Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehlavi aka Madhubala

For over two decades, ever since she immortalized the haunting number Aayega Aanewala (Mahal, 1949), Madhubala, Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehlavi, held actors, directors, critics and audience in thrall with her mesmeric beauty, which often tended to overshadow her phenomenal acting talent. 

Pushed to work to support the family at the age of eight by a headstrong, conservative Pathan father, Madhubala, born with a hole in her heart for which there was no treatment then, remained torn between loyalty to her family, commitment to the profession and intimate emotions throughout her incredibly short life of 36 years.

Cinema goers and critics have been so dazzled by Madhubala’s looks that they often fail to appreciate her immense talent. She had a perfect sense of timing which made her click in lighter roles. A case in point is Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi where she dominates over the three Kumar brothers, Ashok, Kishore and Anoop.

There was also a rare spontaneity about her which manifested itself in movies like Tarana and, at the same time, intense poignancy which found expression in the role of the ill-fated Anarkali in Mughal-E-Azam. In both these films she co-starred with the only man she loved, Dilip Kumar. But their romance was doomed like the one they portrayed in K. Asif’s magnum opus, Mughal-E-Azam.

The most engaging part of her life is the unrequited saga of love between Madhubala and Dilip Kumar which her father severely opposed.   

Dilip Kumar was no less stentorian and once backed out of reading out wedding vows (although a Qazi had been kept waiting in an adjoining room by a common friend) when Madhubala rejected his demand that she should never meet her father after the wedding. The self-possessed Salim lived on only to repent losing his true love. Even as Madhubala, torn between filial duties and love, married the whimsical Kishore Kumar on the rebound. 

But she lives in the popular imagination four decades after her death.

“I Want to Live: The Story of Madhubala” is a biography written by Khatija Akbar:

The book also discloses Madhubala’s innate sense of charity, which was not well known because she helped people and causes quietly. In 1950, when barely 17, she gave Rs 50,000, a colossal figure in those days, for the rehabilitation of refugees from what was then East Pakistan. She was generous in more sense than one and never forgot the people who stood by her in difficult moments.

Two of Madhubala’s qualities that were reflected in many of her deeds were honesty and dedication. In an industry where the top stars were almost always unpunctual, Madhubala reached the studios on time, sometimes even dragging her co-stars and producers with her. Once when Bombay was deluged with heavy rains, she reached the flooded studio early in the morning only to find the gates locked. “From the very start, this was an unusual young girl, whose rare sense of values and responsibility towards her commitments, whose discipline and devotion to work marked her apart,” writes Akbar.

Akbar examines, in depth, Madhubala’s acting, the characters she brought to life on the screen and her interaction with her co-performers. The biographer rightly points out that though most of the 60-plus films Madhubala worked on were nothing much to write home about, her own performance was always laudable.

The chapter on the making of Mughal-e-Azam is highly informative. Akbar recalls events and reveals facts which even many well informed filmgoers are unaware of. The film has been an all time favourite of movie buffs of different age groups. When novelist and columnist Shobhaa De took her daughters to a show of the digitally and painstakingly coloured version of the movie, she feared they would sulk and protest. Instead they responded “with moist eyes and lumps in their throat”. “Madhubala can send Madhuri and Aishwarya packing,” was their unanimous opinion.

Some rare pictures in the volume and a DVD of songs filmed on her, attached to the book, make the package all the more invaluable.