From being the heart throb of India (being known as the ‘Lara Lappa girl’ at her peak) to begging at a film function in the 1980s in Pakistan for money to marry off her sister’s daughters, Meena Shorey’s is the classic and tragic riches-to-rags story one often finds in the filmline.
She was born Khurshid Jehan, the second of four children, in Ferozepur in a small rural household in 1921 or 1926. Her father was based in Multan but due to his wayward ways, he lost whatever land the family owned. He tried his hand in the dyeing business in Lahore but that too failed and to make things worse for the family, he used to brutally beat his wife. Meena’s elder sister, Wazir Begum, married and shifted to Bombay and she got Meena and their mother to move there as well.
Meena was interested in acting from a very young age. But she knew her father would have none of it. With the help of a friend, she turned to the stage behind his back. However, she was caught acting on stage by her father when just 12 playing Laila in an adaptation of Laila Majnu and he pulled her off the stage right in the middle of the performance. However, the family’s financial condition was pitiable and when Meena got an offer to work on the stage in calcutta for 350 Rs a month, he relented. But her family moved back to Lahore with her father wanting to marry her off. She refused and moved to Bombay.
In Bombay, Meena, accompanied her brother-in-law to the mahurat of Sohrab Modi’s Sikandar (1941). Modi, taken in by her beauty, offered her a supporting role in the film and bound her to a contract to work exclusively for him for Rs 650 a month. He also gave her the name Meena. Sikandar did extremely well and Meena was on her way. Modi then cast her as the second lead in Phir Milenge (1942) and Prithvi Vallabh (1943). In the last named, she was paired opposite Al Nasir, whom she later married. The marriage did not last very long due to Nasir’s womanizing ways. As it is, this was Meena’s second marriage. She was married to actor Zahur Raja in 1941 earlier.
Meena first met the Lahore based filmmaker Roop K Shorey, when he came to Bombay to look for a heroine for his forthcoming film, Shalimar (1946). Though he wanted Meena as the heroine of the film, Sohrab Modi’s rigid contract came in the way. According to Meena, the contract again prevented her from doing Mehboob Khan’s Humayun (1945) as well. Further, on a visit to Lahore, she met producer Dalsukh Pancholi, who signed her on for two films Shahar se Door (1946) and Arsi (1947). Immediately, Sohrab Modi took her to court asking for damages of Rs 3 lakhs. According to Meena, taking advantage of her illiteracy, Modi bound her for three years whereas the contract was supposed to be for a year only. She added that Modi then demanded Rs 60,000 to release her and seeking help from Modi’s wife, Mehtab, the matter was finally settled for Rs 30,000. Meena was now free. She returned to Lahore and fulfilled her contractual obligations by starring in Shahar Se Door and Arsi.
Meena’s last film in Lahore was Pathjad (1948). Following the partition of India, she came to Bombay where she did films like Actress (1948) and Dukhiyari (1948). In this period, she heard that Roop K Shorey had also moved to India following partition. His studio having burnt down in Lahore, he was financially hard up in Bombay. Meena and Karan Dewan got together and helped him make his first film in India, Chaman (1948) in Punjabi. The film, with music by Vinod, was the first ever Punjabi film in which Lata Mangeshkar lent her voice. Her songs in the film like Galiyan Che Firdey Dhola Nikke Nikke Baal Wey and Chan Kithe Guzare-e-Raat Wey were highly appreciated.
Meena hit the high point of her screen career with Roop K Shorey’s Ek Thi Larki (1949), co-starring Motilal. The film, a comedy thriller, looks at a girl (Meena) on the run after she witnesses a murder and shows a new facet of Meena exploring her comic talents, which were considerable. But above all it was the popularity of the song Lara Lappa Lara Lappa that was chiefly responsible for the film’s success. The song was hummed in every nook and corner of the country and as mentioned, Meena became known as the ‘Lara Lappa girl!’ She also got married to Roop K Shorey becoming Meena Shorey.
After Ek Thi Larki, Meena did a steady lot of movies, mostly with Roop K Shorey, but none measured up to Ek Thi Larki. Perhaps, the best of the lot was Ek Do Teen (1953) re-uniting the Shoreys with Motilal. By the mid 1950s though she was still doing the odd film or two every year, it was obvious her career was in decline.
At this point, the Shoreys were invited to come to Pakistan and make a film. The result was Miss 56 (1956), a whacky comedy film starring Meena Shorey, Santosh Kumar, Aslam Pervez, Shamim Ara, Zarif and Charlie with music by the great GA Chisti. The film, written by IS Johar, was a comedy centred on the heroine and depended heavily on Meena’s comic talents. Among other things, the film had her chasing the jeep-driving villains on a camel, besides mimicking a French lady with the help of a false nose and a huge wig! Though the film did just about average business, the adulation that Meena got on returning to Lahore was tremendous. She decided to relocate to Pakistan, even at the cost of her marriage.
Meena’s most successful film in Pakistan was Sarfarosh (1956) co-starring Sabiha Khanum and Santosh Kumar, which released before Miss 1956. According to Meena, she was signed on to play the lead role of a princess in the film, but later on Sabiha was given the role and Meena was asked to play the ‘lesser’ role of a bandit queen. She says she walked out of the film but on the pleading of the director, Anwar Kemal Pasha, and his father, she relented. Nevertheless, she still made a strong enough impact in the film and perhaps the best song in the film, Teri Ulfat Mein Sanam, sung by Zubaida Khanum was picturised on her. She also became the first Pakistani actress to model for Lux soap, thus becoming the ‘Lux Lady of Pakistan.’
However soon, even in Pakistan, with her subsequent films apart from Akhri Nishan (1958) making no real impression at the box office, she began getting supporting or negative roles and found herself getting sidelined. Though she made an impression in the odd Mousiqar (1962) as the vamp and Khamosh Raho (1964) playing the madam of a brothel, the roles were becoming a rarity and soon she found herself playing small character roles. A short-lived marriage to actor Asad, her co-star in Jamalo (1962), proved disastrous for her. Perhaps, among the last roles she made any sort of impact was in the Punjabi film Jigri Yaar (1967), her comedy track with Zeenat proving quite popular, and Humraz (1967), where she played a negative character of a governess. Thereafter, her roles amounted to little more than small cameos with her last screen appearance coming in the Shabnam-Waheed Murad starrer Nishani (1979).
Meena lived the last few years of her life in abject poverty in Pakistan. She had no savings and was reduced to living in a couple of rooms in Lahore’s Mohni Road. There was no one to look after her and she subsisted on a small stipend paid to her by the Pakistan Arts Council and sometimes the Rotary Club. It is said she compared herself to a dried up tree in a grove full of green young saplings that everyone was out to destroy and burn.
Meena Shorey died lonely and forgotten in 1989. Her burial was arranged with charity money and few came to attend her funeral.