Meena Kumari, one of the most enigmatic stars to grace the silver screen, harboured a deep desire to be recognised as a poet. The honour eluded her in life. It was only after her death at the age of 39 on March 31, 1972, that her poetry began to surface.

Meena Kumari, whose real name was Mahajabeen Ara Begum, was born on August 1, 1932. She began her career at the age of seven under the name Baby Meena in Vijay Bhatt’s Leatherface (1939). In a career spanning over three decades, Meena Kumari acted in over 90 films, and her best-known roles included Gauri in Baiju Bawra (1952), the iconic Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962) and the courtesan Sahibjaan with a heart of gold in Pakeezah (1972).

When not acting, Meena Kumari wrote Urdu poetry under the pen name Naaz. Ajai Mansingh reports in his book Firaq Gorakhpuri: The Poet of Pain & Ecstasy that she attended a poetry gathering where Gorakhpuri was in attendance. The crowd flocked to the movie star, which upset Gorakhpuri. He said that the event was for poets, not actors. Meena Kumar’s charming riposte masked her ambition: “Sir, I have come to listen to you.”

Meena Kumari bequeathed her diaries to her friend, the lyricist, writer and filmmaker Gulzar. After her death, Gulzar approached Hind Pocket Books to publish her poems. Meena Kumari Ki Shayri proved to be popular in both India and Pakistan.

Within a few months of her death in 1972, journalist Vinod Mehta published his biography Meena Kumari, for which he interviewed Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, among other people. The writer-director was dismissive of Meena Kumari’s output, and considered her “not a very good or deep poet”. Kumari’s husband, filmmaker Kamal Amrohi, said she was mostly ignorant about poetry but continued to write because it was her passion.

Mehta was far more sympathetic towards the woman he calls “my heroine” in his book. “Her poetry is sad, joyless, pessimistic, morbid – but then what do you expect from a woman of the temperament of Meena Kumari?” Mehta writes. He described her as an amateur poet whose verse channeled her troubled marriage, numerous affairs with younger men such as Dharmendra, and her slide into alcoholism, which eventually claimed her life.

In 2014, Noorul Hasan, a former professor of English at North-Eastern Hill University, translated a collection of poems under the title Meena Kumari The Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema. Hasan introduced her poetry as “unadorned, screaming verse”, and compared its creator to Gorakhpuri, John Donne, William Wordsworth and Mirza Ghalib.

Poetry was the crutch that Meena Kumar held on to as she hobbled between her career and her tumultuous private life. Her poems are steeped in melancholy and painfully describe her feelings of being trapped and suffocated by the world around her. Meena Kumari showed a remarkable dexterity in shaping her own style. She wrote nazms that did not adhere to the rules of poetry, and her use of simple language instead of ornate Urdu embellishments gave her voice an immediacy that was easy to grasp. Gulzar said her poetry thrived on strong and vivid imagery.

Here are some poems from Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema.

Pakeezah

Siah naqab mein uska sandili chehra
Jaise raat ki tariki mein
Kisi khnakah ka
Khula aur raushan tak
Jahan mombattian jal rahi hon Khamosh
Bezaban mombattian
Woh sunahri jild wali kitab jo
Ghamgeen muhabbat ke muqaddas ashar se muntakhib ho
Ek pakeezah manzar
Siah naqab mein uska sandili chehra

The Virgin

Her moon-like face
Under the inky veil
Like the resplendent niche
In a shrine
Illumined with candles
Silent candles

Or

The golden, hardbound book
Containing the pure poetry
Of despondent love
A sacred sight
Her moon-like face
Encased
In a black veil.

Mazi aur Hal

Har masarrat
Ek barbaad shuda gham hai
Har gham
Ek barbaad shuda masarrat

Aur har tariki ek tabah shuda rasuhni hai
Aur har raushni ek tabah shuda tariki
Isi tarah
Har hal
Ek fana shuda mazi hai
Aur har mazi
Ek fana shuda hai

Past & Present

Every happiness
Is a devastated grief
Each grief
A devastated happiness.

And each darkness is a raped light
And each like a raped darkness
Likewise

Each present
Is an annihilated past
And each past
An annihilated present.

Pyar Ek Khwab Tha

Waqt ne cheen liya hausla-e-zabt e-sitam
Ab toh her hadsaye-gham pe tarapta hai dil
Her naye zakhm pe ab rooh bilakh uthti hai
Hont agar hans bhi paren ankh chalak uthti hai
Zindagi ek bikharta hua dardana hai
Aisa lagta hai ki ab khatm par afsana hai

Love Was A Dream

Time has snatched away my favourite
Now my heart agitates at each advent of grief
My soul bursts into tears at each fresh affliction
Smile on the lips is no deterrent to tears in the eyes
Life is a scattered tale of grief
And my story is nearing its end.

During the making of Pakeezah (1972), which was directed over 14 years by Kamal Amrohi and released right before her death, Meena Kumari approached Jagjit Kaur, music director Khayyam’s singer wife, to perform her poems. Meena Kumari wanted the couple to release an album based on her ghazals, called I Write, I Recite. Jagjit Kaur requested Meena Kumari to sing the poem herself, in her own rapturous voice. Khayyam later recalled in a video interview that Meena Kumari “sang beautifully, with all her heart in it”.

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