It was the stuff of legend; a star-crossed romance with twists and turns at par with that of a Bollywood film. It was the much talked about love affair between Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari. Now, years later, his daughter Rukhsaar presents her father's side of the story.
Legendary Indian film-maker, poet and script writer Kamal Amrohi remains perhaps one of the most misunderstood, and most maligned, people in Bollywood and the Indian media. Pakeezah (filming began in 1958 and it was released in 1972), his masterpiece offering as a film director, was both a labour of love as well as an epic classic in which his much beloved third wife and top actress at the time, Meena Kumari, was the female lead.
Kamal Amrohi’s ‘bitiya’ (as he fondly called his only daughter from his second wife), Rukhsaar Amrohi speaks to Images on Sunday to dispel the stories and scandals that scarred her illustrious father’s image and his third wife’s life. Writer of the book, Dard-i-Dil Likhoon Kab Tak, and a renowned poet in her own right, here she remembers ever so vividly the years spent with her father and Meena Kumari.
It was love at first sight when, in 1952, Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi met on the sets of a film. She was 19 years old at that time and he was 34, and already a much-married man with three children. They got married and produced a film considered to be their own love story, Daera (1953). Pakeezah was the project that followed. But soon the couple’s relationship turned sour, leading to estrangement and clashes. Pakeezah took almost 14 years to make. The couple separated and the film was shelved for almost six years. The only thing the couple produced during those years were rumours of scandal and bitterness.
“I am sick of listening to all these lies in the Indian media,” says a flustered Rukhsaar Amrohi. “I don’t wish to undermine their relationship, but I do regret the fact that Baba married her. Baba never divorced Meena Kumari, and I say this with full authority because I have all the letters that were exchanged between them. They just couldn’t live together due to ego clashes,” she says. “People poisoned Meenaji against my father and the two grew apart,” she adds.
She claims Kamal Amrohi wanted Meena Kumari to remain fully committed to the marriage, and to return straight home after shooting. He did not approve of her being in other men’s company, says Rukhsaar. “My father belonged to an illustrious family of Amroha, in Uttar Pradesh. He wanted Meena Kumari to maintain his family’s esteem,” claims Rukhsaar Amrohi. However, the young Meena Kumari, having got a taste of success and fame, needed more freedom.
One night in March 1964, while shooting in Filmistan Studios in Bombay (present day Mumbai) for Pinjiray Kay Panchee, Meena Kumari was in the make-up room for a very long time with an industry luminary that Rukhsaar does not wish to name here.
She recalls, “Choti Ammi was being called to the sets to complete the shot, but she just wouldn’t come out of the make-up room. My father always used to tell her that make-up rooms are the source of all film industry scandals and that she should be very careful. My father’s secretary, Baqar saheb, who always accompanied Meenaji on shootings, also warned her upon which she furiously opened the door, extremely upset. She yelled out for my father to be called to the studio right there and then, and that she refused to be controlled by her husband.
“My father did not go to Filmistan that night as he did not want to create a fuss in public. He wanted her to return home and settle the matter, but instead she went to her sister Madhu’s (actor Mehmood’s wife) home. Late at night, Baba went to Madhu’s house to bring Choti Ammi home, but she did not open the door of her room. They then parted ways.”
Rukhsaar was 10 years old when her father remarried. “I lived with my mother (Mehmoodie, Kamal Amrohi’s second wife who bore him three children) in Amroha. Baba lived in Mumbai at that time. Choti Ammi loved me and cared for me. My mother always told us to love Baba and respect Choti Ammi as a mother. I knew that Baba gave my mother immense respect and love, but my mother was not his mehbooba (beloved). It was always Meenaji!”
Meena Kumari played the damsel in distress in film after film, and Saheb, Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) was one of the first movies of many that ultimately earned her the ‘tragedy queen’ title. “While she had the perfect face to play the proverbial grief-stricken woman on screen, Meenaji had actually started believing that all the concocted stories printed in the media were true,” says Rukhsaar. “She had begun to live the roles of the tragedy queen that she became so famous for. She wanted people to believe that she was also a tragedy queen in real life. Her face was also that of a suffering woman, a sad woman,” Rukhsaar recalls.
While the Indian media and those around her bought into this image on her reputation, Meenaji, says Rukhsaar, was merely an actress on her way to becoming a much sought-after leading lady in Bollywood. “She became one of the top heroines of her times, but she lost a loving husband in the process,” she adds.
Rukhsaar Amrohi refutes the accusation that it was due to Kamal Amrohi that Meena Kumari sought refuge in the bottle. “During her marriage to my father, she was not allowed to touch the stuff. She became an alcoholic after they separated.” Rukhsaar also has another point to cite in her father’s defence:
“Kamal Amrohi’s films always portrayed the hypocrisy of society towards the treatment of women. How could he then mistreat the woman he loved? Pakeezah was proof of that. I remember at the premiere Meena Kumari entered the hall holding my father’s hand. I saw her crying throughout the movie, saying ‘Chandan, you have made me so beautiful. I can’t believe it’!”
This was not just vanity at work, as Meena Kumari was then suffering from liver cirrhosis and when she decided to complete Pakeezah at the behest of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, she feared that she would not look as beautiful as she did in her early days. “My father had assured her that he will make her look as beautiful as she looked in the earlier scenes. He had her face smeared with concealers for the close-up shots while an artist, Padma Khanna, enacted the role physically and even danced for the last song in Pakeezah, Teer-i-Nazar Dekhenge Zakmi Jigar Dekhenge.”
In her last days, when pain was her constant companion, it was only Kamal Amrohi that Meena Kumari used to call to her apartment. She clearly still cared for him very much. “I would also accompany him to the apartment when, in the deep throes of pain, she would cry for hours on end,” says Rukhsaar.
“Once at a party, my father was offered a paan. On eating it, he felt his head starting to spin and he reached home half-conscious. We were all very worried and called Choti Ammi who immediately drove over to our apartment. She couldn’t climb the stairs so instead we went down to meet her. She was genuinely worried and told us not to let Baba go to any party in future.
“‘People will poison him as they are jealous of him’, she said. Finally, when she became comatose the doctors approached my father, as Meena Kumari’s husband, to grant permission to take her off life support as she was clinically dead. All he uttered was: ‘Manju, khuda hafiz’!” Rukhsaar remembers. Meena Kumari died at the age of 40 in March 1972, two months after Pakeezah was released.
Still, says Rukhsaar, there was one more heartbreak on the cards: “When Meenaji died and Baba buried her, he read in the newspapers the following day that she had given away her personal diaries and poetry to a close confidante. Baba was heartbroken. He had said that if he was her husband or that they had ever loved each other, then she should have given her personal writings to her husband, Kamal Amrohi.”
Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari now lie buried side by side in a cemetery in Mumbai. “My mother also lies buried beside my father’s last resting place,” she says.
Rukhsaar Amrohi has taken it upon herself to clear her father’s name of the slurs that the Indian media has slung upon him. “I have not made public the 500 letters that were exchanged between them. They are the real proof. I have told my children to dispose of them after I die. Nobody should read them for they will be misconstrued and misused. Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari as a married couple should not be subjected to slander anymore, especially my father.
“After she became a successful actress, she did not remember any of the promises made to my father before they got married. She had also said that she cannot be a housewife or a child-bearing machine. I say that on record that she never wanted a child and I am witness to this and I can prove it. Those letters that were exchanged between them are proof that she never wanted a child. I also have the diary that shows that she never wanted to bear children. She did get pregnant but she had it aborted.”