The queer phenomenon called Meena Kumari

Pakeezah and her central actress meena kummari they are permanent emblems of queer culture in India today. The immediate question is how the generational love story of a courtesan betrayed in love, played by a woman in a heterosexual marriage who saw massive media scrutiny, can have anything to do with the pulse of queer politics in a country like ours. The answer to the same lies in realizing that queerness exists beyond pathological orientations and rather as a state of being, something that combines an abiding sense of politics and aesthetic pleasure.

It should come as no surprise that, for years, the woman who told a pleading lover “raat gayi baat gayi” after a steamy one-night stand would be anything but a gay icon in a country like India. Homosexuals who become dolls in a post-377 India will be little aware of the extent to which identity criminalization might push people into secret expressions of their deepest desires and longings. Even today, the queer community is largely dominated by men with repressed notions of sexuality, who choose to seek solace in the forbidden secret of one-night stands with men who would fool them into a sea of ​​apps in the morning. Next.

Queerness, especially in a country like India, is largely characterized by the cultural trappings of seeing the queer experience as little more than a cheesy aesthetic. More than freedom of expression, longing and longing have been records of queer desire in our country that has proven to flourish best in exile or underground. Such situations are made even more problematic by the existence of national cultural icons like Meena Kumari, with whom an entire sector of the population comes to identify.

Pakeezah’s creation itself was a phenomenon to be reckoned with for his audience. Fourteen years later, the film was supposed to be Kamal Amrohi’s monument to Kumari’s own personality. Meena Kumari, who agreed to make the film at the cost of a single guinea, also parted ways with Amrohi himself during the course of filming. The last film to be released during her lifetime, the last few years of filming the film saw Kumari appear erratically on set due to her increasing alcoholism. What greater identification records would homosexual men need (enjoying the knowledge of their constitutional criminality)?

Meena Kumari on the sets of Pakeezah. (Photo: Express Files)

Sample Guru Dutt’s magnificent Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam, where Kumari played the role of the iconic Chhoti Bahu. In a paean to the fading days of landed feudalism in our country, Meena Kumari immortalized the largely meta character of the wife drowning in substance abuse and the company of a younger man, while her husband chooses the company of a courtesan. The classic Na Jao Sayiyan Churake Baiyan is filmed entirely on Meena Kumari herself. Dutt fills her frames with extreme close-ups of the actress’s face. We see her trembling lips as he urges her lover not to leave her. She is clearly under the influence of alcohol and her eyes are flickering. Yet in that fleeting moment there is a presence of abject desire that is unmistakable to the odd eye. The song itself never veers into the sexual (although there is a high incidence of masochism in it), but Kumari performs it in monochrome with a cheesy tone of perfection. It’s a performance in every sense of the word: her hair covers the entire frame of her body and our screens, her bracelets run down her chubby arms, and her eyes twinkle. However, there is pain in her eyes. It is Kumari and hers juggling hers with her desire and pathos that makes her the most astute embodiment of queerness in our country’s cultural currency.

Beyond costume parties and pride parades and Zeenat Aman’s see-through sequins and Hema Malini’s feather boas, queer is also about the erotic fused with an abject sense of the pathetic. The expression of a desire that is inexpressible, especially in a society that does not have the vocabulary to understand the same thing, offers a double understanding of the same thing. The first is to see desire as something so explosive that it inspires a literal death drive in the self. For Chhoti Bahu, this impulse becomes apparent at the end of the song itself, where she ends by confessing that the pursuit of her passions would lead her to live or die at her feet.

In Pakeezah too, the blossoming nature of this desire takes shape in overt instances of masochism. Shows the Teer-e-nazar song. The melody is an echo of the previous song Chalte Chalte. That song was about the beginning of a relationship. A kind of bugle call. Nothing less than a declaration of love. But in the final song of the movie, this song takes on different connotations. The idea of ​​the feet is still present. There, the feet were to facilitate walking through life together. But here the feet, deliberately dancing on shards of broken glass, become a site for self-inflicted pain that becomes the alternative in the absence of deriving pleasure from your own unfulfilled desire.

It is at this point that the pathetic enters the scene. We realize that the last song has been laced with images of violence the entire time. The name itself has hints of archery and hunting imagery, followed by (my favorite) the phrase zakhm-e-jigar. These are probably the first Bollywood visualizations of the phenomena of zakhm kahin lagta hai, par dard kahin aur hota hai (wound is in one place, wound/pain in another). While the song itself speaks of a wounded, or rather diseased, heart, it is the feet that are literally deliberately injured, thus becoming an external manifestation of the internal ailment of the heart.

meena kummari Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari on the sets of Pakeezah. (Photo: Express Files)

In a way, this unique sequence becomes a cultural reminder of the thousands of nameless men who gave their lives in the face of social ostracism. Of all the men who fell in love with men who were straight or who would never transgress heteronormative boundaries for a lifetime of weird desires. Despite the aesthetic trappings of such a projection of excessive and all-consuming desire, these films by Kumari, also dubbed India’s Tragedy Queen, are emotionally moving.

The pit of alcoholism into which Chhoti Bahu descends or the wellspring of longing and Sahibjaan’s longing for Salim is an acknowledgment of his own deep-seated loneliness. Chhoti Bahu is abandoned by her husband and Sahibjaan is denied marital bliss due to her status as her courtesan. Loneliness and unsatisfied desires thus become queer records in a country on the brink of globalization, where advertisements for consumer products will soon hang the image of happy married lives to bring consumer ideas home. And that’s where Kumari comes in with her body of work.

It is in her that we trace the Chandramukhi lineage of Devdas that speaks of a joyful passion that threatens to kill. Of Silk from The Dirty Picture, who chooses a Cleopatra-like end to her career in an attempt to find a semblance of dignity through a profession built on her unworthiness. But despite the bleakness of modern queer politics in app-driven hookup cultures, Kumari’s fictional tragedies shed little light on the biggest triumph of her own career. Despite several attempts, Amrohi was never able to cast Meena Kumari again, who eventually, over 14 years of stardom, completed the film. But is her monument really hers to her? Or is it little more than a self-made monument to the yearning desires and sighs of excess-soaked queer lifestyles? I think the final couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 has the only viable answer to that!

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