Madhubala’s porcelain prettiness, dazzling smile and trademark giggle masked a gifted actor with so much more to offer, writes Anuradha Warrier
Once upon a time… all good stories begin that way. Or ‘Long, long ago…’
Long, long ago, there lived a little girl called Mumtaz Jehan Begum. She was born on 14 February 1933. It seemed apt, then, that she was referred to in later years as ‘The Venus of the Indian Screen’. Beginning her career as ‘Baby Mumtaz’ (Basant, 1942), she became an ‘adult’ heroine when she was barely 13. The film was Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal (1947) and her hero was another debutant – Raj Kapoor. The film was a box-office squib. A slew of films followed, some successful, some not quite. Until, two years later, when Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949) became an unprecedented hit, propelling her to stardom. Lata Mangeshkar’s haunting Aayega aanewala, picturized on her, immortalized her as ‘Kamini’ even on the LP records.
This was the beginning of a brilliant career. The same year, she appeared in Dulari (1949) and then followed it up with Hanste Aansoo (1950) in which she delivered a rousing performance as Usha, an educated, independent modern woman who fights for her rights and refuses to cow down to patriarchal rules. The film was the first to be certified ‘Adults only’ by the Central Board of Film Certification for what they called its ‘double-meaning title’ and its depiction of a ‘modern woman’. The redoubtable Baburao Patel was full of praise for Madhubala’s performance, lauding her versatility and commending her for holding her own (and even stealing the scene) from seasoned actors like Motilal and Gope. Successes like Badal (1951) and Tarana (1951) followed.
Madhubala was fêted in the press, and the beloved of an adoring audience. America’s Theatre Arts profiled her as ‘The Biggest Star in the World – and she’s not in Beverly Hills’. James Burke photographed her for Life magazine. Her feet were firmly on the firmament of success.
But the universe had other plans. A childhood illness was finally diagnosed as ventricular septal defect. Eventually, it would take her away from us, too soon. Far too soon.
Even today, that name evokes memories of a million-watt smile, of her trademark giggle, and of an onscreen charisma that only a few are lucky enough to possess. But these attributes have also blinded most to the talent she indisputably possessed. In her career spanning two decades, she acted in a variety of roles, infusing each with her passion for her craft. She could be Edna, the sophisticated night club crooner of Howrah Bridge with the same ease that she could slip into the skin of Anita, the flighty heiress of Mr & Mrs 55. She could be the lovelorn Anarkali as well as the redoubtable Asha of Kala Pani. Today, on her 90th birth anniversary, I pick ten of her finest performances that highlight her versatility.
[Please note that these are very subjective choices.]
Though Madhubala had already acted in over ten films as heroine by this time, Mahal catapulted her to overnight stardom. Debutant director Kamal Amrohi had been warned that the subject – a ‘ghost’ story – wouldn’t work; he had been dissuaded against casting Madhubala as his protagonist, Kamini, but the young director stood firm. Madhubala’s ethereal will o’ the wisp charm worked wonders in a film backed by Khemchand Prakash’s soulful music and Lata Mangeshkar’s haunting siren call Aaeyga aanewala that became the leitmotif of the film.
When one talks about Madhubala’s films or performances, this is a film that is inexplicably overlooked. It had a good story, an above-average script, excellent acting, great music, and two leads whose personal chemistry lit up the screen like fireworks. Just watch Beimaan tore nainwa… and they will make you want to believe in their love. Anil Biswas’s music for this film is easily one of his best – Seene mein sulagte hain armaan, Nain mile nain hue baanwre, Bol papiihe bol re, Ek main hoon ek meri – the songs are deservedly classics.
As the titular character, Madhubala came up with a striking performance, slipping easily into the impish mischievousness of her character in happier times to the incredible pathos of a woman suffering the deep agony of separation. Watch her expressions change in Woh din kahaan gaye bataa.
Amar was an amazing psychological drama that questioned both morals and ethics. It portrayed the lives of three characters who are drawn into a crisis through one tragic event. As the storm of consequences breaks over their heads, each is forced to deal with heartbreak, guilt or repentance. As Anju, Madhubala traverses a character arc from a naïve young girl with the world at her feet to a strong young woman who has to confront her own ethical dilemma and make certain choices. The script faltered towards an unsatisfactory end, but Madhubala didn’t – her nuanced, understated, resolute performance was more than impressive.
Mr & Mrs 55 (1955)
For a young woman who was renowned as an inveterate giggler, it was strange that she had never acted in a comedy before this. In this Guru Dutt film, Madhubala plays Anita, a naïve but spirited heiress, who is dominated by her straitlaced, stridently feminist aunt (Lalita Pawar). When her father dies leaving a will that stipulates his considerable wealth will only go to his daughter if she is wed, the aunt proceeds to hire a husband for her niece. One who will divorce her as soon as the inheritance is signed, sealed and delivered. If you overlook the politics of misogyny that underlined the film (Anita learns the true meaning of femininity and marriage and the duty of a ‘good’ wife), this entertaining film had Madhubala at her effervescent best. Watch her twirl an umbrella in Thandi hawa, kali ghata, or give back as good as she gets in Chal diye banda nawaaz, or look totally swoon-worthy in Udhar tum haseen ho.
Ek Saal (1957)
Life imitating Art? Or reel imitating real? Madhubala plays Usha, a young woman with only a year to live. She falls in love with Ashok (Ashok Kumar), a con man who has an eye on her wealth. When her doting father finds out, he hires Ashok as a pretend fiancé to make her last year a happy one. What will happen when Usha learns the truth – that she is dying, that her ‘beloved’ has more pecuniary motives than romantic ones? Madhubala tinged her performance with real pathos in the dramatic scenes, but before that, she gets to be at her beautiful best. She laughs, she teases, she sparkles, she falls in love and she is fabulous.
Gateway of India (1957)
One of the few films that was directed by character actor Om Prakash, Gateway of India is a sadly forgotten film – sadly, because this was a moderate success. More importantly, it is a Madhubala vehicle through and through, the men — Pradeep Kumar, Bharat Bhushan, Johnny Walker, Bhagwan, Om Prakash himself — only appearing as supporting characters. Madhubala plays Anju, an heiress on the run from her wicked uncle who has murdered her father and is now conspiring to kill her for her inheritance. Set over the course of a few hours, it charts the young woman’s escapades over a single night as she meets other crooked men who aim to exploit her. Unlike the typical damsel in distress stories, Madhubala’s Anju is a spunky young woman who manages to escape from her pursuers on her own steam. The role gave her the opportunity to show off her versatility – her ability to get into the skin of the character was never more in evidence.
Kala Pani (1958)
An adaptation of AJ Cronin’s Beyond the Place, Kala Pani may have been a Dev Anand vehicle, but like most Nav Ketan ladies, Madhubala’s Asha is more than just eye-candy. Asha is a reporter, and she’s actually shown to be working, and is an integral part of the hero’s quest for the truth. Despite the presence of Nalini Jaywant who had the more author-backed role, Madhubala managed to make an impression with her effervescent presence and sincere performance.
Howrah Bridge (1958)
The very same year, Madhubala starred as Edna, a nightclub singer, opposite Ashok Kumar. The odd couple worked at the box office since Madhubala more than held her own against the senior actor. She was flirtatious without being a coquette, and her romance with Ashok Kumar is both tender and believable.
With OP Nayyar’s music bolstering her sensuality, Madhubala sizzled on screen as she never had before. Watch her ooze oomph in Aaiye meherbaan. Howrah Bridge, a suspense thriller focused on a missing heirloom, showcased Madhubala at her glamorous best. Westernized, languorously seductive, she kept the audience guessing. Whose side is she on?
Howrah Bridge was also perhaps the rare film in which a westernized heroine is not killed off towards the end. Anglo-Indian Edna gets to have a ‘happily ever after’. [This is such a rare occurrence that it had to be mentioned.]
Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958)
1958 was certainly Madhubala’s year, and with Satyen Bose’s Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Madhubala consolidated her position as a top heroine. She also proved that her comic performance in Mr & Mrs 55 was not just a flash in the pan. Watch her as she tries to stop the minor villain from going to their hideout and wrecking their (hers and Kishore’s) carefully-laid plans; or when she disguises herself as a man and aids her beloved in staking out the villains’ hideout. And I dare you not to laugh when she breaks out into a fit of giggles when Kishore fails to catch a few roosters for her.
But her Renu was more than just a regulation heroine – she was remarkably independent for a 50s woman, making her own decisions and being perfectly self-sufficient. And very, very beautiful.
A tragic heroine, a rebel prince and a mighty emperor – the love story is bound to be doomed. Interestingly, in a film named after Emperor Akbar, it is Anarkali who takes the spotlight. And despite two co-actors known for their scenery chewing abilities, it is Madhubala who holds your attention – the men mere foils to her beauty and grace.
Madhubala’s Anarkali is believably the courtesan whose beauty enslaves a prince and whose love affair almost brings an empire to its knees. I will go out on a limb and say that this was Madhubala’s best performance. Certainly, the actress gave it her all. Seriously ill though she was, Madhubala spent nearly a decade living and breathing Anarkali. The performance that ensued was infused with both dignity and strength. Watch her eyes flash with defiance as she challenges the Emperor – ‘Pyar kiya to darna kya’. There’s a song on her lips and fire in her eyes.
Watch her tremulousness in Humein kaash tum se muhabbat na hoti as she wonders whether she had loved above her station; feel her searing pain as, chained and imprisoned, she pleads ‘Bekas pe karam keejiye’. If there is the ecstasy of love – the famed feather sequence, there’s also the agony of death. Madhubala had never looked so beautiful or so wounded before. She spends her final hours with the prince she loves more than life itself – so much so, she’s willing to betray the latter in order to save the former.
This was certainly Madhubala’s tour de force, even if it was never meant to star her at all – neither Dilip Kumar nor Madhubala was the director’s choice. K Asif’s magnum opus had been developed in 1944, and despite production snafus, began shooting in 1946. The cast then comprised of Chandra Mohan as Akbar, Nargis as Anarkali and DK Sapru as Salim. Then, work on the film stalled due to unavoidable circumstances. When it was mounted again, the cast had changed – Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar, Dilip Kumar as Salim and Madhubala as Anarkali were all immortalized on celluloid.
Guzra hua zamana aata nahin dobara…
Less than a decade and a few other inconsequential films later, the curtains rang down for the last time. The brightest star of the silver screen was gone, leaving her image frozen on celluloid and alive in our collective memories.
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