As of the time I am beginning this post (though it won’t be by the time I post it), it is the anniversary of Meena Kumari’s death. She died on March 31, 1972, just two months after the debut of her best film, Pakeezah. And, by the way, I do really feel – as many others do also – that this was her best. Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam was very good (albeit awfully depressing), but it was not her best. Baiju Bawra was not her best. Pakeezah was the real classic out of everything she did. And that fact begins to seem quite remarkable when we consider all the obstacles that had to be overcome in order for her to complete it. Of course, the director, Kamal Amrohi, deserves a lot of credit for this too. (And though I love his film Mahal, I think Pakeezah truly was his best also.)
But unfortunately, for any of us who know a little background, the drama surrounding Meena’s demise behind the scenes sometimes takes precedence in our minds over the drama of the film, itself. Speaking for myself, sometimes I can’t help looking for more tidbits regarding how Kamal and Meena together managed to make something great out of a situation that was in many ways dreadful, because of the illness that she suffered as a result of the alcoholism that he, her longtime-estranged husband, probably emotionally influenced (and to no small extent). And every time I decide to take a peek at another article on the subject, I find myself discovering some new detail that I didn’t see before.
In an article that I recently discovered that is mostly by Kamal’s son, Tajdar Amrohi, I actually found all those tidbits put together and then some. So, in honor of Meena Kumari on her death anniversary, but also in acknowledgment of the morbid fascination that I am sure many possible readers of this post share with me, I decided to spread some word about the article here.
The article was posted at Filmfare.com on June 8, 2017; it is The Truth Behind Pakeezah Unveiled. The byline goes to Farhana Farook, who writes the introduction, but the bulk of the article consists of the words of Tajdar Amrohi, who obviously had as much inside knowledge on this subject as anyone. I do think he is a bit too worshipful of his father here and too eager to dismiss common knowledge about his father’s awful treatment of Meena Kumari. Nonetheless, he offers some innovative insights into symbols and other ingredients within the Pakeezah (e.g., “the train is the hero of the film”), as well as relating a lot of details regarding how the film was made. With regard to the grim tidbits that I mentioned above, well, here are the pertinent paragraphs:
They resumed shooting in 1968 by first filming the song Mausam hai aashiqana, which Baba had written. Due to her liver ailment, her stomach had bloated. To camouflage that, Baba made her wear a kurta and lungi. And that became a trend! The tent was set up in Filmalaya and later the shots were matched with the outdoor scenes. Though she’d feel tired, she’d perk up before the camera. After every shot, a unit hand would rush to her with a chair.
Actress and dancer Padma Khanna was used as her body double as Baba believed her body dimensions and face structure matched Choti Ammi’s. Padma’s make-up was done by Joshi Dada. Her eyebrows and lips were made to look like Choti Ammi’s. One of the background dancers in the song Chalte chalte… was also used as a body double in the scene when Sahibjaan runs away from her nikah with Salim (Raaj Kumar). As also in the scene where she runs on the railway tracks. During the last song Aaj hum apni duaon ka asar, Choti Amma had to twirl around and drop in Veenaji’s arms. That was strenuous for her. Her close-ups were taken in sitting position. The song Chalo dildar chalo didn’t focus on her face even once but yet had a surreal quality.
And speaking of Padma Khanna, that brings me to the second part of the post.
On March 10, I saw some notices on Facebook (from one of the enlightening groups or pages that I’m subscribed to) that it was Padma Khanna’s birthday. For a little while, I thought of writing a post entirely about Padma Khanna, but I felt that I was not as knowledgeable about all her dancing vamp performances as many other people might be, partly because the ‘70s isn’t my specialty. But I did do a little research about her, and that’s when I stumbled upon an article from just two years ago by Mayukh Sen about Padma Khanna as the Nautch Queen of New Jersey (Roads & Kingdoms, March 1, 2016). This article provided me with a good brush-up about the highlights of Padma’s career in Bollywood (beyond being Meena’s body double) and it includes a clip of one of her famous dances in Johny Mera Naam. But this article is most interesting because it also tells about Padma Khanna’s experiences running a dance school in New Jersey, in current times.
As some people know, I am basically a lifelong New Yorker, and since I am also such a fan of old Hindi movies, I take delight in stories about old-time “Bollywood” dancing stars who left India to teach dance in one of my city’s suburbs. Of course, Padma Khanna was far from the first one. For a while, Padmini had a dancing school in New Jersey, too. (Actually, she started it in Flushing, Queens – in a temple that I have visited – but her school became more successful after she moved it to New Jersey.) Kamala Lakshman/Narayan also came to the New York City area to teach dance, concentrating her efforts in Long Island as well as some suburbs slightly to the north of us. Padma moved to the U.S. significantly later than Padmini and at least a decade later than Kamala, but her New York/New Jersey-area story is pretty close to that of the other two – especially Kamala’s, if you think about it. Essentially, she left India at a time when her dancing skills and the type of role she’d done most often (the vamp and item girl) were beginning to go out of fashion, and Padma was also aware that she was getting a little older. So, with her husband – a director named Jagdish Sidana – she packed up and went to America to start a new dancing school. Actually, they tried Chicago at first but that didn’t work out so well, so they went back to Mumbai for a little while. And then they heard that a lot of Indians were moving to New Jersey so they decided to try that, and their dancing school, Indianica, turned out to do pretty well.
Indianica specializes in Kathak, and it became clear as I read this article that Padma also felt fine about getting away from film roles and focusing on classical dance. (She had actually started out as a classical dancer, performing Kathak professionally at the age of 12.) That part of her story reminds me of Kamala Lakshman’s. Kamala also began to feel unappreciated in India and saw her film career prospects declining, and she seemed happy to focus strictly on dance. But I’ve read some old interviews with Kamala, and it seems that she felt some bitterness about how things turned out. In this interview with Padma, by contrast, she doesn’t seem to feel any bitterness or regrets. And that is a point made very clear at the end of the article, when Mayukh Sen writes:
Khanna, though, is all smiles. Perhaps distance and time have abstracted any frustration, and all that is left is gratitude. “I was always very passionate about dancing, and I still am,” she tells me, noting that she relished being able to dance on film. “Being typecast didn’t bother me at all.”
Padma has had some sad moments – e.g., the death of her husband – but from what I gathered in this article and interview, in 2106, when she was already well into her 60s, she was doing just fine. (And by the way, you can find good current videos from Indianica if you go to YouTube – maybe I’ll post some sometime.)
So, if you happen, by any chance, to be depressed after reading or thinking about the demise of the Tragedy Queen, this very uplifting article about the life of her old body double could prove to be a good remedy.