Childhood & Early Life
Syed Amir Haider Kamal Naqvi was born on January 17, 1918, in Amroha, United Provinces in British India (now known as Uttar Pradesh). He later adopted the stage name “Kamal Amrohi” (or “Amrohvi”) to honor his birthplace. He was the brother of assistant director Jamal Amrohi and a first cousin to Pakistani writers Jaun Elia and Rais Amrohvi.
While he attended local schools, Amrohi wrote Urdu short stories. Soon, he aspired to become a filmmaker, turning his stories into cinematic masterpieces.
Unfortunately, his father discouraged his aspirations and wanted him to follow the family tradition of managing estates.
At 16, Amrohi ran away to Lahore (now in Pakistan), which was then considered the intellectual capital of northern India. He sold his sister's gold bangles to pay the train fare.
In Lahore, he began writing short stories for an Urdu magazine to manage his expenses. He later graduated in Persian and Urdu from the 'Oriental College.' By then, he had saved enough to travel to Bombay (now Mumbai) to pursue his dreams.
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Amrohi reached Bombay, which was emerging as a hub of cinema back then. Unfortunately, he underwent several initial failures and thus became well aware of the politics that was rampant in the studios. Incidentally, renowned singer K. L. Saigal had discovered Amrohi while he was in Lahore. Saigal introduced him to Sohrab Modi's film company, 'Minerva Movietone,' where he found his initial success.
The 1938 movie 'Jailor' was Amrohi's first story to be successfully adapted for the screen. The following year, he wrote the super-hit period love story 'Pukar.'
He subsequently wrote A. R. Kardar's 1946 feature 'Shahjehan.' Amrohi's directorial debut, the trend-setting 1949 'Bombay Talkies' production 'Mahal,' starring Madhubala and Ashok Kumar, was a musical hit. The film became a cult classic for using the Hindu concept of reincarnation for the first time on screen.
His next directorial venture was the controversial 1953 film 'Daera,' which depicted his love story with Meena Kumari. Meena Kumari starred in the movie, along with Nasir Khan and Nana Palsikar. Even though the film was critically acclaimed, it failed commercially. That year, he founded 'Kamal Pictures' ('Mahal Films').
In 1958, he established the 'Kamal Amrohi Studios' (or 'Kamalistan Studios') for his film production banner, 'Mahal Films.' However, the studio was shut down after 3 years. It was later named 'Natraj Studios' and was run and managed by his son, Tajdar Amrohi.
In 1954, while Meena Kumari was shooting for the top-grossing 1955 Hindi film 'Azaad,' Amrohi conceived the idea of making his masterpiece 'Pakeezah,' with her in the lead. Meena Kumari and Amrohi were married by then. The filming of the movie began by 1956, but the black-and-white sequences were reshot in color after 'Mother India' (1957) set the new trend. It was again reshot to follow the trend of the 'Cinemascope' technique that was begun by Guru Dutt's 1959 classic 'Kaagaz Ke Phool.'
In 1958, Ashok Kumar was cast to play a businessman named 'Salim,' the male lead in ‘Pakeezah.’ Later, Meena Kumari and Amrohi's separation in March 1964 got 'Pakeezah' shelved. By the time filming resumed in 1968, Ashok Kumar was too old to play the lead. Hence Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar, and Sunil Dutt were considered for the role. The role finally went to Raaj Kumar, and his character went from being a businessman to a forest ranger, to match his physical appearance. Ashok Kumar was roped in to play 'Hakim Saab,' but he chose 'Shahabuddin' instead.
Additionally, by March 1969, Meena Kumari was severely ill due to her alcohol issues. She was too sick to match her steps to one of the songs, 'Teer-e-Nazar Dekhenge.' Hence, Amrohi shot the sequence with Padma Khanna, with her face covered with a white veil.
Another struggle that 'Pakeezah' faced was in the music department, when lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, who was signed to write most of the songs, left midway to attend a ''mushaira.” Amrohi then roped in Kaifi Azmi as the new lyricist.
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In addition to directing, producing, and writing the film, Amrohi designed the set and camera movements. After over a decade, 'Pakeezah' was finally released on February 4, 1972, to a lukewarm critical response. However, the audiences loved it. The film got him nominated for the 'Filmfare Award’ for the “Best Director.”
However, it was Meena Kumari's untimely death that made 'Pakeezah' a cult classic, and it became one of the top-grossing films of that year. It is regarded as one of the best musical melodrama masterpieces ever made in India, despite being flawed. 'Pakeezah' was the inaugural film telecast by 'Doordarshan.'
Amrohi was one of the dialogue writers of the superhit 1960 period movie 'Mughal-e-Azam,' for which he won a 'Filmfare Award.'
His last film was the 1983 period feature 'Raziya Sultan.' Unfortunately, the film tanked at the box office, and Amrohi then shifted his focus on developing his studio.
He started a film titled 'Majnoon,' with Rajesh Khanna and Rakhee Gulzar in the leads, but the project got shelved. According to sources, he wanted to end his career with his last project, 'Aakhri Mughal.' He had already written a substantial portion of the script of the film. However, Amrohi died before the film could start.
Years later, noted filmmaker J. P. Dutta bought the rights of the film to revive the project, which could have been Abhishek Bachchan's debut. The project was, however, abandoned. Dutta planned to revive it again, in 2007, but the failure of his remake 'Umrao Jaan' got the film shelved again.
A song from 'Aakhri Mughal,' sung by Mohammed Rafi, was later used in the 1989 film 'Jism Ka Rishta' (1989).
Family, Personal Life & Death
Amrohi was initially married to Bilkis Bano, the maid of actor Nargis's mother, Jaddan Bai. After her death, he married Sayeda Al-Zehra Mehmoodi, who died on April 9, 1982. They had two sons, Shandaar and Taajdaar (both of them had worked in 'Razia Sultan'), and a daughter, Rukhsar Amrohi.
He met a 19-year-old Meena Kumari on the sets of 'Tamasha.' Veteran actor Ashok Kumar had introduced them. However, he had first seen her in 1938, at her house, when he had gone there in search of a child actor for 'Jailor.'
Amrohi later offered her a lead role in his next film 'Anarkali,' but on May 21, 1951, Meena Kumari had an accident and was hospitalized. Following this, they began exchanging letters, and their love blossomed.
The two got married on February 14, 1952, in a private ceremony, attended only by Amrohi's friend Baaqar Ali (as the witness) and Meena Kumari's younger sister, Madhu. They lived together for about 11 years.
Their marriage took a tumultuous turn when Meena Kumari's career was at its peak. Before getting married, Amrohi did not ask her to leave the industry, but he wanted her to return home soon after finishing her shoots and requested her not to allow anyone in her makeup room. Meena Kumari agreed to the condition but later broke her promise several times. Reportedly, Amrohi would spy on her. Some of Meena Kumari's contemporaries had even suggested that their marriage was marred by physical violence.
She once had a huge fight with Amrohi and went to her sister's house, never to return to him. After the separation, she became an alcoholic. She died a couple of months after the release of 'Pakeezah.' Amrohi, however, was by her side in her final years.
In his final years, Amrohi would regularly visit hospitals for check-ups. During that time, he met his fourth wife, who was his doctor. After Mehmoodi's death, he was lonely, and for the sake of his children, he married his doctor.
Amrohi had also begun a relationship with Madhubala while filming 'Mahal.' The relationship was supported by her father. Amrohi had even proposed marriage to Madhubala, but she had asked him to divorce his wife first. Amrohi refusedto divorce his wife and the relationship eventually ended.
Amrohi died on February 11, 1993, in Mumbai and was buried in 'Rehmatabad Qabristan,' next to Meena Kumari’s grave.