Earlier this month, I thought of writing another birthday post for a certain great cabaret dancer who, though much revered among my blogging and YouTube friends, actually met a terrible decline and died poor. A few days later, I found out it was the death anniversary of a fine actress from ’40s Hindi films (and some nice ’50s Pakistani ones) who died very poor. During this time, I also was busy combining and revising a couple of old posts about the ghazal singer Zarina Begum, whose illness and poverty became the subject of several articles and documentaries a few years ago. (I worked on those posts to turn them into an article that is going to appear next month in an online film journal The World of Apu. I will put the link in place when the issue comes out. :) )* So, I became focused on this sad and familiar tale (familiar especially with regard to the Hindi film and music industries) commonly known as “riches to rags.” I thought of writing a post chronicling five or ten such examples, but I found that there are quite a few articles or posts online that have already done this. (For example, from within just the past month, I found a list on a site called Top Yaps entitled Ten Bollywood Celebrities Who Died Penniless and Forgotten. And some of this looks familiar, so the article may have appeared in other places as well.) So, I decided to keep my focus solely on the artists whom I was remembering at the moment – Cuckoo and Meena Shorey – and I’ve added one more, who is known to have died in the early part of the year (though the exact date is unknown), the great singer Rajkumari. Cuckoo tends to make it to everyone’s list (including that Top Yaps one), but the other two not so much – though they deserve to be remembered just as much as anyone.
In the past, I’ve pondered the awfulness of a social system that would allow the most unlikely people – who contributed to so many people’s joy at some time in the past – to die in isolation and poverty. The poverty part, especially, is something that does not have to be. (Isolation is another matter. Sometimes people choose it, and given my own proclivities, I can understand why.) But I will keep my social preachings out of the post this time and let these sad stories speak for themselves. Suffice to say, all three of these artists from classic Hindi and Urdu cinema should have met much better ends than they did. (And actually, just about everyone else deserves a better end as well.) And to illustrate how great they were, I am also supplying a couple of clips for each. (Though, of course, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen their greatness illustrated here before.)
I’ve written Cuckoo birthday posts on February 5 (or near then) several times in the recent past. As I’ve been saying since I heard that this was her birthday (back in 2011), I’ve been happy to act on that information, even though I never was able to confirm this date widely. There are a few things about Cuckoo that are not as well known as they should have been. Maybe, partly, this is because she also seems to have spent some time in obscurity (though greatly appreciated by some of us further down the road). If there is any story of decline that is more incredible than all the others, Cuckoo owns it. And speaking of owning, how is it that someone who once owned so much ended up with nothing? When Cuckoo died of cancer in 1981, at the age of 52, she was completely broke; word has it that she could barely afford painkillers.(For one good summary of her grim ending, see the article in Cineplot, The Tragic Ending of Cuckoo More – Helen Remembers Cuckoo.)
2. Meena Shorey
Meena Shorey died on February 9, 1989 (as I was reminded via a Facebook post from Bollywood Direct). As I was saying, she still seems to have been forgotten by too many people (including those who put together lists of Hindi film actors who died forgotten and poor). How could anyone have forgotten the Lara Lappa Girl? Well, it seems that people remembered the song (and certainly the singer, Lata Mangeshkar) but not the actress, especially not after she moved to Pakistan and made an ultimately failed attempt to revive her film career there. (Though she actually did some very nice performances in Pakistani films too – as you will see in one of the clips below.) Fortunately, a few of the people whom I know through blogs and YouTube know all about her and are very fond of her, as am I. But she may not have thought that she would be remembered by anyone when she left this world 30 years ago.
Per an article by Karan Bali in Upperstall from a few years ago:
Meena lived the last few years of her life in abject poverty in Pakistan. She had no savings and was reduced to living in a couple of rooms in Lahore’s Mohni Road. There was no one to look after her and she subsisted on a small stipend paid to her by the Pakistan Arts Council and sometimes the Rotary Club. It is said she compared herself to a dried up tree in a grove full of green young saplings that everyone was out to destroy and burn.
Meena Shorey died lonely and forgotten in 1989. Her burial was arranged with charity money and few came to attend her funeral.
3. Rajkumari Dubey
When I pondered this general subject, my mind and heart turned to Rajkumari, who, according to a few sources, died toward the beginning of the year 2000. Since nobody seems to know the exact date, let’s consider the middle of February as a time that fits into that description well enough – because I wanted an excuse to commemorate Rajkumari anyway. I love Rajkumari’s playback singing in quite a few films made during the 1940s and early ’50s. Ironically, I think her best songs might be the ones that she sang in Mahal, one of the films in 1949 that made a superstar out of Lata Mangeshkar, the singer whose overwhelming takeover of playback singing in the Hindi film industry was probably a major contributor to Rajkumari’s decline. (Curiously, also, Rajkumari did playback in one fine song for the same actress whom Lata sang for exclusively – that is, Madhubala – though she sang two in that film for Vijayalaxmi and one for Neelam, too.)
Rajkumari dropped out as a featured singer in Hindi films for almost 20 years, from the early 1950s until Naushad found her doing obscure chorus singing at the beginning of the ’70s and asked her to sing background thumris in Pakeezah. In that film, her performance of the song “Najariya Ki Mari” was simply breathtaking. Rajkumari did some more singing in the industry after that up until the late ’70s, but this was far from enough to guarantee her any financial well-being, and so she died in poverty.
By the way, the aforementioned Top Yaps article included Meena Kumari in the list of stars who died “penniless and forgotten.” But I don’t think Meena Kumari really belongs there. She may have reached a condition of unexpected poverty (not to mention misery) and she did not have the chance to see how much her legend would grow after Pakeezah came out. But I can’t imagine that she was ever all that forgotten, and if she did, indeed, reach a state of poverty, it certainly wouldn’t have lasted if only she’d survived. (If anyone feels very differently about that, let me know!) But the woman who sang such beautiful music in that same movie – that is, Rajkumari – had undoubtedly been poor for a long time and had been much more forgotten, and she deserved so much more than what she had at the end! Let the moral of this story be that this is not a just world (a thought that I may have suggested in this blog at some time or other before).
*Note (about a month later): The article on Zarina Begum in The World of Apu (which I had combined and revised from two blog posts) can be found here.