Madhubala was without doubt the most beautiful Hindi Film heroine ever and is often still called rightly the Venus of the Indian screen. She was also perhaps the most underrated actress ever with her beauty more often than not attracting more attention than her performances. To be fair to her, she was brilliant in comedy with her sense of comic timing spot on and when required she came up with performances of high dramatic calibre in Amar (1954) and the unforgettable Mughal-e-Azam (1960).
Born Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi in abject poverty in Delhi on February 14, 1933, Madhubala began life initially in the Hindi film world as a child actor. She was billed as Baby Mumtaz, in films like Bombay Talkies’ Basant (1942) and Mumtaz Mahal (1944). It was filmmaker Kidar Sharma, who gave her a break as heroine opposite Raj Kapoor, also making his debut as leading man, in Neel Kamal (1947) when she was barely 14.
Though Madhubala did a spate of films in 1947-8 like Dil ki Rani (1947), Chittor Vijay (1947), Khubsurat Duniya (1947), Amar Prem (1948), Lal Dupatta (1948) and Parai Aag (1948), it was with the Bombay Talkies suspense thriller Mahal (1949) that she finally became a star. For the first time her famous looks came into focus as well as she began to blossom into the most beautiful Hindi Film heroine ever. Madhubala is spot on as the ‘spirit’ that haunts Ashok Kumar bringing a haunting quality to her performance as well. What is ironic is that Madhubala was not even the first choice for the film. Many actresses including Suraiya were considered for the role before Madhubala was finally chosen. Today it is impossible to think of anyone but Madhubala in Mahal. In fact, Aaega Aanewala from the film remains her signature song till today and the film is synonymous with her and her alone!
With Mahal’s success, a flurry of films followed opposite the top leading men of the day – Rehman (Pades (1950)), Dilip Kumar (Tarana (1951), Sangdil (1952)), Dev Anand (Madhubala (1950), Aaram (1951), Arman (1953)) and Premnath (Badal (1951), Saqi (1952)). It was during this time that LIFE Magazine did a photo feature on her where she was dazzlingly clicked by James Burke. She was also the subject of an article by David Cort where he declared her ‘ The Biggest Star in the World – and she’s not in Beverly Hills’. Cort began his piece by saying, ‘The actress with the greatest following, in numbers and devotions not to be found in Hollywood, but on the opposite side of the planet – in Bombay, India. Her name is Madhubala. She is nineteen years old, a small girl with arching eyebrows and a shy, sweet smile, who has risen to the top of the Indian movie industry in the last two years.’
However, by the mid 1950s when some of her major films like Mehboob Khan’s Amar (1954) flopped in spite of a fine performance by her as the woman who sacrifices her love for her fiance’s wrong doing, Madhubala, the most beautiful actress in the country, was unceremoniously declared ‘box office poison!’ Further, she had gotten involved with Dilip Kumar and this too took its toll on her and she ultimately had to bow out of BR Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) opposite him when her father refused to let her go for a long outdoor shoot for the film. When she was removed from the film as Chopra insisted he could only shoot those scenes on location (and he was right) and Vyjayanthimala stepped into her role, her father took Chopra to court. Following a scandalous court case, where Dilip Kumar took Chopra’s side even as he declared his love for her, Madhubala lost both the case and her man.
Of course, it’s not as if all her films in this period were write offs. She still made a strong impact as the rich madcap heiress who marries for convenience so that she can hold on to her property in Guru Dutt’s classic romantic comedy, Mr and Mrs 55 (1955). In fact, she displayed a natural instinct for the lighthearted scenes and proved to be the life of the film.
Madhubala bounced back with a string of hits in the 1958-60 period – Phagun (1958), Howrah Bridge (1958), Kala Pani (1958), Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) – all among her more memorable films and of course, Mughal-e-Azam (1960). As the club dancer in Howrah Bridge, Madhubala never looked more beautiful or alluring as she swayed to the seductive notes of Aaiye Mehrbaan. And she matched Kishore Kumar step by step in his madcap antics in the classic comedy, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi.
However, it was Mughal-e-Azam that saw perhaps her greatest performance as the doomed courtesan, Anarkali. The film showed off the finely modulated depth and subtlety she could bring to her performances if given the opportunity. It is an outstanding performance in an outstanding film. Shockingly, she lost the Filmfare Award for Best Actress that year to Bina Rai for the latter’s comeback, Ghunghat (1960). Incidentally, Bina Rai had played the tragic courtesan earlier in the Filmistain Production Anarkali (1953).
Sadly, even as she ruled Hindi cinema by now, Madhubala’s congenital heart disease, first discovered on the sets of Bahut Din Huwe (1954) and made worse by having to drag around authentic heavy chains during the making of Mughal-e-Azam, forced her to abbreviate her career. Many of her films in this period – Yeh Basti Yeh Log opposite Balraj Sahni, Suhana Geet with Kishore Kumar, Naughty Boy again with Kishore Kumar, and Jahan Ara where she was to play the title role got stalled. In fact, in Naughty Boy, she was replaced by Kalpana. She meanwhile had also plunged into a loveless marriage with Kishore Kumar and lingered on for nine years till her death on February 23, 1969.
She did have the odd release in this period like Passport (1961), Half Ticket (1962) and Sharabi (1964) but they were mostly old films that managed to limp towards release, Sharabi a good six years after most of its filming. And Jwala, her only full fledged color film, released after her death in 1971! Madhubala did try making a comeback opposite Raj Kapoor in a film titled Chalaak directed by JK Nanda, also stuck for awhile with ten reels canned in 1960. This was sometime around 1964, but her ailment again saw the film being shelved. She tried desperately completing it in 1966 but her illness once again came in the way thus effectively ending any chance of the film getting complete. With that her film career effectively ended for good.
A true cinematic icon, even today the very mention of the name Madhubala conjures up the image of those dancing eyes, that crooked smile, that bubbly effervescence..