One of the most graceful artists to appear on the film screen, Kumkum’s luminous presence elevated many significant films from the golden era of Hindi cinema. Iconic songs of the era like Kabhi aar kabhi paar laga tere nazar (Aar Paar, 1954), Ae dil hai mushqil jeena yahan (C.I.D, 1956) and Ja ja re ja balamwa (Basant Bahar, 1956) were picturised on her.
Kumkum was born as Zebunnissa to Nawab Manzoor Hassan Khan, a wealthy landlord of Hussainabad, Patna. Unfortunately the Nawabdom did not last long and financial demands prompted them to move to Kolkata. Kumkum had been passionate about dancing from her childhood. This desire took her to Lucknow to train under legendary Kathak dancer Shambhu Maharaj. Her film journey began when she took a trip to Mumbai in 1952.
The music composer Naushad was acquainted with her. When news spread amidst the industry that she was a masterful dancer, she started getting offers for films. The first song she appeared in as a dancer was Angana baje shehnai re, aaj mori jagmag atariya from the Nargis starrer Sheesha (1952). After this she did dancing roles in films like Noor Mahal (1954) and Mirza Ghalib (1954). She also took on the screen name Kumkum around this time. But her breakthrough came with the film Aar Paar (1954).
When the film ran into some trouble with the censors over the picturisation of the song Kabhi aar kabhi paar laga teri nazar, Guru Dutt called her for a screen test. Ultimately the song was picturised on her and proved to be a huge success. The success of the film led to Kumkum getting offers for acting as well. She was offered the role of a mother in Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55 (1955). Following this, she did small roles in films like House No. 44 (1955), Kar Bhala (1956), Funtoosh (1956), Pyaasa (1957), Mother India (1957), Char Dil Char Rahen (1959), Krorepati (1961), and Ankhen (1968). She was the lead in films like Ghar Sansaar (1958), Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere (1960), Tel Malish Boot Polish (1961), King Kong (1962), Mr X in Bombay (1964), Ek Sapera Ek Lutera (1965), and Main Wohi Hoon (1966). She also did some Bhojpuri films including the first ever Bhojpuri film Ganga Maiya Tohre Piyari Chadhaibo (1963), Ganga and Bhauji (1965).
Kumkum bid farewell to films in 1973 following the release of Jalte Badan (1973). After her marriage she shifted to Saudi Arabia, only coming back in 1995. Innumerable memorable songs benefitted from Kumkum’s elegant dancing. Her radiant presence is an indelible part of the memories of the golden era.