An Ode to the Timeless Beauty That Is Madhubala
Born Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi, actor Madhubala is a legend who doesn’t need an introduction. She died when she was only 36, and her life story is one that must be told. Born on February 14, 1933, in Delhi to Attaullah Khan and Ayesha Begum, she belonged to an orthodox middle-class family and was the fifth of 11 children. After her father lost his job at the Imperial Tobacco Company in Peshawar, the family relocated to Delhi and then to Mumbai. But, fate was not on their side. The family lost three daughters and two sons, and a dock fire in April 1944 wiped their small house out. Luckily for them, they were out to see a film that fateful day, and survived. With a large family to feed, Madhubala started looking for work at the studios in Mumbai. At the age of nine, she made her debut with Basant (1942).
Talking about their childhood, Madhubala’s youngest sister, Madhur Bhushan, told Filmfare, “Right through my childhood, Apa (as she addressed the actor) remained busy shooting. Coming from a conservative Muslim family of Pathans, my father wasn’t keen that we study. But fortunately, I was sent to St Joseph’s Convent, Bandra, Mumbai. Yes, she was the only earning member. My father worked with the Imperial Tobacco Company in Peshawar with the British. But being a Pathan he was hot-headed and self-respecting. He couldn’t bear being badly treated and lost a 15-year-old job in seconds. He brought all of us to Mumbai. Apa, who was just seven, had talent; she could sing and dance. So she did her first film Basant as a child actor. She remained the earning member till the last. All that we are today, we owe it all to her. Abba was a disciplinarian. Apa had to begin shooting at 9am. At 6pm, the car would be sent to the studio and she’d be brought home. My father never went to the studio. He was not difficult as is believed. He was disciplined and insisted on punctuality. That was what she imbibed too. Once she was to shoot at Ranjit Studio. But there were heavy rains. Abba said, ‘You must go; your name shouldn’t be tarnished.’ Those days Ranjit Studio was a 15-minute drive from our home in Bandra. But it took her an hour and a half to reach. The gates were locked. No one had turned up. She waited for half an hour and returned.”
At the age of 14, the actor had bagged her first leading role opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947), which was also the last film to credit her as Mumtaz before she assumed her screen name Madhubala. From then on, there was no looking back. She starred in hits like Mahal (1949), Dulari (1949), Beqasoor (1950), Tarana (1951), Badal (1951), Aparadhi (1949), Mr. & Mrs. ’55 (1955), Kala Pani (1958), Howrah Bridge (1958), Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), and, of course, Mughal-e-Azam (1960).
Of all the things Madhubala is remembered for, it is her timeless beauty that seems to be etched in her fans’ memories. Talking about the same, Bhushan said, “What do I say of her beauty? The fact that she’s spoken about (so many) years after she passed away is proof enough. We suffered from a complex when we stood beside her. Being Pathans we were all tall, fair, and had long hair. But none of us sisters looked like her. Our mother was short. We had taken after our father. But we weren’t a patch on Apa. She loved wearing plain white sarees. At home she’d wear maxis. She loved mogras in her hair. She was fond of gold and kundan jewellery. She was also fond of sher-shayri as she knew a bit of Urdu. An English tutor also came home to teach her. She loved eating chaat — ragda pattice, pani puri — and kulfi. She’d never diet. Those days actresses were healthy women, not size zero! She’d drive all of us to Chowpatty in her imported cars, Hillman, Buick, and Station Wagon. But she’d wear a burqa to hide her identity. When she’d be pulled up by the traffic police for that, she’d plead, ‘Please let me wear it or else I’ll get mobbed.’ She even went to watch movies in a burqa.”
“Apa became a craze because she was never seen in public. She wasn’t allowed to attend any function, any premiere. She had no friends. But she never resisted, she was obedient. Being protective, my father earned the reputation of being domineering. He was asked why he’d made her join films in the first place. He’d say, ‘I had 12 children. We would’ve starved to death. I’ve lost my sons who could’ve been my support.’ She was emotional by nature. She’d be in tears in seconds. We’d keep wondering what had happened. And she’d laugh easily too. The moment she began laughing, she couldn’t stop. So that day’s shooting had to be cancelled! She wasn’t religious but was God fearing. She didn’t fast but prayed once a day,” she added.
On the personal front, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala were said to be in a serious relationship. The two first met on the sets of Jwar Bhata (1944), and their relationship began two years later while shooting Tarana (1951). They did a total of four films together. Talking about this, Bhushan said, “Apa first fell in love with Premnath. The relationship lasted six months. It broke on grounds of religion. He asked her to convert and she refused. The next relationship was with Dilip Kumar. She met bhaijan on the sets of Tarana. They later worked in Sangdil, Amar, and Mughal-e-Azam. It was a nine-year-long affair. They even got engaged. Unki apa aayee thi, chunni lekar (his sister had come with a chunni, as is the custom). Bhaijan was also a Pathan. Contrary to reports, my father never stopped her from getting married. We already had enough money by then and were financially secure. Apa and Bhaijan looked like they were made for each other. He’d often come home. He has even seen me in my school uniform. He was respectful towards us children and addressed us with ‘aap.’ The two would go for drives or sit in the room and talk.”
The two, however, broke up in a few years. “The breakup with Dilip Kumar happened due to the court case during Naya Daur in the mid ’50s. The unit was to shoot somewhere in Gwalior. During the shooting of another film Jabeen Jaleel, at the same location, a mob had attacked the women and even tore their clothes. My father was wary and just asked that location to be changed. It’s not that he didn’t let her go outdoors. Apa had shot in Mahabaleshwar, Hyderabad, and other places before. Bhaijan called my father ‘a dictator’ in court and sided with the Chopras (late BR Chopra, the director). Darare pad gayi, rishtey toot gaye. We love and respect Bhaijan but I have just one question, ‘Aapki mohabbat yahan thi, aapki chahat yahan thi, phir aapne aisa kyun kiya?’ Bhaijan could’ve simply said let’s change the location. Or remained neutral. Apa used to cry a lot those days. They had conversations on the phone trying to patch up. He kept saying, ‘Leave your father and I’ll marry you.’ She’d say, ‘I’ll marry you but just come home, say sorry and hug him.’ It was zid which destroyed their love. But my father never asked her to break the engagement or ever demanded an apology from him.”
In 1960, Madhubala married Kishore Kumar. She was battling a prolonged illness, ventricular septal defect (a hole in her heart), which Kumar knew about before their nuptials. Talking about their marriage, Bhushan said, ‘‘On the rebound, Apa got involved with Kishore Kumar, who was going through a divorce with Ruma Devi Guha Thakurta. What attracted her to Kishore? Maybe it was his singing or maybe his ability to make her laugh. Their love affair went on for three years through Chalti Ka Naam Gadi and Half Ticket. They got married in 1960, when she was 27. After getting married, they flew to London where the doctor told her she had only two years to live. After that Kishore left her at our house, saying, ‘I can’t look after her. I’m on outdoors often.’ But, she wanted to be with him. He’d visit her once in two months though. Maybe he wanted to detach himself from her so that the final separation wouldn’t hurt. But, he never abused her, as was reported. He bore her medical expenses. They remained married for nine years. The hole in her heart was detected when she was shooting for SS Vasan’s Chalak in Madras 1954. She had vomited blood. She was advised bed rest for three months but continued working as her films would suffer. While shooting for Mughal-e-Azam she was tied with chains and had to walk around with them. That was stressful. By the end of the day, her hands would turn blue. She’d even refuse food saying that she had to look anguished and weary for the jail scenes. The ‘feather scene’ between her and Bhaijan was shot after the breakup. Due to her ailment, her body would produce extra blood. So, it would spill out from the nose and mouth. The doctor would come home and extract bottles of blood. She also suffered from pulmonary pressure of the lungs. She coughed all the time. Every four to five hours she had to be given oxygen or else would get breathless. She was confined to bed for nine years and was reduced to just bones and skin. She’d keep crying, ‘Mujhe zinda rehna hai, mujhe marna nahin hai, doctor kab ilaaj nikalenge.’
On February 23, 1969, she breathed her last. Talking about her final days, her sister said, “During her last days, I was suffering from chicken pox and so was advised to stay away from her. But when the doctor said that she was sinking. I rushed up to see her. But she had passed away. She was only 36. Though bhaijan never visited her when she was unwell, he flew down from Madras to pay his last respects at the kabrastan. Food was sent from his home to ours for three days (as is the custom). I remember when Bhaijan married Saira Banu, Apa was sad because she loved him. She’d say, ‘Unke naseeb mein woh (Saira Banu) thi, main nahin.’ But, she’d also say, ‘He’s got married to a very pretty girl. She’s so devoted. I’m very happy for him’. But a vacuum remained in her heart. A few years back her tomb was demolished as it was in a Wahabi (a Muslim sect that doesn’t allow building of tombs) cemetery. They wiped away the last memories of a legend.”
Today, it’s been almost five decades since Madhubala’s passing, and yet, she is remembered as an amazing actor whose beauty remains unmatched. If that doesn’t make a legend, what does?