03 September, 2013

Meena Kumari – The Classic Biography (Book Review)

There are a number of factors that might outright turn you off from picking this biography of Meena Kumari. It’s about an actress of the yesteryears; one who the younger generation might not have even heard of. It’s by an author, Vinod Mehta, who never really knew the actress in real life. In fact, even though Meena Kumari led a somewhat scandalous life, the book walks on the right side of being sensational thus giving respect to the subject of the book and due credit to the author for taking the high road.

But, letting go of the book would be a grave mistake. For this “classic biography” is not only the story of Indian Cinema’s greatest tragedienne, but it also gives the reader an unadulterated inside-view into the workings of the Bombay film industry by breaking down the Golden Age of the 1960-70s through the real and reel tragedy that was Meena Kumari.

Meena Kumari – The Classic Biography is a well thought off and intensely researched biography on the one actress that captured the hearts of millions ever since she joined the film industry as a child. By not knowing the actress, Vinod Mehta is able to successfully detach himself from the life of this acclaimed actress and paint a less emotional or dramatic picture of her. In fact his limited fandom for her films also works in the favour of the book, for it makes his research into Meena Kumari all the more persuasive.

The new edition of the biography that was initially published only a few months after the death of Meena Kumari in March 1972 is divided in two sections, each with subtopics dealing with different aspects of the actress’ life. The author stays away from her films as entertaining mediums, focusing more on Meena Kumari’s life and especially how her various relationships, especially with alcohol, shaped her being. To the lesser known, like me, you will come across many familiar names such as Dharmendra and Gulzar amongst many, and see how each of these individuals had a dramatic impact on the life of this actress. At heart, the biography of Meena Kumari is also one of the greatest love stories ever. Her relationship with Kamal Amrohi over the years would to an outsider be nothing less than an archetypal love story full of affection, infatuation, lust, betrayal, pain, joy, and ultimately death.

Vinod Mehta, by breaking down the story of Meena Kumari in parts manages to focus the attention of the reader towards one aspect of her life at a time. As a result, each chapter has an aim; to dive deep into the “rise”, the “fall” or “Death” of the actress. Due to the importance Pakeezah had in the heroin’s life, and because it was released only a few days before her death, the film gets an altogether separate chapter, and rightly so.

In terms of prose, Vinod Mehta has a journalistic approach to the book, yet it is personal enough that you don’t feel that the book is simply an information source. However, the author does refer to Meena Kumari has “my actress” throughout the biography, and while he does give the reasoning behind this, it makes the line between a personal and professional outlook blur. Having said that, it seems that even though the author did not know Meena Kumari intimately, he did eventually “bond” with the actress during his research; and maybe this is his way of appreciating her as an individual and as an artist of the highest calibre.

Meena Kumari – The Classic Biography is a story of the Bombay film industry in the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when infatuation of the common public with actors and actresses had started to reach heights that have only recently once again reached its pinnacle. It is the story of a young innocent girl being used by the very people she trusted all her life. It is also a stark look at the life of an entertainer behind the fame and glamour; a life that can only blind the audience with it razzmatazz till the truth finally and eventually comes out.

Recommended for any and all film aficionados, especially those that have an interest in classic cinema and obviously those who would like to know more about the greatest tragedienne Indian Cinema has ever produced.

A special thanks to Harper Collins India for sending the book for review.