Regard it as the most sensuous scene in Hindi cinema. To the tune of Tansen's 'Prem jogan ban gayi', Anarkali races towards Prince Salim and meets him hesitantly. Both sit in the patio. We see a feather caressing a face: big brown almond eyes, crimson lips that quiver with each stroke of the feather, ivory white skin. Salim looks captivated and so are we. He budges to kiss her. She looks away, but does not deny the moment. The feather covers the two faces as director K Asif leaves the rest to our imagination. Have we ever seen a face as iridescent as the moon, oozing pain and pleasure with each stroke of a feather?
In 1960, when Mughal-e-Azam was released, Madhubala was more than 50 films old and at the twilight of her career. But with this release she made sure her name was etched in the minds of generations to come. Born on February 14 as Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehlavi in Delhi, she blossomed as a child actor, establishing herself as a powerhouse actress with eyes that could kill. Madhubala was not a 'star' for long time even with Neel Kamal which put her naïve self next to Raj Kapoor. It was Mahal in 1949 that brought her at the fore as she lip-synced to an unforgettable 'Aayega aanewala'. She co-starred with top male leads of those times: Sunil Dutt, Ashok Kumar, Guru Dutt and Bharat Bhushan. She was ladylike yet coquettish, beneath those giggles and rolling eyes blazed the fire of an actor that still craved for a prodigious role. Anarkali was a powerful, author-backed character that Madhubala couldn't have let go. The 10 years of the making of Mughal-e-Azam saw a romance bloom between Dilip Kumar and Madhubala that ended ominously with the latter losing a legal battle against the makers and also probably love of her life, something she regretted till her death.
Anarkali's effervescent beauty and the emotion of doomed love were portrayed earnestly by Madhubala. Who else could have matched up to the excellence of Prithviraj Kapoor with 'Jab pyar kiya to darna kya', her eyes gleaming of victory as Akbar sends her back to the dungeon? Who else could have played a role that required so much of physical stress, despite a heart ailment? Kishore Kumar brought a whiff of fresh air to Madhubala's life that swept her away from patriarchal clutches and the gloom of a broken heart. The duo did Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Madhubala had flair for comedy, before Chalti... she had done Guru Dutt's Mr & Mrs 55. After a period of courtship, they married, which some see as a deliberate snub to Dilip Kumar. She lost the Filmfare award for Best Actress (Mughal-e-Azam) the following year to Bina Rai (Ghunghat). Madhubala never won an award.
It is said that she rarely made an appearance at the film premieres or gave interviews, a ruse to keep the shrouds of mystery around her. Dev Anand, who worked with her in Kaala Pani spoke lovingly of her chortles while Asha Parekh said that whenever the actress entered the sets there used to be a hushed silence as people were awestruck with her beauty. The Marilyn Monroe of Indian screen, Madhubala went into a forced exile from the mid-60s as the illness which she and her father successfully hid for a long time took its toll. In 1969, a few days after her 36th birthday, she passed away.
At the quiet Juhu Muslim Cemetery in Mumbai, where Madhubala was interred, civic authorities recently demolished her tomb along with many others to make space for new graves. Her life was laid out quite like the fate of Anarkali with struggle, suffering, emotional jolts and sacrifice. In Mughal-e-Azam, she says, "Kaanto ko murjhane ka khauf nahi hota (thorns don't have to fear withering)". Quite unlike any thorn, she was a flower that will never wither.
Rohit Sharma is an entertainment and broadcasting industry analyst. The views expressed by the author are personal.