It is perhaps not well known that Meena Kumari, the legendary Indian actress, had a remarkable voice, often commented on and frequently described as hauntingly beautiful. A voice that seemed to embody the full extent of melancholy in the universe in its cadences. We know it well through her movie dialogues, also through the interviews and poetry recitations that she recorded. Rarely do we actually hear that voice singing. Once in the song ‘Aisa Hoga’, a half sung and half spoken duet with Manna Dey from the movie Pinjre Ke Panchi (1966). Another, far more captivating example, is her recitation of a few lines of a ghazal in Benazir (1964). She starts to recite the poem, set to a simple melody, in the middle of a mehfil led by Ashok Kumar, when a dashing Shashi Kapoor enters:
Phûlâ chaman khushî ka jân-e bahâr âyâ.
Ânkhon ka nûr âyâ dil kâ qarâr âyâ.
Blossom O Garden. The spring of my happiness has arrived.
The strange light has brought peace to my heart.
In most, albeit not all of her movies, Meena Kumari performs to songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar. And it is these two women together that created a magic that has enchanted us for decades. It is, in fact, difficult to think of Meena Kumari without invoking Lata Mangeshkar too. When people talk of Meena-ji, they will inevitably conjure up an image of her performing to the songs of Lata-ji. Whether it is the songs of Pakeezah (1972) or from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). It is strange how in the imagination of the viewer the voice of Lata and the performance by Meena merge into an integral whole. But Meena Kumari’s talent for acting certainly soared the highest when she made her body and face give shape to the melodies sung by another tongue. The playback song has been a standard of Indian cinema almost from its beginnings, of course. Viewers are very much used to this set up. But only rarely does a perfect dynamic between actor and singer make us forget entirely that we are witnessing the work of several artists here. Meena-ji and Lata-ji were able to create such a resonance. When reflecting upon this feat of beauty, I am reminded of a scene from the Bette Davis film All About Eve (1950): A playwright and an actress have a severe argument about who actually owns the role performed on stage. The playwright asserting that the actress is just a mere body with a voice, reciting his lines. But the actress holds that her work consists of much more. Through her performance, she rewrites the lines of the playwright, giving them fresh intent in meaning. Indeed, Meena Kumari is doing much more than just temporarily lending her body to Lata Mangeshkar. It is her performance which gives these songs the meaning that made them so popular.