Madhubala – Timeless yet Ephemeral

Last updated on Feb 9, 2008

Posted on Feb 9, 2008

Madhubala, was in my view – as in many’s eyes – the most beautiful face to ever adorn the Indian movie screens.  She had the freshness, eroticism, divinity, innocence, naughtiness – all rolled into one!  Her life was a tragedy which was lived only to enrich others – specifically her father and family.  Everyone milked her.  Used her.  Rarely did anyone help her live a life worth her.

She was also in my considered view one of the most under-rated actress!  Her comedy in Chalti ka naam Gadi and her tragic performance in the epic Mughal-e-Azam were truly unique.  Ones that have never been matched in their power.  Yet, she will be known for her beauty… that was timeless, yet ephemeral.

Her angelic face also has provided me with solace and peace during my childhood as well.  During my school years, I would draw her potrait after every term exam.  She was my salvation and my companion on the road to recovery.  I would pour over her many pictures and study every contour of her face, marvel the forth-right-ness of her eyes and the hopeless-ness being pushed desperately through labored longingness in her ethereal smile.  I could never capture it all in my drawings.  She was there in my mind but eluded the paper.  It was befitting.

Yet, I would come back to her again after the next term and spend hours with paper, pencil, brushes and paints only to just get near and still be far.  Only once did I feel I captured some part of her beauty.  It was a casually drawn sketch.  Just a few pencil strokes.  What all the paints and colors could not capture, was captured by a few casually put black lines on a white paper.  Simplicity was the only thing that could capture her.  What I had believed was a very complex combination of features, was, in the end captured in absolute simplicity.  In that very unique relationship with me as my guide and model, she taught me an unforgettable lesson… very gently and softly she whispered “Simplicity, my friend”.. and moved on.

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Madhubala’s Life Story

Early life and work

Mumtaz Begum Jehan Dehlavi, famously known by her screen name Madhubala, was born in Delhi, India on February 14th 1933. She was Muslim and an ethnic Pathan, the 5th child of a conservative Afghan family of 11 children. In search of a better life for his impoverished family her father Ataullah Khan relocated them to Bombay. There they struggled for over a year and often frequented the Bombay film studios in search of work. This was when the young Mumtaz entered films aged 9.

Her first film was in the box-office success, Basant (1942) in which she played the daughter of the popular actress, Mumtaz Shanti. She then went on to act in several films as a child artist. It was the celebrated actress Devika Rani, impressed by her performances and potential, who changed her name to Madhubala. Her talent was clearly evident and she soon garnered a reputation as a reliable and professional performer. By the time she was an adolesant her uncommon good looks and tall, lissome

figure, meant she was already being groomed for lead roles.

Her First Break

Her big break came when film maker Kidar Sharma gave her a chance to act opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947). She had to pad her self in that movie to look older.  Until that point, she had always been billed as “Mumtaz” but this was the first film to credit her as “Madhubala”. She was only 13 years old but Madhubala had finally arrived on the Indian screen in a lead role. Though the film was not a commercial success she was noticed and her performance well received.

In the next two years she blossomed into a captivating beauty (film media and fans referred to her as the “Venus of the Screen”). However it wasn’t until she starred in the coveted lead role in Bombay Talkies production of Mahal in 1949, that Madhubala became a fully fledged star and a household name. Audiences enthused over Madhubala’s enigmatic screen presence and beauty. Though she was only 16 at the time, critics widley acknowledged that her subtle and skillful performance upstaged her seasoned co-star, Ashok Kumar. The film became a popular success and the song “Aayega Aanewaala” heralded the arrival of two new superstars both Madhubala and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.

Her Illness

Madhubala’s heart problem was discovered by doctors in 1950 after she frequently coughed up blood on the sets. She was born with a cardiac defect commonly known as a hole in the heart. At the time, heart surgery was not widely available.

Her illness was kept a secret from the industry for many years, though one incident was widley reported by the film media in 1954. Madhubala was filming in Madras for S. S. Vassan’s film Bahut Din Huwe. She became very ill and vommited blood on the sets. S. S. Vassan and his wife were very hospitable and cared for her in their own home till she was well again. Madhubala was extremely grateful and as a result broke her own rule of never attending film premiers, even her own, by making an exception for Bahut Din Huwe (1954). This incident in Madras was played down and soon forgotten about, enabeling Madhubala to continue working and to establish herself as an A-grade star.

As a result, Madhubala’s family were extremely protective. When filming at the studios, she would only eat home prepared food and drink water that came from a specific well in an attempt to minimise risks of illness or infection. Eventually her condition would take its toll and abbreviate her life and career, but for most of the 1950s, Madhubala performed successfully despite her illness and physical limitations.

Brush with Hollywood

In the early 50s as Madhubala became one of the most sought after actresses in India, she also attracted interest from Hollywood. She appeared in many American magazines such as Theatre Arts. In their August 1952 issue, Madhubala was featured in an extensive article with a full page photo. The piece was entitled: “The Biggest Star in the World – And she’s not in Beverly Hills”. It presented the actress as a mysterious and ethereal woman of mythical beauty with a legion of fans.

During this period, on a trip to Bombay and its film studios, the American film maker Frank Capra was pampered and hosted by the elite of the Hindi movie industry. However the one star he really wanted to meet was conspicuous by her absence, Madhubala. A meeting to discuss an opening for Madhubala in Hollywood was proposed by Capra. Madhubala’s father declined and put an emphatic end to her potential Hollywood film career.

Success in the Movies

Madhubala had many successful films following Mahal. With pressure to secure herself and her family financially, she acted in as many as 24 films in the first four years of her adult career. Her co-stars at the time were the most poular of the period: Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rehman, Pradeep Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand. Madhubala also appeared along side many notable leading ladies of the time including Kamini Kaushal, Suraiya, Geeta Bali, Shyama and Nimmi. The directors she worked with were amongst the most prolific and respected: Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt, Kamal Amrohi and K. Asif . She also ventured into production and made the film Naata (1955) which she also acted in.

During the 50s Madhubala proved herself a versatile performer in starring roles, the most memorable of which were as contrasting as they could possibly be. She was convincing as the sweet and traditional Kamal in Sangdil (1952) and equally successful in a comic performance as the spoilt heiress, Anita in Guru Dutt’s classic satire Mr and Mrs 55 (1955). In a contoroversial move, she had a memorable double role as twin sisters in Kal Hamara Hai (1959) and was equally believable as the cigarette smoking dancer Bella, and her more conventional saintly sister Madhu.

Suddenly in the mid-1950s her films, even major ones like Mehboob Khan’s Amar (1954), fared so badly commercially she was labelled “Box Office poison”. She turned her career around in 1958, with a string of successes: Phagun opposite Bharat Bhushan, Howrah Bridge opposite Ashok Kumar, Kala Pani opposite Dev Anand, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi opposite husband-to-be, Kishore Kumar and Barsaat ki Raat opposite Bharat Bhushan again in 1960.

In 1960 she went on to star in the epic mega-budget historical, Mughal-E-Azam, the crowning glory of her career and perhaps the decade of film making in India.

Personal Life

Madhubala had a long affair with actor and frequent co-star Dilip Kumar. They first met on the sets of Jwar Bhatta (1944), and worked together again in the film Tarana (1951). They also became a popular romantic team appearing in four films together. Madhubala was known for keeping a low profile, never attending film premiers (with the exception of the film Bahut Din Huwe in 1954) or industry functions and she rarely gave interviews. Film media often speculated over her personal life and romantic liaisons and Dilip Kumar was repeatedly mentioned. These rumours were confirmed with a bold and rare public appearance during their courtship in 1955. Madhubala was escorted by Dilip Kumar for the premier of his film Insaniyat (1955), a film with which she had no other association. By attending the premiere officially escorted by Kumar, they publicly acknowledged their relationship.

Madhubala’s romance with Kumar lasted six years, between 1951 and 1957. Their association was ended following a highly controversial and widely publicized court case. B.R. Chopra, the director of the film Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were currently starring in, Naya Daur (1957), wanted the unit to travel to Bhopal for an extended outdoor shooting. Ataullah Khan objected and even claimed that the entire Bhopal schedule was a ruse to give Dilip Kumar the opportunity to romance his daughter. Finally, Chopra sued Madhubala for the cash advance she received from him for a film she now had no intention of completing. He also replaced her with South Indian actress Vyjayanthimala. Madhubala obediently supported her father despite her commitment to Dilip Kumar. Kumar testified against Madhubala and Ataullah Khan in favor of the director B.R. Chopra in open court. The case was lost by Madhubala and her father amid much negative publicity. Up until that point Madhubala had worked hard to gain a reputaion as a reliable and professional performer with much good will in the industry. Her image was badly damaged after this episode. Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were effectively separated from that point on.

She met her husband, actor and playback singer, Kishore Kumar during the filming of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961). At the time he was married to the Bengali singer and actress Ruma Guha Thakurta . After his divorce, because Kishore Kumar was Hindu and Madhubala Muslim, they had a civil wedding ceremony in 1960. His parents refused to attend. The couple also had a Hindu ceremony to please Kumar’s parents, but Madhubala was never truly accepted as his wife. Within a month of her wedding she moved back to her bungalow in Bandra because of tension in the Kumar household. They remained married but under great strain for the remainder of Madhubala’s life.

Mughal-e-Azam and beyond

It was the film Mughal-e-Azam that marked what many consider to be her greatest and difinitive characterization as the doomed courtesan Anarkali. Director K. Asif, unaware of the extent of Madhubala’s illness, required long and grueling shooting schedules that made heavy physical demands on her. Whether it was posing as a veiled statue in suffocating make-up for hours under the sweltering studio lights or being shackled with heavy chains. From 1951 through to 1959 Madhubala invested her best efforts into Mughal-e-Azam. The films remaining intimate romantic scenes were filmed under much tension and strain between Madhubala and a now, estranged Dilip Kumar. This emotionally and physically taxing experience is widely perceived as the main cause of her subsequent decline in health and premature death.

On August 5th 1960, Mughal-e-Azam released and became the biggest grossing film at that time. A record that went un-broken for 15 years until the release of the film Sholay in 1975. It still ranks second in the list of all time box-office hits of Indian cinema (inflation adjusted). Despite performing along side the most respected acting talent of the industry, Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote, and Dilip Kumar, critics recognised and appreciated Madhubala’s intelligent and multi layered performance. She received some recognition as a serious actress when she was nominated for a Filmfare Award. However she did not win losing out to Bina Rai for her performance in the film Ghunghat (1960). In Khatija Akbar’s biography on Madhubala (see reference section), Dilip Kumar paid tribute to her talent: “Had she lived, and had she selected her films with more care, she would have been far superior to her contemporaries. Apart from this she also had a warm and cheerful nature. God had gifted her with so many things…”

Prior to Mughal-e-Azam critics of the time had often commented that Madhubala’s beauty was greater than her acting ability. This was in part due to careless choices in film roles. As sole support of her family, she accepted work in any film, causing her credibility as a dramatic actress to be seriously compromised. Something she later expressed regret over.

In 1960, Mahubala hit the peak of her career and popularity with the release of back to back blockbusters Mughal E Azam and Barsaat Ki Raat. She was offered strong, author backed roles, but her deteriorating health did not permit her to enjoy this period and develop as an actress. At this point Madhubala became so ill that she could not accept any new films or even complete her existing assignments. In the biography by Khatija Akbar, her frequent co-star Dev Anand recalled “She was so robust and full of life. One could never conceive she was seriously ill. Then one day she just disappeared…”.

She did have intermittent releases in the early 60s. Some of these, like Jhumroo (1961), Half Ticket (1962) and Sharabi (1964), even performed above average at the box-office. However most of her other films issued in this period were marred by her absence in later portions when her illness prevented her from completing them. They suffer from compromised editing and in some cases the use of “doubles” in an attempt to patch in scenes that Madhubala was unable to shoot. Her last released film Jwala, although filmed in the late 1950s, was not issued until 1971, two years after her death. Incidentally, apart from some Technicolor sequences in Mughal-e-Azam, Jwala is the only time Madhubala appeared in a colour film.

Final Years

In 1960, Madhubala sought treatment in London as her condition deteriorated. Complicated heart surgery was in its infancy and offered her some hope of a cure. After an examination the doctors there refused to operate, convinced her chances of surviving the procedure were minimal. Their advice was that she should rest and avoid overexertion, and predicted that she could live for another year. Knowing her death was imminent, Madhubala returned to India, but defied the predictions by living for another 9 years.

In 1966, with a slight improvment in her health, Madhubala tried working again opposite Raj Kapoor in the film Chalack. Film media heralded her “comeback” with much fanfare and publicity. Stills from this time showed a still beautiful but pale and wan-looking Madhubala. However, she collapsed on the first day of shooting and the film was shelved.

When acting was clearly no longer an option, Madhubala turned her attention to film making. In 1969 she was set to make her directorial debut with a film named Farz aur Ishq. However the film was never made, as during the pre production stages, Madhubala finally succumbed to her illness and died on February 23rd, 1969, within days of her 36th birthday. She was buried at Santacruz Burial Ground by her family and husband Kishore Kumar.

Quintessential Madhubala

In her short life, Madhubala made over 70 films. She is often compared with Marilyn Monroe and has a similar position in Indian film history. Perhaps because she died before being relegated to supporting or character roles, to this day Madhubala remains one of the most enduring and celebrated legends of Indian cinema. Her continuing apeal to film fans was underlined in a 1990 poll conducted by Movie magazine, when Madhubala was voted the most popular Hindi actress of all time, garnering 58% of the votes.

Her films are widely seen on Television and DVD transfers of most of Madhubala’s work have enabled a resurgence of her fan base. Dozens of clips and fan made montage tributes from her films have been uploaded and can be seen on the popular video websites like Youtube. No other vintage Hindi actress has such a large presence on the video sharing site. In India, street traders and shops sell her Black & White posters and publicity shots along side the current film stars of Hindi Cinema. In 2004 a digitally colorized version of Mughal-e-Azam was released and, 35 years after her death, the film and Madhubala became a success with cinema audiences all over again.

The popular actress and sex symbol of the 1970’s Zeenat Aman is often acknowledged as the prototype of the modern and westernized Hindi film heroine. Yet it is often overlooked that Madhubala was seen portraying westernized and even vamp like characters back in the 1950’s. A bold image for a Hindi film heroine to portray in an age when demure and self sacrificing ideals of Indian womanhood were the order of the day. As such it is Madhubala’s (and to some degree, her contemporary Nargis ) pioneering influence on modern Hindi actresses that is prevalent today.

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