MEENA Kumari and Manju were the names given to her, but she was born Mahajabeen in 1933, the second of three daughters of Alibux and Prabhawati. Alibux carried the child Mahajabeen to studios to look for roles for hero. Chandulal Shah, a big studio tycoon, often assigned the child regular work. With Vijay Bhatt’s Leather Face, baby Meena began her film career in 1939.
In Vijay Bhatt’s Baiju Bawra, she was named Meena Kumari. Playing Baiju’s self-sacrificing sweetheart Gauri, Meena Kumari won accolades for her captivating expressions while singing Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamuna ka dhara with Bharat Bhushan. She looked bewitchingly beautiful as Baiju’s lovelorn beloved crooning Mohe bhool gaye sanwariya. This was Meena Kumari’s first major role. She climbed to dizzy heights of fame in the film industry. In Kamal Amrohi’s Daera, Meena played Shetal, a sixteen-year-old girl who has been given in marriage to an old, ailing man often mistaken for her father. She exuded despair and despondency from every pore of her being. The anguish and agony on her face was heart-rending. She was peerless in expressing emotional turmoils and tribulations of the characters she played on the screen.
In her films, Meena Kumari exuded a melancholia that made her roles memorable. In her roles, one can detect an overpowering current of self-pity. In Bimal Roy’s parineeta, Meena plays Lalita whom Ashok Kumar marries secretly. She is ready to lead a solitary life, believing that a wife must remain faithful, whether or not her husband displays any such traits. The unshed tears in her eyes are enough to move the audience. With each successive film Meena Kumari moved from strength to professional perfection.
Her powerful performance in Sharda as Raj Kapoor’s beloved, who later on becomes his step-mother set a new record in histrionics. There was so much sadness in her eyes that the audience wondered who or what put it there. The soulful glances which Meena Kumari as Mala casts at Dilip Kumar to dissuade him from hoarding medicines in a famine stricken area moved the audience to tears in Foot Path. In O.P. Rahlan’s Phool Aur Patthar Meena Kumari plays a widow whose entire family is wiped out by the plague. When Dharmendra takes off his shirt and in drunken stupor stumbles towards Meena Kumari’s bed who is all alone in her bedroom, the expression of helplessness on her face is to be seen to be believed. In Dil Apna Aur Preet Prayee she plays a nurse who is in love with a married doctor — Raj Kumar. Her power-packed performances coupled with sedate roles earned for her the title of a tragedy queen.
Meena Kumari’s quivering timber was her strongest bond with the audience. Endowed with an evocative voice, she always fine-tuned her dialogue delivery. In Dil Ek Mandir, while pleading with Rajinder Kumar — her former lover — who is now to operate her ailing husband, she says, "Dr Saab, aap mujh se badla to nahin lengey", her voice conveys the predicament of a wife whose husband is battling against cancer. Her performance as Sita in this film is still remembered. Meena Kumari created an alluring image of a devoted and dedicated wife in this film. The audience loved the way Meena Kumari worked herself into a frenzy in Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. She was at her best when she seductively tosses her hair and flings herself at the feet of her husband, sobbing and imploring "Na jao saiyyan chhuda ke baiyyan/kasam tumhari main ro padon gee". She vividly captured and conveyed the despair and dejection of a wife whose husband visits kothas and brothels. Guru Dutt’s classic is remembered for Meena Kumari’s performance as chhoti bahu. Roles as that of Nargis and Sahibjaan in Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah added a new dimension to Meena Kumari’s stature as an artiste. The sight of Sahibjaan’s blood-spattered feet dancing on broken glass pieces took one’s breath away.
She gave a new interpretation to the roles of a woman as wife and mother. In S.J. Row Kavi’s Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan, Meena Kumari as Geeta is a better mother than orphan Sudesh Kumar could have asked for. As she paints the traditional rangoli the clanging of her bangles fills his life with love and affection. In Gulzar’s Mere Apne, the mother-figure (Meena Kumari) weaves her magic on the hoodlums — Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha. In Dushman, her behaviour reforms Rajesh Khanna who has killed her husband.
Meena Kumari embodied the essence of a women. Reverence was the only virtue permissible to her celluloid image.
Even the physical beauty of the screen diva was meant to be revered. Her hero in Pakeezah, Raj Kumar writes a paean to her exquisite foot — the only visible part of her body: "Aap ke paon dekhe, bahut haseen hain, inhen zameen par mat uttaryega; mailey ho jaiyenge...!
Meena Kumari was one those rare actresses who chose their roles with circumspection and justified their selection with impeccable performance. The films like Kaajal, Bahu Begam, Yahudi, Halaku, Char Dil Char Rahen, Chiterlekha, Kohinoor, Bheegi Raat, Aarti, Poornima, Chandan Ka Palna, Satta Bazar, Manjhli Didi, Baharon Ki Manzil, Noor Jehan, Ghazal, etc., had Meena Kumari at her creative best.
Of all the characters that Meena Kumari played in her career spanning some 90 films, she identified most with the one she portrayed in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. She thought that she was the chhoti bahu incarnate. In real life, too, she was dependent on drink. She died on March 31, 1972, at the age of 40. She died an idol, a cult figure, that reached beyond its grave. She grew from an individual to an icon because of her performances.