Pakeezah: From Meena Kumari’s failing health to separation from director Kamal Amrohi, what went wrong during making of this classic

Meena Kumari was only 39 when she passed away and even though her career was relatively short in comparison to her contemporaries, her legacy as the ‘tragedy queen’ lives on. While the great actor gave some heart-wrenching performances in films like Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Baiju Bawra, Sharada, it is Pakeezah, her swan song, that has become her most popular work in the years since.

Pakeezah released a few weeks before her passing and as the news of her demise was announced, the audience flocked to the theatres to catch the last glimpse of the finest actor of her times. Her melancholic eyes drew the movie-goers once again, and this time there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Pakeezah is a tale of love that has many obstacles in its path, and these obstacles prevent Sahibjaan (Meena) to be with the love of her life (played by Raaj Kumar) and, much like the problems encountered by the lead character, the film too, was in deep waters through the 14 years of its production.

It is said that director Kamal Amrohi wanted to make a film on a grand scale dedicated to his wife Meena Kumari. His original plan was that of making a film on Anarkali, which was later abandoned as he was hired to write the dialogues for K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam, which fetched him a lot of appreciation and awards. But his fascination with old-world courtesans led him to come up with the concept of Pakeezah in 1954 and the production of the film began in 1958.

meena kumari The production of Pakeezah stopped after Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi separated. (Photo: Express Archives)

Meena Kumari was only 19 when she married the 34-year-old Kamal Amrohi. Kamal’s son Tajdar Amrohi shared in an interview with Filmfare in 2017 that the film was planned as a black and white venture, as films were back in the 1950s, but with the technological developments of the next decade, a lot changed in Pakeezah and the numerous production delays did not help.

Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi’s relationship had its ups and downs and it is because of those tiffs that the film’s production was stopped in 1964. Tajdar shared that an alleged abortion became the cause of their conflicts. “Major conflict between Baba and Choti Ammi began when she allegedly underwent ‘abortion’. Choti Ammi was told that if she had a baby, her image would be ruined. And that upset Baba,” he told Filmfare.

Pakeezah had been shot in parts until then but as the 1960s rolled in, Meena Kumari’s alcoholism led to various health problems. Her separation from her husband had the two abandon the project completely but upon insistence by music composer Khayyam and actor Sunil Dutt, the film was restarted in 1968. Tajdar shared that Dutt believed it would be a “grave injustice to cinema” if Pakeezah was left incomplete. Meena Kumari had been struggling with her health issues and this had brought the husband and wife back together. When Kamal asked Meena if she would like to finish the film, she asked, “Kya tum mujhe waisa bata sakoge (Will you be able to show me the same way)?” and he assured her that he will take care of everything.

meena kumari Meena Kumari on the sets of Pakeezah. (Photo: Express Archives)

From the start of the production to almost a decade later, Meena Kumari’s appearance had changed quite a lot. Her liver cirrhosis due to the intake of alcohol had changed her face, her body, she did not even have much energy to partake in the dance sequences but Kamal had a solution for everything.

It is famously known that actor and dancer Padma Khanna (who later became known for playing Kaikeyi in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan) was hired as a body double for Meena Kumari. Padma’s physique was quite similar to Meena’s and she was thought to be an apt match. In some of the key scenes, a background dancer from ‘Chalte Chalte Yun Hi Koi’ played Sahibjaan. Playing a dancer, Meena Kumari had to perform a scene where she had to twirl and twirl until she falls down but her health did not permit her to do the same so her close-ups were taken as she was sitting down and a body double performed the dance.

In another chat with Rediff, Tajdar recalled that the film’s premiere was held at Maratha Mandir and the print of the film was brought in on a palanquin. Talking about the relationship his father shared with his step-mother, who he fondly addressed as Choti Ammi, he said, “He was a very romantic man. And his romance with my chhoti ammi was very dignified. Despite being separated, they felt for each other. But they never divorced as rumours go. They loved each other and chhoti ammi respected my father and never allowed anyone to say anything against him.”

pakeezah Meena Kumari and Kamal Amrohi on the sets of Pakeezah. (Photo: Express Archives)

Through its 14 years of production, Pakeezah had an off-screen saga that could be made into a film. The ailing health of Meena Kumari, the on-off relationship between the director and his muse, there was even a period when lead star Raaj Kumar had a tiff with Kamal Amrohi. It is also suggested that Dharmendra was roped in at one point but was replaced due to the rumours of his ongoing affair with Meena Kumari. It was probably the making of the film that has intrigued Kamal Amrohi’s grandson Bilal Amrohi, who is now planning a web series on the making of Pakeezah.

Meena Kumari passed away in 1972 due to liver cirrhosis and of all the great films that she did in her career, Pakeezah continues to be the one that is often acclaimed as one of her best works.


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