MEENA KUMARI, TRADITIONALLY KNOWN FOR PERFECTING THE role of the tragedienne in films, is actually the embodiment of the woman as Essence rather than flesh. In a career spanning three decades, she chiselled the contours of two role models and created some kind of an ideal in the mind of the viewer. This was the image of the woman as wife and the woman as mother.
The first role she almost perfected was in the Guru Dutt classic Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962) as the protagonist, Chhoti Bahu. Fighting for her rights in the 19th century feudal milieu of Bengal, Chhoti Bahu was the epitome of the pativrata nan (devoted wife). She may have been viewed as an iconoclast by her family members, but her iconoclasm too was born out of a desire to be the perfect spouse. Nothing more and nothing less. Languishing in her boudoir, while her husband Chhote Babu (Rehman), an autocratic, purely hedonistic zamindar followed the dictates of his manhood in distant brothels, Chhoti Bahu plots and schemes to bring the prodigal back to her. She rebels against social and religious injunctions, resorts to alcohol, dances and desperately tries to seduce her husband, so that he might remain faithful. But all along her profligate ways - drinking and aggressively seducing - were condemned by her own conscience. Even as she let down her hair and lifted the cup of liqour to her lips, she bemoaned the fact that she was breaking the behavioural code prescribed for good Hindu wives. Yet the fact that these transgressions were perpetrated in order to preserve a dharma that must be paramount in any woman's life - a good wife's dharma - deified her further. Here was a neglected woman who, in the sober 1960s, was throwing herself at a man's feet in a drunken stupor, aggressively demanding satiation. But the fact that this act was depicted as a glorious sacrifice (Chhoti Bahu was sacrificing her religious virtuosity), not only sanctified it, it also created a prototype for the sixties Savitri (a typically faithful wife). For if the mythological Savitri could confront the angel of death for her husband's well- being, this celluloid Savitri could even compromise her religious sanctimony for the observance of a greater duty. That of the woman as wife.
Earlier, in Bimal Roy's Parineeta (1953), too, Meena Kumari had essayed a similar, all-consuming, unswerving devotion to Ashok Kumar, the man who had secretly married her. A victim of the rich-poor divide, Lalita is separated from her lover and is on the brink of a marriage of convenience - one that might help her poor uncle to repay the debt he owes to her beloved's father. Lalita refuses to marry, yet she is unable to bridge the class divide. Nevertheless, these superficial barriers cannot sully her wifely devotions. For Lalita, despite separation and misunderstanding, chooses to remain faithful to her secret husband. She is willing to lead a life of solitary abandonment, even though her husband is willing to marry again. Simply because both she and society believe that a wife must remain faithful, irrespective of similar reciprocation on the part of her husband.