Tragic Facts About Meena Kumari, Bollywood’s Marilyn Monroe

June 30, 2023 | Byron Fast

Tragic Facts About Meena Kumari, Bollywood’s Marilyn Monroe

Bollywood sensation Meena Kumari got the nickname "The Tragedy Queen," but it’s a little hard to determine what earned her the title—her on-screen characters or her dramatic off-screen life. As a child, she was nothing more than a meal ticket to her poverty-stricken family, but when she grew up, the real tragedies began. Kumari saw herself in Marilyn Monroe, as she was constantly under the control of various powerful men. All she wanted, however, was an outstanding career—which she got—and true love—which…well, let's not give everything away. Let these stormy facts about Meena Kumari speak for themselves.

1. She Came In Second

On August 1, 1933, Meena Kumari was born to artistic parents. Her mother, an actor and dancer, had given up both her career and religion to be with her husband, Ali Bux. Bux—a struggling theater actor—wasn’t a happy father for one reason only: he didn’t want a baby girl. They already had one of those. When Bux took one look at his new baby daughter, his reaction was ice cold.

meena kumari

2. He Had No Money

Kumari’s father wasn’t interested in having another girl in the house, so he told the doctor that he had no money to pay for the delivery. It was true that money was tight in the household, but this was his own flesh and blood, after all. Bux dispensed with the doctor, and then took the freshly born Kumari away from her mother.

He had no intention of paying for yet another hungry mouth—but the solution to his problem was absolutely diabolical.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

3. He Left Her

With his family stretched to the financial limit, Bux made a devastating decision. He took his newly born daughter and went straight to the local orphanage. I guess his thought process went something like this: if I can’t even pay for this baby’s delivery, how can I possibly pay to feed her? In a totally heartless move, Bux left the vulnerable baby at the orphanage—with absolutely no concern as to who would raise his little baby girl.

This could have been the end of Kumari’s story, but then fate stepped in.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

4. He Had A Change Of Heart

Kumari’s father returned home from the orphanage and had a sudden realization. What had he done? Left his baby girl with strangers? What would happen to her? Bux quickly made his way back to the orphanage and collected his baby girl. He brought her home to his wife and the two decided they would keep Kumari—even though she was just a girl.

They had no idea then, but little Kumari would one day save their family from poverty.

Meena KumariScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

5. She Had To Earn

Kumari’s father had reluctantly agreed to keep her in the family—but there were brutal conditions. Even though she was just a child, she’d have to earn her own keep. In spite of her theater family background, Kumari showed no interest in acting—but that didn’t stop Bux. He sent Kumari on movie auditions at the tender age of six.

It wasn’t long before she landed her first role.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

6. She Got A Break

While the title Leather Face may conjure up images of a certain Texas set horror movie, the 1939 Indian film was a stunt-filled movie about a masked hero who fights against a despotic chief. Six-year-old Kumari played a young girl in this film, and actor Paidi Jairaj played her father. Many years later, Kumari would later join up with Jairaj again—but this time, she’d be playing his lover. Ew.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

7. She Raked It In

Leather Face went on to be a big hit, and Kumari was suddenly pulling in an income that would provide for her whole family—which had grown with the addition of, you guessed it, another daughter. I guess it’s pretty safe to say that Bux was now thanking his lucky stars that he hadn’t left Kumari at the orphanage after all.

Being the chief breadwinner, however, didn’t earn her any special privileges at all.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

8. She Got Schooled

Now that Meena Kumari was the top earner in the family, she was ready to start doing things her way. The first thing she wanted was to attend school. She started at public school—but she was in for a heartbreaking disappointment. Her dad soon put an end to it. He wanted to keep the money coming in, so he demanded that she return to work as an actress.

It got so bad that she had to eventually drop out of school altogether. Sure she had tutors on the film sets, but her education ended up being spotty at best.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

9. She Moved Them

One role came after another, and, by the late 1940s, 14-year-old Kumari was earning enough money to put her family up in a new house. She was so excited to give her family—especially her mother—a new place to live. But just 18 months after they moved in, tragedy struck. Her mother died on March 25, 1947. Kumari later said that this event was one of the worst things to ever happen to her.

But there was no time to wallow in pity—Kumari had to work.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

10. She Got Washed Away

Meena Kumari barely had time to mourn her mother’s passing, because she had to keep making films. Kumari’s father was desperate to make Kumari into a full-blown Bollywood superstar, and her next role in the musical Baiju Bawra had "breakthrough" written all over it. The film even had a big dramatic finish where a raging river washes away both lead characters.

Well, that day on location, the stunts got a little too close for comfort.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

11. She Was Swept Away

While Kumari was filming the drowning scene in Baiju Bawra, things spun got out of control. Kumari and the male lead were in the river for the dramatic scene. Suddenly, the current of the river swept up Kumari and carried her away. The director yelled cut and then shouted something you never want to hear on a movie set: "We’ve got to find Kumari!"

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

12. She Paired To Make A Hit

Luckily, there was a dramatic rescue, and Kumari was able to finish the film. The real terror, however, was waiting to see how audiences felt about the movie. There were skeptics out there that thought the film wouldn’t ignite audiences because the classical music in the movie was not popular at the time. The pairing of Kumari and co-star Bharat Bhushan, however, proved the skeptics wrong. They had an unequivocal hit on their hands—but would it translate into stardom?

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

13. She Went Down In History

Filmfare Awards are the prizes for Hindi films and Kumari was there from the very beginning. In the inaugural ceremony, Kumari won in her category. She would go down in history as the first Best Actress Award recipient. And then, there was another first connected to a Kumari film. The movie was Do Bigha Zamin and it became the first Hindi movie to receive the International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

This was what Kumari was achieving at just 21 years of age—what else was in store for this amazing star?

Meena Kumari FactsDo Bigha Zamin (1953), Bimal Roy Productions

14. She Grew Into A Beauty

Next, Kumari appeared in 1952’s Tamasha. It was there that she met filmmaker Kamal Amrohi. If Kumari had a good memory, she’d recall meeting this man once before—when she was just five years old. It turned out that Amrohi had met Kumari when he was searching for a young actress for a film. Even though Amrohi had first seen Kumari as a child, what stood before him now was all woman.

And he liked what he saw.

Meena Kumari FactsTamasha (1952), Bombay Talkies

15. She Signed On The Dotted Line

Filmmaker Amrohi certainly liked what Kumari looked like now, and he offered her a role in his next film—but he may have had ulterior motives. It’s not clear if at this point Amrohi was offering her a film role…or more. Naive Kumari just signed a contract agreeing to appear in Amrohi’s film, Anarkali. But just eight days later, fate came crashing in. 

Meena Kumari FactsWikipedia

16. She Crashed

Meena Kumari was traveling by car from the town of Mahabalesh to the city of Bombay. During the trip, Kumari got into a terrible car crash. They found Kumari and rushed her to the Sassoon Hospital. There, doctors discovered that her worst injury was to her left hand. Kumari was going to be stuck in the hospital for a lengthy recovery. Not one to be bored, Kumari soon found a very interesting way to spend her recovery.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

17. It Got Heated

Even though Kumari had only met Amrohi twice—and once was when she was just five years old—Amrohi did something very romantic. He started to make very regular visits to Kumari in the hospital. At any time that he couldn’t visit her, he wrote long letters. Then, when he’d said all he could in his letters, he took to using the phone to make long calls to her.

Something deep was forming between the two—but where would it go from here?

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

18. They Were Unaware

By the time Meena Kumari was ready to start filming with Amrohi, the two were head over heels in love—even though they hadn’t really shared a moment on their own together. It must have been quite a charged set with these two lovebirds carrying around such strong feelings that they’d not had the chance to…er…see to fruition.

Unfortunately, all this on-set heat had an unintended side effect. It distracted everyone from something that would have otherwise been obvious—the movie was in serious trouble.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

19. They Had No Idea

Because Kumari and Amrohi were having the times of their lives making a film together, they were oblivious to what was going on around them. It turned out that the producer of the movie wasn’t in his best state financially. The lovers were walking around on cloud nine—until they hit a brick wall. Thanks to financial mismanagement, the producers had to abandon the film altogether.

The film was a bust, but was the relationship headed in the same direction?

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

20. They Didn’t Want To Part

I’m sure Kumari and Amrohi just wanted to keep working together, but now, they had no project. In order to keep their love alive, Kumari and Amrohi did something drastic. On February 14, 1952—Valentine's Day in case you didn’t notice—the two got married. To make it even more romantic: they did it in secret. The only family member at the wedding was Kumari’s younger sister.

But hey, they were both consenting adults. Why keep their love a secret? Well…

Meena Kumari FactsWikipedia

Meena Kumari FactsWikipedia

21. They Separated

Kumari and Amrohi decided to keep their marriage secret from their families and the media—and the reason why was chilling. . Amrohi was already married and even had two children from the marriage. So, after the ceremony, Amrohi went to the city of Sion and Kumari went back to live with her father. Kumari walked into her house full of newly wedded joy—and then had to turn it off when she was with her father. Luckily, she had tons of acting experience.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

22. She Boomed

Meena Kumari was living with her father and keeping her marriage a secret. Life at the house was probably resembling a French bedroom farce. Kumari kept having secret, heated conversations over the phone with Amrohi—most of them at midnight, so her father wouldn’t overhear them. There was one problem—as an actress, Kumari’s voice carried.

Eventually, the worst thing happened.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

23. She Got Found Out

One night, a cook took what he heard Kumari saying on the phone to Amrohi and decided to do what he thought was right: he told Kumari’s father. Dad was furious—how could his daughter marry a man so much older than her? And worse…one that was already married? Dad’s decision came down hard and fast. Kumari must get a divorce.

But wait—who was dad to tell her what to do?

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

24. She Refused

Kumari was only 19 years old at the time, but she was the family’s number one earner—which gave her some leverage. With this information, Kumari took a stand. She refused to divorce her husband and, stranger still, also refused to leave the family house. It must have been quite uncomfortable for Kumari to live there, knowing her father didn’t approve of her husband.

But remember, Kumari paid for the house—so if anyone was leaving, it was her father. But there was still the matter of Amhori’s other life.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

25. She Needed Permission

Kumari and Amhori were desperate to be together and had to be tricky about doing it. Movie sets seemed like a perfect way to spend time together, so Amrohi deviously cast her in his next film, Daaera. They hoped it would be like before—hopefully without the financial breakdown and cancellation of the movie. Kumari was ecstatic with the idea, but still needed her father’s permission.

She asked Ali Bux if she could work on Amrohi’s film and respectfully waited for his answer. I’m guessing she didn’t like what he said.

Meena Kumari FactsDaaera (1953), The Bombay Talkies Studio

26. He Threatened Her

Bux didn’t want his daughter to be near her husband—even if they were making a film together. He also said that he’d already promised Kumari to another film: Amar. Kumari kicked up a big fuss, but her father countered it with an ultimatum—if you make the film with your husband, I will close the doors of this house to you forever.

Kumari had a big decision to make: her husband or her family.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

27. She Needed A Plan

Faced with a horrible ultimatum, Meena Kumari made a heartbreaking choice. She opted to stay loyal to her father. She went to make Amar and put off seeing her husband again for the time being. Kumari did her best on the film but she couldn’t cope with the pain of not being near Amrohi. She needed to be with him…but here she was, starting a movie without him.

That’s when she came up with a plan.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

28. She Stormed Out

After just five days on the set of Amar, Kumari got into a huge fight with the director. She got into a fury and stormed off the set. But the fury was a fake—and so was the reason for the fight. The whole disagreement was just an excuse to get out of making the movie. The director replaced her with Bollywood sensation Madhubala, and Kumari went straight to another movie set: her husband's.

But how would her father respond?

Madhubala factsWikimedia Commons

29. He Locked The Door

Meena Kumari was working on Daaera with her husband and hoping that her father wouldn’t hear about it. Well…it backfired. One day, she came home from the set and found the door locked. Kumari realized the worst had happened. Her father had found out. When she knocked on the door, her father refused to open it. He’d decided to follow through on his threat.

Kumari got back into her car and drove to her husband’s home. It was time to start living like a couple…but when the honeymoon period ended, Kumari discovered her husband’s dark side.

Meena Kumari FactsDaaera (1953), The Bombay Talkies Studio

30. She Wasn’t Free

Kumari’s father had controlled much of her life and career, so you’d expect that Kumari—once she was no longer living with her father—would be ecstatic to be free of his authority. Except she wasn’t free of anything. The only difference was that now her husband was calling the shots for Kumari and not her father. To start, Kumari needed her husband’s permission just to work.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

31. She Had To Follow Rules

Once Kumari started working, her husband had a few rules for her. Amrohi’s number one rule was about the dressing room. He was adamant that no one was allowed in there with her unless it was the makeup person. Rule number two was about her ride home: she had to be in a car by herself. Certainly Kumari—if her husband wasn’t working on the same film—could easily break these rules if she wanted to. Or could she?

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

32. He Had A Spy

Even though Amrohi wasn’t on set, he had a way to make sure Kumari was following his strict rules. He had a spy. The spy was Baqar Ali, and he wasn’t really mysterious or sneaky like in the movies. In fact, Ali would simply hang around Kumari’s dressing room and openly watch whether Kumari was following the rules. Sounds more than a little uncomfortable.

Besides, wouldn’t this constant surveillance have an effect on her performance?

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

33. They Chose Her

Even though Kumari was having to abide by her husband’s rather strict rules, her career was still soaring. In 1963, her film Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam received a stunning invite to the celebrated Berlin Film Festival. India’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting selected Kumari to go to Berlin as a delegate, and they arranged tickets for both Kumari and Amrohi.

It was going to be an extreme honor to represent India at this prestigious festival—if she got to go.

Meena Kumari FactsSahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Guru Dutt Films

34. He Just Said No

When Kumari presented the Berlin opportunity to her husband, he politely declined. An all-expenses-paid visit to Germany? A prestigious film festival? What’s not to like? Well, it could be that Amrohi wasn’t enjoying being a "plus one" to his famous wife. I’d guess that he’d only go to a festival if it was for his own work.

In the end, neither Kumari nor her husband attended the festival. It seemed that Kumari’s husband was becoming jealous of her success.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

35. She Went First

At another festival, this time in India, Kumari was about to meet a governor. Filmmaker Sohrab Modi, who was introducing Kumari and her husband to the governor, made what some may call a huge mistake. Modi started off by introducing Kumari and then adding at the end: and her husband Amrohi. What could he say? He’d led with who he thought was the more famous of the two.

Amrohi’s reaction to this little faux pas was over the top.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

36. He Was A Big Baby

Right in front of the governor, Amrohi corrected Modi, and explained that he was Amrohi and this was his wife. All in earshot were confused. Who was this guy to take the spotlight from the renowned star Meena Kumari? Certainly, they thought Amrohi was acting like a child—but then he made it worse. When Amrohi stormed out of the auditorium, it was confirmed. He was acting like a big baby.

What Amrohi did next, however, was something only a full-grown adult could do.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

37. He Got Physical

Clearly, Amrohi had an issue with Kumari’s higher status in their relationship, but what he did to bring her down a few notches was completely inexcusable. Two separate writers have mentioned that Amrohi got physical with Kumari. The actress Nargis wrote that the night after hearing Kumari and Amrohi argue, she saw Kumari with a swollen eye.

Incredibly, it wasn’t just Amrohi that knocked Kumari around.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

38. She Broke A Rule

In 1964, Kumari began working on the film Pinjre Ke Panchhi. Amrohi wasn’t on set, so Kumari decided to break one of his stupid rules: she let a fellow male actor into her dressing room. As usual, Amrohi’s spy Ali was on hand to witness Kumari’s rule-breaking. All he had to do now was tell Amrohi what had happened. It would’ve been horrible—but what he did instead was worse.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

39. She Received A Punishment

Amrohi’s spy saw Kumari breaking a rule and, instead of running to tell Amrohi, he took matters into his own hand, and he hit Kumari in the face. Receiving physical punishment from a husband is bad enough—but from his lackey? Kumari had it. She called her husband and lodged a complaint against Ali. She also demanded that Amrohi come and pick her up from the movie set—immediately.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

40. She Was Outraged

Amrohi’s reaction was brutal. He refused to come to the set and instead made his own demand: come home at once and I’ll deal with you. Deal with her? What about Ali? Kumari was furious at Amrohi for what his spy had done to her. But Amrohi was equally mad at Kumari for having a man in her dressing room. Instead of driving home as her husband had ordered, Kumari drove to her sister’s house and set up camp there. The fight was on.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

41. She Hid Out

Kumari’s behavior was getting to Amrohi. She’d disobeyed his orders twice: entertaining a man in her dressing room and now running off to her sister’s house. Amrohi was livid and he got into his car and went to Kumari’s sister’s house. He was ready to lay down the law—but what happened next didn’t really follow his plan—not one bit.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

42. She Held Her Ground

Amrohi’s demands to come out of the house fell on deaf ears. Kumari stood her ground and refused to even talk to Amrohi. As Amrohi realized his wife was standing firm, his demands turned to pleas and begging. Kumari, however, was firm: she wasn’t budging. Eventually, Amrohi did something that would set the course for the end of their marriage.

And it only took three simple words to do it.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

43. He Uttered Three Words

At this time in India, a man had a quick and easy way of ending a marriage. He only had to say three words: talaq, talaq, talaq—imagine the savings on lawyers! Well, when he wasn’t getting anywhere with Kumari, Amrohi said these words and dissolved the marriage. It would be a move he came to regret. Later on, when he wanted to remarry her, no one would perform the ceremony.

Finally, Kumari was free of a man’s control. So, what would she do with her newfound freedom?

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

44. She Found A Guy

Once she was free of Amrohi, Kumari started an affair with the actor Dharmendra—also known as the "He-Man" of Bollywood. Oh no, was Kumari headed for life under another man’s thumb? Well, there was one big difference between Dharmendra and the other men. Kumari was his mentor and was not under his control at all. One of Kumari’s biographers believed that Dharmendra was the love of her life—and he was the first man to treat her with respect.

Kumari was finally in an equal relationship—but instead of making her happy, she began to fall apart.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

45. She Went Bonkers

Once, at the end of a group picnic, Kumari and Dharmendra accidentally got into different cars. When Kumari realized she wasn’t with her beloved Dharmendra, she became severely agitated. She demanded that the driver stop, got out of the car, and sat cross-legged in the middle of the highway. There, she chanted: "Where is my Dharam? Where is my Dharam?"

When the two split up over a misunderstanding, it broke Kumari's heart. Sadly, this moment became the beginning of the end for Meena Kumari. 

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

46. She Suffered

During her film career—and especially during her trouble with her husband—Kumari suffered from chronic insomnia. For many years, Kumari fought this problem with sleeping pills. In 1963, however, Kumari’s doctor offered her an alternative to the pills: booze. Kumari was careful not to overdo her new cure for insomnia—at least, until she was a free woman.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

47. She Got Treatment

Kumari was finally free of men controlling her—but as an unintended consequence, she was incredibly lonely. Kumari turned to the bottle to deal with it all. By 1968—after just five years of steady drinking—doctors informed her that she had cirrhosis of the liver. She needed to stop drinking immediately. Kumari took the diagnosis seriously and headed to both London and Switzerland for treatment.

She spent three months under the care of Dr. Sheila Sherlock and then returned to India. This is when she made a fatal error.

Meena Kumari FactsScreen Legends | Meena Kumari, Shemaroo Entertainment Limited

48. She Broke The Doctor’s Orders

Just five days after arriving back in India, Kumari broke Dr. Sherlock’s orders—she went back to work. She was thin and fragile but that didn’t stop her. But she was still steadfast in her vow to not drink. In fact, Kumari even demanded that her director become a teetotaller in her presence. She also bought her own home. Finally, it seemed like Kumari was content living life on her own without a father or husband to tell her what to do.

Sadly, this independent life would be all too short.

Meena Kumari FactsPakeezah (1972), Mahal Pictures

49. She Checked Herself In

In 1972, Kumari’s film Pakeezah—a movie that took her and Amrohi 17 years to complete—finally made its way to theaters. Sadly, it was a colossal flop. Three weeks after the premiere, Kumari fell very ill. On March 28, she checked herself into a nursing home, but it was too late. On March 31, she died. The cause? Cirrhosis of the liver. She was just 38 years old.

After she died, audiences re-evaluated Pakeezah and it turned into a big hit. Sadly, Kumari would never know.

Meena Kumari FactsPakeezah (1972), Mahal Pictures

50. She Was With Him At The End

Kumari had left specific instructions about what to do with her remains. She wanted them buried at Rahmatabad Cemetery. In 1993, Amrohi also died and had arranged to have his remains at the same cemetery—right there beside Kumari. Considering their tumultuous relationship, it’s impossible to know if this is what Meena Kumari wanted—or if she just wanted to rest alone, in peace.

Meena Kumari FactsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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