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Poornima Joshi

Meenaji and I

Poornima Joshi | Updated on April 15, 2020

Meena Kumari in Jan Nisar Akhtar Production's `Bahu Begum'   -  HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Surviving Self-Distancing – Day 9

Watching Manjhli Didi with Amma one of these days, I realised how much Meena Kumari was responsible for a whole lot of my adolescent confusions. That should ideally include the whole lot of them – Rekha, Rakhi and then Madhuri Dixit – who clouded my formative years with their simpering, supplicating ways. But Meenaji more than the others because she was so bloody fabulous and natural with her Tragic Queen act in the multitudes of Sati Savitris she played over the years. She did a round of the tulsi in that sublime song jyoti kalash chhalke, hands folded, eyes closed and that’s who I wanted to be. Pure, pristine, queen of the kitchen and nurturing the family and then she became the dancing girl in Pakeeza and that’s who I wanted to be too. For a while, I also imagined myself as an Asha Parekh clone in her widowed glory a la Kati Patang, especially when she was being romanced by the gorgeous Rajesh Khanna. I watched them on the black and white Doordarshan Sunday feast with my dolls Ashu, Piyush and one more whose name I forget, and my options were to be either Meenaji in her Tragic Queen glory or the beauteous dancing girl in Pakeeza or a transparent white saree-clad widow in the Asha Parekh mould. Then there was self-sacrificing Rakhi who gave up her life for all her younger siblings in the movie appropriately titled Tapasya. So widow, nautch girl, Tragic Queen or self-sacrificing spinster were the examples to follow for a little girl back in the 1980s.

Not that the Hindi film industry offers much more now in terms of progressive cultural icons but for every factory-produced style diva masquerading as an actress, there are at least a few daring girls portraying the modern Indian woman who still manage to look adequately glamorous. That’s important because before I got familiar with feminism and found my real life heroines and later a career and friends who thought alike, the Hindi film industry was a critical influence. Patriarchy’s best buddy is popular culture and this relationship has become even stronger with the advent of new economy and free market. I recently went to a wedding which seemed a curious mix between Tulsi Irani’s saas-bahu set and an Archies gallery. I mean I would advertise my antipathy for weddings but I sometimes really do wonder why someone would put themselves through such a lot of trouble, waste so much money and then crib endlessly about the life that comes afterwards. The inability that so many girls have to distinguish between an idea marketed by Ekta Kapoor and real life is the problem that the likes of Meenaji create in young minds.

One can never be grateful enough for Mahima Library and the love of reading that rescued me. The absence of appropriate cultural icons, heroes worth emulating would have otherwise defeated my private political and psychological fight against the social order even before it started. For the record, however, I still adore Meenaji. But I am able to distinguish her genius and art from the pathetic roles she sometimes played.

Published on April 07, 2020

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