Book Review: Meena Kumari by Vinod Mehta

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I was introduced to Meena Kumari three times in my life:

First: By my mom. A melodious number played on the television. I ran to gulp it. Isn’t that a lovely song, I said. My mom, “yeah, but look at the lip-sync. No one does it better than her. Even her eyes and eyebrows croon along. She is Meena Kumari.” I was around ten years old then, and the song- “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh”. It remained fixed as one of my all time favorites.

Second: A Guru Dutt Film festival in college. Last day of the screening, and I was introduced to the quintessential ‘Choti Bahu’ of Indian cinema – Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. It touched me beyond words, and I, probably never recuperated from the onslaught of her on-screen persona. Meena Kumari imprinted herself a notch more deeper, and I didn’t mind that, yet again. By then, she was intriguing and enigmatic.

Third: By Vinod Mehta. Few days back when I picked up this biography, I knew where I was heading. I had a premonition that it will be a good read. But after I finished, I stood dumbfound by this extra ordinary piece of literature. I knew I was going to fall in love, and I did. And, I have no qualms in admitting that this is by far one of the best biographies ever written on any Indian artist, and I mean it from the core of my heart. But, what makes this biography so profound and engaging? Let’s delve a little deeper.

Vinod Mehta carefully crafted this biography. Very ingeniously, this book is divided into two sections and nine chapters. I would call it an aesthetic dichotomy. Separated by an array of images of Meena Kumari at various phases of her life, this partition, is more ethereal than anything else. Each frame confirms aloud- what you just read is legitimate, and what follows now, will be sublime. One of the highlights of the book is the small quote in the beginning of each chapter, pregnant with the basic ethos of the pages to come. Praiseworthy.

Right from the word go, Mr. Mehta conceived an uncanny relationship with his protagonist. He called her ‘My Heroine’, and an understated possessiveness flowed all along and stayed till the end. With a rather unconventional beginning, the book gives a jerky start. You don’t always talk about ‘Death’ in the very beginning. But he did, and did with unparalleled conviction. The author writes, ….If anybody I feel approves, nay applauds, this breaking of biography convention, it is the heroine of the book herself. For who better than her understood death..and who better than her played and toyed with it…..”

Vinod Mehta moved ahead chapter by chapter depicting every important aspect of his heroine’s life. This section was essentially a filmography, aesthetically amalgamated with events from her personal space. Among those, her much talked about love story with Kamal Amrohi was prominent. Mehta weaved a beautiful story around it , and when you turn pages, you wish, hope this never ends. Mehta writes, ” Mr. Amrohi will dial my heroine’s number from Sion at 11.30 in the night and replace the receiver at 5.30 in the morning…….My heroine at her end did not even have the receiver tuned into her ear. Instead, she placed it on her breast so that it was directly in contact with her heart.” Subsequently, Dharmendra, Gulzar and host of other men find a mention in Meena Kumari’s love life, but with utter dignity, poise and reverence.

Meema Kumari’s steep rise and fall in her career confirms the blatant maxim of life- you rise to fall one day. Her botched up relationships, her unparalleled stardom and her affair with alcohol is well captured in every segment of the book. You will miss nothing. When he criticized his heroine, he didn’t mince words. And, when he praised, he didn’t shy away from throwing a blanket of homage around her, as well. Mehta says, “Consumed with alcohol in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam she lounges on the bed, sings a song ‘Na jao Sayiyyan’, emits ounces of erotica without removing a single garment, and entreats with her husband to stay back…..The examples are innumerable and the conclusion must be that my heroine could perform minor miracles with her eyes, and no one, safe to say, on the Indian screen could match hers- for me even when judged from the mean standards of beauty.”

The aspect of the book that impressed me deeply was Vinod Mehta’s sincerity and veneration towards Meena Kumari. Even at the most vulnerable and critical junctures, Mehta refused to shed his guard and wrapped his words in a way that would sound gracious at any knotty situation. He was being vigilant, to say the least, and I personally found it worth an applaud. He writes, “Sometimes, and there is no use denying this, the requirements of the flesh ran away with her and she found herself with men with whom she had little rapport. Loneliness, we all know, makes for strange bedfellows”.

In my opinion, the sheer brilliance of this prose stands on four erect pillars:

  1. Encyclopedic Research: Considering the fact that author Vinod Mehta has never met her heroine in person, this book becomes even more intriguing. All whatever he penned down is the result of a deep intricate research, which included talking to her husband, family, relatives, close friends, and reading through magazines. Going by this effort, I can’t stop myself from saying that it has produced extraordinary results.

  2. Tight and Uncompromising Editing: I am yet to locate an unwarranted word or an extra coma in this entire book. No where through the prose, not for once I felt, this was unnecessary, lose or could have been more balanced. This book perhaps was the first glimpse of Vinod Mehta’s acumen as an editor. Brilliant.

  3. Exquisite Language: If you find me little over ecstatic here, allow me. Not every time you read a prose where after every 30 words you gush over the usage and choice of words. Vinod Mehta’s dexterity and playfulness with language has certainly taken this biography to a new level.

  4. Dignity and Reverence: If there is something that hit me the most in this book, and I said it earlier too, it is Vinod Mehta’s reverence and diligence in dealing with the subject. Right from the first word to the last, he maintained utter respect and poise for his heroine. You don’t have to be malicious, to be critical, the author professed it with aplomb. I also feel that his writing illustrates his Lucknow lineage, which gives the much needed ‘theehrav’ (poise) to his tone and diction. Throughout the narrative, he carried an undertone – ‘No matter what, I will not for once take down your Dupatta, my heroine..’

Like all good things in life, this amazing piece of literature came to an end. And, if there is one regret I have- Why this biography had only 227 pages and not more? All I can say, every time my door bell rang, my kids called, my bladder gave up, hunger challenged me or my eyelashes wanted to romance each other, I cringed. I cringed every time I had to pick up the bookmark. I didn’t want to part with it even  for a moment. This is an unputdownable saga of success, failure, love, deceit, defeat, pain, ecstasy and above all -life, that hooks you right till the end. Even though this biography is about the greatest tragedienne of India cinema, it is anything but gloomy or depressing. It is rather deep and profound, intriguing and interesting, encapsulating the bare essence of life, right from the seed. A must read in the list.

And, as I conclude, I resonate the exact feeling Vinod Mehta expressed. His concluding line for his heroine:

“WISH I HAD KNOWN YOU”

And, I say :

“WISH I HAD KNOWN, PERHAPS BOTH OF YOU”.

 Also read: An Unsuitable Boy by Karan Johar 

9 COMMENTS

  1. It seems like an ode to good writing. When a person does his job with passion it spills to all who come in contact. Physical or otherwise. You got the Midas touch rubbed on to you Maitabi. Keep up the good work.

  2. Wow! your book review is superb, it has me so hooked on it that I dont know if it supercedes the book!!!!!

    I am going to explore more of your blog for the reviews as I have found your writing style to be awesome. Welcome to write tribe. Cheers

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