Any reference to popular Indian cinema would be incomplete without a reference to legendary actor and tragedienne of the Indian silver screen, Meena Kumari. Born Mahjabeen, the actor started out as a child actor, aged only four, in a film called Leatherface. Named Meena Kumari by famous director Vijay Bhatt (no relation of Mahesh Bhatt), she made her debut as a full fledged heroine at a tender age of 13 with a film named Bachchon Ka Khel. From then till her death in 1972, she was a tour de force in Hindi cinema. With her acting prowess and screen persona, she was unmatched. In film after film, her tragic characters spoke of the broken dreams of an entire generation of men and women. She was a star from the word go.
Yet Meena’s personal life was a mess, it had always been. While a fair bit has been written about the breakdown of her relationship with her father Ali Bux, a theatre and film tabla artist, and later with her husband, director Kamaal Amrohi, her alleged affair with veteran actor Dharmendra is relatively less known. Thankfully, in books written on both the artists, we get a glimpse of what must have transpired between the two.
A perception remains that a young Dharmendra, struggling to establish himself in the Hindi film industry, used her as a stepping stone to move ahead in his career. Looks like that perception is but a perception. First the facts – the two met for the first time in Hrishikesh Mukherji directed Purnima and subsequently went on to work in films like Kaajal, Chandan Ka Palna, Majhli Didi, Main Bhi Ladki Hoon, Baharon Ki Manzil and Phool Aur Patthar. Of these, only the last one was a box office success.
In a book named ‘Dharmendra: A Biography, Not Just A He-Man’ by Rajiv M Vijayakar, excerpted by NDTV, the author claims that Meena Kumari episode was the “first unfortunate involvement that happened in Dharmendra’s life”.
“Most of the industry believes – and perhaps, rightly so – that it was the star-crossed actress, bereft of enough love and affection in real life, who took a fancy to the strapping young man she had come to know since the time they began shooting for Purnima. This film was followed rapidly by Main Bhi Ladki Hoon (which was released first), Kaajal (not opposite each other) and Phool Aur Patthar, with which Dharmendra, on a quick ascent, zoomed into the top echelons. Three more films followed – Chandan Ka Palna, Majhli Didi and Baharon Ki Manzil, but all of those bombed,” the book explains.
Her marriage to director Kamal Amrohi had ended by 1964, which in turn, had deeply scarred a sensitive Meena.
In his book, veteran journalist Vinod Mehta talks of the first meeting between the two in his much-referred to biography on the late actor. “The film they were signed on together was called Purnima, and Dharmendra would go around asking, ‘What is Meenaji like?’ He was petrified at the prospect of facing her in front of the camera. Cast opposite an established star, the novice was concerned. Having got his break, he must on the one hand prove himself in his own right, and on the other extract a quantum of respect from the established star,” an excerpt in Open magazine reads.
The two came face to face for the first time “at Chandivili during outdoor shoot” he adds. He mentions how Dharmendra reacted to the meeting; how he was a “bit nervous and apprehensive” but was happy as “she was warm and friendly and welcomed me with kind encouragement”. Meena, however took a fancy to him from the word go. Vinod quotes her saying “This boy will rise. He is not the routine entry.”
Vinod goes on to talk about what Meena for looking for: “Coincidentally, at this particular moment of her life, Meena Kumari required a stable and devoted man: big and strong, someone on whom she could literally rest her head, and someone who was not too famous”.
The book explains in great detail how in the beginning it was only about work; how she would enact his scenes for him and explain in great detail the nuances. All this would also instil confidence in an ‘uncertain youth’. Soon, Dharmendra became a regular at her Janki Kutir residence.
Vinod avers that “Meena Kumari wished to engage the attention of this young man” and that “she always liked having a few puppies around her”. She was also “too dignified and renowned an actress to make an open pass”.
Contrary to popular belief, Dharmendra did not encourage her to drink more. On the reverse, he may have stopped her from doing so. The book reads: “Dharmendra was almost a daily visitor at Janki Kutir. Together they would open a bottle and spend a few hours. These were the good times.”
“Like all good Punjabis, Dharam then and still enjoys his booze; but it is a lie that he persuaded or pressured Meena to drink… If anything, he was unhappy about her drinking and tried to stop her. He nearly succeeded: while Dharam was around, Meena’s imbibing was restricted, once he left it was rampant. Dharam was everything she wanted then: honest, reliable, large, loving and comforting…”
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