A Never Fading Star of Hindi Cinema - II


By Rohana R. Wasala

Part i of this article appeared in the Midweek Review of Feb.22

David Cort contrasts the newcomer with the traditional "padded ladies": "Madhubala has the wide shoulders and athletic body of the modern girl the world over, a type fairly new to India. She walks like a dancer, that is, a western ballet dancer, not a Hindu dancer,….." In this probably Madhubala was the perfectly enchanting prototype of the plethora of inferior versions we have in Hindi cinema today.

He also writes in the article: "As a new type in India Madhubalamust probably stand for the ideal of the free Indian woman or what India hopes the free Indian woman will be. She is in that sense a symbol of the advance guard of a revolution". The choice of Madhubala as a symbol of the emerging India struck the American journalist as something remarkable in view of the fact that she was a Muslim, a classic Muslim type at that, whereas India was preponderantly Hindu. He felt that her family was able to survive the communal disturbances of 1947 which displaced some six million Muslims, and which left half a million people dead, due to Madhubala's position as a star, for she had just emerged as one in 'Neel Kamal'. He was writing around the beginning of Madhubala's adult career. His observations about her proved prophetic. She demonstrated her great innate acting talents. It looked as if she wanted to work in as many films as possible; she threw herself heart and soul into her work; she was very energetic, and got on with her co-actors very well. However, she was not destined to realise her full potential either as an artist or as a person. This was due to circumstances beyond her control.

Personal life

In traditional accounts of Madhubala's personal life, three circumstances stand out: her relation to her family where her father figured a lot, and principally decided the course of her life and work; her congenital heart problem; and her affair with the legendary Dilip Kumar (Mohammad Yusuf Khan), her co-star in a few films, including the monumental Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Incidentally, Dilip Kumar passed his 89th birthday last December.

MadhurBhushan, on the CNN/IBN programme mentioned above, recalled how her sister Madhubala, when she was hardly seven, pestered their father with "Appachi, please take me to Bombay. I want to act in films". She was very pretty, sweet, and smart. Other people also asked him to allow the girl to do what she wanted. At first, however, he was reluctant to do so fearing his conservative family's censure. Yet, circumstances such as losing his job must have forced him to change his mind. So, it appears that he moved to Bombay with his family to find work for the little girl. After some effort father and daughter succeeded. That's how she got her maiden role in 'Basant'. Cort says that initially the girl was employed by the cinema company at $45 a month, which must have been some additional income for the hard pressed family. It is often claimed that Mahubala became the sole breadwinner of the family. As a young girl she worked hard to earn as much as possible. Though many writers like to stress that her allegedly mercenary father exploited his daughter to the maximum, this is highly unlikely. MadhurBhushan emphatically denies that there was any such pressure on her sister. Since this family can be taken as a normal family there's no reason to doubt that she is speaking the truth in view of one single vitally important fact: it was that Madhubala was suffering from a congenital heart defect or "a hole in the heart", for which there was no available remedy at that time; so, the family including her father were extra protective of her all her life. Madhubala worked hard of her own accord. In KhatijaAkhbar's biography of the star "Madhubala: Her Life, Her Films" (1997),DevAnand (who died 3, December 2011 at age 88) is quoted as saying about Madhubala's death in 1969 of a stroke due to her disease: "She was so robust and full of life and energy. She was always laughing and enjoyed her work. One could never conceive she was seriously ill. Then one day out of the blue she just disappeared...".

Meeting Dilip

Madhubala first set her eyes on Dilip Kumar in 1944, when she was eleven and the latter twenty-two. (The woman he subsequently married and remains married to date - beauty queen and actress SairaBhanu - was born that year.) It was when they were doing the film 'Taraana' (released 1951) that they started seeing each other. Dilip Kumar had had to conclude an affair with a woman who was already married. Madhubala's father objected to her relationship with Dilip Kumar, though it appears that he later softened his attitude. The affair lasted for five or six years from that time to 1956. She was truly in love with Dilip Kumar, but whether her love was reciprocated has not been established. B.R. Chopra Snr signed them on to do a film named 'NayaDaur' , and paid them the actor fees. The film maker wanted Madhubala to travel to Bhopal for a 15 day outdoor shoot. But Athaullah Khan did not agree to his daughter being taken there because he held that it was not a safe location for her, for she was a craze with the public, and the place was infested with dacoits; he charged that it was a ruse for allowing Dilip Kumar to romance with his daughter; he suggested a change of location. Chopra didn't want that. In the meantime Dilip Kumar asked Madhubalato give up acting and marry him, and she agreed to do so on condition that he apologised to her father first. But he refused to do so. That was the end of the affair. The dispute eventually led to a court case, which was decided against Madhubala. The unfortunate incident damaged her credibility as a reliable professional. In addition to this, her health condition worsened. In the same period, in spite of her best efforts, a number of her films including Mehboob Khan's 'Amar' in which she staged her first mature performance flopped, and she was vilified as "Box office poison". Despite all this bad luck, she worked on her films with her usual dedication. Work on K. Asif's magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam which cast Madhubala as the ill-fated Anarkali against Dilip Kumar in the role Prince Salim commenced in 1951 and came to an end in 1960. Madhubala managed to do more than restore her earlier aura; the film proved her magnum opus as well. As at 2008, Mughal-e-Azam was the second highest grossing Hindi film in history, the first being the AmitabBacchan film 'Sholay' (1975).

It was often alleged that Madhubala's beauty overshadowed her acting talent. One cannot subscribe to this view, considering her track record. In reality, she proved herself very versatile and spontaneous in the many diverse roles she did in her films. In 'Taraana' (1951) she was an innocent, but uninhibited village beauty; 'Amar' (1954) saw her playing convincingly the role of a mature young woman who sacrificed her love for compensating for a youthful indiscretion her lover had committed; crime thriller 'Howrah Bridge' (1958) cast her against veteran actor Ashok Kumar as an Anglo-Indian cabaret dancer fitted out in deep cut blouses and fitted Capri pants; she more than matched the comic genius of her future husband (1960-1969), the three times married actor singer Kishore Kumar in the rollicking comedy film 'ChaltiKaNaamGaadi' (1958) in which, critics claimed, she eclipsed the three Kumar brothers.

Her acting skills and other claims to star status have been recognized, though, in retrospect. Madhubala was placed second in the top ten list of "Bollywood's best actresses ever" in rediff.com's International Women's Day 2007 Special, in which the actresses who made it to the final list were ranked on their "...acting skills, glamour, box office appeal, versatility and icon status -- and the fact that each of them became a figurehead for Bollywood, ushering in a new wave of cinema...".


When work on Mughal-e-Azam began in 1951, Madhubala was eighteen. It took nine years to complete it. Most of this period saw her facing crisis after crisis in her life. She was definitively diagnosed as having a hole in the heart in 1954; her affair with Dilip Kumar was on the rocks; some films she worked hardest on became box office failures and earned her the derogatory nickname "Box Office Poison" s already pointed out; and on top of all these Madhubala had to do intimate love scenes with her estranged ex-lover Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam! However, with its release in 1960, she reached what could be called her zenith. Amidst ill health she was able to pursue her career only for a few years more. Her last full film 'Jwala', which she did with Sunil Dutt, was completed in 1964, but released only in 1971, that is, two years after her death. Had she lived longer, she could have done better than many of her contemporaries. In KhatijaAkhbar's biography of Madhubala, Dilip Kumar talks about her talent in these words::"Had she lived, and had she selected her films with more care, she would have been far superior to her contemporaries. Apart from being very versatile and an excellent artiste, she had a warm and cheerful nature. God had gifted her with so many things...".

Although Madhubala kept a low profile from the very beginning, she had her fair share of troublesome attention from journalists, as a glance at film magazines of the time reveals. She had to even prohibit pressmen from visiting her sets during shooting (no doubt her father had a hand in this). Because of her family's constant protection, there was little room for her name to be linked to any scandals. Except for ShammiKapoor (b.1931) and Kishore Kumar (b.1929), who were older than her by only a few years, all the other prominent male stars she had to work with were very much senior to her in age: Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, DevAnand, Bharat Bhushan, Premnath, Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar etc. Still, malicious film gossip accused her of doublecrossing Dilip and Premnath, and she was only seventeen at that time, busy doing films under the close protective watch of her father.

Victims of communalism

She was also a victim of communal prejudice. Her act of giving 50,000 rupees out of her savings to the Bengal Refugee Fund in 1950 when she was just seventeen to help Hindu refugees from Muslim East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh) might have been partly an attempt to counter that prejudice. But it is known that she helped many people and causes silently and anonymously.

Ironically, however, she suffered worst because of male prejudice against women. First, her father's opposition to her affair with Dilip Kumar interfered with her hopes of marrying the only man she wanted to have; when he appeared to relent, Dilip Kumar was too arrogant to apologise to her father as she wanted him to (Dilip had demanded that she give up seeing her father after her marriage to him, which she refused to do). If they had been a little more considerate towards her as a woman, without insisting on having their own way as superior beings as males, her life would have been much happier.


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