Years ago, when interviewing actor Dev Anand at Mehboob Studios in Mumbai, I asked him about his co-star, Madhubala. “Statuesque is the word I would use for her,” came the instant reply. I found the compliment highly inadequate. For one thing, her beauty was not fully described. Dev Anand failed to mention the innocence and vulnerability in her looks. He didn’t allude to her attractive complexion and highly chiselled features, nor to her scintillating smile. He also made no mention of her histrionic abilities.
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-i-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-i-Azam.
Dilip Kumar has always been very cagey about his love affair with the Venus of the Indian Screen and declines to talk about her. Full marks then to Khatija Akbar, the author of ‘I want to live’: The Story of Madhubala, whose perseverance is rewarded and she is able to make the legendary actor talk about different facets of Madhubala’s winsome personality. The man, who has always been very careful in expressing his views on people, is more than once caught in unguarded moments. This makes the biography highly absorbing. But that’s not all. Akbar speaks to many people who knew Madhubala, some of them at close quarters. She also delves deep into all that is available in print. The biography is indeed Akbar’s labour of love.
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.
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.
The 1933-born Madhubala started her career as Baby Mumtaz in Basant, when she was merely eight years old. Her last film, Mughal-i-Azam, was released when she was 27 and she died when she was 36 from a congenital heart disease. Ironically, the surgical cure for a hole in the heart became a success shortly after her death.
Madhubala worked hard despite her failing health and paid a heavy price for it. Hastening her death was her marriage to the eccentric Kishore Kumar, whom she married on the rebound after the tragic end to her love affair with Yusuf Khan, the actor known to the world as Dilip Kumar. While he too wanted to marry Madhubala, her father played the villain. Madhubala was the sole bread earner of a large family, which included her five sisters. Dilip Kumar, on the other hand, insisted on her giving up her film career. She was caught between two Pathans, her overprotective father, Ataullah Khan, and the love of her life, Yusuf Khan.
Once, her biographer was informed by Om Prakash, in whose film Madhubala was working at that point, Dilip Kumar came to her makeup room and said that a Qazi was waiting to perform the nikah. But there was no wedlock, there was only deadlock. Madhubala could not leave her family in the lurch. Commitment took precedence over love, much to the chagrin of her proposer.
The most delectable screen couple appeared only in four films, which included R.C. Talwar’s Sangdil, based on Jane Eyre¸ and Mehboob Khan’s Amar, a mature movie made before its time.
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.
The reviewer is the author of Mehdi Hasan: The Man and His Music
‘I Want to Live’: The Story of Madhubala (BIOGRAPHY) By Khatija Akbar Hay House Publishers, New Delhi ISBN 978-93-80480-81-7 264pp. Indian Rs399