After Madhubala's father, Ataullah Khan lost his job at the Imperial Tobacco Company, the family endured many hardships including the deaths of four of Madhubala's sisters and her two brothers. Madhubala and four other sisters remained. In search of a better life for his impoverished family, her father relocated them to Bombay. There they struggled for over a year and often frequented the Bombay film studios in search of work. Young Mumtaz entered films at the age of nine.
Her first break came when filmmaker, Kidar Sharma cast her opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947). Until that point, she had always been billed as Mumtaz but after this film she was credited as Madhubala. She was only fourteen years old, but Madhubala had finally arrived on the Indian screen in a lead role. Though the film was not a commercial success, she was noticed and her performance well received.
In the next two years she blossomed into a captivating beauty (film media and fans referred to her as the Venus of the Screen). However it was not until she starred in the coveted lead role of Bombay Talkies production, Mahal in 1949, that Madhubala became a fully fledged star and a household name. Audiences enthused over Madhubala's enigmatic screen presence and beauty. Though she was only sixteen at the time, critics widley acknowledged that her subtle and skillful performance upstaged her seasoned co-star, Ashok Kumar. The film became a popular success and the song Aayega Aanewala heralded the arrival of two new superstars both Madhubala and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.
Her illness was kept a secret from the industry for many years, though one incident was widely reported by the film media in 1954. Madhubala was filming in Madras for S.S. Vassan's film Bahut Din Huwe. She became very ill and vomited blood on the set. Vassan and his wife were very hospitable and cared for her until she was well again. Madhubala was extremely grateful and as a result broke her own rule of never attending film premieres, even her own, by making an exception for Bahut Din Huwe (1954) and the following year, another Vassan production, Insaniyat (1955). The incident in Madras was down-played and soon forgotten, enabling Madhubala to continue working and to establish herself as an A-grade star.
As a result, Madhubala's family was extremely protective. When filming at the studios, she would only eat home prepared food and drink water that came from a specific well in an attempt to minimize risks of illness or infection. Eventually her condition would take its toll and abbreviate her life and career, but for most of the 1950s, Madhubala performed successfully despite her illness and physical limitations.
During this period, on a trip to Bombay and its film studios, the American filmmaker Frank Capra was pampered and hosted by the elite of the Hindi movie industry. However the one star he really wanted to meet was conspicuous by her absence, Madhubala. A meeting to discuss an opening for Madhubala in Hollywood was proposed by Capra. Madhubala's father declined and put an emphatic end to her potential Hollywood film career.
Madhubala had many successful films following Mahal. With pressure to secure herself and her family financially, she acted in as many as twenty-four films in the first four years of her adult career. Consequently, critics of the time commented that Madhubala's beauty was greater than her acting ability. This was in part due to careless choices in film roles. As sole support of her family, she accepted work in any film, causing her credibility as a dramatic actress to be seriously compromised. Something she later expressed regret over.
She did have aspirations to appear in more prestigious films with challenging roles. Bimal Roy's Biraj Bahu (1954) being a case in point. Madhubala having read the novel, was desperate to secure the lead in the film adaptation. Assuming she would command her market price (one of the highest), Bimal Roy passed her over in favour of a then, struggling Kamini Kaushal. When Madhubala learned that this was a factor in her losing the part, she lamented the fact that she would have performed in the film for a fee of one rupee. Such was her desire to improve her image as a serious actress.
As a star, Madhubala did ascend to the top of the industry. Her co-stars at the time were the most poular of the period: Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rehman, Pradeep Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand. Madhubala also appeared alongside many notable leading ladies of the time including Kamini Kaushal, Suraiya, Geeta Bali, Nalini Jaywant and Nimmi. The directors she worked with were amongst the most prolific and respected: Mehboob Khan (Amar), Guru Dutt (Mr & Mrs 55), Kamal Amrohi (Mahal) and K. Asif (Mughal-E-Azam) . She also ventured into production and made the film Naata (1955) which she also acted in.
During the 1950s, Madhubala proved herself a versatile performer in starring roles, in almost every genre of film being made at the time. She was the archetypal lady fair in the popular swashbuckler, Badal (1951) and was next seen as an uninhibitted village belle in Tarana (1951). She was convincing as the traditional ideal of Indian womanhood in Sangdil (1952) and was well received in a comic performance as the spoilt heiress, Anita in Guru Dutt's classic satire Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955). In 1956 she had success in historical costume dramas such as Shirin-Farhad and Raj-Hath. Equally successful in contemporary characterizations, she was memorable in a double role in the social film Kal Hamara Hai (1959). Madhubala played the cigarette smoking dancer Bella, and her more conventional saintly sister Madhu.
Suddenly in the mid-1950s her films, even major ones like Mehboob Khan's Amar (1954), fared so badly commercially that she was labelled "Box Office Poison". She turned her career around in 1958, with a string of hit films: Howrah Bridge opposite Ashok Kumar featured Madhubala in the unusual role of an Anglo-Indian Cabaret singer, embroiled in Calcutta's Chinatown underworld. She made a big impact with a daring (for the time) Westernized image, with her cascading locks, deep cut blouses, fitted Capri pants and tailored Chinese dresses. Madhubala's sensuous torch song from the film, Aye Meherebaan, dubbed by Asha Bhosle, was a popular hit with audiences, and is widely quoted and celebrated to this day. Howrah Bridge was followed by Phagun opposite Bharat Bhushan, Kala Pani opposite Dev Anand, the perennial hit Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi opposite her husband-to-be, Kishore Kumar and Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), opposite Bharat Bhushan again.
In 1960, she consolidated these successes, and her super-star status when she went on to appear in the epic mega-budget historical, Mughal-E-Azam. This film is widley perceived to be the crowning glory of her career and perhaps the decade of filmmaking in India.
Madhubala was known for keeping a low profile, never making public appearances (with the exception of the premiere for the film Bahut Din Huwe in 1954) and she rarely gave interviews. Film media often speculated over her personal life and romantic liaisons and Dilip Kumar was repeatedly mentioned. These rumours were confirmed with a bold and rare public appearance during their courtship in 1955. Madhubala was escorted by Dilip Kumar for the premier of his film Insaniyat (1955), a film with which she had no other association. Though this may have been another gesture of gratitude to the producer and director S. S. Vasan, who had cared for her earlier when she had taken ill during the filming of Bahut Din Huwe (1954), this appearance was significant for another reason. By attending the premiere officially escorted by Dilip Kumar, they publicly acknowledged their relationship.
Madhubala's romance with Kumar lasted five years, between 1951 and 1956. Their association was ended following a highly controversial and widely publicized court case. B.R. Chopra, the director of the film Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were currently starring in, Naya Daur (1957), wanted the unit to travel to Bhopal for an extended outdoor shooting. Ataullah Khan objected and even claimed that the entire Bhopal schedule was a ruse to give Dilip Kumar the opportunity to romance his daughter. Finally, Chopra sued Madhubala for the cash advance she received from him for a film she now had no intention of completing. He also replaced her with South Indian actress Vyjayanthimala. Madhubala obediently supported her father despite her commitment to Dilip Kumar. Kumar testified against Madhubala and Ataullah Khan in favor of the director B.R. Chopra in open court. The case was lost by Madhubala and her father amid much negative publicity. Up until that point Madhubala had worked hard to gain a reputation as a reliable and professional performer with much good will in the industry. Her image was badly damaged after this episode. Madhubala and Dilip Kumar were effectively separated from that point on.
She met her husband, actor and playback singer, Kishore Kumar during the filming of Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Jhumroo (1961). At the time he was married to the Bengali singer and actress Ruma Guha Thakurta . After his divorce, because Kishore Kumar was Hindu and Madhubala Muslim, they had a civil wedding ceremony in 1960. His parents refused to attend. The couple also had a Hindu ceremony to please Kumar's parents, but Madhubala was never truly accepted as his wife. Within a month of her wedding she moved back to her bungalow in Bandra because of tension in the Kumar household. They remained married but under great strain for the remainder of Madhubala's life.
It was the film Mughal-e-Azam that marked what many consider to be her greatest and definitive characterization as the doomed courtesan Anarkali. Director K. Asif, unaware of the extent of Madhubala's illness, required long and grueling shooting schedules that made heavy physical demands on her. Whether it was posing as a veiled statue in suffocating make-up for hours under the sweltering studio lights or being shackled with heavy chains. From 1951 through to 1959 Madhubala invested her best efforts into Mughal-e-Azam. Post 1956 and her separation from Dilip Kumar, the film's remaining intimate romantic scenes were filmed under much tension and strain between Madhubala and her now estranged co-star. This emotionally and physically taxing experience is widely perceived as a major factor in her subsequent decline in health and premature death.
On August 5 1960, Mughal-e-Azam released and became the biggest grossing film at that time, a record that went unbroken for 15 years until the release of the film Sholay in 1975. It still ranks second in the list of all time box-office hits of Indian cinema (inflation adjusted). Despite performing alongside the most respected acting talent of the industry, Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote, and Dilip Kumar, critics recognised and appreciated Madhubala's intelligent and multi layered performance. She received some recognition as a serious actress when she was nominated for a Filmfare Award. However she did not win, losing out to Bina Rai for her performance in the film Ghunghat (1960). In Khatija Akbar's biography on Madhubala (see reference section), Dilip Kumar paid tribute to her talent: "Had she lived, and had she selected her films with more care, she would have been far superior to her contemporaries. Apart from being very versatile and an excellent artiste, she had a warm and cheerful nature. God had gifted her with so many things..."
In 1960, Mahubala hit the peak of her career and popularity with the release of back-to-back blockbusters Mughal E Azam and Barsaat Ki Raat. She was offered strong, author-backed roles, but her deteriorating health did not permit her to enjoy this period and develop as an actress. At this point Madhubala became so ill that she could not accept any new films or even complete her existing assignments. In the biography by Khatija Akbar, her frequent co-star Dev Anand recalled: "She was so robust and full of life and energy. She was always laughing and enjoyed her work. One could never conceive she was seriously ill. Then one day out of the blue she just disappeared...".
She did have intermittent releases in the early 60s. Some of these, like Jhumroo (1961), Half Ticket (1962) and Sharabi (1964), even performed above average at the box-office. However, most of her other films issued in this period were marred by her absence in later portions when her illness prevented her from completing them. They suffer from compromised editing and in some cases the use of "doubles" in an attempt to patch in scenes that Madhubala was unable to shoot. Her last released film Jwala, although filmed in the late 1950s, was not issued until 1971, two years after her death. Incidentally, apart from some Technicolor sequences in Mughal-e-Azam, Jwala is the only time Madhubala appeared in a colour film.
In 1966, with a slight improvement in her health, Madhubala tried working again opposite Raj Kapoor in the film Chalack. Film media heralded her "comeback" with much fanfare and publicity. Stills from this time showed a still beautiful but pale and wan-looking Madhubala. However, within a few days of filming, her frail health caused her to collapse and the film remained incomplete and unreleased.
When acting was clearly no longer an option, Madhubala turned her attention to film making. In 1969 she was set to make her directorial debut with a film named Farz aur Ishq. However the film was never made, as during the pre production stages, Madhubala finally succumbed to her illness and died on February 23rd, 1969, shortly after her 36th birthday. She was buried at Santa Cruz Cemetery by her family and husband Kishore Kumar.
In her short life, Madhubala made over 70 films. She is often compared with Marilyn Monroe and has a similar position in Indian film history. Perhaps because she died before being relegated to supporting or character roles, to this day Madhubala remains one of the most enduring and celebrated legends of Indian cinema. Her continuing apeal to film fans was underlined in a 1990 poll conducted by Movie magazine, when Madhubala was voted the most popular Hindi actress of all time, garnering 58% of the votes.
Her films are widely seen on Television and DVD transfers of most of Madhubala's work have enabled a resurgence of her fan base. Dozens of clips and fan made montage tributes from her films have been uploaded and can be seen on the popular video websites like Youtube. No other vintage Hindi actress has such a large presence on the video sharing site. In India, street traders and shops sell her Black & White posters and publicity shots alongside the current film stars of Hindi Cinema.
In 2004 a digitally colorized version of Mughal-e-Azam was released and, 35 years after her death, the film and Madhubala became a success with cinema audiences all over again.
In the past decade, several biographies and magazine articles have been issued on Madhubala, revealing previously unknown details of her private life and career. Consequently in 2007, a Hindi film Khoya Khoya Chand was produced starring Shiney Ahuja and Soha Ali Khan - the plot included some events loosely based on the life of Madhubala and other vintage film personalities.
In 2008 a commemorative postage stamp featuring Madhubala was issued. The stamp was produced by India Post in a limited edition presentation pack which featured images of the actress. It was launched by veteran actor Manoj Kumar in a glittering ceremony attended by friends and surviving members of Madhubala's family. The only other Indian film actress to be honoured in this manner is Nargis Dutt.
The popular actress and sex symbol of the 1970s Zeenat Aman is often acknowledged as the prototype of the modern and westernized Hindi film heroine. Yet it is often overlooked that Madhubala was seen portraying westernized and even vamp like characters back in the 1950s. A bold image for a Hindi film heroine to portray in an age when demure and self sacrificing ideals of Indian womanhood were the order of the day. As such it is Madhubala's (and to some degree, her contemporary Nargis ) pioneering influence on modern Hindi actresses that is prevalent today.
|Saat Samundaron Ki Mallika||1947|
|Neki Aur Badi||1949|
|Rail Ka Dibba||1953|
|Bahut Din Huye||1954|
|Mr. & Mrs. '55||1955|
|Dhake Ki Malmal||1956|
|Yahudi Ki Ladki||1957|
|Gateway of India||1957|
|Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi||1958|
|Kal Hamara Hai||1959|
|Insaan Jaag Utha||1959|
|Mehlon Ke Khwab||1960|
|Barsaat Ki Raat||1960|
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