New Delhi: It is considered one of the most brilliant portrayals in Hindi cinema by any actress but not many know that Meena Kumari nearly missed playing the lead role of `Chhoti Bahu` in Guru Dutt`s "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam".
Dutt wanted to make a commercial film and decided to adapt `Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam` and when it came to casting, he thought only Kumari could do justice to `Chhoti Bahu`.
"And do you know she nearly missed it? Guru Dutt sent word that he would be interested in hiring my heroine. Was she available?
The answer from Rembrandt (the house she shared with husband Kamal Amrohi) was no, she had her hands full with pending commitments," writes veteran journalist Vinod Mehta in "Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography".
The book, published by HarperCollins India, was first written in 1972 but Mehta decided to bring out the second edition to commemorate her 81st birthday on August 1.
Guru Dutt then tried an Indian girl living and acting in London but "she was entirely unsuitable". Desperate, he completed the entire film by 1962 except for the role of Chhoti Bahu.
In a memorable passage, Mehta narrates how Kumari finally accepted the role that came to define her.
"Negotiations with Meena Kumari were resumed and this time they were more successful. Forty-five clear and consecutive days were offered and the fee raised by 25 per cent."
As Chhoti Bahu, Kumari beautifully evoked the image of a long suffering wife, who took to alcohol to please her philandering husband. Ironically, it was her addiction that took her life at the age of 39.
The film sealed Kumari`s reputation as the `great tragedienne of Hindi cinema`, an adjective, Mehta believes, she took rather seriously. But, the role did not come easily to the actress who was haunted by this doomed woman.
Mehta quotes a passage from her diary where she writes,
"This woman is troubling me a great deal. All day long-and a good part of the night-it is nothing else but Chhoti Bahu`s helplessness. Chhoti Bahu`s sorrows, Chhoti Bahu`s smiles, Chhoti Bahu`s hopes, Chhoti Bahu`s Tribulations, Chhoti Bahu`s endurance, Chhoti Bahu`s... Chhoti Bahu`s... Chhoti Bahu... Oh! I am sick of it."
The book largely focuses on Kumari`s personal life and delves on her turbulent marriage and love affairs.
Writing about the factors that contributed to the end of her 12-year-old marriage to Amrohi, Mehta mentions the ego clash between the two film personalities.
"For it was nothing but an ego clash. Kamal Amrohi was a man of no mean self-importance. One of the finest writers of Urdu, he had begun to feel that his only function in life was to organise film dates for his wife - sort of manager."
Mehta also believes the late night phone conversations between Kumari and Amrohi during their courtship days later contributed to them becoming insomniacs.
After her marriage hit a rough patch, she became busy with projects and developed sleeping problems. One peg of brandy which was prescribed by her doctor as a sleeping pill, became too many though Amrohi tried to control her addiction.
"... The bottles of Dettol in the Amrohi bathroom did not contain antiseptic but brandy. From that day onwards Kamal says he checked the Dettol bottles and ensured that Meena did not have any drink handy," Mehta writes.
According to the author, Amrohi blamed Bimal Roy and Mehmood (married to Kumari`s youngest sister) group for alienating him from his wife during the shooting of `Benazir`.
"By the end of 1963, Meena Kumari had decided to leave Kamal Amrohi- and he knew it. One morning, just before my heroine was off to work, Mr Amrohi went into the bedroom. He took hold of his wife`s face and said, `Manju don`t leave me."
Amrohi and Kumari`s marriage ended in great bitterness but the two came together to complete "Pakeezah" despite their differences.
Shot over 14 years, the film became Kumari`s swan song and her death, shortly after its release, helped the movie achieve great success.
Amrohi directed his last film "Razia Sultan" in 1983, which was a box office disaster. He died in 1993 at the age of 75.