Following is an excerpt from Deepti Naval’s “A Country Called Childhood”, published by Aleph Book Company, a memoir of growing up in Amritsar and the actor’s early love affair with cinema. You can purchase the book here.
Possibly the greatest influence on me in childhood and those early girlhood years was Meena Kumari. By the time I was nine years old, I had a special place for her in my heart. I call this time my ‘Meena Kumari phase’. Mama was very fond of her, so Didi and I got to watch most of the Meena Kumari films. It was the Meena Kumari–Rajendra Kumar duo that impacted me the most. I was taken with everything that the two felt for each other on screen. To me all that was real. When Zindagi Aur Khwab came to the theatre, I was convinced, at age nine, that if there was love, it had to be as intense as the love between Meena Kumari and Rajendra Kumar. I was horrified when Jayant reappeared in the movie. How could life be so cruel as to bring this villain back into Meena Kumari’s life when she was already in love with a wonderful man like Rajendra Kumar? It was perhaps the same year that I saw Pyaar Ka Saagar, again a film starring Meena Kumari and Rajendra Kumar. Seeing the two together was somehow reassuring. I felt they belonged together.
In the summer of 1962, I saw Meena Kumari in a lovely film called Aarti. In December that year, I saw another outstanding film of hers called Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Mama, having a thing for Bengalis, was keen to see it as Meena Kumari played a Bengali bahu. She loved the song ‘Na jaao saiyaan . . .’ For days she discussed the scene where Chhoti Bahu confronts her husband—a scene that had really got her. There was something about that role of hers that didn’t leave me for a long time. No one could act better than her, I thought. It was a performance of a lifetime! Then a year later I got to see Dil Ek Mandir, the last film in which she and Rajendra Kumar would act together—again a movie which created a lasting impact.
Meena Kumari to me was an enigma, there could be no one else like her. There was so much depth in her persona, and she was beautiful too. Mama told me that Meena Kumari had lost a finger in a car accident. I was surprised. And yet she was an actress? I was enamoured by the fact that though the little finger on Meena Kumari’s left hand was missing, she always managed to hide the fact. She’d hold her pallu in such a way that the missing finger would never be visible. She even did an entire dance sequence in Chiraag Kahan Roshni Kahaan in the song ‘Andaaz mera mastaana, maange dil ka nazrana . . .’ with one hand; the other hand forever being wrapped in her dupatta. In addition to the fact that I worshipped her, I was bewitched by her ability to emote—she made me believe every emotion she portrayed on screen.
Sitting in the movie theatre, I would cry easily. It was all so believable for me, whatever was happening on the big screen. Each situation, each emotion, was so God damn believable! I was convinced that everything that happens on the screen was for real, that was life, and the rest of what we lived, did not matter. I loved movies, and I loved Meena Kumari.
Once I even dreamt about her. I saw Meena Kumari holding a book in her hand, walking around the dome of our mosque and I watched her from my terrace—a young Meena Kumari wearing a black burqa, her head covered, walking slowly around the top part of the dome. I woke up excited by that image and looked around but was disappointed when I discovered it was just a dream, and there was no Meena Kumari walking around the dome of the maseet.
I did, however, realize there was cinema beyond Meena Kumari. Before I turned ten, I started to take a greater interest in all the big stars of the era. In Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai it was a delight to watch Dev Anand on top of a moving train, singing, ‘Jiya o . . . jiya o jiya kuch bole do . . .’ to an Asha Parekh wearing a checked kameez, showing jhootha-jhootha gussa. ‘YAAAAAHOOOOOO’ roared Mastana’s tweeters when Junglee first came to the streets of Amritsar, mounted on a rickshaw. All the kids ran after it, gyrating like crazy to Mohammed Rafi ’s ‘Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe!’ When Saira Banu sang ‘Kashmir ki kali hoon main mujhse na rootho, Babuji’ it was the first time we were seeing a girl chasing a boy. Wow! The song, ‘Ja ja ja mere bachpan . . .’ was so relatable as we were still kids but dying to grow up really fast. The euphoria of Junglee died quickly when Kabuliwala was released in the winter of 1961 at Inder Palace Theatre, the area where Mama would go and distribute knitting needles to the girls at the Pingalwada. Pitaji, being a Tagore enthusiast, was particularly eager to show us the film, as it was based on one of his classic stories. Balraj Sahni, whom I’d earlier seen in Chhoti Bahen left a deep impression on my young mind. I’d sit real close to the radio each time I heard the song ‘Eh mere pyaare watan . . .’ In Kabuliwala, Mini seemed to be me. Mini was nine and I was nine, and I loved Kabuliwala, he made me cry.