Meena Kumari did all kinds of roles, yet attained the sobriquet of Tragedy Queen. Stepson Shandaar Amrohi, who has announced an annual Acting Excellence award in the actress's name, recalls his Chhoti Ammi, a woman of many moods
"My father had announced Anarkali with Meena Kumari in the early
'50s. A few scenes were canned at Bombay Talkies Studios and it was
financed by a silver merchant. After one schedule, the film was
abandoned. Later Meenaji, or Chhoti Ammi as I called her, was
travelling to Pune when she had an accident and was admitted in
Pune's Sassoon Hospital. My father would go and meet her there and
that's how love bloomed. They were married in 1952.
They soon came together in Daera professionally, but it flopped. But Baiju Bawra in 1952 changed everything - Meena Kumari became a top star and soon dad launched Pakeezah, a script that she loved.
When my father and Chhoti Ammi married, my mother Mahmudi and we three kids-my brother Tajdar and sister Rukhsar - were all living in Amroha, and we came to know about the nikaah from a report in Shama, a top monthly. I was told that I had a Chhoti Ammi too, but was told young to understand what it meant.
Soon, my relatives began to go to Mumbai as there was some consternation. But each would come back charmed by the politeness and humility of the lady. My own maternal grandfather was suffering from a terminal disease and went to Mumbai for treatment. He came back floored by Meena Kumari and told us, "Ussne to mere beti se bhi zyaada seva ki." And so it went on - Chhoti Ammi conquered my chacha and all my aunts. And my mother finally met her and succumbed to her charms too!
Soon, my brother and I also came to Mumbai and slowly my relationship with her grew. She was a caring mother to me, yet a woman of moods. She would also take my brother and me out and was very concerned about our education. On the professional front, she was now a major star and that was a side that I could not fully understand as a kid. But she did take us to the shootings of Yahudi and Miss Mary. She was a dramatic actress who did every kind of role, but she was known best as the Tragedy Queen.
After my father shot the song Inhi logon ne, she insisted that such a song and a film like Pakeezah deserved to be made in colour. So my father scrapped the black-and-white reels and began to reshoot the film in colour with characteristic meticulousness. The Gulabi Mahal and Bazaar-E-Husn sets were created with an unhurried sense of perfection. But no hero was willing to do this heroine-oriented film. There was talk of signing Dharmendra when the film was abruptly stopped in 1964.
Around that time, a secretary poisoned her mind against my father. I do not know exactly what happened, but on one day, after Chhoti Ammi shot at Filmistan Studios, she went straight to actor Mehmood's house (he had married her sister) and never returned home. My father rushed there, I do not what transpired between them, but after that their respective egos took over. They never spoke a word against each other, never had a divorce, and always loved each other till the end.
And this finally facilitated the completion of Pakeezah. Sunil Duttsaab convinced Chhoti Ammi to complete the film and it was revived around 1968-'69. The remaining scenes were shot, and though she was in ill-health and her body and face had changed, my father overcame the difficulty by using a duplicate. For example there was a long- shot in the song Aaj hum apne duaaon ka asar dekhenge that was shot with Padma Khanna.
Chhoti Ammi would address my father as Chandan, and he would call her Manju. She was given to extremes and she was sensitive. After attending the premiere of Pakeezah, as she was leaving she told me, "Apne abbu-jaan se keh dena ki ab koi picture na banaaye." Shortly before that, she came to know that Kamalsaab had fallen ill just before the release of the film and she came to visit him, but her health disallowed her from climbing the two floors to our flat. I offered to carry her up, but she just said, "Unse kehna Manju aayi thi. Aur apna khayaal rakkhe."
Her flair for shaayari is well-known, but few know that she also kept a diary. Recorded in her diary were details of how she and my father met the famous daku, Amrutlal. Her weak point as a star was that she was not a great dancer, otherwise she would have been even more successful.
In those days actresses would rarely be friends with each other, but Chhoti Ammi was good friends with Nargis. She had a great sense of music and would always say that among the young actresses, Sadhana would replace her. Though I never showed any acting talent, she always hinted that I would become an actor and encouraged me. My father was not in favour and I finally did just one film - Razia Sultan - in the negative role of a prince.
She angered her Sunni community by insisting that she should be buried as a Shia because my father was one - proof again that she still loved him. The uproar was silenced when my father showed the clear statement in her will.
Today, I have given Chhoti Ammi the unprecedented honour of having an annual Acting Excellence award instituted in her honour. Each year it will go to a young actress of today and a senior star. This year I have chosen Tabu and the late Nutanji. I am a good judge of acting and I know that while she was unequalled among our actresses Nutan was the only one who came close to her."