EXCLUSIVE! “Nobody can claim property rights over the life of a public figure,” says biographer Ashwini Bhatnagar

The noted biographer, whose book on Meena Kumari is being adapted into a web series, clarifies that his book doesn’t project Kamal Amrohi as any ‘tormentor’ of the late actress

By Mayur Lookhar

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah [1972]

The late filmmaker Kamal Amrohi’s younger son Tajdar Amrohi has threatened legal action against producer Prabhleen Kaur and author Ashwini Bhatnagar for announcing a web series on his step-mother Mahjabeen Bano without his consent. Author Bhatnagar has allayed the fear of Tajdar of depicting his father as any ‘tormentor’ of Bano, better known as Meena Kumari.  The web series is adapted from Bhatnagar’s book Starring… Mahjabeen as Meena Kumari [2019].

“The basic thing is that my book doesn’t project Mr. Kamal Amrohi as a tormentor. So, this assumption is absolutely wrong. He [Tajdar] should read the book,” Bhatnagar told Beyond Bollywood.

Cover of Ashwini Bhatnagar’s biography on Meena Kumari

Meena Kumari got married to Kamal Amrohi in a very private affair in 1952. Their tumultuous marriage was often the subject of gossip magazines, publications then. After 12 years, Kumari left Tajdar and lived the rest of her life in solitude.

Given how Kumari and Amrohi lived separate lives, would any filmmaker, writer then need any permission, No Objection Certificate from Amrohi’s kin? 

Bhatnagar asserted that his book is a reflection of a public figure and he needs no permission from the family or any kin.

“Nobody can claim property rights over the life of a public figure.  Just because you are someone’s son, you don’t do this. It is not any legacy, heritage, property. These are people in public space,” Bhatnagar says, “As a writer, I have full discretion to write about them as long it is not a lie or untrue.  My book is factually correct.  It is a neutral view of Meena Kumari’s professional life in which Kamal Amrohi plays an important role as a director as well as her husband”.

Author Ashwini Bhatnagar

Speaking to us yesterday [22 August], Tajdar Amrohi had claimed that he was the sole heir to the family and no one would know more about the life of his father and Kumari better than the family. 

Bhatnagar though questioned whether Tajdar was competent enough to know all facts around his father and step-mother.  According to Bhatnagar, Kamal Amrohi’s children from his previous marriages stayed in the ancestral home in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh.

Kumari’s rocky marriage to Amrohi was often discussed and written about in those times.  In 1998, author Mohan Deep’s Simply Scandalous: Meena Kumari, the unofficial biography of the late actress, supposedly covered the details of the torrid marriage.

Cover of Mohan Deep’s book on Meena Kumari

“It [troubled marriage] is well documented in Simply Scandalous [1998]. It gives a low down on Meena Kumari’s life. I’m not taking that [controversial] route at all. My book is largely about her career as to how she reacted as an actress and the influences in her life, like Dharmendra and other people.” said Bhatnagar.

The noted journalist and biographer urged Tajdar to read his book. Bhatnagar reminded that his book doesn’t portray Kamal Amrohi as any tormentor.

“Tajdar should read the chapters on how beautiful the relationship between Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari was. The whole idea of Kamal Amrohi being limited to Meena Kumari’s husband is so demeaning to the greater genius of Kamal Amrohi,” said the biographer.

Bhatnagar felt the duo were made for each other, but sadly, certain ego issues saw them drift apart. Despite living separately, Kumari and Amrohi still collaborated on the epic love story Pakeezah [1972].  Amrohi’s film took close to two decades to be made.

Kamal Amrohi

Showering praise on Kamal Arohi, Bhatnagar added, “He was a cinematic genius. Only Kamal Amrohi could pull off a Pakeezah. And that, too, because only Meena Kumari was Pakeezah. Despite their separation, Amrohi kept writing letters to Kumari telling her that she is his Pakeezah, and Kumari, too, acknowledged it.  Kamal Amrohi couldn’t imagine a Pakeezah without Meena Kumari, while Kumari couldn’t have any other director than Amrohi. Together they conceived the film.”

Bhatnagar’s book is largely based on her career, but it also covers the Amrohi and Kumari relationship.   Remarkably, Amrohi had first met Meena Kumari when she was only 6 as he looked to cast Baby Mahjabeen for Sohrab Modi’s Jailor [1958]. Years later, they would be introduced to each other on the sets of Tamasha [1952] by Ashok Kumar.  Amrohi had signed Kumari for a film, but a minor accident led to Kumar being hospitalised in Pune.  While in hospital, Amrohi is said to have visited Kumari regularly and it was during this time that duo grew fond of each other.  They had a very private wedding with Kumari’s father not being kept in the loop.

Bhatnagar’s book covers few chapters on the Amrohi-Kumari relationship.  They got married in 1952. However, back then it was rumoured that this marriage was a rocky affair.  Amrohi was said to be a possessive man. Bhatnagar claims that in an interview Amrohi has confessed to being a possessive husband.  Buzz had it that he wasn’t in favour of his wife working but he had laid certain conditions for her to work.  Principal among them was that no one will be allowed to enter her make-up room save the make-up artiste. Plus, Amrohi expected his wife to return home in her car by 6.30 pm. The filmmaker is even said to have appointed a spy (Baqar Ali) to keep a tab on his wife’s movement.

According to Bhatnagar, Amrohi didn’t let his wife work in the Guru Dutt-starrer Saheb Bibi Golam [1953].  However, Guru Dutt and director Abrar Alvi were very keen to have Kumari.   “Guru Dutt tried for other heroines but it didn’t happen. He was to launch a new girl with the film, but then he felt that Kumari was the best actor to play Choti Bahu. Despite Amrohi not approving, Dutt and Alvi bypassed him to sign Meena Kumari,” said Bhatnagar.

Perhaps Kumari felt suffocated in this marriage. After 11 years of living under scrutiny, the cookie finally crumbled when Baqar Ali allegedly crossed the line.

During the mahurat (opening shot) of Pinjre Ke Panchhi [1966] there was an incident as lyricist-poet Gulzar happened to step inside her make-up room.  Baqar Ali wasn’t pleased and he allegedly slapped Kumari.  Embarrassed by it, Kumari asked Amrohi to come but the man didn’t oblige. The caged Kumari broke the shackles and never returned to her husband. 

Speaking to us, Tajdar Amrohi had downplayed all such rumours. He claimed that his father never laid a hand on his wife or anyone and that all such gossip stories were cooked up by the media.

Bhatnagar though reminded that there was a FIR filed by Kumari regarding that incident.  The biographer clarified that while his book touches upon the relationship, but it doesn’t demonise anyone.

“I’ve tried to give a neutral, objective and a sensitive narration of her life.  Meena was a sensitive person. Kamal Amrohi was artistic, very erudite, a gifted personality,” quipped the author.

If his book doesn’t project Amrohi as the villain, then what is it that is causing great concern to Tajdar Amrohi?  Tajdar himself is planning a romantic film on the Meena Kumari-Kamal Amrohi love story. Does he fear that if the web series was to come first, then would that hurt his prospects?

“He’s been trying to make [film] for the last 25 years.  He could have at least written a book. He has access to all [archival] papers.  What will you show? That they never had their differences? Didn’t Meena Kumari separate from him?” questioned the biographer.

Bhatnagar wondered if Tajdar won’t show any troubled times in the Meena Kumari-Tajdar Amrohi marriage, then his film could just end up being an episode depicting their early relationship and how this marriage happened.

Unmoved by any legal action, Bhatnagar iterated, “There is no question of permission.  You may contest the content of the biography, but you can’t say that you have to take permission. My book covers her life as an actress, as a woman, not as a wife or any lover.”

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