There’s something about that smile. It didn’t take much to have it flashing bright. At the slightest provocation, I’m told, Madhubala would break into gales of laughter that took a while to subside. Kathak maestro, Gopikrishna, once triggered off one such giggle fest. He was all of 16 when he turned up at Rooptara Studio on the sets of Sangdil, marched up to the 19-year-old star and asked her if she was ready for rehearsals. Madhubala took one look at the teenage dance guru and doubled over. Gopikrishna waited patiently for her to get serious. But she continued to shake with uncontrollable mirth till finally, the exasperated choreographer smacked her lightly on the waist and told her to stop. Madhubala turned still… There was pin-drop silence on the sets. It was unthinkable for a technician to raise his hand on the heroine. Everyone turned to look at her, fearing the worst. She surprised them by starting to laugh all over again.
Looking at Gopikrishna she giggled, “Since when did children become dance masters?” If the dancer was affronted by her laughing doubts, he chose not to express it. Rehearsals started and the song was wrapped up smoothly, even though Madhubala was no dancer. After it was over, the actor surprised her dance master with a visit to his home one fine day. This time, she wasn’t laughing when she handed him Rs 101 as ‘gurudakshina’ and became his disciple. That was Madhubala, ethereal and energetic, angelic and anguished.
Those laughing eyes masked a soul ripped by a lifetime of rebuffs and hurts, broken promises and pain. You’re probably wondering why I thought of writing on the Venus of the Bollywood screen. No, it’s not her birth or death anniversary. It’s just that 50 years ago, Life Magazine did a feature on her. The pictures are on the Internet. One look at those snapshots from yesterday and I was wowed all over again. “What are you going to write about her?” wondered a younger colleague. “You never met her.” True. But I did learn about her from the people she loved, and who loved her. One of them was her de facto
One afternoon, I cornered the ‘Loin’ in his den at Bandra’s Florida Apartment and prodded him to tell me about his Madhu… He remembered a shy, smiling girl who was petrified of crowds and rarely socialised. No parties and premieres for her, it was just work and home. So one day, when speeding down a Bandra street, the bad man of Bollywood was surprised by a burqa-clad woman frantically calling out to him to stop. Mystified, he applied the brakes and the lady peering in through the window lifted her veil. It was Madhubala! “I want to go to Eros to catch an English movie playing there. Can you drive me there?” she requested.
Ajit asked her to hop in. When they stopped in front of the theatre at Churchgate, he chivalrously stepped out to escort her and was immediately mobbed by a group of urchins. To divert them, he pointed to the burqa-clad woman who was hurrying inside and whispered that she was Madhubala. They chased after her to a chorus of “Madhubala, Madhubala…” She raced inside after shooting him a ‘I-could-kill-you’ look. This time, it was Ajit who drove away laughing. However, their laughter had died by the time they wrapped up Mughal-e-Azam. Madhubala, who had been detected with a hole in her heart and had lost the man she deeply loved, Dilip Kumar, after he gave evidence against her in court in the Naya Daur case, was a broken Ariel.
Ajit turned the pages of an album he had dusted out for me and sighed deeply, “There never was a more beautiful Anarkali, nor a more tragic one.” The words return to haunt me every time I see her smiling face.