Meena Kumari would have turned 87 today. The screen legend remain one of India’s premiere actresses to date, but rather than walking down memory lane with her iconic movies and indelible performances in them which any movie-buff worth their salt would be well aware of let’s instead revisit another beautiful aspect of the actress’ past: Her special bond with another legend of Indian cinema, Dharmendra, and how he owes much of legendary status to Meenaji, with the latter, in turn, owing a lot of her fleeting moments of happiness during her trouble times to Dharamji.
It’s no secret that as monumental her career was on screen, Meena Kumari‘s life off it was in tatters, with several failed personal relationships (and we’re not only referring to Kamal Amrohi and some other partners she may have had in her life). During this time, Dharmendra waltzed into her life and gave her some momentary happiness. Obviously, he was a newcomer, struggling to establish himself, when the two first starred together in Director Hrishikesh Mukherjee (another legend)’s Purnima, and then Dharma paaji catapulted into stardom with their biggest hit together, Phool Aur Patthar.
In an excerpt from noted film journalist Rajiv M Vijayakar’s book, ‘Dharmendra: A Biography, Not Just A He-Man’, the author writes: “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.”
An excerpt from another book, by veteran film journalist Vinod Mehta, reads: “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. The two came face to face for the first time at Chandivili during an outdoor shoot. Dharmendra was a bit nervous and apprehensive, but Vinod goes on to write how Dharmendra was happy as ‘she was warm and friendly and welcomed me with kind encouragement.’”
Vinod goes on to write: “Meena took a fancy to him from the word go. Vinod quotes her saying, ‘This boy will rise. He is not the routine entry.’ 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. In the beginning, it was only about work; she would enact his scenes for him and explain in great detail the nuances. All this would also instill confidence in an uncertain youth. Soon, Dharmendra became a regular at her Janki Kutir residence. Meena Kumari wished to engage the attention of this young man and she always liked having a few puppies around her. She was also too dignified and renowned an actress to make an open pass.”
Refuting the myth that Dharamji pesuaded Meena Kumari to drink more, thus contributing to her alcoholism, the book states: “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…”
Trivia worth revisiting on a legend’s birth anniversary, right?