It is on nights like these that I can almost feel the longing with which the legendry but almost forgotten lyricist, Rajendra Krishan felt for his lady love when he penned;
Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chandni, teri ik adaa peh nisaar hai,
Mujhay kyun na ho teri aarzu, Teri justaju mein bahaar hai.
Add to this Dilip Kumar lip-synching to the immortal voice of Talat Mahmood in Sangdil and you’ll realise every time that nobody does justice to Krishan's verses than the exuberant, Madhubala - the Venus of the Indian cinema screen.
If a flower-like mouth and large gentle eyes, neither black nor blue, nor gray nor violet; rather all those shades together, full of nocturnal mysteries, are the standards of beauty set by British novelist Thomas Hardy, it may as well have been Madhubala he was picturing.
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If beauty were confined to a limited space drawn by the great Punjabi poet Waris Shah, it would only be Madhubala meeting all the parameters set in place by Shah. She was an archetypal epitome of subcontinental beauty.
Madhubala was born on February 14, 1933 to Attaullah Khan and Begum Ayesha in Delhi – her birth was celebrated as that of any ninth daughters’ in a poor patriarchal family. She was named Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlvi.
Fortune came well disguised when her father lost his job in Delhi and the family relocated to Mumbai. At the age of nine, when her coevals were playing in the streets, she walked into a film studio with her father who wanted her to financially support the family - this was Madhubala's introduction to the movie industry.
She began her career with Basant released in 1942 and went on to star as a child actress in several movies. Here in South Asia it is very commonly believed that names have power, and when actress Devika Rani caught wind of little Mumtaz Jehan’s talent, she convinced her to adopt the screen name of Madhubala, literally meaning 'honey belle'.
Her first lead role came in Kidar Sharma's Neel Kamal starring opposite Raj Kapoor, however, it wasn’t until Kamal Amrohi's Mahal – the third largest hit at the 1949 Indian box office – that she truly gained stardom. There was no looking back from there as she won applause after resounding applause in the subsequent Badal, Tarana, Bayqasoor, Sangdil and Barsaat Ki Raat, all box office hits.
Her magnum opus, however, lay patiently in wait until the year 1960 when Madhubala gave her most iconic performance in Mughal-e-Azam in the role of Prince Jehangir’s beloved, Anarkali.
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Parallel to the plot of this movie ran Madhubala and Dilip Kumar’s real life story as star-crossed lovers. However, unlike the movie in which Jehangir’s father, the vicious Akbar stands in the way of the lovers, in reality it was the conventional and selfish Attaullah Khan, Madhubala’s father, who refused Dilip Kumar.
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Her glorious journey was cut short soon after she was detected with ventricular septal defect – also known as a “hole in the heart” in 1954. Her paramour Dilip Kumar was aware that his beloved could die any moment. He has been quoted to have publically declared his love for Madhubala in a courtroom;
I shall love her until the day she dies.
By the late 1950s, her health was deteriorating quickly.
During her short stint she proved herself to be the most influential and sought after actress in Bollywood. It is then even more regrettable that Madhubala’s importance to her father remained that of merely a bread winner.
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An American magazine, Theatre Arts featured her in an article titled, “The Biggest Star in the World – and she's not in Beverly Hills”, and while Academy Award winner Frank Capra was determined to take her to Hollywood, her father rejected the offer.
With an impact so magnificently wide-reaching, it is astounding to realise that out of the 70 films Madhubala starred in, only 15 were declared box office hits. According to Dilip Kumar;
Had she selected her films with more care, she would have been far superior to her contemporaries.
Even so, for the time she was granted, Madhubala shone as brightly as possible, remaining humble and grounded all the while, as if unaware of her own value, much like how Talat expresses;
Tujhay kya khabar aye o bay'khabar; teri ik nazar mein hai kya assar,
Jo ghazab mein aaye to qehr hai jo ho mehrbaan to qarar hai.
To this day, songs like “Pyaar kia toh darna kya” and “Aaiye mehrbaa'n” are remembered for Madhubala being at her seductive best.
Too young to die at just 36, Madhubala’s beauty remains immortalised in our hearts.
Today is Madhubala’s 45th death anniversary.