INTERVIEW

A play on Meena Kumari will depict her hardships and tumultuous relationship with Kamal Amrohi

Written by Delhi-based playwright Danish Iqbal, the biographical play is yet to be cast.

“If anyone should have divorced, it should have been Meena Kumari. Why triple talaq? She should have divorced Kamal Amrohi five, six, even ten times.”

During the months leading up to August 22, when the Supreme Court declared triple talaq illegal, one of the pieces of fake news that circulated was about filmmaker Kamal Amrohi divorcing his wife, the acclaimed actor Meena Kumari, by saying “Talaq” thrice. Then, in order to remarry her as per a religious practice called halala, Meena Kumari is said to have wed Zeenat Aman’s father, Aman Ullah Khan, consummated the union, gotten divorced and remarried Amrohi.

A scandalous story, but it didn’t happen, said Delhi playwright Danish Iqbal, who has written a play on Meena Kumari’s life. “There was no divorce. That’s an impossibility. They were separated. She walked away because he was insecure about her.”

Iqbal, a veteran playwright and radio presenter, has written over 30 plays since the 1990s. Most of his works are based on personalities. Sir Iqbal is about Muhammed Iqbal who wrote Sare Jahaan Se Achcha. Dara Shikoh is based on the life of Shah Jahan’s fifth son and heir apparent. Amrita A Sublime Love Story explores the unrequited romance between Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi.

Play
Amrita – A Sublime Love Story.

Iqbal has also adapted works by Sadat Hasan Manto and William Shakespeare. His most recent performance piece, Qissa Do Bhaiyon Ki Ek Gaye Ka, was conducted at the Not in my Name gathering in Delhi on September 10. He has had the Meena Kumari play ready for quite some time, but is waiting to find the right production company and lead actor for the project.

“She died when she was younger than forty,” Iqbal said. “So we need an actress who is both young and can depict such a powerful personality well.” He is even considering three performers to play Kumari. “We can have Meena Kumari as the narrator. She narrates an incident and that unfolds behind her. She enters that incident and walks out and so on,” Iqbal explained.

Until the right cast and performance group are in place, Iqbal has plans for small Dastangoi performances based on his material at literary gatherings. “Two persons can narrate the story and production costs are not high,” he said. Noted Dastango Fouzia and Delhi-based singer Rashmi Agarwal will narrate and sing respectively. Fond of the storytelling form, Iqbal has earlier written a Dastangoi version of Mahabharat and one on Mahatma Gandhi’s life, called Dastan-e-Gandhi.

Dastan-e-Gandhi.
Dastan-e-Gandhi.

Iqbal is moved by the “systematic exploitation” of Meena Kumari by her parents, and then Kamal Amrohi, and this will prominently feature in his play. Meena Kumari began supporting her family financially from the age of four through acting, and despite never receiving serious schooling, she was later celebrated for her sensitive poetry.

“At Amrohi’s home, she had to face an attitude of ‘We are intellectuals. She knows nothing,’” Iqbal claimed. “But she educated herself by reading a lot, even in the middle of shooting.”

Kamal Amrohi cast Meena Kumari in a film called Anarkali, which was eventually abandoned. Love blossomed between the erudite writer and filmmaker and the actor. On February 14, 1952, Amrohi, got married for the third time to Kumari, who was 16 years younger than him.

Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari.
Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari.

“After marriage, she thought that she would be released from the shackles of her family, but Kamal Amrohi continued the exploitation that her family had started,” Iqbal said. Since Amrohi was reportedly barely barely there for Kumari during her most testing times, he is hardly there in Iqbal’s play.

“Once, Meena Kumari was invited to do a show in Delhi by the army, and after the show, they gave her an envelope,” Iqbal said. “She opened it and told the jawans that this was the biggest payment she had ever had. It was just five hundred rupees. That is the amount her father and later, her husband would give her every month after taking away her earnings.”

Another time, Kumari’s sister Mahelaka, who was married to Mehmood, wanted money for an operation. Mehmood was not famous or wealthy yet. Amrohi forbade Kumari from helping her sister.

“When she left Amrohi’s house, he even refused to hand him over her books that were so dear to her. Forget jewellery, money, everything else,” Iqbal claimed.

Iqbal is highly appreciative of the poetry Kumari wrote during her lifetime. Her poems, along with material from her interviews and lyrics of songs from her films, form most of Kumari’s dialogue in the play.

Iqbal is aware that there will be resistance to his version of events, “Not from Meena Kumari’s family, because they know what happened, but from other people because she is such a public figure.” Iqbal recalled the time when Pritam’s family and her live-in partner, the painter Imroz, did not support Amrita – A Sublime Love Story.

“Amrita Pritam’s family was religious and conservative,” he said. “They were uncomfortable with how one would depict her smoking, drinking, making love and falling for a man despite being married. They thought that I might transgress or be insincere.” To avoid controversy but also be truthful to his subject, Iqbal sourced all of Pritam and Ludhianvi’s dialogue and scenes from both their poems, interviews, and recorded incidents – a technique he has used for his Meena Kumari play as well.

“After two-three shows, Imroz saab liked it so much that in a show in Gurgaon, he decorated the stage with his own paintings. Amrita Pritam’s family came. Her grandkids loved seeing her life on stage,” Iqbal recalled.

The response to Amrita – A Sublime Love Story encouraged Iqbal to continue writing biographical plays. “Somebody was telling me recently that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is making a film on Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi,” Iqbal said. He hopes that his Meena Kumari play is equally loved and the story makes its way to the silver screen one day.

Play
Chalte Chalte, Pakeezah (1972).
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