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Madhubala’s 85th birth anniversary: Beyond her arresting beauty, a look at her life’s tragedies

Bollywood’s iconic beauty and talent, Madhubala, would have turned 85 had she been alive. On her birthday today, here’s a look at what made her so special, her life’s tragedies and her work.

bollywood Updated: Feb 15, 2018 09:43 IST
Nivedita Mishra
A rare gem called Madhubala. Seen here, in a classic shot from K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam.
A rare gem called Madhubala. Seen here, in a classic shot from K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam.

Madhubala is, by far, the most iconic silver screen goddess India has produced. Known for her legendary beauty and her coquettish charm, Madhubala (real name Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi) was much more than that.

It is a known fact that every beautiful and successful actress who has ruled the Indian silver screen has been compared to Madhubala, at least once in her lifetime. So striking was her beauty that famous film journalist BK Karanjia had declared that ‘none of her published photographs did full justice to her quite extraordinary beauty’. Her co-stars would often talk of her admiringly. Dev Anand was once quoted as saying “statuesque is the word I would use for her”. Baburao Patel, editor and publisher of FilmIndia, both feared and respected by the film industry, had dubbed her the ‘Venus of the Indian Screen’.

Madhubala’s wax model at Delhi’s Madame Tussauds museum.

If it wasn’t her beauty, then her love life (or may be the lack of it) and her troubled marriage was what people remember her for. Madhubala and Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan) were madly in love. Both were superbly matched – successful stars with huge fan following, Pathans and incredibly good looking. That they shared a faith too should have been a plus. However, it is alleged that her father, the formidable Ataullah Khan, was the reason behind the split. Madhubala’s father was initially opposed to the match but eventually came around. However, he agreed to the match on condition that Dilip work for his production house, an offer unacceptable to the actor. Dilip has been quoted as saying “her father’s attempt to make the proposed marriage a business venture” was what ruined it for him.

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar first worked together in a film called Tarana (1951).

Her marriage to Kishore Kumar (they remained married for nine years) was equally problematic. It has been alleged that she got married to him on a whim that she could get any man she desired. Whatever the reason, the union was an unhappy one and some say the principle reason was her declining health. Madhubala suffered from an incurable health problem – she had a hole in her heart. The condition is called ventricular septal defect in medical terms, in which the body produces extra blood. It has been reported that she would often bleed from her nose and mouth. A doctor would routinely come to her home to extract blood from her body. By early 1960s, the condition went from bad to worse. Her health affected her mood and it is alleged that she and Kishore often fought and she mostly lived in her father’s home. Her end came in 1969, aged 36.

While the story of her life, her beauty, her appeal and her legion of fans have added to her enduring legacy, for nearly 40 years after her death, she is best remembered for her role as the doomed courtesan Anarkali in the iconic Bollywood film, Mughal-e-Azam. However, limiting her legacy to the K Asif film alone would do great disservice to the actor in her. For even in the short career of 27 years (she made her acting debut as a child artist in a film called Basant in 1942), Madhubala acted in a variety of roles. Songs picturised on her still feature in music shows on television.

On her 85th birthday, here’s a look at some of her iconic roles.

Mahal (1948)

Any compilation of the best works of Madhubala would be incomplete with the mention of Mahal. This Kamal Amrohi-directed reincarnation drama, starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala, is, of course, famous for its haunting melody, ‘Aayega, Aayega Aane Wala’. However, what many may not know is that the character of Kamini/Asha that Madhubala essayed in the film was quite far removed from a screen image of the vivacious beauty. Playing a ghost, her imagery was, perhaps, the first of what would become the template of Hindi film female ghost. Though Kamini never wore a white sari but as it was the black-and-white era, we will never know what colour she actually wore. Her character, we come to know later, is not a ghost but a woman who feigns being a ghost to have her way. She actually goads the man she loves to kill.

Kala Pani (1958)

Based on a novel called Beyond This Place by Scottish writer AJ Cronin, Kala Pani was about a son who goes looking for his father, jailed for a criminal offence. Not convinced of the charges against him, the son digs deep into the case and with the help of a news reporter and a prostitute is able to nab the real culprits and set his father free. While the plot was centred around Dev Anand’s character, Madhubala as a young news reporter too shone in a small part. Of course, the song ‘Achha Ji Main Haari, Chalo Maan Jao Na’ is hugely popular to this day.

Howrah Bridge (1958)

This Shakti Samanta film was also an urban murder mystery with drama thrown in. Here again, while the film was about a character played by Ashok Kumar, Madhubala as the Anglo Indian bar singer Edna was absolutely stunning. Her popular song ‘Aayiye Meherbaan’ remains an eternal favourite. Playing Edna who sings at the bar, Madhubala refined sensuality on Indian screen. As she flirted innocently with the camera, several generations of India men swooned over her.

Mr and Mrs 55 (1955)

Madhubala was the queen of comedy. Small wonder then that in her body of work, comedies far outnumber any other genre of acting. As the spoiled heiress to a fortune that her greedy aunt wants to usurp, Madhubala was in her elements. As part of the will her deceased father has left behind, Madhubala’s character must marry. An over enthusiastic aunt (played by the veritable Lalita Pawar) devises a way -- first get her married and then have her divorced in order to lay her hands on her wealth. The aunt arranged for a guy, played by Guru Dutt, who is a struggling cartoonist. The sham marriage turns into a relationship when, after enough drama, Madhubala’s character realises that her place is with her husband. As a spoiled heiress who turns into a good housewife, the role gave Madhubala a lot of scope to act and, needless to say, she excelled in it.

Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

The Bharat Bhushan and Madhubala-starrer was a love story but is said to be well ahead of its times. Of particular mention were its female characters, who are shown to be independent and strong women, capable of taking their own decisions. Madhubala plays the daughter of a police commissioner who falls in love and then elopes with a singer, against her father’s wishes. The conflict shown in the film has more to do with the complexity between the lovers, instead of struggle between parents and their children and the choices the latter make. The film also glorifies singing girls, otherwise a taboo subject. Madhubala, as the beloved who runs away but later have issues with her beloved put up a spirited performance, one that needs to be applauded.

Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

The crowning glory in her short career will, of course, be Mughal-e-Azam. The film, which took inordinately long time to be made, was quite simply a clash between Madhubala’s Anarkali and Prithviraj Kapoor’s Akbar. As a rebel who will stand up to a much stronger opponent, Anarkali was riveting. And while the story of the doomed love between courtesan Anarkali and Mughal scion Salim had been made before on the silver screen too (Bina Rai-Pradeep starrer Anarkali in 1953), it is K Asif’s masterpiece which is best remembered. And much of the credit goes to its lead actors. It is said that the classic scene when Dilip Kumar caresses Madhubala with a feather was shot when the relationship between the two had soured so much that weren’t even greeting each other! Yet, how that scene has captured the imagination of the world!

In her life as in her death, Madhubala had the ability to capture people’s imagination. So much so that even Hollywood director Frank Capra wanted to cast her in a film. That, of course, is another story.

Author tweets @mniveditatweets

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