Why choose Madhubala, before Nutan, or Nargis? Nutan was a far superior actress, Nargis had a gamin charm all her own, Waheeda was a far better dancer, Meena Kumari was the unquestioned queen of drama. Yet Madhubala was perhaps the most beauteous of them all, the thousand-watt smile lighting up screens, a Venus shining bright, stealing her own place not only amidst her stellar contemporaries but also carving a niche out for herself. A golden goose with the weight of family responsibility on her frail shoulders, her chequered career cut short by a tragic illness, an ill-fated love story, poor choices, a controlling father… her life was not unlike a film script.
Born Mumtaz Jehan Begum, she started working at the age of eight. Five years later, at the age of 14, she got her first break as a heroine in Neel Kamal, opposite another fledgling actor in his first major role as hero, Raj Kapoor. Directed by Kidar Sharma, Baby Mumtaz debuted as Madhubala. It is said that it was Devika Rani who was responsible for changing ‘Mumtaz’ into Madhubala.
Two years later, she met Dilip Kumar on the sets of Tarana, and thus began a love story that was to last seven years. Until she sacrificed her love on the altar of a father’s unbending law. The story goes that on the first day of shooting, she sent him a red rose and a message of love; Dilip Kumar was intrigued and amused – enough to meet his new heroine, and the rest, as they say, was history. Whatever be the truth of that story, it is an interesting one, and one that lends a sheen to the legend that was Madhubala.
In her short career, she was part of some incredibly successful movies, and some path-breaking ones. She could never capitalise on the success of her movies, though, partly due to her continued ill-health, and partly due to the stranglehold that her father had on her decisions. And there were several bad ones. Certainly, her incredible beauty overshadowed her acting prowess.
Here then, are ten of her best movies, in chronological order (as seen through a very subjective lens…)
1. Mahal (1949)
The film that catapulted a very young Madhubala to overnight stardom. Khemchand Prakash‘s music, Lata‘s soulful voice, Madhubala’s ethereal charm – and a ‘ghost’ movie that surpassed others in the genre. Debutant director Kamal Amrohi had a hit on his hands, only no one believed it would work. And it is an ironical twist of fate that Bombay Talkies had to close down after the biggest hit that it had ever had. Mahal was also the first movie that had a song that became its leit motif – Aayega aane wala.
Mahal has been identified as a ghost story, and one of the most successful ones of the genre; but it fits as well, or perhaps more so into the suspense genre – a ghost who is not a ghost; a man, a sceptic who is driven to believe in reincarnation; a loving wife turned vengeful vixen; the atmosphere of gloom, despair, and finally death; an ending that is as surprising as the story of the ‘ghost’ – the proverbial twist in the tale. And while I love this song that sets the atmosphere for the move. And oh, did I mention Madhubala is beautiful? Madhubala is beautiful.
The movie that was the beginning of a love affair fated to end as all ‘good’ love affairs should – tragically. This is one of the movies that is inexplicably overlooked when one talks about the huge body of work that is Dilip‘s; inexplicable because, this had all the necessary ingredients for a decent entertainer – a above-average script, decent acting, reasonably tight direction, and above all, two stars whose personal chemistry lit up the screen like fireworks on Diwali night.
Anyone, I know who has seen it, has watched Tarana more than once. Dilip is Dr Motilal, returning home after years abroad, to a marriage fixed by his father. The plane he is in, crashes, and of course, he is saved and looked after by a kind villager and his beautiful daughter, Tarana (Madhubala). Now, which man in his right senses isnot going to fall in love with her? Well, Dr Motilal is not in complete control of his senses, but even he has enough wits about him to fall head over heels for her. But what is a love story without a villain? There is another man, the local yokel (well, not quite, but it has a nice ring to it) who is in love with her, and who can blame him? So he plots and plans and succeeds in ruining the girl’s izzat and in driving the doctor from the village.
And of course, the fates take a hand; the good doctor, pining for his beloved is led to believe that she died. And, apathetic as he is, is emotionally blackmailed into a loveless marriage (poor Shyama!). Tarana, on the other hand, is undergoing one of Lemony Snicket’s series of unfortunate events – she is separated from the man she loves, she is slandered (and what will happen to a ‘good’ girl if her izzat is looted?), her hut catches fire, her father dies…
Madhubala came up with a striking performance – watch the way her expressions change in this song. And music director Anil Biswas came up with a score that reached deep into more than one heart – if Nain mile nain hue baawre spoke of the happiness of falling in love, then Seene mein sulagte hai armaan was the yearning of two hearts sundered. And if Ek main hoon ek meri bekasi ki shaam hai was an anthem of helplessness, then Woh din kahan gaye bata underlined the sheer agony of separation.
Who can watch Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in this song and not believe that the tale was true and they were deeply in love? They make you want to believe it.
An amazing psychological drama based on a moral and ethical dilemma. Three characters who are drawn into the crisis because of one of them gives in to his baser instincts in a weak moment; and the negative consequences which throw them, and others, into a whirlpool of tragedy, and the inevitable consequences of heartbreak, guilt and repentance.
Anju (Madhubala) is an heiress whose widowed father is looking for prospective grooms for his beautiful daughter. His search leads him to Advocate Amarnath; young, handsome, successful, well-respected. Anju and Amar meet, fall in love with her father’s blessings, and their engagement is about to be announced when Amar begins to withdraw from Anju. As the crisis escalates, the village is rife with shocking rumours. And life as Anju knows it begins to unravel.
This is one of Madhubala’s finest performances as she traverses the arc from a naive young girl who has the world at her feet to a strong woman who has to deal with an ethical dilemma. It is also an understated performance by Dilip Kumar as he portrays the pain of a man who has given in to a momentary weakness and discovers that old sins cast long shadows. And who can forget Nimmi at the eye of the storm?
4. Mr and Mrs 55 (1955)
One of Madhubala’s first forays into comedy. It was quite remarkable for being rather misogynistic though it did become a huge hit, or should I say “and it became a huge hit”? OP Nayyar‘s music had a huge role to play in its success. Who can forget Thandi hawa, kali ghata with Madhubala twirling an umbrella? Or Chal diye banda nawaz? And of course, being a Guru Dutt movie, Johnny Walker had to have a song of his own, where he spent some time ostensibly searching for his liver (and before you laugh, the liver is supposed to be the seat of emotion!); and is asked by his girlfriend why he had to bring it to the office!
Madhubala plays a naive but spirited heiress (Anita) who is fully under the thumb of her straight-laced, stridently feminist (read man-hating) aunt. Who is aghast when Anita turns 18 and her father’s will declares that his not-inconsiderable wealth should be given to Anita only if she gets married.
The aunt is not to be defeated in this manner. She proceeds to hire a husband; one who will conveniently divorce her niece when the inheritance is duly signed, sealed and delivered. There is a nice scene where she descends on Pritam (Guru Dutt) and upon seeing his artwork all over the walls of his office, asks him derisively “Socialist ho?”And Pritam looks up from the proofs and says dryly, “Nahin. Cartoonist hoon.”
And so Pritam and Anita are married, and the aunt is patting herself on her back for having sidestepped her brother’s unseemly conditions. Only Cupid is waiting in the wings and has his own plans up his sleeve. Well, you know what I mean. And so, predictably, the heroine falls in love with the hero and realises the true meaning of femininity and marriage and the duty of a wife. (Barf! That is the part I hated!)
5. Ek Saal (1957)
Reel imitating real or vice versa? Madhubala is Usha, a young girl with only a year to live. Only, she doesn’t know it. Ashok Kumar is a con man, who has an eye on Usha’s father’s wealth. Usha is in love with Ashok Kumar; he does not reciprocate. (Is the man blind or what??) Only her doting father is willing to go the stretch to keep his daughter happy, even if it means hiring Ashok to pretend to love her.
So everyone is happy – Ashok is getting paid a princely sum to pretend to be in love with a beautiful woman, Usha thinks she has found true love, her father has bought his daughter’s happiness – or are they?
And the clock is ticking…
Will Ashok fall in love with Usha? Will Rajni succeed in breaking Usha’s heart in her quest for vengeance? Will Usha die? Will true love survive? In Sab Sawaalon Ka Jawab Jaanne Ke Liye, Dekhiye… EK Saal!
6. Kala Pani (1958)
A Navketan adaptation of AJ Cronin‘s Beyond the Place (Nothing much to wonder at; Dev Anand has often gone on record to say that Cronin was a Favorite author.). In a story about a man’s untiring quest for justice, Madhubala plays Asha, a reporter whom the protagonist meets in the course of his search for answers.
She is beautiful, she is talented, she is strong. And she helps our hero in his quest, and they fall in love, and all is well with the world until she discovers that her lover is also visiting a courtesan (Nalni Jaywant). And he refuses to explain. Raj Khosla, Guru Dutt’s erstwhile assistant, directs another taut thriller with a courtroom climax.
7. Howrah Bridge (1958)
Another Ashok Kumar-Madhubala starrer. On the face of it, an unlikely pair. But, it worked. The attraction between the two is palpable, and Madhubala sizzles as she never had before. She is at her glamorous best as a nightclub dancer. Westernized, languorously seductive, not beyond playing one man against the other – is she on the good side or the evil one? Can one tell?
This must be the only movie where the westernized heroine does not get served her just desserts by dying in order to save the hero. And when is the last time a heroine got to whistle so beautifully? When is the last time you remember a heroine being Anglo-Indian and good? Come on, count them on your fingers and you will still have a hand left over.
Full marks to director Shakti Samanta who infused the film with just the right amount of romance and suspense. Ashok Kumar has never been so carefree as he was romancing Madhubala in this song. She is flirtatious without being a coquette and he responds with such tenderness that one is amazed – Dadamoni never being known for his lover-like tendencies!
Add a story that involves a stolen heirloom, a murder on a historic landmark, the murky dealings in Calcutta’s China Town (the director set a later movie, another huge success, in this quarter of Calcutta), a not-so-stereotypical Chinese villain, a plot that moves from Rangoon to Calcutta and back, and a smarter-than-usual police force, and you have a movie that is very entertaining! OP Nayyar’s seductive score, Asha Bhonsle‘s and Geeta Dutt’s dulcet voices and Madhubala’s charm – that is not just the cake, but the icing and the whole bakery!
8. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (1958)
If Mr and Mrs 55 was her first foray into comedy, then Madhubala ensured that that performance was not just a flash in the pan with her full-fledged comic role in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi. She matched Kishore Kumar‘s craziness with a vim and a verve and continued to look gorgeous as she did so.
The story of three brothers and a car with a mind of its own, Chalti ka Naam Gaadi was that rare comedy – one that succeeds because plot, acting, music and timing all worked in tandem without missing a beat. Ashok Kumar plays Brij Mohan, the eldest of the trio – a man who was jilted by his lover with nary a word of explanation. This setback turns him into a misogynist. In order to protect his younger (and more innocent) brothers from the pain of heartbreak, he orders them to keep away from all women.
With predictable consequences. They promptly fall in love with the first women with whom they have some contact though Kishore is lucky enough to come to the rescue of a drenched Venus. And then, he rubs it into his middle brother the next morning.
Now throw in the fact that the two love stories have to be kept hidden from the eldest brother (who finds out anyway); mix in a couple of abductions, a resurrection of a ghost from the past, a hilarious car race, a fight sequence in the climax to add to the craziness, and top it all off with a lovely musical score by Burman da – and you have a laugh-until-you-cry comedy, with just the right amount of masala.
This was the movie which really displayed Madhubala’s comic timing. Watch her as she tries to stop the mini-villain from going to the hideout and wrecking their carefully-laid plans; or when, teasing Kishore, she asks him to catch a few roosters for her and laughs merrily when he fails miserably; or even when she disguises herself as a man (quite a stretch of imagination on the part of the director there!) and aids Kishore in staking out the villains’ hideout. It is a shame that she didn’t get to exploit her talent for comedy.
9. Barsat ki Raat(1960)
A dark night. A beautiful damsel drenched in the rain. A poetic young man who is inspired by her beauty. Qauwwaalis, mushairas, impromptu poetry sessions – Sahir Ludhianvi and Roshan combined to give such an incomparable music score, I am even willing to overlook the fact that so many of them were filmed on Bharat Bhushan.
The story starts off on a dark, rainy night (are there any other kind?) when a young man with poetry in his soul, runs into a young woman who is stranded in the rain. And the combination of her drenched beauty and his instinctive response leads our young hero (Bharat Bhushan) Aman Hyderabadi, and beautiful heroine Shabnam into a romantic interlude that unleashes an emotional storm that matches the outer one.
He is a quawwal, a shaayar; she is the elder daughter of the city’s police commissioner; he is enamoured by the sight of her as revealed by a convenient flash of lightning; she is already a fan of his poetry (she keeps a book of his poetry by her bedside). And so, while she does not know him when she meets him, she is excited when she hears he is going to perform a new song on the radio. Imagine her joy when she hears the song and realizes that the man she met was her poet, and what’s more, he is singing about her!
And they meet again – and this time, he sings Maine shaayad tumhe, and eyes meet across the hall, and love flourishes, unseen by her father’s eyes. But how long can the lovers escape? Her father (KN Singh) hates poets with a passionate hatred; and besides, he wants her to marry a friend’s son. Shabnam is made of stronger mettle; she elopes with her poet.
Many trials and tribulations later, the film climaxes in a final quawwali competition, the very evocative Na to kaarvan ki talaash hai and all the knotty problems unravel to end happily-ever-after. One of the few movies of the time where the women seemed to have some idea of their own lives and loves.
It is interesting that in a movie named after Emperor Akbar, and with two scenery-chewing co-stars (Prithviraj Kapoor as Akbar and Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim), it is Madhubala’s Anarkali who is centre stage. This was her film, through and through, with the men providing the perfect foil to her beauty and dignity.
K Asif‘s magnum opus had been in the making for many years; Madhubala wasn’t even the first choice for the role of the courtesan whose beauty enslaved a prince of the realm, and whose love affair with her prince nearly brought an empire to its knees. However, fate decreed that it be Madhubala’s swansong, and she, seriously ill though she was, uncomplainingly donned the heavy chains for hours so she could play the doomed danseuse.
And while Mughal-e-Azam was not her last movie, it would be a fitting swansong to her acting career – the films that followed were not very successful nor were they a tribute to her talent.
I would go out on a limb here and assert that Anarkali was Madhubala’s best performance ever. If her eyes flash defiance at her emperor during the Pyar kiya to darna kya sequence, they are full of pain as she, chained and imprisoned, pleads for divine intervention. (This is, in my opinion, the best song from a score that had one great melody after another!) If there is the ecstasy of being with her lover (the scene with the father is one of the most sensuous scenes ever filmed in Hindi cinema), then there is agonising fear at the thought of the prince being put to death. Madhubala had never looked so beautiful, or so sorrowful before.
The legend of Salim and Anarkali is famous in the annals of immortal love stories. Prince Salim is the weak-willed, dissolute, and rebellious eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Jalal-ud-din Mohammed Akbar. When he falls in love with a courtesan in his father’s court, and she reciprocates, the flames of their passion threaten to raze the empire to the ground. The emperor is furious. And Anarkali is defiant. She does not fear where she has loved. And she is willing to take on the emperor with a song on her lips and a fire in her eyes.
Queen Jodha Bai tries to reason with her recalcitrant son. In a gripping scene, she warns the future emperor Hamara hindustan koi tumhare dil nahin hai laundi jispar hukumat kare (Our Hindustan is not your heart that some dancer can rule over), to which the adamant prince retorts “Toh mera dil bhi aapka Hindustan nahin hai jo aap us par hukumat kare!” (And my heart is not your Hindustan that you can rule over it!)
When he leads a rebellion against his father, he is defeated, captured, and sentenced to death for treason. It is Anarkali who begs for his life, offering hers in exchange. And when the emperor, pleased to be able to pardon his son, asks her what she wants in exchange, Anarkali begs to wear the crown of the Empress for a day. Akbar is stunned at her audacity; and believes that it was her greed and not her love that had entrapped his son. But Anarkali explains: Prince Salim had promised her that he would make her the queen of the empire; she does not want him reviled for failing to keep his promise.
Akbar gives in reluctantly; on the night when she visits Prince Salim for the last time, he places the crown of the realm on her head, only to be told that, as empress, she forgives him the crime of her murder. A very strong, dignified performance from Madhubala that only served to underline her helplessness as she spends her final hours with the prince she loves more than life itself – she is willing to betray the latter in order to save the former. She appears hopelessly in love, yet resolute when faced with impending doom. This is her film.
Written By:- Anuradha Warrier, is a writer, editor, film and music buff. She writes for pleasure, edits for a living, and indulges in watching films, listening to music, and writing about both on her blog Conversations Over Chai as and when time permits.