Born as Mahjabeen Bano in 1932 in Mumbai, India, Meena Kumari came to fame during the golden era of Bollywood cinema. She remains one of the most iconic Bollywood actresses and was certainly one of the most prolific, acting in an astonishing thirty-four films between 1952 and 1960, and appearing in ninety-three films in total over the course of her career.
Bollywood is one of the most popular and successful film industries in the world. Although the first-ever Bollywood film was silent and only forty minutes long, today the films are known for being hugely vibrant, colorful, all-singing, all-dancing visual feasts that really captivate an audience, and normally last around three to four hours (with an intermission!).
Bollywood makeup is an elaborate and highly stylized affair, featuring many elements, and incorporating the traditions of Indian and South Asian weddings and festivals and special-occasion makeup. Heavily kohled eyes in classic shapes are combined with sumptuous golds and rich, jewel-colored tones, along with lots of lashes and well-defined brows, which all help to convey emotion and expression through the eyes. Bindi and mehendi (the decoration of the palms of the hands and feet) are also used decoratively and to illustrate characters and situations (although the significance differs from culture to culture). Makeup complements the lavish costumes and jewelry perfectly.
Makeup artists in Bollywood were traditionally men, and for most of its history the union forbade women to work on set in that capacity. Reasons cited for this have ranged from protecting men’s livelihood to the belief that women would get jealous of the female stars and do a poor j ob in making them up, sabotaging their potential beauty. It wasn’t until November 2014 that India’s Supreme Court declared that the union ban on women working as makeup artists in the country’s film industry was illegal and discriminatory and must not be allowed to continue.
In 1951, when Kumari was nineteen, she signed up to star in a film directed by Kamal Amrohi. This would change her life: A year later, after a courtship carried out in part through letter writing, Kumari and Amrohi were secretly married. In 1952, the film they had worked together on, Baiju Bawra, was released. It was hugely popular and launched Kumari into stardom Filmfare, the equivalent of Photoplay magazine in India, wrote that she has an exciting photogenic face the sort that cosmetic manufacturers dream of,9 and they featured her on their list of the most beautiful actresses. It was a prophetic comment, as the cosmetics manufacturers wouldn’t have to dream for long: She became a spokesperson for Lux soap (which was sold as a beauty product by Unilever) at the end of 1953, and her image was everywhere.
Between 1961 and 1964, Kumari began working on Pakeezah, a new film written by Amrohi. It took a record fourteen years to film a stressful time during which Kumari and Amrohi went through a messy and painful divorce. In 1972, only weeks after it premiered, Kumari died from liver disease caused by alcoholism at the age of just thirty-nine. Pakeezah would become one of Bollywood’s biggest-ever hits and the breathtakingly beautiful Meena Kumari subsequently became known as the Queen of Tragedy.
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