huge following back then.