Remembering Madhubala, Bollywood’s Very Own Marilyn Monroe

A tribute to Madhubala’s incandescent performances and tragic life.

5 min read

It was a scandal, and even movie star-curious school kids reacted saying, “Haww, really, has she eloped?”

Circa 1960, by one of those incredible coincidences, Madhubala and Kishore Kumar had sought refuge in the squat apartment block, Arun building, right before my house on Narayan Dabholkar Road, the land’s end of the seven islands of Mumbai.

A tribute to Madhubala’s incandescent performances and tragic life.
Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si: Madhubala and Kishore Kumar, in a scene from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.

They couldn’t have found a more remote address, far away from the madding crowd of show business centred in the suburbs. Classical music and dance proponent, Brij Narain, was their host. No one could have suspected that Kishore Kumar, renamed Rashid Abdul after the nikaah with his begum, had gone off the radar, courtesy Brij Narain of the Sur Singar Samsad, who wasn’t exactly a fierce fan of B-town entertainment.

Now for a journo, that would have been a scoop sighting. For a bunch of schoolkids in knee-pants, then, the story of the getaway was tantalising, a perfect autograph-op.

So three or four of us, feigning seraphic smiles, rang the doorbell, to be politely told by the host, “Not now. Maybe later.” The ‘later’ was to come, the next morning. Madhubala was out for a walk on the seafront close by, protected from the sun by a rose-bordered parasol. She seemed to be smiling to herself, or so we imagined.

A tribute to Madhubala’s incandescent performances and tragic life.
Madhubala and Kishore Kumar in a comic scene from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.

“Autograph, please!” we chanted. Madhubala inspected us as if we were moppets from one of her films, laughed, “Tum log bhi picture ke shauqeen ho?” Yes, yes, absolutely! She signed the chits of paper absent-mindedly with a red-ink Shaeffers pen we’d offered to her, returned it carefully and glided towards a waiting Buick, waving out to us in what seemed to be like slow motion. Brij Narain was to later scowl at us, “Why did you all disturb her? See, they have left, word would have spread that they’re here.” Ulp, sorry sirji, won’t happen again.

“What do you mean, won’t happen again?” Brij Narain shrugged. “As if they’re going to elope again and again for your benefit.”

That’s the only time I saw Madhubala up, close and personal. One of my abiding regrets is that I never ever saw the ethereal beauty ever again – tallish, alabaster complexioned and with a fluorescent, tilted smile. By the time I teetered into the Bollywood beat, scouring the studios and interfacing with screen personalities, she was gone.

She passed away at the age of 36, after battling with a congenital heart defect. If she were alive today (14 February), Madhubala born Mumtaz Jahaan Dehlavi, would have been 89.

A tribute to Madhubala’s incandescent performances and tragic life.
Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in a scene from Mughal-e-Azam.

Needless to emphasise, it’s easier than turning the pages of nostalgia, to get sentimental about a legendary actress. I wouldn’t exactly go with the epithets of India’s Marilyn Monroe or an answer to Botticelli’s Venus, for her.

She has achieved a cult status because of her incandescent performances and a private life underscored by tragedy. The way it has been in the case of Meena Kumari, for whom success and sorrow were flip sides of the same coin.

Madhubala and Meena Kumari had to contend with lives scripted for them by their authoritarian fathers, both commenced work without sampling the little big joys of childhood. Both their lives were suffused by melancholia. And from all accounts, they couldn’t quite deal with the scars of loneliness. Kishore Kumar, it has been chronicled, bore her medical expenses but couldn’t quite take care of her, opting to visit her at most, once in a fortnight.

If Meena Kumari was believed to have drowned her bouts of melancholia in drink, Madhubala’s end-years were spent in deflecting an illness which had a deadline. At one point, doctors had declared that Madhubala wouldn’t last beyond a period of two years.

Despite that, she attempted to complete the last shooting spell required for Chalak co-featuring Raj Kapoor. Lore has it that since filmmakers had stopped approaching her to act, she threw caution to the wind, and steered towards film direction. Neither this project titled Farz Aur Ishq, nor Chalak, could get to the finishing line.

The real life Dilip Kumar-Madhubala romance, albeit scantily chronicled, is still the material that unrequited love stories are made of. After a seven year courtship, when Dilip Kumar testified against her in court in favour of B R Chopra, vis-à-vis her contract for Naya Daur, it was over. Or almost. She asked him to apologise before her outraged father Ataullah Khan. He didn’t.

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala had struck palpable chemistry in a series of films: Tarana, Sangdil, Amar and above all, K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam.  As the doomed courtesan, Anarkali in K Asif’s monumental epic, here was a vaulting performance, her best ever. And to think, Madhubala was the second choice for the long-in-production Mughal-e-Azam, which had actually taken off with Nargis. Similarly, she had lucked out with Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal, for which Suraiya had been the prime choice.

Incidentally, circa 1961 there was an outcry when she wasn’t awarded the Best Actress Filmfare trophy (Bina Rai was for Ghunghat) for Mughal-e-Azam. K Asif as Best Director and Naushad as Best Music Composer were bypassed too. Quite curiously, Madhubala wasn’t feted with a single major award during her lifetime, or even posthumously.

Unquestionably, Madhubala was the face of the black-and-white era. The advent of colour went on to accentuate her beauty for the original colour segments of Mughal-e-Azam, with the song set piece Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya and the finale.

The digitalised colour version, released in 2004, just doesn’t hold a candle to the original Mughal-e-Azam. In black-and-white, shorn of make-up and any form of styling for the prison scenes, she lip-syncs to the song Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye. Staggering!

Her flair for feather light comedies were best evidenced in Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55 and the screwball comedies Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Jhumroo and Half Ticket, with Kishore Kumar. She oozed intrigue with Ashok Kumar in Mahal and Howrah Bridge, ventured into a relatively realistic mode with Shakti Samanta’s Insaan Jaag Utha.

A tribute to Madhubala’s incandescent performances and tragic life.
Madhubala and Guru Dutt in a scene from Mr and Mrs 55.

However, in my book, nothing compares to Madhubala’s vulnerability contrasted with unbreakable strength in Mughal-e-Azam. Could she have ever topped that? That’s as redundant as asking if Nargis could have bettered Mother India, and Meena Kumari Pakeezah-plus-Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

Perhaps every legend has that never-to-be-equalled magnificent moment.

Those who’re spellbound for life by legends also treasure a magnificent moment. For us, a bunch of school kids, that magnificent moment was asking Madhubala, for an “Autograph please?”

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on February 14, 2016. It is being republished to mark Madhubala’s death anniversary.)

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