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Mehboob Khan’s Story Will Always Remain at the Heart of Bombay

Like Hindi cinema wouldn’t exist without Mehboob Khan, Mumbai will never be without Mehboob Studios

Updated
Entertainment
6 min read
Mehboob Khan’s Story Will Always Remain at the Heart of Bombay

Mehboob Khan’s films, including his most iconic venture Mother India, have literally shaped India’s cinematic history. But to us young film buffs, he’s a bit of a forgotten legend quite frankly. In my discovery of his achievements as a storyteller, what I found was immense courage. The courage to do what one’s heart truly desires, without carrying the weight of what might be at stake. That’s something I feel we could all do with a little more of. So, I set foot in Mumbai’s film hub Mehboob Studios once again, and for the first time ever I feel that its brick walls and silent corridors can’t wait to tell me a grand story.

Mehboob Khan: The father of Mother India (Photo: Twitter)

As I sit down to interview his son Iqbal Khan, the karta dharta of the studio today, I can sense his eagerness to tell me a lot more than what I am prepared for. I ask him how much time he can devote to my questions, and he asks me how much time I have to hear all his answers.

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As Destiny Would Have It

Muddai lakh bura chahe toh kya hota hai, wahi hota hai jo manzoor-e-khuda hota hai.

Not only was this the greatest truth of Mehboob Khan’s life, it was also the belief on which his movies stood tall. Iqbal reveals that being a deeply religious man, Mehboob believed that god’s will and hard work are the ultimate forces that shape one’s destiny.

India commemorates Mehboob Khan with a postal stamp

Born to a police constable in a small village near Baroda, Gujarat in 1906, Mehboob grew up in a modest environment, and never received a formal education. He was a son of the soil with no means whatsoever to make it big. But his love for cinema often made him hitch hike on trains en route to nearby towns, where he would catch a film or two, before jumping back onto one heading home.

Mehboob Khan wanted to be an actor, no matter what. At the age of 16, he got onto a train, with no intention of coming back. But his father found him and he was dragged back to his village. Iqbal says that at 23 again, he let his dreams take over and left, this time for good. He arrived in Bombay with just three rupees in his pocket, and a head full of magic.

Destiny played along. He started out by spending his days waiting endlessly outside Jyoti studios near Victoria Terminus, for a chance to get whatever work he could, on a film set. What was left of the day, he spent sleeping on the railway platform. Finally, he managed to impress the guard on duty and subsequently filmmaker Ardeshir Irani, who took him on as an extra in a film he was making.

Nargid Dutt in a scene from Mehboob Khan’s Mother India

Mehboob got several roles as an extra and even went on to being cast as a junior artist and then in a supporting role. In fact, Ardeshir Irani almost took him as the hero of Alam Ara, but industry bigwigs dissuaded him from getting a new face for what was already a big experiment in itself, India’s first talkie. Mehboob was sharp to realise along the way that though he might not make it as a lead actor, there was something else he could do.

So he decided to write a script and pitch it to a few studios. He was laughed at for being audacious enough to believe that they would let him direct, until they finally did. Al Hilal or The Judgement of Allah (1935), inspired by Cecil B DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross did good business and worked wonders for Mehboob.

Nargis, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar in a scene from Andaz (1949)

He went on to direct milestones such as the bold saga Aurat (1940), the romantic drama Andaz (1949), the swashbuckling musical Aan (1951) and the grand social epic Mother India (1957).

A True Feminist, Even Back in the Day

Nargis Dutt and Raaj Kumar in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (Photo: film poster)

Mehboob Khan is also a man I want to talk about today because his films made him a feminist. His best films had strong female protagonists and he never shied away from making a woman the real hero. His son tells me that while he was casting for Mother India (1957), Dilip Kumar was extremely keen to play the part of the father as well as the son.

Dilip sahab tried his best to convince the ace filmmaker, but Mehboob didn’t budge. Even though Dilip Kumar was the boss of the film industry back then, he had the utmost respect for Mehboob Khan, and understood his reasons for giving the story and its protagonist importance over him.
Iqbal Khan

Taking on a superstar would have diluted the strength of Nargis’ character, which for Mehboob was supreme. Also, their image as lovers was too hard to change in a maa-beta avatar.

Madhubala, Nimmi and Dilip Kumar in a scene from Amar (1954)
Even in Amar (1954), with a stellar cast including Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Nimmi, he told the story of woman who is discarded by a man as a one night stand. In fact, he did the unthinkable by making Dilip Kumar the villain, something that had never been done before.
Iqbal Khan

The film might have bombed because audiences couldn’t digest the chocolate boy being the bad guy, but his vision stood tall.

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Mehboob Khan Will Always Remain at the Heart of Bombay

100 Hill Road: Mehboob Studios (Photo: Twitter)

It is to Mehboob’s credit that from his humble beginnings as a spot boy, he went on to acting, writing, directing and producing films. Mehboob Studios came into being in 1952 and that’s when Bollywood got one of its first Hollywood style studios. Mehboob Khan was also a great admirer of Hollywood, but always stood his own ground when it came to his films.

Mehboob Khan could barely speak in English or work with cutlery. So when he was invited to Hollywood by a famous filmmaker, he took Dilip Kumar along to do all the talking. But as soon as he realised that the Americans weren’t taking him seriously, attempting to skim through his film, he stormed out with a shocked Dilip Kumar and the promise to never work with the reputed filmmaker.
Iqbal Khan
Mehboob Khan’s son Iqbal Khan narrates his father’s story (Photo: Twitter)

Though he struggled his way to the top, he never wished for his sons to take up the risky business. Mehboob Khan believed that the dirty business of films isn’t for the educated lot. So he ensured that his sons got the highest level of education, but when they took over the studio after his demise in 1964, they had a different set of challenges to face.

With success came a huge debt. While Mother India (1957), Mehboob’s biggest offering has come to define Hindi cinema, the film only made money 20 years after its release. Mehboob Studios managed to stay alive thanks to its sound studio, stages and generator rentals. Clearly, along with the debt and litigations, what Mehboob did manage to pass on to his next generation was courage. Iqbal Khan took over as the managing director of Mehboob Studios and still believes that the iconic landmark is only worth its land value today. He could have sold it off to rid the family of its money troubles, but just like his father, his courage made him pledge that Bombay will never ‘not’ have a Mehboob Studio. In the last 60 years, almost every actor, director, leading lady and writer has shared a deep bond full of rich stories with this creative sanctum.

Fires, litigations, debts, controversies and six decades, nothing has faded the stardom of 100 Hill Road and its creator, the real son of the soil, Mehboob Khan.

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