Madhubala! One of the great actresses of Hindi film history, The Most Beautiful Woman, with the most ridiculously dramatic and tragic life story. Appropriately for someone so full of love and so loved, her birthday is Valentine’s Day. And so I thought it would finally be time to do a Hindi Film 101 of her life.
Disclaimer: I don’t know these people or have any special knowledge of anything, this is just the commonly told version of her life which might be useful to know if you are new to the films or somehow missed this particular story.
Madhubala is a tricky one, because the bare bones of her tale paint her as a sad and withering tragic heroine. But if you read memoirs of those who knew her or reminiscences of her, you learn that she was anything but sad and withering. Even seeing her onscreen, with her bright cheerful sexiness, will immediately make the “sad sick heroine” vision harder to grasp. And so her story is a bit of a combination, the legend that grew up after her death versus the legend that grew while she was still alive to be a part of it. And of course the reality is somewhere combined and more than both.
There are the basics of her career. At age 9, she began acting and was a semi-star as a child. At 14, Devika Rani gave her her first part grown up role and renamed her to “Madhubala”. At 16 she became a star in the film Mahal, playing the mysterious elusive vision that haunts the hero. Madhubala appeared in hit after hit after hit. She never lead a film, was usually the mesmerizingly beautiful love interest of the hero rather than being the “hero” herself. And yet she developed a massive following, based on her pure personal charisma more than any one role she played. And at the height of her fame and popularity, she suddenly disappeared, leaving an indelible memory.
(Madhubala at 16 in Mahal)
I’ll start with the broad outlines of her personal life. She had a love affair with Dilip Kumar that somehow became public knowledge. Culminating in her father suing to get her out of a contract to do a film with Dilip after their affair ended, in which their personal life became a matter of public record during the court case. After the Dilip affair fell apart, because her father forbade their marriage, Madhubala rebounded and married much older and divorced Kishore Kumar. Around this same time, she was diagnosed with a fatal heart disorder. Kishore paid for her medical care and made sure she lived in comfort, but didn’t live with her after marriage when he realized how ill she was. Madhubala finally faded away at age 36, after 9 years confined to bed in pain.
Tragic, right? And there is this urge to make it just tragic. It is easy to do that. To shift the story slightly, to talk about Madhubala at age 9 forced to support her entire family by working in the movies, becoming a heroine at age 14, falling in love with Dilip at 18 but too obedient to her father to elope with him, and instead fading away of a broken heart (literally!) after an ill-conceived rebound marriage to a man she didn’t love.
And if you watch Mughal-E-Azam, her most famous role, you can watch this play out onscreen. The humble innocent girl, caught up in a love affair with the “Prince” played by Dilip Kumar (who was a bit of a prince in real life, one of the 3 top male stars). But they were torn apart by society and their cruel parents. And she faded away, never to see him again. Tragic!
Only, it doesn’t quite add up. Some versions of Madhubala’s story focus on how her father was so old-fashioned, so restrictive. How she was not allowed to film parties or other events, just work and home. Which supports the tragic lonely innocent story.
But those who knew her remember a pretty girl who loved to flirt and laugh and have fun. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to officially date, or go to the film parties or so on, but that didn’t mean she was an innocent, or spiritual and pure. She was still a young girl, a shallow silly young girl who just wanted to have fun.
And that was the story the tabloids and gossip were selling while she was alive. Sexy Madhubala. And she truly was sexy, and beautiful, and magnetic. People wanted to read about and imagine her smiling out at them, having wild passionate affairs, being happy and making others happy.
(From her Life magazine profile)
That’s the worst of the stories that have been made up after her death, the ones that are still trying to sell her body. A scandal mongering bio recently is selling a tale that she died not from heart disease but from Kishore Kumar’s secret whip dungeon. That while filming Mughal-E-Azam, there were “secret” reels made, fetish reels, of Madhubala in chains being whipped. This is, obviously, totally ridiculous and fake. But it shows how enduring her appeal was, decades after her death this same kind of made up sexy gossip will still sell when combined with her image.
She was an amazing star back then. She was profiled in Life magazine, supposedly Frank Capra offered her a role. Crowds waited outside the studio gates for just a glimpse of her. She was effortless, beautiful, magic. And all with this strange touch of innocence, of girl-next-door, the feeling that if she knew you, she would like you.
But behind the glamour, she was just an average girl. In the biography of Meena Kumari written just after her death (Meena’s, not Madhubala’s), the author interviewed people who knew the both. And what kept coming up is while Meena had this core of poetry, intellectual curiosity, Madhubala was something different entirely. She liked to laugh, to flirt, to have petty human worldly pleasures, and nothing more.
(Another Life photo)
In Dilip’s autobiography, he talks about their affair not as a tragedy, but as a fun distraction. He was recovering from a love affair with another actress with whom he shared an intellectual connection. And so he wanted something different, something fun and easy and happy. And there was Madhubala. And it was fun while it lasted, but then it was over, and that was okay too. By the time he was married, years later, and she was dying, they were close enough and mature enough that she called on him for advice and help and his wife sent him with her blessing to go help his old friend. It wasn’t exactly a painful tragic love that would never die, more a fun-time-was-had-by-all-no-hard-feelings kind of love affair.
Madhubala’s relationship with her father also wasn’t as simple as an old-fashioned authoritarian father and obedient daughter dynamic. He put her to work at age 9, and then used her to help start his own production house. Dilip’s problem with a possible engagement wasn’t some romantic painful lover-father issue, it was business. Her father wanted him to sign a contract as part of the marriage agreement to make movies for his production house and Dilip wasn’t in love enough to make such a foolish business move. If Madhubala had been in love enough to defy her father’s business mind, Dilip would have married her. And if Dilip had been in love enough to sign a contract for a few movies for her father, he would have had their blessing.
Kishore isn’t simply the “rebound” older man either. He’s Kishore! Difficult, talented, charming funny. Madhubala was one of 4 wives in his life, all love marriages. His happiest marriage was his last one, to a woman 21 years his junior, who was recovering from being widowed and who fell in love with him because he made her laugh. His 3rd marriage, after Madhubala, ended when his wife left him for another man. He had good relations with his first wife post-divorce and his sons with her still live with and love their young stepmother Leena Chakraborty (his widow) today. If Madhubala had not been sick, it is possible that they would have been as happy as he was eventually with Leena, or that she would have left him like his third wife, or that they would have separated and maintained a happy equation like he did with his first wife. Certainly it is possible that, like Leena, she fell in love with him because he made her laugh.
And while their marriage wasn’t a success, it wasn’t a failure either. Not exactly. Kishore just couldn’t be there for her, not the way she needed. It was a lot to ask, he would have had to stop his career and dedicate his life to caring for her, watch the woman he loved slowly fade away. He could have done what the worst of the gossip accuses him off, delivered her back to her father and washed his hands of her. But instead he stayed married to her and made sure she was cared for, warm, comfortable, as best off as she could be until the day she died. He visited her every few months, made sure her family was around her and she wasn’t alone while he was gone. Compare this with, for instance, Kamal Arohi who let his estranged wife drink herself to death without raising a hand to stop her or try to help her.
And so there is an alternate version of the story, somewhere in between the tragedy and the sexiness. In this version, Madhubala came from a struggling poor family like many other struggling poor families in India. They landed up in Bombay. Madhubala lost a varying number of siblings (I’m sure she did lose siblings, but sources vary as to the details) to poor health and disease when she was still a child. In 1944, right when her child stardom was taking off, their home was destroyed in the famous Bombay dock explosion (worst disaster in the city’s history, Madhubala was one of 80,000 people made homeless). Yes, all of this was difficult. But it was no more tragic than many other poor families in India, there is no grand tragedy to it.
(Madhubala as a child actress, a hard life, but not the worst possible job for a child)
Madhubala worked as a child star, before becoming a heroine at 14. The same as Meena Kumari, the same as Nargis, the same as Nutan. All of them the same, but different. A woman who follows this career path usually comes from a family that has no other option but to send their child to work. And who are slightly outside of the norms of society so that they are willing to try the new industry of film. But what makes a difference are the details of that family.
Meena’s family was disorganized, chaotic, stumbling from accidental success to success. It was only after her marriage that her career regularized. Nargis, her mother had a firm business head and passed it on to her daughter, Nargis took the reins of her own life almost from the start of her adult career. Nutan fought with her mother for control, was given the tools to direct herself but not the right. But Madhubala had a father who was also a good manager. He kept her focused, he kept her career on track, and he saw how to benefit from it. Even his daughter’s marriage was focused on her career, on a logical and profitable benefit it could bring. Madhubala’s home life may have been restrictive, but it was also solid and reliable and safe and secure.
(Meena and Madhubala together as adults, they knew each other off and on since childhood acting days, but were never really friends)
Which is probably why she felt so free to enjoy herself during the times when she was allowed. To be joyfully sexual and young and laughing and shallow and silly. And also why she found it so easy to let go of Dilip after the business discussion broke down with her father, she was happy at home, her home life wasn’t horrible in anyway. And why she probably found Kishore Kumar a fun alternative option, laughing and happy after Dilip’s seriousness.
As for her death, well, illness can come to anyone. And yes, it is a tragedy, but it should not erase all the joys of her life before that tragedy. She lived life to the fullest in a shallow simple happy way, and then she got sick, and tired, and stuggled to keep living. She kept trying to come back to film, at the very least to finish her scenes for her last movie, but her body kept letting her down and it never happened. Until she faded away. At least, her body faded. But her memory has just burned brighter in the years since.
Madhubala is still, and will always be, the Most Beautiful Woman of Indian film. The one, the only, the unforgettable. Somehow the camera caught something in her that was both wonderfully living breathing human and a little bit inhuman at the same time.