My ten favourite Meena Kumari songs
Meena Kumari, a face, which launched thousand tragic films. A thousand might be a bit of exaggeration, but she alone on her star-power helped tragic films to great success. In the 50s and even in the frolicking, colourful 60s, people would flock the cinema halls (to different degrees) to see her suffer. She was also an adept comedienne, in which she also excelled and was quite successful as seen in Magroor , Miss Mary , Azaad  and Kohinoor .
Meena Kumari at a certain time in my childhood played a big role in shaping the image of women in my psyche. Exposed to a slew of films, where she played a neglected wife, a suffering daughter-in-law, a sacrificing daughter, a caring sister-in-law, a protective sister or ‘simply’ a tormented woman between two men, she moulded an image of women being forever doomed to suffer at the hands of men in life. It is true that even other leading ladies like Mala Sinha (Anpadh) or Nutan (Khandan, Chhota Bhai) played such roles but it was as if they were impersonating Meena Kumari in these films. Meena Kumari remained always the original and the one to which others had to match to.
The presence of strong, independent and liberal women in my family and surroundings though would rectify the image in my mind; Meena Kumari would nevertheless always remain special.
On 31st March it was her 41st death anniversary. To commemorate it here are ten of my favourite songs filmed on her.
1. mohe bhool gaye sanwariya – Baiju Bawra 
MD: Naushad; Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
With this film she finally came into the big league. Till then she was relegated to playing supporting roles or main leads in mythological and fantasy films. Playing Gauri the tragic (though at the beginning feisty) lover of the famous singer Baiju (played by Bharat Bhushan), she goes for more than half of the film pining for her lover. This song thus sums up her role and feeling in this film and gives a premonition of the Liebestod at the end. The way Lata renders the song to Naushad’s melancholy music, makes one realise why she was such a sought after singer in her prime. This one would surely figure in my ten favourite Lata songs.
2. kitni jawan hai raa tkoi yaad aa gaya – Azaad 
MD: C. Ramchandra; Lyrics: Rajendra Krishna; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
In contrast to the deep melancholic song above, here is a gay and frolic song just brimming with happiness. The tragic hero Dilip Kumar gets a chance to play Zorro in this swash-buckler movie. Meena Kumari plays the adopted daughter of a rich landlord, who falls in love with this cross between Robin Hood and Zorro, Azaad. A funny movie!
3. ajeeb dastan hai yeh – Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai 
MD: Shanker-Jaikishan; Lyrics: Shailendra; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Karuna (compassion) is the character of the character Meena Kumari plays here. And she does her name all honours. She plays the compassionate nurse, the compassionate pseudo-daughter, the compassionate pseudo-sister, the compassionate friend, and also the compassionate rival to the wife (Nadira) of the man (Raaj Kumar), she adores. Yes, this indeed is a strange story!
You can catch Edwina sitting behind Raaj Kumar and Nadira. And just watch the different feelings fleeting on Meena Kumari’s face. Alone this array of emotions is enough to put her in the hall of fame of actresses.
4. piya aiso jiya me samay gayo re – Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam 
MD: Hemant Kumar; Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri; Singer: Geeta Dutt
If Meena Kumari symbolised the ever-suffering Indian woman, then Chhoti Bahu symbolised Meena Kumari’s life or at least the way we perceive it. Chhoti Bahu, like many of the Bengali heroines of her times questions the status of women in the society. She accepts her duties readily but also demands the rights due to her. She is not ready to accept anything less than her fair share. Her struggle for rights may not reflect those that of the modern woman but a rebel in her own way, for which she would pay dearly with her life.
5. ham tere pyar me saara aalam – Dil Ek Mandir 
MD: Shanker-Jaikishan; Lyrics: Hasrat Jaipuri; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Playing Sita married to Ram (Raaj Kumar), who is a terminally-ill patient, she brings her husband to be treated by her ex-lover, who is now a doctor, ‘but’ still pining away for her. Her husband realising that he is going to die soon and knowing doctor and his wife were lovers before his marriage, ‘magnanimously’ asks her to marry her former lover after his death. In her role as the traditional bharatiya naari, she is shocked at his ‘generous’ offer and sings this song to assert her loyalty towards him. A through and through melodramatic film but chock full of good songs
6. woh jo milte the kabhi – Akeli Mat Jaiyo 
MD: Madan Mohan; Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
When I first heard this song in my teenage years, I had thought that this is surely one of those songs, where the heroine after being separated from her lover, lands up at a kotha and ‘accidentally’ he turns up over there. Something on the lines of rehte the kabhi jinke dil me from Mamta . I was then pleasantly surprised to see that it has Meena Kumari singing this hardly with much tragic expressions. Listening to this song, makes one understand why Madan Mohan was called the ghazal king.
7. sansar se bhaage phirte ho – Chitralekha 
MD: Roshan; Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Chitralekha, the famous courtesan of Pataliputra during the Mauryan reign, mocks the Buddhist monk (Ashok Kumar), accusing him of running away from the worldly affairs. She tells him if he can’t find peace here, he won’t find it anywhere else. Little does she know at this point of the story that she will soon be following his steps and he (nearly) hers. Deeply philosophical! An interesting interpretation of the song can be found here.
8. tora man darpan kehlaye – Kaajal 
MD: Ravi; Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi; Singer: Asha Bhosle
She plays it all here, the doting sister, the misunderstood lover and the tormented wife. But before she can get her hand dirty with this huge mound of work she gets to sing this sublime bhajan full of deep philosophy and thought. How it can be any other way, when the poet of these lines is Sahir Ludhianvi.
9. duniya kare sawaal to ham kya jawab de – Bahu Begum 
MD: Roshan; Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Zeenat, a woman, who in the eyes of the society is married to a Nawab, but not truly so (she wasn’t present at the marriage ceremony) and in love with another man. This song can be seen as a personification of her role in this film. duniya kare sawaal to ham kya jawab de…, what shall I answer if the world asks me…? Yes, what shall she answer? Is she married or not? If yes how come she is loving another man and if not why do people think she is married? Is in such case her pining for another man an act of committing adultery? On the face of it, it may seem to be a far-fetched plot. It is nevertheless possible that the author wanted of the story wanted to give a woman forced into marriage against her will the right to desire another man. Maybe!
10. mausam hai aashiqana – Pakeezah 
MD: Ghulam Mohammad; Lyrics: Kamal Amrohi; Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
To choose one favourite song from this memorable score by Ghulam Mohammad (in the 50s) is indeed a very hard task. I left out chalo dildaar chalo… because it’s a duet, inhi logon ne… and chalte chalte… were for my taste too over-exposed. I thought, I’d to leave out aaj ham apni duaon ka asar dekhenge…, because it was at least partly filmed on Padma Khanna. At the end it was a tie between thade rahiyon and mausam hai aashiqaana. I love the picturisation of both the songs, in fact all the songs of the film. Particularly I love the contrast between the cool rendering of the mujra and the tense power game between the two admirers. Mausam hai aashiqaana though made the place, maybe because of my love for nature, though parts of the interlude are not at all to my taste.
Meena Kumari, who had won four Filmfare awards in the best actress section, would go empty for Pakeezah. And who won the best actress award for that year? Hema Malini for Seeta Aur Geeta!
Though thought by many as her swan-song, Pakeezah was not her last. This honour would fall on Sawan Kumar Tak’s Gomti Ke Kinare , where she would also play a courtesan.
Meena Kumari passed away on 31st March 1972, at the young age of 39. At the end of her career she had taken up mother roles, which were not the usual ones but central to the plot. I wonder if she had lived longer, there would have been more women-centric films in the 70s? A phenomenon like her will never happen, a phrase widely used, is in every sense true for her. We can only feel deep gratitude for having so many films of her at our disposal. Thank you dear Meena, thank you for your legacy!
The play list.