Pakeezah released on 4 February 1972. The film fared average at the box office but after Meena Kumari passed away on 31 March 1972 at St.
Elizabeth’s hospital, the collections of the film picked up. Pakeezah was Meena Kumari’s swan song.
On 31 December 1971, Dharmendra had gone to Meena Kumari’s residence to meet her. Meena Kumari had had a premonition of her death and believed she only had a few days to live. She had therefore completed all her pending film assignments. Even when her health had deteriorated and she was in a precarious condition, she did not want her producers to suffer.
Meena Kumari spent the last few minutes of the year 1971 engaged in an animated conversation with Dharmendra, her rumoured partner. Once Dharmendra left, Meena Kumari prepared herself to welcome the New Year – despite the hunch that she wouldn’t last till the end of the year 1972.
Films like Bidai (Jeetendra- Leena Chandavarkar), Mere Apne (Vinod Khanna, Yogeeta Bali and Shatrughan Sinha) and Dushman (Rajesh Khanna – Mumtaz) had been released earlier. All the films proved to be goldmines for their producers.
The shooting of Pakeezah had commenced in 1958, but, for some strange reasons, had got suspended after a few years, even though Meena Kumari had been living with her husband Kamal Amrohi for the next nine years. The reason why it took Kamal Amrohi so long to complete the film, remains unknown.
One fine day she felt that she had withstood enough trauma and domestic abuse. She decided to walk out on her husband. Reportedly, she was in the makeup room speaking to Gulzar during the shooting of Pinjre Ke Panchi in Filmistan studios.
Kamal Amrohi’s Man Friday Baqar Ali hit her when she refused to obey him.
Enraged that she was attacked by a servant, Meena Kumari decided to call it quits.
Kamal was a much married man when he tied the knot with the legendary actress known for her awesome screen presence, superlative histrionic abilities and a haunting image as a melancholy woman. Meena Kumari’s contemporary actress Usha Kiran had once recalled how Meena was tormented by a dominating husband who was forever suspicious of her.
Grapevine in the media had linked Meena with Gulzar, Dharmendra, Raj Kumar, Pradeep Kumar and Sawan Kumar Tak , with little or no substance. The actress in the meantime was on a self-destructive trip as she was subsumed by her addiction to alcohol.
After her painful separation from Kamal Amrohi, she had become a heavy drinker, just like the character of Chhoti Bahu that she had portrayed in Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962). Real-life had started imitating reel life. The slim and beautiful Meena Kumari of Aarti, Dil Ek Mandir and Dil Apna Preet Parayee was now a bloated, and yet graceful woman. There was also a story doing the rounds that she was about to marry a Punjabi man much younger than her. Industry veterans close to her handled the situation deftly and ensured that the affair was brought to a closure.
Meena Kumari was close to Nargis and music director Khayyam. When Kamal Amrohi showed them the reels of Pakeezah that were already shot, Nargis and Khayyam felt that Meena Kumari ought to complete the film. Khayyam’s wife singer Jagjit Singh convinced Meena Kumari to sing her own ghazals under the label – Chand Tanha Hai. Khayyam composed the music for this album.
After much persuasion Meena Kumari met her estranged husband after four years. She had returned from a de-addiction trip abroad and was raring to go. Her sister Madhu’s second husband Kishore Sharma had accompanied her to Europe and where she spent a few happy months.
Amrohi’s daughter claims that Meena Kumari had aborted their child, so as not to let go of a flourishing film career. She regrets the fact that the director married the actress. Kamal Amrohi was 15 years older than her when they got married in 1953. Their troubled relationship became the grist of rumour mills.
Right from her birth till she met Kamal Amrohi, Meena Kumari was controlled by her father. After her marriage, her husband managed her dates and finances. Baiju Bawara became a massive hit in 1952. She played comic roles in Azad (with Dilip Kumar), Miss Mary (Gemini Ganesh), Kohinoor (Dilip Kumar), Shararat, Memsaab and Naya Andaz (all with Kishore Kumar). B RChopra’s first Muslim social drama Chandni Chowk (1954) had her playing the lead. She jocularly complained that she never had the opportunity to do a serious film with Dilip Kumar.
Pakeezah’s shooting commenced again in 1969. The first shot showed Meena Kumari in a shirt and a lungi walking along a tent singing “Mausam Hai Ashiqana”. The shooting of the film kept getting delayed due to Meena Kumari’s painful illness. Her liver had bloated; she was unable to dance and found it difficult to even walk a few steps.
Amrohi assured the actress that she would be portrayed as a beautiful woman on the screen. He kept his promise. For the last song in the film –“Teer E Nazar Dekhenge”, Padma Khanna was appointed to act as her duplicate. When you watch the dance, you can make out that it is Padma Khanna because her moves are similar to the dance moves in “Husn Ke Lakhon Rang” (Johny Mera Naam, 1971). But her face was camouflaged by her long hair.
Khanna has recounted in an interview that the fastidious Meena Kumari was fabulous in her attention to detail and that she had amazing directorial acumen. Meena Kumari had the final word on the sets even though the film was helmed by Kamal Amrohi. Khanna had to practice a different style of Kathak dance for this performance.
Pakeezah’s music director Ghulam Mohammed had been Naushad Ali’s music assistant, who passed away in 1967, after which Naushad was requested to arrange the background music of the film. The film has such memorable numbers – Chalte Chalte Yunhi Koi Mil Gaya Tha, Mausam Hai Ashiqana, Chalo Dildar Chalo, Thade Rahiyo – and yet, Ghulam Ali remains incognito and unsung – he didn’t get any award posthumously.
Filmfare gave the award for the best music director to Shanker Jaikishen for the film Beimaan (1972) – even Pran who played a key role in Beimaan was shocked that Pakeezah was sidelined in favour of the banal music composed by Shankar Jaikishan for Beimaan. By 1973, Jaikishen had passed away.
Today Pakeezah is remembered for the magnificent sets and the brilliant art direction – not to forget the soul-stirring music. Pakeezah highlighted the challenges faced by a courtesan while trying to lead a respectable life after marriage. Ashok Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Nadira, Kamal Kapoor, Sapru and Veena lent good support to the film.
Contrary to her image as a tragedy queen, it appears that the actress had an indomitable spirit. She had never gone to school. The money that she earned from her movies was siphoned off by her family members (sisters Khurshid and Madhu), her father (who got married to Meena Kumari’s servant who was 20 years younger than him) and of course Kamal Amrohi. There was a sea of relatives, who had landed at her residence.
There is an allegation that even comedian Mehmood (who was married to Meena Kumari’s sister Madhu) got a slice of Meena’s earnings which helped him become a film producer. Despite claims that Amrohi was an aristocrat, the truth is that Amrohi had access to Meena Kumari’s fortunes from 1955 till 1965. Meena Kumari had walked out of her husband’s home without any material possessions.
Post-1960, she never acted with Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Dev Anand because she had started getting author-backed roles in film after film.
Though admittedly an intelligent woman, Meena Kumari didn’t seem to know – or care - what she earned and how the money was being spent. Perhaps she wished to portray herself as the wronged woman and a tragedy queen in real life.
Yet my heart goes out to her. After working so hard all her life she never lived to enjoy the fruits of her labour. She died when she was just 39 years old.
Though Pakeezah was a success at the box office, no one volunteered to pay the hospital bills after Meena Kumari passed away. Kamal Amrohi signed a no-objection certificate when she was pronounced clinically dead so that doctors could disconnect the ventilator. For Amrohi whose film was then running to packed houses, it was just the death of the actress who had played the lead in his movie. Nothing more, nothing less!
Ironically, Kamal roped in Dharmendra to play the lead in Razia Sultan (1983). He defied his wife's request not to make another film after Pakeezah. The film bombed at the box office despite some great music composed by Khayyam. Amrohi’s lucky charm had passed into the nether world, never to return.
Meena Kumari reached dizzying heights of success, achieved tremendous fame and glory - yet happiness seemed to have eluded her. But she will continue to occupy her pride of place in Indian cinema as an actress of substance.
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)