Happy Birthday Madhubala, goddess of the silver screen

Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi. The name may not mean much to the present generation – in fact, it might not resonate even with Indians of earlier generations. But utter the word “Madhubala” and see the magic unfold! Yes, this was the original name of the queen of a million hearts.

Had she been alive, Madhubala would have celebrated her 85th birthday on February 14, 2018. It is an irony of fate that a woman whose love life was a complete mess and a humongous disaster should have been born on Valentine’s Day, the day of love.

Madhubala, the phenomenon

Madhubala, one of the most beloved and popular actresses India has ever seen, was a phenomenon that cinephiles struggle to understand even today.

Her mesmerizing beauty, her crooked smile, her perfectly-shaped oval face, her expressive, twinkling eyes, her sheer joie de vivre – and her untimely, tragic death at the age of just 36 years – all combined to stamp her in the public mind as an elusive, mysterious Force that was best left uncomprehended.

Madhubala’s short life had all the ingredients of a runaway potboiler. Widely regarded as the “The Venus of the Indian Screen” (an epithet bestowed on her by Baburao Patel, then editor and publisher of FilmIndia, India’s first film trade magazine, first edition published in 1935) and “The Beauty with Tragedy”, she continues to be remembered as the most iconic silver screen goddess India has produced. In addition to her legendary beauty, she exuded a coquettish charm that was so infectious, it melted the heart of anybody who as much as glanced at her.

Renowned film journalist B K Karanjia once declared that “none of her published photographs did full justice to her quite extraordinary beauty”. Co-star Dev Anand once admiringly said, “Statuesque is the word I would use for her”. Many others have similarly sung paeans to her tantalizing beauty and her effervescent personality.

Madhubala, the silver screen queen

In a highly successful career, Madhubala worked in more than 70 films, delivering many hits. Such was her appeal that American magazine Theatre Arts, in its August 1952 issue, featured her in an article with a full-page photograph under the title: “The Biggest Star in the World — and she’s not in Beverly Hills”. She received several offers from Hollywood as well, but all were declined by her father, Ataullah Khan.

Madhubala started her career as a child star, and went on to do leading roles when she was still in her early teens. World-renowned actress Devika Rani was impressed by her performance and potential, and advised her to assume the screen name “Madhubala”. Her first lead role, at the age of 14, was with producer Kidar Sharma when he cast her opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947).

However, instant stardom and phenomenal popularity came with Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949), a huge commercial success, co-starring Ashok Kumar, in which she essayed the role of Kamini, an elfin beauty, tailor-made from Heaven, who might, or might not, be a ghost. Following the success of Mahal, Madhubala appeared in box office hits such as Dulari (1949), Beqasoor (1950), Tarana (1951) and Badal (1951).

She worked with the biggest directors of her time, including Mehboob Khan (Amar, 1954), Guru Dutt (Mr. & Mrs. ’55, 1955), Kamal Amrohi (Mahal, 1949) and K Asif (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960). Madhubala also became a producer with films such as Naata (1955) and Mahlon Ke Khwab (1960), in which she was also the leading lady.

Some of her other successful outings include Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Kaala Paani (1958), Howrah Bridge (1958), Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), Half Ticket (1962), and many others.

Though she was already a very popular actress, her work in K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam drove her fans crazy. The mega movie, forever, established her as an iconic actress of Hindi cinema, with her popularity reaching previously unknown heights. To this day, Mughal-e-Azam is remembered as one of the finest motion pictures ever made anywhere in the world, with Madhubala’s portrayal of Anarkali, the love interest of Prince Salim, leaving an indelible mark on public consciousness. Her last film, Jwala, although shot in the 1950s, was released in 1971.

Madhubala, doomed in love

Ironically, Madhubala’s immense popularity and stardom were inversely proportional to happiness in her personal life. Indeed, her romances seemed to be doomed from the word go. While just about everyone was in love with her, she herself favoured reigning superstar, Dilip Kumar, who was equally in love with her. It was a good match — both were successful stars with a huge fan following, both were Pathans, from the same faith, both were incredibly good looking and popular.

But there was a catch – Madhubala’s father, the formidable Ataullah Khan, was dead against the idea of them getting together. He eventually came around, and agreed to the match on the condition that Dilip Kumar should work for his production house. This was unacceptable to the actor, who did not want any pre-conditions. Dilip Kumar has been quoted as saying “her father’s attempt to make the proposed marriage a business venture” was responsible for their eventual split.

Heartbroken, but proud as ever, Madhubla married her co-star, Kishore Kumar, in what was widely suspected to be a rebound marriage. She was said to have married him on a whim just to show up Dilip Kumar, with whom her relations had soured so much that towards the end of the filming of the magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam, they were not even on talking terms.

To make matters even worse, her health was on the decline. Madhubala suffered from ventricular septal defect. In simple terms, she had a hole in her heart. In the early sixties, her condition went from bad to worse. Her deteriorating health had a profound effect on her mental condition, and she and Kishore Kumar ended up fighting most of the time. She would often leave home in a huff and spend time at her father’s house.

Ultimately, Madhubala passed away in 1969, when she was just 36.

But it is unlikely that she will ever die in the collective memory of the nation. Her ethereal beauty and her inexplicable appeal to her legion of fans have created an enduring legacy that lives on nearly 40 years after her death.

Happy Birthday, Madhubala!



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