(This story was first published on 16 December 2017. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Madhubala’s birth anniversary.)
Her eternal mystique is comparable to that of Marilyn Monroe. Although over 50 years have elapsed since she passed away at the age of 36 following a protracted heart ailment, Madhubala reigns as the poster queen of Bollywood.
A one-of-a-kind phenomenon, the appeal of this yesteryear’s heroine – still described as the Venus de Milo of Indian cinema – has been amassing an ongoing fan following among the millennials.
In the absence of any singular Heroine No 1 a la Hema Malini, Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit through different decades from the 1970s to the arrival of another millennium, Madhubala has emerged as a constant.
Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra and Alia Bhatt are among the most-wanted leading ladies in the Bollywood firmament, for sure. Alongside, a swelling section of the millennials in their late teens to those in their early 30s, have been tracking the black-and-white movies of Madhubala on movie sites, besides scouring for memorabilia on the internet.
Research analyst and former airline purser, Rohit Sharma of Noida, says,
“Digging into the open-for-all archives on the Internet, I have been able to access some of her ‘unposed’ photographs. I wasn’t impressed by the unofficial biographies and TV documentaries, based on conjectures and canards. Based on her magazine and newspaper quotes during her lifetime, and interviews with her colleagues and family, I have constructed my own myth of Madhubala.”
London-based photographer, editor and optometrist, Pooja Rai shares GIFs, rare photographs, her reviews of the star's films, pop-art and clips on her Tumblr page.
Rai has stated emotionally, “She has made more of an impression on the world than some of the current stars of Bollywood, and she remains just as mysterious and Mona Lisa-like, smiling through tears and unspoken-of woes... her story pushed me to keep on moving forward and to never give up”.
Reacting to earlier reports about a possible biopic on Kishore Kumar, whom Madhubala was married to for nine years, Rai’s pungent take was, “Pah! I would rather chew grass than see Kangana Ranaut or Katrina Kaif play Madhubala in the biopic. That’s like Justin Bieber playing the role of Jack in Titanic. Just no!”
Evidence of the millennials’ Madhubala fascination is clearly evident on social media networking sites and more:
Over 25 fan pages and groups are exclusively dedicated to Madhubala with over 1 lakh followers.
A dozen exclusive Madhubala accounts share her pictures regularly.
Key in Madhubala in the search bar of the microblogging site and multitudes of fan blogs open up dedicated to her photographs and fan-paintings.
Her love anthem Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya... and the seductively performed Aaiye Meherbaan... have garnered over 50 million views and still counting. The YouTube channel MsMojo (with over 960 K subscribers) has ranked Madhubala at No. 2 in their pick of the Top 10 Bollywood Actresses, with Madhuri Dixit shooing in at No. 1.
Madhubala’s pictures fetch maximum number of 'likes' and 'comments' on pages, Insta accounts and Twitter handles like Film History Pics (Twitter), oldbollywood (Instagram), retrobollywood (Instagram), Cineplot (Facebook) and Pinterest.
Cushions, throw-pillows, apparel, mugs and posters which feature her face are not only bestsellers with her fans but also among people who are not familiar with vintage cinema.
Her photographs are in demand on Indian, as well as, international sites in Canada, America and UK of Ebay. Pages torn out of old magazines carrying her photographs are being sold for somewhere between 30-100 dollars.
Single and broad-sheeters of Mughal-e-Azam, Howrah Bridge and even lesser known films like Shirin Farhad, are being sold for about 50-150 dollars. A vintage magazine featuring her on the cover is never priced below Rs 5000.
Press booklets, song books and lobby cards of Madhubala's films, are auctioned on bidding sites.
Photographs of Madhubala (including some from a Life magazine photo-shoot of the '50s) are being sold for Rs 23,000 apiece - the same amount as that of portraits of Deepika Padukone and Kareena Kapoor.
Mr & Mrs '55, Half Ticket, Howrah Bridge and Mughal-e-Azam are currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
Celebrities on Social Media:
Sonam Kapoor dressed up as Anarkali in the Mohe panghat pe song from Mughal-e-Azam for a photo shoot. Rishi Kapoor, once, dedicated a week to tweet only about her.
Madhubala was featured in America’s Theatre Arts magazine, Time magazine has also written about her. The celebrated Greek singer Stelios Kazantzidis, enamoured by her beauty, wrote a song, Mandoubala, in the '60s which is very popular to this day.
Ask Rohit Sharma about the millenials’ connect with Madhubala, and he surmises,
“Today, teenagers identify with the insecurities she lived with in her youth, like acne and hair issues. Others relate to her for being the poster-girl of an era when curvy bodies were considered normal and even sensuous. Some, simply, love her for being an excellent actress - one who will never be matched by the here-today-gone-tomorrow Bollywood heroines”.
Unstoppable, Sharma elaborates. “While her photographs attract most attention, it’s her powerful portrayal of the lovelorn-yet-fearless Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam which strikes a chord with youngsters. Despite the now generation’s aversion to black-and-white films, her status as an icon has rapidly grown among those born decades after her demise. Coincidentally, her date of birth 14 February coincides with Valentine's Day, which contemporaries her even more”.
Meanwhile, the search continues for the missing Madhubala films, which aren’t to be found for love or money on DVDs and movie channels. Among them are:
Phoolwari (1946) co-starring Motilal
Chittor Vijay (1947) co-starring Raj Kapoor
Lal Dupatta (1948) co-starring Sapru and Ulhas
Amar Prem (1948) co-starring Raj Kapoor
Desh Sewa (1948) co-starring Suraiya
Nishana (1950) co-starring Ashok Kumar
Dhake Ki Malmal (1956) co-starring Kishore Kumar
Indeed, as a lyric by Shakeel Badayuni in Mughal-e-Azam asked tauntingly,
Mohabbat hamne maana zindagi barbaad karti hai/ Yeh kya kam hai ke marjaane pe duniya yaad karti hai? (Yes love ravages our lives/Yet is it not enough that the world remembers you, long after you’re gone?)
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter)
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