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Gone too soon

Meena Kumari, one of Hindi cinema’s best-loved and most controversial stars, died in 1972 at the age of 39. On her birthday today, we revisit this chapter from journalist Vinod Mehta’s biography of her, first published in 1972 and being re-issued by HarperCollins India this month.

An unapologetic fanboy, Mehta writes straight from the heart, referring to Meena Kumari as “my heroine". The following excerpt forms the chapter titled “Fall" in the book.

Look what happened to her (Meena) after she left my home.

Kamal Amrohi

Storming out of the mahurat, my heroine went to see her friend Rajni Patel. In consultation with Mr Patel it was decided that Meena use her sister’s house as temporary residence, till such time something more suitable could be found. Mr Patel also offered the services of his assistant, Mr Kishore Sharma (later to marry Madhu), in organizing the details.

Sharma rang up Madhu and also spoke to Mehmood, the husband. Both were enthusiastic to the idea of a guest. However, Mehmood suggested to Mr Sharma not to deposit Meena immediately but after midnight. The motive for this delay was that Mehmood had numerous other guests in the house and he wanted to dispose of them before welcoming my heroine. Kishore Sharma too thought that a late-night entry would be a good idea.

Meena Kumari: By Vinod Mehta, HarperCollins India, 233 pages, Rs350
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Meena Kumari: By Vinod Mehta, HarperCollins India, 233 pages, Rs350

On his side, Baqar went back to Rembrandt and gave his master a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings at Pinjre Ke Panchhi. Having heard, Mr Amrohi laughed. ‘We’ll sort the whole thing out when she comes home this evening,’ he said optimistically.

This evening came but not my heroine. Around 8.30, Kamal got the jitters. Possibly he was underestimating the seriousness of the incident? But where could he go searching? Telephone calls were made to the studio and to the houses of mutual friends but they offered no clue. ‘She could be just driving around,’ reflected Mr Amrohi, and presently Baqar and son and Amrohi began a search of Bombay. It was like looking for Meena in a haystack.

They drove through Gateway of India, they went to Hanging Gardens, they looked at Juhu beach—but my heroine was not in sight.

As a last-ditch attempt they went looking to Mehmood’s house, in Andheri, and here the search came to an end—Amrohi sighted two or three policemen. Meena was probably in. When the others in the car offered to join Amrohi in his patching-up expedition, he said categorically, ‘No. This is my business. I’ll go alone.’

He walked towards the house and asked the policemen patrolling the nature of their duty. Just as he was being told, Mehmood came out and was exceedingly civil. ‘Is Manju here?’ Amrohi enquired. Mr Mehmood truthfully said yes, but she was in a room upstairs, resting. ‘I would like to speak to her,’ demanded the husband. Mehmood requested my heroine’s husband to please come back some other time. Madhu, who had also come out by now, added her voice to this request. ‘Please tell her I wish to speak to her,’ Kamal persisted. Madhu went up bearing the message.

Ten minutes later she returned with an answer. My heroine informed her husband that she did not desire audience with him—at least not on that night. Mr Amrohi says he went up to the stairs to the room himself. He tried to open. It was closed. He knocked. And knocked again, but the door remained firmly shut.

Standing outside the closed door, Chandan called out to his wife, ‘Manju, there is no fight between you and me. You have had a fight with Baqar, and I promise you that after today Baqar will not step inside my home. Before this whole thing gets out of hand, before people come to know, let us return home. Look, I have come to apologize and take you back.’ Having said his piece, Kamal waited for either a reply or the loosening of the bolt. Neither happened, only Mr Mehmood came up and said that this matrimonial disturbance was certain to be noticed by his neighbours. It would be best for Mr Amrohi to leave Meena alone for the moment. ‘Today only your neighbours notice,’ thundered Kamal, ‘tomorrow the whole world will notice.’

Kamal made one more attempt to open communications. My heroine’s locked room had an extension telephone and Mr Amrohi rang the number. It kept ringing without being picked up. Madhu was again sent up, this time to ascertain whether Manju would consent to talk to her Chandan on the telephone. She came back with a negative reply. Kamal recovered for a minute and then informed Madhu, ‘I will never come to collect Manju again.’ He too kept his word.

My heroine’s stubbornness bordering on discourtesy had justification. Since she had irrevocably decided to leave her husband’s house, Meena thought it futile to open dialogue with him. Also, not being a particularly strong-willed person she thought she might succumb to Kamal’s sweet tongue. For her it was best to keep the door shut.

Madhu and Mehmood had a house in Andheri with the ambitious name of ‘Paradise’. It was large, it was patrolled by ferocious dogs and it housed thirty-eight people, all relatives of Mr Mehmood. On the top floor of this house, a fairly large and comfortable room was allotted to my heroine. It had all the material comforts of a single room with the added luxury of an extension telephone. On the face of it, this makeshift accommodation appeared suitable, and additionally Meena felt secure because she was in touch with close relatives.

Mr Sharma told me that all Meena had on 5 March 1964 was 500 rupees plus the clothes on her person. The Amrohi testimony forwards that Manju not only removed most of her belongings but also withdrew most of her money from the bank before she left. In a most untypical outburst she is supposed to have said before she left Rembrandt, ‘I’ll make sure that Kamal and his sons starve on the streets of Bombay.’

Much later, on 25 August 1968, Chandan posted to his Manju a letter in which he raised some of these points. ‘…but only an infinite complaint is left in the corner of my heart: you didn’t tell me why you didn’t come back to the house after your fight with Baqar Sahab. You yourself had written two days before you left, “Baqar Sahab, you are like my father and elder brother." This little thing keeps pricking my heart. Well anyway … time will put a dust on this even one day. By the way I have one favour to ask of you. If you have any feeling in your heart left for me, take all these riches and gifts and free me from the allegation that I looted you for my benefit and put you on the footpath with just three clothes.’

Three clothes or four, my heroine was soon in the money again. With Mehmood and his relatives she signed Chandan Ka Palna, while working on four other assignments, including Chitralekha—a film which Amrohi was bitterly opposed to.

Around now a name called Dharmendra was being bandied about. This man had come from the Punjab to make a name for himself with the sort of determination one reads in storybooks. Not deterred by the fact that thousands with ambitions similar to his arrive in Bombay every month, he stuck to his resolve. With worn soles, an empty stomach and no chance of nepotism (Mr Dharmendra had no uncle in the cinema industry), he made a daily round of the studios hoping for a sale. What kept him going was his grit, a stubborn persistence, a faith that finally he would be spotted.

Incidentally, he knew nothing about acting, neither did he look like Cary Grant. What he did have was a earthy, slightly primitive, woodcutter charm. One look at him and you knew he was a product of ‘asli ghee’ (pure ghee).

Dharmendra got his breaks—but alas he nearly made a disaster of them. His first film was a total failure and in subsequent efforts he showed no discernible talent. Fortunately, Shola Aur Shabnam, although a box-office failure, was pleasantly noticed and got moderate praise from the critics.

And then the best thing that ever happened to Dharmendra happened—he met my heroine, and his entire life from that day onwards took a different direction.

The film they were signed on together was called Purnima, and Dharmendra would go around asking, ‘What is Meenaji like?’ He was petrified at the prospect of facing her in front of the camera.

Cast opposite an established star, the novice is surrounded with handicaps. Having got his break he must on the one hand prove himself in his own right, and on the other extract a quantum of respect from the established star. (My heroine was too absorbed an artiste for malice, but some of the others are known openly to interfere in the casting.)

At Purnima, therefore, Dharmendra was unsteady. He approached someone who had worked with my heroine for solace and advice. ‘It’s no joke,’ said this man, ‘playing opposite Meena Kumari without letting her completely overshadow you. She can outclass you without a line of dialogue, with a mere twitch of her lips, or glance. If I were you, I would simply go and touch her feet before facing the camera.’ For a man who was already unsteady, this advice wasn’t much help.

A serious student of Hindi cinema, Dharmendra had his own personal list of favourites. My heroine occupied top place in this list. As a result, this particular novice approached Purnima with the right amount of humility and willingness to learn. ‘I had always been an ardent fan of Meenaji. I used to see her pictures and worship her. It was my ambition to become an actor, and it was my dream to act opposite Meenaji.’ The note of reverence in this statement is of consequence for it played an important part later on.

Face-to-face they came for the first time at Chandivili during outdoor shooting. ‘Naturally, I was a bit nervous and apprehensive. But when I was introduced to her, she was warm and friendly and welcomed me with kind encouragement. I was thrilled, happy and gratified.’

My heroine on her part liked Dharmendra, I am told, at first sight. There is no confirmation whether he touched her feet, but there is confirmation that she said, ‘This boy will rise. He is not the routine entry.’

Coincidentally, at this particular moment of her life, Meena Kumari required a stable and devoted man: big and strong, someone on whom she could literally rest her head, and someone who was not too famous.

One of Mr Dharmendra’s associates who watched this relationship flower is on record, ‘In the beginning it was primarily work between them. Meenaji would spend all her spare time to enact Dharmendra’s scenes for him. With patience and affection she would explain each and every detail of the shot, put him right when he did something unsuitably, make him practise his part until he was perfect and natural. She helped him correct his weak points, while developing his abilities. She inspired confidence in the uncertain youth. She was the stimulus.’

Two aspects deserve attention here.

One, Meena got a certain kick in picking up people struggling in the industry. These strugglers were invariably male and young. ‘She always liked having a few puppies around her,’ was how someone close to my heroine put it.

Two, ‘grooming and correcting weak points’ had an ulterior motive. Really it was a ploy. Meena Kumari wished to engage the attention of this young man. She was too dignified and renowned an actress to make an open pass; therefore, by feigning professional interest she was initially able to spend time with Dharmendra without making her real intentions known to him or to others. Nothing wrong, just good gamesmanship.

Existence at Paradise meanwhile was far from heavenly. It appeared she had exchanged one cage for another. The inmates at Mehmood’s house made it their business to scrutinize and examine everything and anything that came for my heroine—mail, telephones, visitors. Nobody was allowed to see her and she felt totally isolated in her room.

Salma Sidiqqi, a very dear friend of Meena, attempted to get in touch with her on the telephone at Mehmood’s house. Her account of this telephone call and of a subsequent visit to Paradise substantiates the inconveniences my heroine faced at her brother-in-law’s residence:

‘When I telephoned Mehmood’s house I got no satisfactory answer about Meena. Nobody was prepared to tell anything. Instead, questions regarding my profession, my reason for telephoning, my father’s name, etc. were asked.’

Later, Salma suggested to Krishan Chander that they go and see Meena unannounced. Krishan Chander was not too keen. ‘If she can’t come on the telephone,’ he said, ‘how can you just go to her house.’

Finally, they went to see Meena, and outside the house the interrogation started again. Who are you? What do you want? Why have you come? Additionally, some dogs appeared on the horizon. The visitors were scared. Fortunately, my heroine heard the commotion, came out and rescued her guests.

Informed sources say that Mr Mehmood himself was not responsible for the discourtesies, but those around him were.

My heroine anyway had no intentions of staying for any length with her brother-in-law, and she instructed Kishore Sharma to search for new accommodation. He succeeded and found a place in Juhu.

‘Janki Kutir’ looks somewhat like Disneyland. A quaint cluster of minute cottages, small meandering mud lanes, close-cropped hedges, expansive green lawns, all invest this area with science-fiction charm. My first reaction when I saw Janki Kutir was: is it real?

In late August 1964, after a total stay of five months in Andheri, Meena Kumari moved to Juhu.

The occupants in the new house were not few. My heroine’s stepsister and her children moved in and so did other relatives. They were all supposed to look after Meena. Although this house was large, Amrohi told me that on the only occasion he went there he thought he ‘had come to a zoo. There were so many people peering from windows, from behind the curtains, I estimated at least twenty-five people were living with Manju then.’

Two significant and unexpected occupants at Janki Kutir were Madhu and Kishore Sharma. Madhu’s marriage with Mehmood was on the rocks and during Meena’s stay at Andheri, Madhu frequently met Kishore Sharma. Mr Sharma is a man of many parts. ‘I don’t drink. I don’t eat meat. I am an astrologer, a palmist and a philosopher,’ is how he describes himself.

Madhu’s regard for Sharma deepened to the extent that she left Mehmood and moved in with Meena. So did Mr Sharma.

‘Madhu and myself occupied a separate wing. Since I am a vegetarian I had a second kitchen. Out of twenty-four hours a day I was spending eight hours with Meena. She was a great friend,’ he reminisced.

Kishore Sharma increasingly began to play a vital role in Meena’s professional life. He became her constituted attorney and took on all the duties which previously Baqar and Amrohi had handled: signing of contracts, negotiating money, agreeing shooting dates, etc.

Make a note, the third ‘landmark’ in my heroine’s life is Janki Kutir. The five years she lived here were the years in which she fell.

The odd peg of brandy, a minor habit from Rembrandt, increased voluminously; and it was nothing now for my heroine to go through a bottle or more a day. Brandy was her drink and she drank it neat, without ice, without water; and she drank it when she felt like it—which was most of the time. Invariably she sipped alone.

Dharmendra was almost a daily visitor at Janki Kutir. Together they would open a bottle and spend a few hours. These were the good times.

Now there is an impression that Dharam (as she used to call him) was responsible for encouraging her towards the bottle. They say she drank because of him, because he insisted.

Like all good Punjabis, Dharam then and still enjoys his booze; but it is a lie that he persuaded or pressurized Meena to drink. Actually there was no need for that. If anything he was unhappy about her drinking and tried to stop her. He nearly succeeded: while Dharam was around, Meena’s imbibing was restricted, once he left it was rampant.

Work, however, did not stop. In 1964, Bimal Roy’s Benazir was released and so was Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha. Other releases included Ghazal, Main Ladki Hun, Sanjh Aur Savera. Alas, not one of these films including Bimal Roy’s effort is worth analysis or consideration. All that this kind of cinema did for my heroine was keep her in the public eye.

Again, in the end of 1964 she was to know happiness briefly. Dharam was everything she wanted then: honest, reliable, large, loving and comforting.

She saw a lot of him at work and after work. In 1964, my heroine was involved in five films and in four of these—Purnima, Chandan Ka Palna, Phool Aur Patthar, Kaajal—he was very much in the scenes.

And with great abandon did she love. Meena, to her eternal credit, was an honourably honest woman when it came to the affairs of the heart; and since she truly loved this Punjabi youth she saw no reason either to be ashamed or to keep it a secret.

This honesty runs so contrary to the usual practice in the world Meena was employed that it not only deserves notice but also commendation. Her colleagues, like her, had lovers, but they drove in late at night, incognito, wearing dark glasses and hired rooms in hotels under false names. They were ashamed of what they were doing. Not my heroine, she was proud.

At cocktail parties, at premieres, Meena openly showered affection on Dharam. Sometimes she would take his hand and the next day it would be in print. On one occasion, mischievously almost, she recited a love couplet from Ghalib which left no doubt in the audience’s mind about Mr Dharmendra’s position in Meena’s heart.

In 1964 and 1965, those in the business whose job it was to report rumour and gossip were not short of material. Interestingly, on the screen the romantic association wasn’t immediately successful. Purnima went away unnoticed, and Kaajal which was noticed had Dharmendra as second man, with Raaj Kumar taking the main honours. Individually, Meena’s performance in Kaajal was hailed and it was rumoured that this particular excellence would probably fetch my heroine another award.

It was only in early 1966 that the Dharam-Meena team established itself as a winner through O.P. Ralhan’s Phool Aur Patthar.

The success of Phool Aur Patthar was based on a number of elements complementing each other: good music, advanced photography, arresting titles (a taxi driver told me he had seen the film seven times because of the ‘first class’ beginning) judicious mixture of breast, bottom and cabaret, and of course flawless Meena Kumari acting coupled with a competent effort by Dharmendra. All in all a shrewdly packaged commercial film. (Ralhan himself had no small part in his venture. He is one of the few natural comics we have, and it is a pity he has gone in for the megaphone instead of the laughs.)

My heroine had never paused to consider the long-term possibilities of her association with Dharam. Really she was not that kind of woman. For her what mattered was the present, and if she could snatch fleeting moments of happiness, it was enough.

In fact, if Meena had paused to consider she would have noticed many difficulties. Mr Dharmendra was a married man. He had a son and a simple homely Punjabi wife; and his allegiance to his family was absolute. Meena was aware of this. Dharam loved her but he wasn’t willing to sacrifice his marriage for this love. On her end, Meena was still officially Kamal Amrohi’s wife, so she wasn’t free either. ‘To get married,’ she told a friend in 1965, ‘you need a “barat". We are both helpless.’

In early May 1966, Bombay’s socialites received an invitation: ‘The Chairman & Board of Directors of Messrs Bennett Coleman and Company request the pleasure of your company at the Thirteenth Annual Filmfare Awards on Saturday, May 7, 1966 at Shanmukhananda Hall, King’s Circle, Bombay at 9.15 p.m.’

Those who were not socialites plagued The Times of India offices for invitations. The police band was commissioned; ‘printing parking stickers, ensuring plane seats, hotel accommodation and tourist cars for distinguished out-of-town guests’ were other headaches to be eased. The orgy of self-congratulation was on in all its vulgar glory.

Reposing calmly in Janki Kutir was the recipient of the Best Actress award. Since she was winning it for the fourth time, Meena Kumari was a bit blase. She had now set a record—a point which most scribes have missed—(no other actress has won more Best Actress awards than my heroine); and although there was a view among the jury that since Meena had won three awards it might be a good idea to encourage somebody else, this view was beaten. (Conscious of the hazards of punditry, I still predict that Meena Kumari will win her fifth award for Pakeezah posthumously. And I also predict that for many many years my heroine’s achievement in winning awards will remain untouched.)

For once she was not escorted by Chandan. On the platform she sat next to Sunil Dutt and Dilip Kumar and laughed as Tony Randall, a visiting and slightly obscure American comedian, ‘had the audience roaring with laughter throughout his speech’. It was Mr Randall who presented ‘the woman in white’ her fourth award.

On 7 May 1966, Meena Kumari the film actress justifiably felt that artistically there were no more bridges to cross. Her fame was secure for all time to come.

Despite Dharmendra’s affections, Meena Kumari was now a firm addict of the bottle. She was drinking heavily and drinking desperately. One bottle, two bottles, even more.

There is a rumour that she was not always taking brandy. Those who were responsible for purchasing her alcohol kept switching bottles and my heroine, consequently, was receiving all sorts of shoddy illicit liquor (Tharra, etc.). After the first few pegs even connoisseurs can be cheated about what they are drinking, and so was Meena. Additionally, she had reached a stage where she didn’t care what she got—as long as she got.

The disease which finally eliminated her was the disease of the liver and this is invariably caused by wholesale consumption of spirits. In the film industry this affliction is particularly popular and its most recent victim was the singer Geeta Dutt (other notable victims being Shailendra, Saigal, Jaikishen).

The strange thing is that my heroine drank seriously for only three years (1965–68), and to get the disease I am talking about in that short period is certainly an achievement, and further, an outright indication of how immoderately Meena was drinking. I am tempted to believe that not only was the quantity of her drinking at fault, but also the quality.

I believe she took her drinks in good faith, hoping them to be genuine. Thus the verdict must be that she was shortchanged by her relatives and those supposed to be looking after her. My own view is that Meena knew all about the counterfeit alcohol, but she just didn’t care. In fact, by mixing her drinks, she got her nasha quicker, which in turn helped her to run away from reality quicker.

She didn’t lose her sense of humour though. Talking to Abrar Alvi, her neighbour and director of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, she said, ‘It’s funny but I think I have become Chhoti Bahu in real life.’

A great film actress has allegiances other than those to liquor. My heroine was also making films, and you may wonder how she could have continued to work if she was sloshed the whole day. Indeed it is a wonder. ‘Many mornings when I came to take Meena to the studio she was in no state to come. By eleven in the morning she had gone through one bottle, and I sometimes had to bodily lift her, put her in the car and take her to work. As we came near to the studio I could see a change in her, and when we finally got to the studio she was perfectly sober, with complete command over her faculties. It seemed miraculous but she did this time and time again.’ This is the testimony of Kishore Sharma who was now married to Meena’s younger sister Madhu and living in Janki Kutir.

By the end of 1966, Mr Dharmendra, a big star now, had disappeared from the scene, and the new man in Meena Kumari’s life was a genteel gentleman called Rahul.

I know nothing of Mr Rahul’s acting abilities. I also know nothing of his background. He was Meena’s most mysterious man. He came and went like this year’s monsoon, leaving hardly any trace behind. I have, however, seen one photo of him with Meena and he has what can best be described as an ‘innocent face’. He was much younger to Meena and what charms he had for her, only she knows.

It appears they were making some film together (a film which was never completed) and got so friendly that gossip during those days confirmed matrimony. It was reported, even in the press, that like her mother, my heroine had renounced her religion, embraced Arya Samaj and garlanded Mr Rahul in a temple. Others said that the wedding had taken place in a church.

Mr Rahul on his part went around advertising that Meena and he were not married only technically. Otherwise, he said, she was his beloved and would remain so for all time to come. Possibly he was a trifle ambitious.

Very effectively Meena crushed all innuendos. She said Rahul was young enough to be her son. She was fond of him but the question of renouncing her religion and marrying him just did not arise.

I have some complaints and questions to ask of the thirty-odd people living with Meena Kumari in Janki Kutir. Not one of them tried to dissuade her from drinking. If anything, they were oversolicitous and ensured that she was well stocked. I doubt if my heroine would have listened to them but the effort could still have been made.

Shama (Meena’s stepsister) was, I believe, supervising affairs, and although there was, and is, much rivalry between sisters and stepsisters, a few things need to be discussed and explained.

Abrar Alvi told me that one night a servant knocked at his house. The servant said he would like to borrow, if possible, some ‘pao’ (cheap bread). It transpired that my heroine had come back late from work and found there was no food for her. Famished, she sent her servant to her neighbour’s house for some food. Alvi says he was amazed at the details of the request. ‘She asked for “pao", not meat or eggs. Just plain bread.’

Meena Kumari’s relatives were living off her, eating off her, and the least they could do was leave her some dinner.

It is astounding, and a tribute to Meena’s professional perseverance that in the years 1966–67 she was employed in four films. Despite unreliable lovers, despite unreliable alcohol, despite unreliable dinner, despite unreliable friends, she had Bahu Begum, Majhli 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.

Even though the Rahul business lasted no more than a couple of months, those who claimed to be my heroine’s friends were distinctly unhappy. They thought her choice was unworthy. Mr Kishore Sharma says he quarrelled with Meena on the Rahul subject and left Janki Kutir.

Meena stayed on, and continued with her drinking. The combination of arduous work, late hours, bad boozing, irregular meals, no exercise had the expected effects. She put on weight, especially round the abdomen, and she was frequently sick.

Sickness was not new to Meena. Ever since she was a child she had to grapple with ill health. ‘Medicines have become an integral part of my life,’ she wrote in an article. However, this present sickness seemed at once venomous and persistent. Initially she ignored it. ‘It is just a fever,’ she said. But it wasn’t just a fever. Those who could see noticed how large and bulging her stomach had become.

Meena’s physician was Dr J.R. Shah and he too was alarmed at the deteriorating state of his patient. Of course, everyone knew the cause: brandy and excess of it.

Shah advised Meena to control, if not eliminate her drinking. She had a special and charming way with requests such as these. She would agree and thank the person for his advice and consideration, promising him that she would do as required. Once he was gone, she would do as she saw fit.

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.

Her logic was this: if I am perpetually inebriated, I will be perpetually out of my senses, and I will be perpetually able to avoid thinking of the future. Bertrand Russell would probably find holes in this logic, but if he knew the background he would probably be sympathetic. Dr Shah by now was rightfully suspecting that there was more to my heroine’s illness. Later he confirmed that what Meena Kumari was suffering from was ‘cirrhosis of the liver’. In layman’s language this means that the liver has become defective and is not performing its usual functions. If the liver does not function efficiently, the blood circulation in the body is affected and blood begins to collect in the abdomen.

Everybody wanted Meena to go to a hospital, but she refused. ‘Eventually, things got so bad we had to literally throw her into an ambulance. She was kicking and shouting but we just put her in the vehicle,’ one of the inmates of Janki Kutir told me.

They took her to a clinic and here she stayed for a few days. She was treated and she partially recovered.

Medical advice, however, was that my heroine needed more advanced and permanent cure. Her liver was in a bad state and if it got aggravated any further, it would become beyond repair. She should go without delay, they all said, to London.

Kishore Sharma was mainly responsible for organizing the mechanics of the London trip. He had, as a law student, lived there previously, and Meena chose him as companion and nurse for her overseas journey.

June is London’s prettiest month. The sun shines, men forget to wear their long solemn overcoats, office girls try out their little-worn summer garments, the grass is green, and the normally reserved Englishman smiles, even at strangers, as he says with great pride, ‘Lovely day.’

In this season, accompanied by Mr Kishore Sharma, my heroine landed at Heathrow airport, and went straight to the Royal Free Infirmary in Islington North, London. In the infirmary a bed was booked for her and two nurses hired especially at £8 a day.

Her physician in Islington was a lady doctor called Sheila Sherlock, and for two months this doctor submitted my heroine to liver biopsy.

The younger sister Madhu (Mrs Kishore Sharma) made a flying visit to London. She stayed by her sister for fifteen days. Assured that the treatment was going well, she returned. From the months of June to August, Meena Kumari was in the safe hands of Dr Sherlock. She was responding favourably to the treatment and by August she was looking well recovered.

Not far away from London, in a different country, is a town called Geneva, and this town has made its name because unfriendly world leaders periodically gather here to become less unfriendly. It is also a place where people come to recuperate. The picturesque Alps, the clean country air, the peace and quiet, the easy availability of cheese and chocolate have all made Geneva a favourite with politicians and patients.

Meena Kumari and Kishore Sharma came here too and lived in a hotel called Beau Rivage. ‘She was extremely happy.She loved Geneva and we used to spend a lot of time talking about things past and even her old boyfriends. When it was time to return to India she didn’t want to go back,’ recollected Kishore Sharma.

The medicines of London and the air of Geneva had a salutary effect on my heroine. When she returned to India in September 1968 she was, to use Mr Sharma’s words, ‘in the pink of health’. She had become a little slimmer, there was more colour on the countenance and, most importantly, the liver was in much better shape.

On the fifth day of her arrival, Meena Kumari—contrary to doctor’s instructions—resumed work. If she wasn’t well enough to go to the studio, the studio came to her— shooting for Abhilasha took place in Janki Kutir.

In the year 1969 a quietly perceptible but momentous change was coming over Hindi cinema; a change which was to have profound consequences on Meena’s career.

Producers in Bombay had long been yearning for sex on the screen. But the social climate (whatever that means) and the Jana Sangh did not permit the debasement of either Indian culture or Indian woman—especially on billboards and posters.

In 1969, however, the attitude towards sex was becoming more permissive. Hippies gloriously celebrated love on the beaches, foreign magazines showed how Western man and woman had decided on salvation through meditation and sex, and above all, European and American cinema, which trickled into this country, became more daring and explicit on libido.

As a result there was a lot of talk in Delhi and Bombay about the restrictions the creative Indian director faced in regard to sex. And people of liberal opinion agreed that if display of intimacy was seriously handled, and if it helped in the development of the creator’s conception, it was justified, indeed honourable.

Hypocrisy made its own adjustments to this judgement. There was still no open passionate kissing in the Bombay studios, but a tight embrace and brushing of lips was permissible. There were still no silhouette shots of copulation, but showing the leading man and woman carelessly in bed was permissible.

Simultaneously, a whole new breed of sexy actresses made their debut and were quickly popular. My heroine couldn’t compete with Mumtaz, Simi, Rakhee and Hema Malini when it came to ‘Hipster’ saris.

She was also thirty-six years old, and that is an age in Bombay when they put you to seed. For some unaccountable reason, all story writers in Hindi cinema seem to think that falling in love is the prerogative of the under-twenty-five. Therefore, all romantic plots concern people of that age, and all leading roles go to those who look and act twenty-five. Meena Kumari did not look and act that age (thank God for that) and this was another reason why she was having difficulties securing the kind of contracts she was securing before. If you examine the films my heroine made between 1969 and 1972 (more than six), you will find only one in which she had the lead.

So they made her play an old woman, an elder sister, a widowed wife. Directors and people who knew her say that she took this fall philosophically. ‘She was not worried about these things,’ Gulzar said.

I disagree with Gulzar. I don’t think she took the fall philosophically. She knew, and rightly, that she still had a lot of life as an actress left, and she also knew that the new crop of actresses were amateurs in front of her.

Meena made no noise publicly. In fact, characteristically, the transition was graceful. And even to third-rate roles she gave her best. In Jawab, Dushman, Gomti Ke Kinare she is par excellence.

Did she drink after London? Some say yes, some say no. I am told Dr Sherlock had warned my heroine before she left the infirmary, ‘The day you want to die have a drink.’

I think the message had got through. Meena understood that the bottle would be lethal for her and she stayed away. Sawan Kumar Tak, the last man in her life, told me, ‘Not only did she not drink, she wouldn’t let me drink either. She did not touch a drop after returning from London.’ I tend to agree with that.

By the end of 1969 my heroine couldn’t take Janki Kutir any more. She quarrelled with her relatives and decided that she would live by herself. Again Mr Sharma was instructed to look for a place.

The fourth landmark in my heroine’s life is ‘Landmark’. In Carter Road, Bandra, on the eleventh floor of a building called Landmark, Mr Sharma purchased on Meena’s behalf her first home. Till now she had lived either in alien or rented property.

She couldn’t live alone. Khursheed, the eldest sister, was summoned and she moved in with her children. This time the people living with Meena were few, and for herself she built a special bedroom. In consultation with Kishore Sharma, she decorated Landmark to her heart’s desire.

I was privileged to spend a few minutes in her bedroom. It was an unnerving and eerie experience. I saw her large bed made up, I saw her books (Alistair MacLean, Gulshan Nanda, Emily Bronte), I saw her sea stones, I saw her gods in the little mandir she had built in her bedroom, and all the time I kept telling myself, remember India’s greatest actress lived here.

This room, resplendent with all her whims and fancies, became her hideout. Most of the time she spent by herself either writing her diary or reading. Work was scarce and I suspect she didn’t want any.

After her fall, my heroine was involved in only two decent films—Pakeezah, Mere Apne.

Mere Apne was directed by her old friend Gulzar and in his film she came a full circle—she wasn’t playing the elder sister any more but a full-fledged old woman. Gulzar’s film was a remake of Tapan Sinha’s Bengali film Apanjan and, if nothing else, he tackled a bold and purposeful theme: youth unrest. And the predominant opinion is that Mr Gulzar’s directorial debut was promising. Certainly my heroine felt so. She went around telling her friends, ‘You must see Mere Apne.’

Meanwhile, her own performance was reviewed ravingly: ‘As the old woman Meena Kumari merits kudos. She brings a lump to the throat and makes for first departure towards character acting highly rewarding and memorable.’

The penultimate year of her life was spent mostly in bed or in the hospital. The fever just wouldn’t leave her and if she wasn’t sick in Landmark, she was sick in St Elizabeth’s Nursing Home.

Only one unfinished film remained, Gomti Ke Kinare, and she was getting restless. She warned its maker to get it over with quickly. She said she wasn’t sure how long she would be around. Finally, on 29 December, she went to the studio for the last time and finished the film. Professional work was complete.

On 31 December 1971, she had an ex-lover for a visitor. Dharam came unannounced just before midnight, and together they reminisced quietly and ushered in the new year. He left after a few minutes, and she tried to get some sleep totally oblivious that the world round her was ringing out the old and ringing in the new. The year 1972 was going to be a short one for her.

Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.

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