Thursday, May 7, 2015

The suffering woman: Meena Kumari

"I gave my heart to one who loves another"
Dil Apna aur Preet Parai (Hopeless love, 1960, directed by Kishore Sahu and gorgeously photographed by Josef Wirsching) features Meena Kumari as Karuna, a young nurse in her first hospital assignment. Karuna's commitment, competence and compassion soon endear her to even the most cantankerous patients—and to the dedicated young Dr. Sushil Verma (Raaj Kumar). Long hours together caring for patients and sharing late-night coffee breaks soon lead to feelings of more than professional admiration.

We discover, though, that Sushil's mother (Pratima Devi) has already promised him in marriage to the daughter of wealthy family friend Lala Vasant Rai. When Sushil's father died, Lalaji paid for Sushil's medical education in Europe. The unstated expectation was that once Sushil became established, he would marry Lalaji's daughter Kusum (Nadira). And, on a family visit to Lalaji and Kusum in Kashmir, Sushil is emotionally blackmailed by his mother to go through with the ceremony:

Or else I'll leave this house as a corpse

Karuna's hopes are crushed when she sees Sushil arrive home with his new bride. To her deep chagrin, she is called on to serenade the new couple during a moonlight boat ride with the hospital staff:

Meena Kumari's playback singer for "Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh" is Lata Mangeshkar; the music is by Shankar Jaikishan, with lyrics by Shailendra.

It quickly becomes apparent that Sushil and Kusum are profoundly incompatible. Kusum can't accept Sushil's meager salary, long hours, and close working relationship with Karuna. Kusum is used to getting what she wants, and she is angered and frustrated by the constraints her new circumstances impose on her desires.

One night one of the hospital's long-term patients, Girdhari (Om Prakash), has another of his periodic crises. As she's done before, Karuna calls Sushil's home to summon him to the hospital. But this time she's told by Kusum that Sushil is out. In reality, the couple has a reservation at a local dinner club that Kusum doesn't want to miss. While Sushil and Kusum are sipping their soup and watching an item number by Helen, Girdhari is dying. When Sushil discovers that Kusum lied to him about Karuna's call, he explodes in rage and slaps her; she smacks him back and threatens to kill him and Karuna. She returns to her father the next day, despite Maaji's pleas:

Don't break up your home

The way would seem clear for Karuna and Sushil to finally acknowledge their feelings for one another, but Karuna cannot forget that Sushil remains married. She avoids him until his younger sister Munni (Kumari Naaz) cajoles her into visiting Maaji as she used to. It's Diwali, and as the devoted Karuna prepares the lamps, Maaji suddenly realizes how great a mistake she's made:

How blind I was

When Sushil returns with sparklers and firecrackers for Munni, she asks the question that's on everyone's mind:

Brother, why didn't you marry her?

Karuna's emotions are in turmoil; in the melancholy "Dil Apna aur Preet Parai," as celebratory fireworks explode all around her, she decides that she must keep her feelings for Sushil forever unexpressed:

When Kusum suddenly returns, the stage is set for a final battle for Sushil between the good woman dressed in white and the bad woman dressed in black, and the film veers over the melodramatic edge. But up until this point, Meena Kumari's performance is heartrending.

The suffering woman
Meena Kumari frequently portrayed women who were abandoned, mistreated, or who loved without hope. I've only seen a few of her films, but they have all been memorable. In Baiju Bawra (Baiju the mad one, 1952), her first starring role, she played Gauri, who chooses to drown with her long-absent lover rather than saving herself. In Parineeta (The married woman, 1953) she played Lalita, a young woman who falls in love with the son of the rich man next door; class and caste differences, familial hostilities and mutual misunderstandings separate them.

In Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, mistress and servant, 1962) she played Chhoti Bahu, the neglected wife of a rich, dissipated zamindar; desperate, she begins to drink heavily every night in the forlorn hope that her husband will keep her company rather than consorting with his dissolute friends and dancing girls. And finally in Pakeezah (The pure one, 1972) she played the courtesan Sahibjaan, who ultimately leaves her lover because of the dishonor she feels she brings to their union. In the end, she performs at his wedding to another woman; when a lamp shatters, she dances on the broken glass, leaving a symbolic trail of bloody footprints across the white cloth on which she's dancing. You don't need to know anything about Meena Kumari's personal unhappiness and tragic early death to find these films to be powerfully affecting.

Each of these four films is considered a classic of Hindi cinema. Meena Kumari won the Filmfare Best Actress Award for three of them (the exception being Pakeezah), and a fourth award for Kaajal (1965). Kumari's performance makes Dil Apna aur Preet Parai very much worth seeing. Thanks to Edu Productions, you can watch it on YouTube in a more complete print with far better picture and subtitle quality than the execrable Tips DVD that is circulating on certain rental services. 

For an excellent review of Dil Apna aur Preet Parai that includes comments on the film from Edwina, the actress and dancer who played one of the hospital's nursing staff, see MemsaabStory.

Update 31 July 2016: Edu Productions' excellent-quality videos are apparently no longer available on YouTube. I have embedded and linked to another version of the film, but recommend viewing Edu Productions' version if you can find it.

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