In the 1950s, like the male trinity of superstars—Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand—Meena Kumari, Nargis and Madhu Bala formed the female trinity of Hindi cinema. These actresses featured in some of the best films of their time under the best directors of that era. At the peak of her career, Meena Kumari was the highest paid actress of her generation, and was the first to have bought an Impala Car. It’s a shocking story of the fluctuating fortunes in the film world that someone who acted in 99 films in her three-decade-long career and earned crores of rupees, in the end didn’t even have enough money to pay for her medical bills.

The film industry is dominated by male stars. They command much higher fees and pick up heroines of their choice, sometimes half their age. Barring some exceptions, in most successful films of the three Khans—Salman, Aamir and Shahrukh—the heroine has had a much smaller role than the hero’s. More recently, Vidya Balan’s Dirty Picture and Kahani; Sonam Kapoor’s Neerja, Alia Bhatt’s Raazi; and Veere Di Wedding, with four women in the lead, have been hailed as heroine-oriented feminist films. But more than half a century ago, in the face of such iconic heroes as Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, and Dev Anand, Meena Kumari acted in a string of films such as Parineeta, Dil Ek Mandir, Aarati, Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, Sharda, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Bahu Begham, Bhabhi Ki Churiyan, Kajal and Pakeezah—which revolved around her character. Meena’s contemporary heroes considered it an honour to act with her; they were always on their toes to match her histrionic brilliance.

She never went to any film institute, learning her craft on the floor of the studios. Though incredibly beautiful, she never used her sexuality and sex appeal to attract the audience. In most of her memorable films, she portrayed multilayered characters which betrayed their vulnerability, loneliness, pain, anguish and suffering with suffocating intensity. Meena internalised the tragedies of the characters as her own and expressed their feelings, emotions, sentiments and reactions so convincingly that it didn’t look like acting. Thousands in the audience were often moved to tears. Her convincing portrayal of so many tragic characters earned her the title of the “Tragedy Queen of Bollywood”, and rightly so. She became the female equivalent of Dilip Kumar, who was lauded as the “Tragedy King”.

Born as Mahjabeen Bano, she debuted as baby Meena in 1939, when she was barely seven years old. But it was Baiju Bawra with Bharat Bhushan in 1952 which catapulted her to the top, winning the inaugural Filmfare award for best actress for her role as Gauri. Besides Naushad’s music, Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics and Mohd. Rafi’s immortal voice in “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj”, “Tu Ganga Ki Mauj Main Jamuna Ka Dhara”, it was Meena’s raw and earthy performance which made this film a classic.

In 1953, in Bimal Roy’s Parineeta, Meena’s endearing interpretation of the character of the young Bengali lady, Lalita, won her her second Filmfare award. Impressed by Meena’s performance, Bimal Da was keen to cast her in his film Devdas as Paaro, but things didn’t materialise thanks to her alleged differences with Kamal Amrohi.

In1963, Meena Kumari created a record which remains unbeaten to date. She got all the nominations for her performance in three different films for Fimfare’s best actress award, winning it for Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam for arguably the best performance of her life, as the neglected and lonely Chhoti Bahu, shackled in the tradition-bound, feudal haveli in Antahpur. The searing intensity of her pain, anguish, longing, craving drips from the way she mumbles her dialogues. A line of a song in the film, “Raat raat bhar intezar hai, dil dard se bekarar hai…” sums up her turmoil within. As beauteous Madhubala said with envy, “She has the most unique voice. No other heroine has it.” Amitabh Bachchan echoed that, “No one, not anyone, ever spoke dialogues the way Meena Kumari did.”

The film was nominated at the 13th Berlin Film Festival and was India’s official entry for the Oscars.

Sharda, opposite Raj kapoor, offered her one of the toughest roles ever. Raj, whom she loves, becomes her step son when his father marries her. She has to smother all her feelings as a woman in love at the altar of her duties as a legally wedded wife. Her performance won her the best actress award from the West Bengal Film Journalists’ association.

In Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai, remembered for Shankar Jaikishan’s lilting music and memorable songs, she plays a nurse whom an already married Raj Kumar loves. Meena gave another masterly performance in this film.

Her roles in Mai Chup Rahungi, Dil Ek Mandir, Aarati, Bahu Begham, Benazir, Kajal and Pakeezah show her trapped in circumstances beyond her control; helplessness, hopelessness and suffering seem to be her only destiny.

By the time she did Kajal and Pakeezah, she had turned alcoholic and physically bloated, yet it was the mesmerising modulation of her voice, fleeting emotions on her face, her eyes, lips, hand gestures and the whole body language that expressed emotions smouldering on the inside. She won her fourth Filmfare award as best actress for Kajal and might have won the fifth for Pakeezah if she had lived.

Though paired with all the contemporary established actors, Meena never hesitated to act with young and struggling actors, as in Ek Hi Raasta with Sunil Dutt, Mem Sahib with Shammi Kapoor, Chirag Kahan Roshani Kahan with Rajendra Kumar, Benazir with Shashi Kapoor and Phool Aur Pathhar with Dharmendra .

While famous for her serious and tragic roles, she could carry off light comic roles too. She did six films with the boisterous Kishore Kumar including Ilzam and Miss Mary with Gemini Ganesan. Contrary to her “Sati Sadhvi Bhartiya Nari” filmi persona, she looked swashbuckling in Azad with
Dilip Kumar.

Meena’s unending longing and unbearable loneliness is aptly expressed in Pakeezah’s songs: “O, thare rahiyo banke yaar re…”

The same melancholy pervades her poetry:

Chand tanha hai asman tanha
Dil mila hai kahan kahan tanha Zindagi kya isi ko kahte hain
Jism tanha hai aur jan tanha

She bequeathed her unpublished shayari to Gulzar. She sang some of her ghazals with music by Khayaym. The underlying sadness of her life is reflected in her words and her voice—it overwhelms the listeners.