Ayega ayega, ayega aanewala ayega… It’s been 43 years since Madhubala bid the world adieu, but even today, I believe that I’ll look out of the window and find her on a swing, beckoning me over in Lata Mangeshkar’s haunting voice to join her on a journey beyond. Friends will say I’m fanciful… maybeI am. But for me, Madhubala is to Bollywood what Marilyn Monroe is to Hollywood. A picture-perfect portrait whose colours haven’t faded with time and whose magic remains undiminished!
Hard to believe that in the early 1940s, movie moghul Savak Wacha, Ashok Kumar’s producer partner in Bombay Talkies studio, was untouched by her ethereal beauty and insisted that singing star Suraiyya would make a more alluring Kamini in Mahal. When Kamal Amrohi, who had sold him his script on the condition that he be allowed to direct the film, tried to argue Madhubala’s case, Wacha pointed out to him that Ashok Kumar and Suraiyya made a salebale pair and might be able to sell his off-beat ghost story at the box-office.
But Kamal sahab was adamant. Madhubala, he insisted, suited the role best. Why didn’t they at least take her screen-test before ruling in favour of the ‘superhit’ Suraiyya? Reluctantly, Wacha succumbed to Kamal sahab’s repeated requests, but not before quietly instructing cinematographer, Joseph Wirching, who was on the company’s rolls, to mess up the test.
The German was as good as his word. Madhubala had never looked so bad. Kamal sahab was aghast, Wacha exultant! Now, it would have to be Suraiyya. “Sure,” nodded Kamal sahab. “But can I do another test with Madhubala before we sign on Suraiyya?”
Wacha gave in once again to the debutant director’s request, confident that he would eventually agree to the popular choice. But this time the astute Kamal sahab was prepared. He insisted on arranging the lights himself and supervised Wirching’s shoot. And the test results were mind-blowing! Everyone, including the shame-faced Wacha agreed that Madhubala made a bewitching bhoot (ghost) and Kamal sahab got his first movie as a director rolling in high spirits.
The film opened to eerie silence. Mahal ended with Kamini being unmasked and not a single reaction from the dumb-struck audience. No one would even look into Kamal sahab’s eyes, convinced he had gone stark crazy to have made a film like this. It was a surefire debacle! Even star-producer Ashok Kumar who had surrendered to Kamal sahab’s vision had a moment’s doubt. Only Kamal sahab was supremely confident the film would work. And it did. Made on a budget of R9 lakh, it went on to do a business of Rs 30 lakh in Bombay and Delhi alone. And turned the fortunes of the sinking studio!
Mahal also marked a new beginning for Kamal sahab as a director and was a milestone in the career of Madhubala. She was paid barely Rs 10,000 for the movie, but earned millions in terms of adulation. Everyone of Khemchand Prakash’s songs topped the charts, but it was nightingale Lataji’s ‘Ayega ayega, ayega aanelawal ayega…’ that has echoed down the decades.
A couple of days ago, sitting in a darkened theatre, I was transported into another black-and-white world by Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Berenace Bejo has little resemblance to Madubala except for a wonderfully mobile face. With her saucy winks and sunny smiles, her soundless whistles and silent sobs she made me smile and sigh just like Madhubala had.
Mahal and The Artist—the two films are poles apart yet there’s a connection. May be it’s in the conviction of two filmmakers separated by countries and decades to carry off a daring gamble… Maybe it’s in the magic of the monochromatic hues that light up the screen… Maybe it’s in the mesmerising misses who effortlessly trip into your heart and stay on your mind long after the movie is over. Mahal has got its share of accolades… May the Oscars go to The Artist now!