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Madhubala: Ageless Beauty, Timeless Icon

August 4, 2021 | By

In a short-lived career, Madhubala rose to the status of a superstar on the dint of her talent and magnetic screen presence. Humble beginnings, a meteoric rise to fame, dangerous liaisons, unrequited love, and dying young made the enchantingly beautiful Madhubala a legend of Hindi cinema history.

Madhubala

Madhubala

In the west, if people are asked to name a female icon of timeless beauty, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana would lead the polls. Both died young, leaving behind sympathy and yearning among millions. In India, Madhubala still evokes a similar hysteria, years after her tragic death.

If you surf the net, or look at the retro film memorabilia trend, Madhubala lives amidst Shah Rukhs and Bachchans – as a true poster girl with undiminished popularity in an era where hardly any android-influenced Netflix generation teenager has actually seen her craft on screen! Humble beginnings, a meteoric rise to fame, dangerous liaisons, unrequited love, and dying young made the enchantingly beautiful Madhubala a legend of Hindi cinema history. The fact that she was born on the Valentine’s Day gives an eternally romantic aura to her persona.

Born in Delhi on 14th February 1933 in a large lower middle family, Madhubala spent her early years in the capital often participating in radio programmes for children under music director Khurshid Anwar. Named Mumtaz Jahan by her father Ataullah Khan, Madhubala won hearts even as a child. One day Rai Bahadur Chunnilal, the general manager of Bombay Talkies was so impressed with the young girl, that he recommended her to Devika Rani, the actress who owned the formidable studio.

Ataullah Khan came to Bombay with his daughter for an audition, where Madhubala was selected for her first film as a child artiste. Basant released in 1942 and ran for 75 weeks! Madhubala was paid Rs.150.00 a month for this film where she played heroine Mumtaz Shanti’s daughter.

Madhubala

The enchantingly beautiful Madhubala became a legend of Hindi cinema history.

Ranjit Studios’ Mumtaz Mahal released in 1944 was her second film where she played her first royal role. She was cast as Jahanara; the daughter of emperor Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, played by Chandramohan and Khurshid respectively. She acted in several films as a child artiste and her father eventually settled in Bombay with his family.

It was in Ranjit Studios that Madhubala charmed her way to reach a lead role in Kedar Sharma’s Neel Kamal (1947) opposite Raj Kapoor. She faced the camera as a lead actress at the age of thirteen. She also did several films for filmmaker Mohan Sinha viz. Mere Bhagwan, Lal Dupatta and Imtehaan.

Seven years after her first screen appearance, she returned to the banner that launched her in films. Her second film with Bombay Talkies immortalized her. Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) came to be regarded as a path-breaking milestone in the history of Hindi cinema. Its roaring success zoomed the collective careers of many – actors Ashok Kumar and Madhubala (the lead pair), director Kamal Amrohi, music director Khemchand Prakash and upcoming playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. Lata’s Aayega aane wala… her first chartbuster, proved to be an immortal gem of her career.

Dev Anand and Madhubala

Dev Anand and Madhubala in Kala Pani (1958)

Post Mahal, Madhubala exploded on the big screen as the most desirable actress on the horizon. She bagged several big offers including films with the reigning superstars – Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. In 1950, she started the decade with two films opposite Dev Anand – Nirala and Madhubala (yes, the title of the film proves the extent of her phenomenal popularity).

Tarana followed in 1951, opposite Dilip Kumar. This film had the most romantic dialogues between the pair in love. The joy of the success met a damper when she was diagnosed with a ‘hole in the heart’, a strange cardiac disorder, which often made her spit blood on the sets. Despite the illness, she performed marvelously in the films she worked in. Two more films opposite Dev Anand released in 1951 – Aaram and Nadaan. Madhubala starred opposite Premnath in two films viz. Badal (1951), and Saaqi (1952) led to a lot of speculation about their relationship. Premnath was the first man she was romantically linked with by the press, the second being Dilip Kumar.

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar in Tarana (1951)

Her second film with Dilip Kumar was Sangdil (1952), followed by Mehboob Khan’s Amar in 1954, a film made when the film press was abuzz with stories of their romance. She did only one film with Guru Dutt – Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955). Her romance with Dilip Kumar lasted till 1957 – when following a controversy, she was removed as the heroine of B R Chopra’s Naya Daur, since her father didn’t want her to do an outdoor schedule with Dilip Kumar.

Madhubala and Bharat Bhushan

Madhubala and Bharat Bhushan in Gateway of India (1957)

Kala Pani (1958) with Dev Anand was another superhit success. Madhubala came close to Kishore Kumar during the making of Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958). Kishore proposed and married her in 1960, but his family didn’t accept her. Madhubala led a lonely and disturbed life post-marriage, which was compounded by her failing health. Yet, the year 1960 immortalized her with the portrayal of Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam. K Asif had a tough time filming Dilip Kumar and Madhubala together for almost a decade that the film took to complete.

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-Azam

In the sixties she hardly had any notable releases except Jhumroo (1961) with her husband and Sharabi (1964) opposite Dev Anand. She had limited her assignments due to familial tensions and failing health. She had no release since 1964 till her death on 23rd February 1969. Her last assignment – Jwala opposite Sunil Dutt- was released two years after her death. In such a short-lived career, Madhubala rose to the status of a superstar on the dint of her talent and breathtaking beauty. She is best remembered for her immortal roles in Mahal, Amar, Tarana, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Jhumroo, Howrah Bridge, Kaala Paani, Barsaat ki Raat, Mr & Mrs55, and Mughal-e-Azam.

(All pictures used in the article are courtesy SMM Ausaja Archives)

More to read 

Ashok Kumar – The First Superstar of the Indian Talkie

Prithviraj Kapoor – The Icon of Hindi Cinema

Romancing the Reel: Vijay Bhatt

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Film historian, author and archivist of vintage film memorabilia SMM Ausaja is Senior Vice President - Content at Fantico, the first Indian NFT platform. Based in Mumbai, Ausaja has collected, preserved, archived and restored a phenomenal collection of posters, movie stills, song synopsis booklets, lobby cards, glass slides, post cards, LP records and other film memorabilia over the last three decades. He is the author of Bollywood in Posters and has co-authored Bollywood: The Films! The Songs! The Stars! He can be contacted on smmausaja@hotmail.com
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