Madhubala (Devnagari: मधुबाला) (14 February 1933 - 23 February 1969) was a popular Hindi movie actress. She starred in several successful movies in the 1950s and early 1960s, many of which have attained a classic status. With her contemporaries Nargis and Meena Kumari, she is widely regarded as one of the most talented Hindi movie actresses.
Madhubala was born as Mumtaz Begum Jehan Dehlavi in New Delhi, India on 14 February 1933 in a Muslim family. She was the fifth child among eleven children of a conservative Pathan couple.
After Madhubala's father Ataullah Khan lost his job at the Imperial Tobacco Company in Peshawer, the family endured many hardships, including the deaths of four of Madhubala's sisters and her two brothers. In search of a better life for his impoverished family, her father relocated his family to Mumbai. Young Mumtaz entered the movie industry at the age of nine.
Mumtaz’s first movie Basant (1942) was a box-office success. She played in it as the daughter of the popular actress Mumtaz Shanti. She went on to act in several movies as a child artist. Actress Devika Rani was impressed by her performances and potential and advised her to assume the name Madhubala. Madhubala soon garnered reputation as a reliable professional performer. By the time she entered adolescence, she was being groomed for lead roles.
Her first break came when producer Kidar Sharma cast her opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947). She was fourteen when she was given a lead role. The film was not a commercial success, but her performance was received well.
During the next two years, she blossomed into a captivating beauty. After her lead role in Bombay Talkies production Mahal in 1949, Madhubala attained immense popularity. Through her skilful performance, she had upstaged her seasoned co-star Ashok Kumar in that movie. She was sixteen then. The movie and the song Aayega Aanewala in it heralded the arrival of two new superstars: Madhubala and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.
Madhubala was found to have a heart problem after she coughed up blood in 1950. She was discovered to have been born with a ventricular septal defect, commonly known as a "hole in the heart". At the time, heart surgery was not widely available.
Madhubala hid her illness from the movie industry for many years, but one incident was widely reported by the media in 1954: She was filming in Madras for S.S. Vassan's Bahut Din Huwe when she vomited blood on the set. Vassan and his wife took care of her until she was well again. She continued to work and established herself as an A-grade star.
Madhubala's family was extremely protective of her because of her health problem. When filming at the studios, she would eat only home-prepared food and drink water only from a specific well in order to minimize risks of infection. But her condition took its toll and she died in 1969 at age 36. For most of the 1950s, Madhubala performed successfully despite her illnesss.
In the early 1950s as Madhubala became one of the most sought-after actresses in India, she also attracted interest from Hollywood. She appeared in many American magazines such as Theatre Arts. In their August 1952 issue, Madhubala was featured in an extensive article with a full page photo. The piece was entitled: The Biggest Star in the World (And She's Not in Beverly Hills). It presented the actress as a mysterious and ethereal woman of mythical beauty with a legion of fans.
During this period, on a trip to Mumbai and its film studios, the American filmmaker Frank Capra was pampered and hosted by the elite of the Hindi movie industry. However the one star he really wanted to meet was conspicuous by her absence, Madhubala. A meeting to discuss an opening for Madhubala in Hollywood was proposed by Capra. Madhubala's father declined and put an emphatic end to her potential Hollywood film career.
Madhubala as a Star
Madhubala had many successful films following Mahal. With pressure to secure herself and her family financially, she acted in as many as twenty-four films in the first four years of her adult career. Consequently, critics of the time commented that Madhubala's beauty was greater than her acting ability. This was in part due to careless choices in film roles. As sole support of her family, she accepted work in any film, causing her credibility as a dramatic actress to be seriously compromised. Something she later expressed regret over.
She did have aspirations to appear in more prestigious films with challenging roles. Bimal Roy's Biraj Bahu (1954) being a case in point. Madhubala having read the novel, was desperate to secure the lead in the film adaptation. Assuming she would command her market price (one of the highest), Bimal Roy passed her over in favour of a then, struggling Kamini Kaushal. When Madhubala learned that this was a factor in her losing the part, she lamented the fact that she would have performed in the film for a fee of one rupee. Such was her desire to improve her image as a serious actress.
As a star, Madhubala did ascend to the top of the industry. Her co-stars at the time were the most popular of the period: Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rehman, Pradeep Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand. Madhubala also appeared alongside many notable leading ladies of the time including Kamini Kaushal, Suraiya, Geeta Bali, Nalini Jaywant and Nimmi.
The directors she worked with were amongst the most prolific and respected: Mehboob Khan (Amar), Guru Dutt (Mr. & Mrs. '55), Kamal Amrohi (Mahal) and K. Asif (Mughal-e-Azam) . She also ventured into production and made the film Naata (1955) which she also acted in.
During the 1950s, Madhubala proved herself a versatile performer in starring roles, in almost every genre of film being made at the time. She was the archetypal lady fair in the popular swashbuckler, Badal (1951) and was next seen as an uninhibitted village belle in Tarana (1951). She was convincing as the traditional ideal of Indian womanhood in Sangdil (1952) and was well received in a comic performance as the spoilt heiress, Anita in Guru Dutt's classic satire Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955). In 1956 she had success in historical costume dramas such as Shirin-Farhad and Raj-Hath. Equally successful in contemporary characterizations, she was memorable in a double role in the social film Kal Hamara Hai (1959). Madhubala played the cigarette smoking dancer Bella, and her more conventional saintly sister Madhu.
Suddenly in the mid-1950s her films, even major ones like Mehboob Khan's Amar (1954), fared so badly commercially that she was labelled "Box Office Poison". She turned her career around in 1958, with a string of hit films: Howrah Bridge opposite Ashok Kumar featured Madhubala in the unusual role of an Anglo-Indian Cabaret singer, embroiled in Calcutta's Chinatown underworld.
She made a big impact with a daring (for the time) Westernized image, with her cascading locks, deep cut blouses, fitted Capri pants and tailored Chinese dresses. Madhubala's sensuous torch song from the film, Aye Meherebaan, dubbed by Asha Bhosle, was a popular hit with audiences, and is widely quoted and celebrated to this day. Howrah Bridge was followed by Phagun opposite Bharat Bhushan, Kalapani opposite Dev Anand, the perennial hit Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi opposite her husband-to-be, Kishore Kumar and Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), opposite Bharat Bhushan again.
In 1960, she consolidated these successes, and her super-star status when she went on to appear in the epic mega-budget historical, Mughal-e-Azam. This film is widley perceived to be the crowning glory of her career and perhaps the decade of filmmaking in India.
Personal Life and Controversial Court Case
Madhubala had a long affair with actor and frequent co-star Dilip Kumar. They first met on the sets of Jwar Bhata (1944), and worked together again in the film Har Singaar (1949) which was never completed or released. It was two years later during the filming of, Tarana (1951), that their off-screen relationship began. They also became a popular romantic screen team appearing in a total of four films together.
Madhubala was known for keeping a low profile, never making public appearances (with the exception of the premiere for the film Bahut Din Huwe in 1954) and she rarely gave interviews. Film media often speculated over her personal life and romantic liaisons and Dilip Kumar was repeatedly mentioned. These rumours were confirmed with a bold and rare public appearance during their courtship in 1955. Madhubala was escorted by Dilip Kumar for the premier of his film Insaniyat (1955), a film with which she had no other association.
Though this may have been another gesture of gratitude to the producer and director S. S. Vasan, who had cared for her earlier when she had taken ill during the filming of Bahut Din Huwe (1954), this appearance was significant for another reason. By attending the premiere officially escorted by Dilip Kumar, they publicly acknowledged their relationship.
Madhubala's romance with Kumar lasted five years, between 1951 and 1956. Their association was ended following a highly controversial and widely publicized court case. B.R. Chopra, the director of the film Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were currently starring in, Naya Daur (1957), wanted the unit to travel to Bhopal for an extended outdoor shooting.
Ataullah Khan objected and even claimed that the entire Bhopal schedule was a ruse to give Dilip Kumar the opportunity to romance his daughter. Finally, Chopra sued Madhubala for the cash advance she received from him for a film she now had no intention of completing. He also replaced her with South Indian actress Vyjayanthimala. Madhubala obediently supported her father despite her commitment to Dilip Kumar. Kumar testified against Madhubala and Ataullah Khan in favor of the director B.R. Chopra in open court.
The case was lost by Madhubala and her father amid much negative publicity. Up until that point Madhubala had worked hard to gain a reputation as a reliable and professional performer with much good will in the industry. Her image was badly damaged after this episode. Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were effectively separated from that point on.
She met her husband, actor and playback singer, Kishore Kumar during the filming of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961). At the time he was married to the Bengali singer and actress Ruma Guha Thakurta . After his divorce, because Kishore Kumar was Hindu and Madhubala Muslim, they had a civil wedding ceremony in 1960.
His parents refused to attend. The couple also had a Hindu ceremony to please Kumar's parents, but Madhubala was never truly accepted as his wife. Within a month of her wedding she moved back to her bungalow in Bandra because of tension in the Kumar household. They remained married but under great strain for the remainder of Madhubala's life. A Muslim holy man had predicted that Madhubala would earn fame and fortune but would lead an unhappy life and die at a young age.
Mughal-e-Azam and later work
It was the film Mughal-e-Azam that marked what many consider to be her greatest and definitive characterization as the doomed courtesan Anarkali. Director K. Asif, unaware of the extent of Madhubala's illness, required long and grueling shooting schedules that made heavy physical demands on her. Whether it was posing as a veiled statue in suffocating make-up for hours under the sweltering studio lights or being shackled with heavy chains. From 1951 through to 1959 Madhubala invested her best efforts into Mughal-e-Azam.
Post 1956 and her separation from Dilip Kumar, the film's remaining intimate romantic scenes were filmed under much tension and strain between Madhubala and her now estranged co-star. This emotionally and physically taxing experience is widely perceived as a major factor in her subsequent decline in health and premature death.
On 5 August 1960, Mughal-e-Azam released and became the biggest grossing film at that time, a record that went unbroken for 15 years until the release of the film Sholay in 1975. It still ranks second in the list of all time box-office hits of Indian cinema (inflation adjusted). Despite performing alongside the most respected acting talent of the industry, Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote, and Dilip Kumar, critics recognised and appreciated Madhubala's intelligent and multi layered performance. She received some recognition as a serious actress when she was nominated for a Filmfare Award.
However she did not win, losing out to Bina Rai for her performance in the film Ghunghat (1960). In Khatija Akbar's biography on Madhubala (see reference section), Dilip Kumar paid tribute to her talent: "Had she lived, and had she selected her films with more care, she would have been far superior to her contemporaries. Apart from being very versatile and an excellent artiste, she had a warm and cheerful nature. God had gifted her with so many things..."
In 1960, Madhubala hit the peak of her career and popularity with the release of back-to-back blockbusters Mughal-e-Azam and Barsaat Ki Raat. She was offered strong, author-backed roles, but her deteriorating health did not permit her to enjoy this period and develop as an actress. At this point Madhubala became so ill that she could not accept any new films or even complete her existing assignments. In the biography by Khatija Akbar, her frequent co-star Dev Anand recalled: "She was so robust and full of life and energy. She was always laughing and enjoyed her work. One could never conceive she was seriously ill. Then one day out of the blue she just disappeared...".
She did have intermittent releases in the early 60s. Some of these, like Jhumroo (1961), Half Ticket (1962) and Sharabi (1964), even performed above average at the box-office. However, most of her other films issued in this period were marred by her absence in later portions when her illness prevented her from completing them.
They suffer from compromised editing and in some cases the use of "doubles" in an attempt to patch in scenes that Madhubala was unable to shoot. Her last released film Jwala, although filmed in the late 1950s, was not issued until 1971, two years after her death. Incidentally, apart from some Technicolor sequences in Mughal-e-Azam, Jwala is the only time Madhubala appeared in a colour film.
Final years and death
In 1960, Madhubala sought treatment in London as her condition deteriorated. Complicated heart surgery was in its infancy and offered her some hope of a cure. After an examination the doctors there refused to operate, convinced her chances of surviving the procedure were minimal. Their advice was that she should rest and avoid overexertion, and predicted that she could live for another year. Knowing her death was imminent, Madhubala returned to India, but defied the predictions by living for another 9 years.
In 1966, with a slight improvement in her health, Madhubala tried working again opposite Raj Kapoor in the film Chalak. Film media heralded her "comeback" with much fanfare and publicity. Stills from this time showed a still beautiful but pale and wan-looking Madhubala. However, within a few days of filming, her frail health caused her to collapse and the film remained incomplete and unreleased.
When acting was clearly no longer an option, Madhubala turned her attention to film making. In 1969 she was set to make her directorial debut with a film named Farz aur Ishq. However the film was never made, as during the pre production stages, Madhubala finally succumbed to her illness and died on 23 February 1969, shortly after her 36th birthday.
She was buried at Santa Cruz cemetery with her diaryby her family and husband Kishore Kumar. Madhubala's tomb at the Juhu/Santa Cruz Muslim cemetery was beautifully carved in pure marble and bore ayats from the Koran as well as verses dedicated to her. The tomb was demolished in 2010 to make space for new bodies.
Madhubala the icon
In her short life, Madhubala made over 70 films. In all three biographies and numerous articles published on her, she has been compared with Marilyn Monroe and has a similarly iconic position in Indian film history. Perhaps because she died before being relegated to supporting or character roles, to this day Madhubala remains one of the most enduring and celebrated legends of Indian cinema.
Her continuing appeal to film fans was underlined in a 1990 poll conducted by Movie magazine. Madhubala was voted the most popular vintage Hindi actress of all time, garnering 58% of the votes, and out ranking contemporary legendary actresses Meena Kumari, Nargis, and Nutan. More recently in rediff.com's International Women's Day 2007 special (see external links), Madhubala was ranked second in their top ten list of "Bollywood's best actresses.Ever" According to the feature, the actresses that made the final list were ranked on "...acting skills, glamour, box office appeal, versatility and icon status -- and the fact that each of them became a figurehead for Bollywood, ushering in a new wave of cinema..."
Her films are widely seen on Television and DVD transfers of most of Madhubala's work have enabled a resurgence of her fan base. Dozens of clips and fan made montage tributes from her films have been uploaded and can be seen on the popular video websites like YouTube. No other vintage Hindi actress has such a large presence on the video sharing site. In India, street traders and shops sell her Black & White posters and publicity shots alongside the current film stars of Hindi Cinema.
In 2004 a digitally colorized version of Mughal-e-Azam was released and, 35 years after her death, the film and Madhubala became a success with cinema audiences all over again.
In the past decade, several biographies and magazine articles have been issued on Madhubala, revealing previously unknown details of her private life and career. Consequently in 2007, a Hindi film Khoya Khoya Chand was produced starring Shiney Ahuja and Soha Ali Khan - the plot included some events loosely based on the life of Madhubala and other vintage film personalities.
In 2008 a commemorative postage stamp featuring Madhubala was issued. The stamp was produced by India Post in a limited edition presentation pack which featured images of the actress. It was launched by veteran actors Nimmi and Manoj Kumar in a glittering ceremony attended by colleagues, friends and surviving members of Madhubala's family. The only other Indian film actress to be honoured in this manner is Nargis Dutt.
The popular actress and sex symbol of the 1970s Zeenat Aman is often acknowledged as the prototype of the modern and westernized Hindi film heroine. Yet it is often overlooked that Madhubala was seen portraying westernized and even vamp like characters back in the 1950s. A bold image for a Hindi film heroine to portray in an age when demure and self sacrificing ideals of Indian womanhood were the order of the day. As such it is Madhubala's (and to some degree, her contemporary Nargis ) pioneering influence on modern Hindi actresses that is prevalent today.