A Combination of Rare Beauty, Freshness, & Vitality
By Asif Javed, MD
Williamsport , PA
A film critic once said of Ingrid Bergman, “She had a combination of rare beauty, freshness, vitality and ability that is as uncommon as a century plant in bloom”. This comment might as well have been made about Madhubala.
She was blessed with rare beauty and talent but her life was nothing but tragic. When she sang, “Baree chote khai,jawanee pay roaay”, in Mughal-e-Azam, she might as well, have been reflecting on her own life. At the time of death on 23 Feb 1969, at the young age of 36, she was alone in Arabian Villa, her house in Bombay. Her film career had ended years earlier due to ill health while she endured a painful and loveless marriage until her broken heart finally gave way.
Born on Valentine’s day in 1933 as Mumtaz Jahan in a very conservative Pathan family in Delhi, she had no formal education. Very little is known of her family besides the fact that her father was the redoubtable Attaullah Khan and that she was one of six sisters. When her recent biographer, Khadija Akbar, tried to interview her surviving siblings, she was politely rebuffed. The family lived apparently hand-to-mouth and had moved off to Bombay to explore an acting career for baby Mumtaz.
Her first role was in 1942 as a child star in Basant; but unlike most child actors, who fade away, there was no looking back for her. The first real break-through was provided by Kidar Sharma — born in Narowal, Punjab --- in Neel Kamal opposite Raj Kapoor, himself a struggling actor at the time. Her filmi name Madhubala was chosen for her by Davika Rani who seemed to have a special talent for names – she chose the filmi name for a young Pathan from Peshawar too (Dalip Kumar). Years later, Kidar Sharma reflected on his impression of Madhubala: “As an actress, she was far superior to Raj, was intelligent, had a good diction and was very beautiful”. Madhubala never forgot her appreciation for this observation and considered Kidar Sharma her mentor. The movie was a success and, arguably, the most beautiful actress of her generation had arrived. The rest is history.
Madhubala’s film career, as a heroine, spanned from 1947 to 1962. She acted in 66 movies opposite most of the leading actors of the time including Dalip Kumar. Dalip had a prestigious place in the movie industry unlike anyone else. It was only natural that they were smitten by the love bug soon. Madhubala and Dalip acted together in four movies - Tarana, Ammar, Mughal-e-Azam and Sangdil -- the last loosely based on Charlotte Bronte’s master piece, Jane Eyre. It is said that their love affair started in 1951 while acting in Tarana and continued well into the late-fifties. They were both Muslim, Pathan, equally successful, deeply in love and seemed to be very compatible. What stopped their marriage? The short answer is, her stern father, who could safely be described as the villain in her life. He was in no mood to let go of the sole bread winner of the family. There may also have been some mutual dislike between him and Dalip.
It all came to a head when Madhubala was stopped by her father from going to the outdoor shooting of NiaDaur. Dalip, who was the hero, was approached by the distressed director, Chopra. Despite Dalip’s pleas, Attaullah Khan did not relent. A furious Dalip asked Madhubala to choose between him and her father. Madhubala, ever the obedient daughter, was unable to disobey her domineering father; for this, she paid the ultimate price, for Dalip walked away and was never to come back in her life. As a fallout, came the court case where Dalip famously admitted -- on record --his ever lasting love for Madhubala but the damage had been done.
Dalip carried on as before but Madhubala never recovered from the heart break. Being sensitive by nature, on the rebound and to escape her painful past, she made a reckless decision and married Kishore Kumar who was a struggling actor and a second rate singer at the time. She had been working with Kishore in Chaltee ka naam garee at the time of her breakup from Dalip and found Kishore’s comic personality soothing. Only later did she realize her folly. As a couple, they could not have been more different. He was very eccentric, Hindu, already divorced, had a son from a previous marriage and his parents never accepted her. This was a marriage of sheer incompatibility, notes her biographer Khadija Akbar, and then her health broke down.
Madhubala had a septa defect (a hole) in her heart since birth that began to show around the time of tension in her marriage. A trip to doctors in London brought no good news, just the prediction of limited life expectancy. Advised to rest, she retired. Her dysfunctional marriage a constant strain, they separated and she moved back to her house. She died a lonely and tragic figure. Those who visited her in her last days report her longing for Dalip. Although the two of them did see each other occasionally after the break up, he had moved on in life.
Madhubala’s style of acting was so effortless and natural that it went under-appreciated for a while. Ironically, her extraordinary good looks were also a distraction from her acting. Most of her movies have been forgotten but there were some which have left their mark, movies like Mahal, Mr and Mrs 55 and Tarana. However, it was her superb performance in Mughal-e-Azam as Anarkali that immortalized her.
Looking back, many critics feel that she was not careful in the selection of her roles. Part of the problem was her ever present father who was her manager too. But then Madhubala had always allowed her heart to rule her head. After all, she had been born on the Valentine’s Day.
How beautiful was Madhubala? It is said that Frank Capra, multi-Oscar winning director, was so captivated by her looks that he offered her a role in a Hollywood movie. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who came on the set to sing for Mughal-e-Azam, was mesmerized by her looks. A journalist once wrote that none of her published photographs did full justice to her extraordinary beauty.
Madhubala never won an acting award but for those who understood this art, it was different. Dalip Kumar, widely believed to be the finest actor of his generation who co-starred with her in four movies, says that had she lived longer and been more careful with her roles, she would have been far superior to her contemporaries. Kidar Sharma who directed Neel Kamal calls her performance far superior to Raj Kapoor’s in that movie. This is no mean tribute coming from one of the pioneer directors of Bollywood. Baborao Patel of FilmIndia, feared for his sharp pen and sarcasm, was even more generous: “She is easily our most talented, versatile and best looking artiste”.
Today, Mumtaz Jahan Dehelvi lies buried in a simple grave in the desolate Bombay cemetery of Santa Cruz where her neighbors include great lyricist Sahir Ludhianwi, Naushad and the king of melody Mohammad Rafi, who joined her eleven years later. Since her untimely death 42 years ago, many actresses have come and gone but like Meena Kumari and Marilyn Munro, she has left behind a mystique that refuses to go away. Her infectious smile is well remembered by a generation who is slowly fading away. For them, it has been just the painful reality that like Cinderella, Madhubala’s clock had struck twelve too soon.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)