Meena Kumari – Tragedy Queen of Indian Cinema

Meena Kumari was an Indian film actress and poet, who worked in Hindi films. She was popularly known as The Tragedy Queen she was active between 1939 and 1972. Kumari was described by critics as a “historically incomparable” actress of Hindi cinema.

Meena Kumari in Kohinoor.jpg

In a career spanning 33 years, she starred in about 92 films such as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Pakeezah, Mere Apne, Aarti, Baiju Bawra, Parineeta, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, Foot Path, Dil Ek Mandir and Kaajal.

Meena Kumari won four Filmfare Awards in the Best Actress category. She was the recipient of the inaugural Filmfare Best Actress Award for Baiju Bawra in 1954 and had a consecutive win in the second Filmfare Awards (1955) for Parineeta.

Kumari made history at the 10th Filmfare Awards (1963), by receiving all three of the Best Actress nominations, and won for her performance in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

In the 13th Filmfare Awards (1966), Kumari won her last Best Actress award for Kaajal. Critics often noted that her character in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was similar to the story of her own life.

Meera Kumar history

Meena Kumari was born as Mahjabeen Bano on 1 August 1933

Meena Kumari’s father was a Sunni Muslim named Master Ali Bux who had migrated from Bhera (now in Punjab province of Pakistan).He was a veteran of Parsi theater, played harmonium, taught music, wrote Urdu poetry, played small roles in films such as Eid Ka Chand and composed music for films like Shahi Lutere.

Meena Kumari’s mother Iqbal Begum, whose original name was Prabhawati Devi, was a Christian who later converted to Islam upon marriage with Ali Bux. Iqbal Begum was the second wife of Ali Bux.

Before meeting and then marrying Ali Bux, she was a stage actress and dancer under the stage name “Kamini” and was said to be related to the well known Tagore family of Bengal.

It is said that Meena Kumari’s grandmother, Hem Sundari Tagore was either the daughter or a widow of Rabindranath Tagore’s distant cousin.

After the death of her husband, being forced by his family, she left for Meerut, became a nurse, married a Christian named Pyare Lal Shakir Meeruti (1880–1956) who was an Urdu journalist and embraced Christianity. Hem Sundari had two daughters; one of them was Prabhawati, Meena Kumari’s mother

Meena Kumari was born with the name Mahjabeen in a family of poor theatre artists, Ali Bux and Iqbal Begum on 1 August 1933. This was a great disappointment to Ali Baksh because he wanted a son.

Meena Kumari was the second daughter of Ali Baksh and Iqbal Begum.Khursheed Jr (not the singer-actress Khursheed Bano) was her elder sister and Mahliqa (also known as Madhu, first married to actor Mehmood) was her younger sister. Madhu was also a well known child artist by the name Baby Madhuri.

At home, Mahjabeen’s family called her by the name “Munna”.Her family could not afford to pay the doctor for her delivery, so her father decided to leave her at an orphanage. He changed his mind a few hours later and fetched her home.

Mahjabeen said as a child that she was not interested in a film career, and would rather attend school. In spite of this, her parents started peddling young Mahjabeen to film studios for work opportunities. Director Vijay Bhatt cast her in the film Leatherface and on her first day she was paid Rs. 25.

Leatherface was released in 1939.She became the breadwinner in the Bux family at a very young age. In an interview given in 1962, Meena Kumari explained that the fact she had been supporting her parents from the age of four gave her immense satisfaction.

Mahjabeen was admitted into a regular school, but that was not for long, because the demands of work frequently interrupted her curricula.

She never went to school in any meaningful sense, and her education was the result of private tuitions, and more significantly the result of individual interest; in every sense she was self-educated. Kumari concentrated most on Urdu although she could get by in English and Hindi.

She was nicknamed “Reading Mahjabeen”, as she brought books onto the sets and when working on location

Early work as Baby Meena (1939–45)

Meena Kumari began acting when she was four. She initially worked mostly in Vijay Bhatt productions; Leatherface (1939), Adhuri Kahani (1939), Pooja (1940) and Ek Hi Bhool (1940). Vijay Bhatt rechristened Mahjabeen as “Baby Meena” during the filming of Ek Hi Bhool (1940).

More films followed for baby Meena, namely Nai Roshni (1941), Kasauti (1941), Vijay (1942), Garib (1942), Pratiggya (1943) and Lal Haveli (1944). The 1941 film Bahen was directed by Mehboob Khan and is the only successful collaboration between the actress and the director.

Although thirteen years later Khan did cast her in Amar but she eventually left the shooting after few days passing her role to Madhubala. After this, both of them never worked together.

1952: Baiju Bawra – Kumari played the female lead in the film. In the climax of the film, the two lead characters were to drown in the river. While shooting this scene, Kumari actually almost drowned but was ultimately rescued.

A series of incidents ranging from Hindustan Lever securing rising star Meena Kumari as a model for their products to being featured on the calendar of a popular franchise took place after the success of Baiju Bawra.


Parineeta – Directed by Bimal Roy, (starring Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari as leads) the film won Kumari second Filmfare Best Actress Award. It was based upon the 1914 Bengali novel by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay and this version of the film is considered to be the most faithful adaptation of the novella, particularly due to Meena Kumari’s interpretation of the role of Lalita.

After the success of Parineeta, Bimal Roy was very much keen to cast Kumari in his next venture titled Devdas in the role of Paaro. However, things with Kamal Amrohi never materialised and the audience lost the golden opportunity to see Kumari essaying the iconic role of Paaro in the film. Do Bigha Zamin – directed by Bimal Roy, won the International Prize at Cannes in 1954, the first Indian film to do so.

This film also marks the maiden guest appearance of Meena Kumari in a career spanning 33 years. Foot Path – directed by Zia Sarhadi, was Meena’s first film with Dilip Kumar.

This movie was featured in Avijit Ghosh’s book, 40 Retakes: Bollywood Classics You May Have Missed. Daaera – was written and directed by Kamal Amrohi, starring Meena Kumari, Nasir Khan and Nana Palsikar in lead roles. Other films included Naulakha Haar and Daana Paani.

With Shammi Kapoor in Mem Sahib

1954: Chandni Chowk – directed by B. R. Chopra in 1954, a classic Muslim social drama film,was Chopra’s second directorial venture and another success at the box office.

Baadbaan- directed by Phani Majumdar, had a star cast of Meena Kumari, Dev Anand, Ashok Kumar and Usha Kiran. Ilzaam – directed by R C Talwar, starring Meena Kumari and Kishore Kumar, also premiered.

1956: Ek Hi Raasta – was a film based on the issue of widow remarriage, directed and produced by B. R. Chopra. It starred Meena Kumari with newcomer Sunil Dutt, Ashok Kumar and Daisy Irani. The film proved to be successful at the box office and was screened for more than 25 weeks, which was a “Jubilee Hit”.

Bandhan – directed by Hemchandra Chunder, based on the popular Bengali novel Mantra Shakti, starred Meena Kumari and Pradeep Kumar as leads and was awarded with a Certificate of Merit in National Film Awards.

Mem Sahib – directed by R.C. Talwar, featured Meena Kumari for the first time with Shammi Kapoor. The modern avatar of Meena Kumari was well received by audiences and the film became a box office hit.

Naya Andaz – directed by K. Amarnath, starring Meena Kumari and Kishore Kumar in lead roles, was a musical hit. Halaku – a historical Hindi movie directed by D.D. Kashyap included Meena Kumari, Pran, Minoo Mumtaz, Raj Mehra and Helen. It was one of the box office hits and celebrated a silver jubilee.

Tragedy Queen of Indian Cinema

1957: Sharada – directed by L.V. Prasad, was Meena Kumari’s first venture with Raj Kapoor. A difficult role to essay, it was refused by all leading actresses of the day until Meena Kumari finally agreed. She won best actress at Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Award for her work.

The film gained great critical success. The film was the ninth highest grossing film at the Indian Box Office in 1957 and was noted as one of her best performances.. Miss Mary – a comedy film directed by L.V. Prasad, starred Meena Kumari and Gemini Ganesan. The film was one of the biggest hits of that year.

1958: Sahara – directed by Lekhraj Bhakri, Meena Kumari received a Filmfare nomination. Yahudi, directed by Bimal Roy starred Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, Sohrab Modi, Nazir Hussain and Nigar Sultana.

It was based on the play Yahudi Ki Ladki by Agha Hashar Kashmiri, a classic in Parsi – Urdu theatre, about persecution of Jews in the Roman Empire. The film was a box office hit with the famous song “Yeh Mera Diwanapan Hai” sung by Mukesh. Farishta – starred Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari as protagonists.

The film was rated as above average. Savera – was directed by Satyen Bose, with Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar in lead roles.

1959: Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan, directed and produced by Devendra Goel, stars Meena Kumari with Rajendra Kumar and Honey Irani.

The film was a huge hit at the box office and Meena Kumari received a Filmfare nomination for her performance in the Best Actress category .

Char Dil Char Rahen – was directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, with star cast Meena Kumari, Raj Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Kumkum and Nimmi. The film received warm reviews from critics.

Shararat – was a 1959 romantic drama film written and directed by Harnam Singh Rawail, starring Meena Kumari, Kishore Kumar, Raaj Kumar and Kumkum in lead roles, with the memorable song “Hum Matwaley Naujawan” sung by Kishore Kumar.

Film Chand directed by Lekhraj Bhakri focused on the effects of polygamy prior to The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. The film stars Kumari with Balraj Sahni, Pandari Bai and newcomer Manoj Kumar in lead roles. Her other films released in 1959 were Ardhangini, Satta Bazaar, Madhu and Jagir.

1960: Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai was a Hindi romantic drama written and directed by Kishore Sahu. The film starred Meena Kumari, Raaj Kumar and Nadira as leads.

The film narrates the story of a surgeon who is obligated to marry the daughter of a family friend, while he is in love with a colleague nurse, played by Meena Kumari.

It is one of her noted acting performances. The film’s music is by Shankar Jaikishan, and features hit song, the Hawaiian-themed “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh” sung by Lata Mangeshkar.

At the 1961 Filmfare Awards it created an upset by beating the popular musical epic Mughal-e-Azam of Naushad for the Best Music Director category.

Bahana – directed by Kumar, had a star cast inclusive of Meena Kumari, Sajjan, Mehmood, Helen, Pramila, Sulochana Latkar and Sheela Vaz. Kohinoor – directed by S. U. Sunny featured Meena Kumari, Dilip Kumar, Leela Chitnis and Kumkum. A film of lighter tone, it lacked the intense characterisations of earlier films of both Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari, who are otherwise known as the Tragedy King and Tragedy Queen respectively.

1961: Bhabhi Ki Chudiyan was a family drama directed by Sadashiv J. Row Kavi with Meena Kumari and Balraj Sahni in the lead roles. The film was one of the highest-grossing films of the year at the Indian box office with the famous song “Jyoti Kalash Chhalke” by Lata Mangeshkar.

Zindagi aur Khwab – directed S. Bannerjee, starring Meena Kumari and Rajendra Kumar, was a hit at the Indian box office. Pyaar Ka Saagar – was directed by Devendra Goel with Meena Kumari and Rajendra Kumar.

Meena kumari Personal Life

It was in the year 1938, when a young and upcoming writer Kamal Amrohi was searching a girl for a small role in Sohrab Modi’s film Jailor.

On someone’s suggestion he was sent to Ali Bux’s house where he was greeted by a 5-year-old girl who had traces of mashed bananas around her face.

The young girl was however not selected for the part but little did Amrohi knew that she was to become the love of his life. This girl was Meena Kumari who was then popular as Baby Mahjabeen.

Marriage to Kamal Amrohi (1952)

Years later, on the sets of Tamasha, Ashok Kumar introduced filmmaker Kamal Amrohi to Meena Kumari, who later, offered her a lead role in his upcoming film Anarkali. The contract was signed on 13 March 1951 but on 21 May 1951, Meena Kumari was involved in a motor car accident while returning from Mahabaleshwar to Bombay. She was admitted to Sassoon Hospital in Poona, injured around the left hand. Kumari went through bouts of depression, and Kamal Amrohi visited her regularly during her days in the hospital. When they were not scheduled to meet, both Kumari and Amrohi would write letters to each other.

For four months this hospital affair continued and love blossomed. This accident left Meena Kumari with a banded left pinky which remained banded throughout her life, and she used to cover her left hand with a dupatta or saree during shoots. After Kumari was discharged from hospital, a telephoning marathon between her and Amrohi began during nights.Soon shooting of the film Anarkali commenced but the producer suffered a financial disaster and the film was abandoned.

On 14 February 1952, Meena Kumari, 18, and Kamal Amrohi, 34, secretly got married in a simple “Niqah” ceremony in the presence of a Qadi and Kumari’s younger sister, Mahliqa (Madhu). The Niqah paper was witnessed by Baqar Ali (Kamal Amrohi’s friend and assistant) and Qadi’s two sons, and signed in the name of Mahjabeen Bano (Meena Kumari’s real name) and Syed Ameen Haider (Kamal Amrohi’s real name).

After the ceremony, the newlyweds parted. Amrohi left for Sion and Meena and Madhu returned home.The marriage was kept secret from the family and media, although Kamal Amrohi was already married and had three children from his previous wife.

After some months, the matrimony news was leaked to Kumari’s father, Ali Bux, by a cook who overheard their midnight phone conversations. The father recommended a divorce. Meena Kumari remained adamant on her decision, but stayed in her father’s house.

After their marriage, Kamal Amrohi allowed Meena Kumari to continue her acting career, but on the conditions that she should not remit anyone in her makeup room but her makeup artist and return home in her own car by 6:30 every evening.

Meena Kumari agreed to all terms, but with passing time she kept breaking them. Abrar Alvi, director of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, recounts how Kamal Amrohi would have his spy and right-hand man Baqar Ali present even in the makeup room while Meena’s makeup was being done, and one evening, when working beyond schedule to complete a shot, he had to face his heroine dissolving in tears.

According to Vinod Mehta, writer of her biography, Meena Kumari was subjected to physical abuse in her marriage. He points out that although Amrohi, repeatedly denied any such allegations, he learnt it from six different sources that she indeed was a sufferer.After her death in 1972, fellow actress Nargis wrote a piece about her which was published in an Urdu magazine.

She mentioned that while on an outdoor shoot of Main Chup Rahungi, when both of them were sharing adjacent rooms, she too heard noises suggestive of violence.

The following day, she met a swollen-eyed Kumari who would have cried all night. Such rumours found their base on the mahurat of Pinjre Ke Panchhi. On 5 March 1964, Kamal Amrohi’s assistant, Baqar Ali slapped Meena Kumari when she allowed Gulzar enter her makeup room. Kumari immediately called Amrohi to come to the film’s set but he never came. Instead, he asked her to come to him, so he can decide what to do further.

Meena kumari death

Meena Kumari was a patient of chronic insomnia and was on sleeping pills for a long time since the days of telephoning conversations with Kamal Amrohi. During 1963, Dr. Saeed Timurza, her physician, then prescribed a small peg of brandy as a sleeping pill alternative and this was officially how she came into contact with the habit that was to kill her.

This prescribed peg of brandy turned into heavy drinking after her separation from her husband in 1964. After that, Kumari’s name was associated with Gulzar, Dharmendra and Sawan Kumar Tak

In 1968, Kumari was diagnosed with cirrhosis of liver. The medical advice was that she needed more advanced and permanent cure.She received treatments in London and Switzerland in June 1968. From the months of June to August, Meena Kumari was in the hands of Dr. Sheila Sherlock.

Upon recovery, Kumari returned to India in September 1968 and on the fifth day after her arrival, Meena Kumari, contrary to doctors’ instructions resumed work. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, although Meena Kumari temporarily recovered but was now much weak and thin

Three weeks after the release of Pakeezah, Meena Kumari became seriously ill. On 28 March 1972, she was admitted to St Elizabeth’s Nursing Home.

She went into coma two days later and died shortly afterwards on 31 March 1972. She was 38 years old. The cause of her death was determined to be liver cirrhosis. As per her husband’s wish, she was buried at Rehmatabad Cemetery, located at Narialwadi, Mazagaon, Bombay. Kumari requested the following prose for her tombstone: “She ended life with a broken fiddle, with a broken song, with a broken heart, but not a single regret.”As per his wish, upon his death on 11 February 1993 in Bombay, her husband was buried next to her.