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The tempest called Madhubala — Birth anniversary special

Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short, wrote Shakespeare. Madhubala, she of the doe eyes and electric beauty, was the summer tempest Bollywood continues to pine for. On her 84th birth anniversary, we look at her life and times.

Shriram Iyengar

There is something rebellious about beauty and youth. They do not subscribe to social norms or a unified idea of order. It is natural for the beautiful and the young to court chaos and rebellion. They become icons of rootless identities or poets of depraved sensibilities. This defiance adds an almost mythical allure to their personalities. Cases in point — James Dean, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, and Madhubala.

The command that Madhubala had over people is beyond explanation. Newcomers would wait on her hand and foot. Stars would be mesmerised by her beauty. During the filming of Mehboob Khan's Amar (1954), Dilip Kumar would sleep at the studio to be on time for his shots with the actress at 9 in the morning.

The daughter of a Pashtun Pathan, Madhubala was born Mumtaz Jahan Dehlavi on 14 February 1933. The fact that a child of Valentine's Day shares her first name with the legendary Mumtaz Mahal, muse for the wondrous Taj Mahal, and her birth date with eternal promises of love makes one want to believe in destiny.

Having lost his job in the Imperial Tobacco Company, Madhubala's father Ataullah Khan migrated to Bombay in search of better opportunities. It was in Bombay that Madhubala found films, and lost a childhood. Incidentally, Ataullah Khan never wanted her to join films. It was the young girl's constant pestering and his own financial difficulties that pushed him towards the choice.

Madhubala's sister admitted in an interview: "She always wanted to be an actress and even being a very fat child didn’t hamper this desire. She used to pose in front of the mirror, turn on the radio, and dance. She also continuously pestered my father to allow her to act. He, on the other hand, grew livid every time the subject came up. But just look at fate, at destiny."

The defiance remained a frontier quality ingrained in the young woman. When Premnath offered to marry her on the condition that she convert to Hinduism, she refused. When the world accused her father of being domineering and controlling Madhubala's life, she stood by him. It was this rebellion and courage that added a certain mystique and allure to her more delicate beauty.

Once in a while, this stubbornness broke down. For all her beauty, Madhubala was, like Anna Scott in Notting Hill (1999), just a young woman standing in front of a young man. That young man was the intense and handsome Dilip Kumar. Madhubala was head over heels in love with the introverted star, and he wasn't safe from the Venus trap either.

In his biography The Substance and The Shadow, Dilip Kumar has confessed: "I must admit that I was attracted to her [Madhubala] both as a fine co-star and as a person who had some of the attributes I hoped to find in a woman at that age and time... She, as I said earlier, was very sprightly and vivacious and, as such, she could draw me out of my shyness and reticence effortlessly."

Like in a typical Hindi film, Madhubala's father and Dilip Kumar aka Yusuf Khan, both strong-willed Pathans, were at loggerheads. Dilip Kumar wished for Madhubala to leave her family and come away with him. But even in the face of her love, Madhubala refused. It led to a breakdown in their relationship.

They both came together again in K Asif's magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam where Dilip Kumar's Prince Salim kisses Anarkali with a feather. It has been described as one of the most sensuous scenes ever shot on Indian screen. Ironically, it came at a time when relations were at their frostiest between the two.

Madhubala's beauty often overshadowed her acting prowess. From the naughty, flirtatious woman in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) to the ebullient journalist in Kala Pani (1958), she was turning into a versatile actress with a flair for natural reactions. It was in Asif's Mughal-e-Azam that she scaled the peaks of method acting.

Facing two stalwarts with a propensity for chewing up the scenery, Madhubala's Anarkali stood her ground. In her scenes with the thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, she revelled in defiance. In fact, her body was struggling to cope with the chains during the prison scene.

Her sister, Madhur Bhushan, said in an interview: "The hole in her heart [ventricular septal defect] was detected when she was shooting for SS Vasan’s Bahut Din Huye in Madras 1954. She had vomited blood. She was advised bed rest for three months but continued working as her films would suffer.

"While shooting for Mughal-e-Azam, she was tied with chains and had to walk around with them. That was stressful. By the end of the day, her hands would turn blue. She would even refuse food saying that she had to look anguished and weary for the jail scenes."

It was the last film she would ever shoot. By the time Mughal-e-Azam was released, Madhubala was too weak to even attend the premiere at Bombay's Maratha Mandir theatre. She fought at the doorstep of death for the next nine years, suffering a troubled marriage with the singer-actor Kishore Kumar.

The term 'epic' is often used loosely with cinema, like the term 'great' in sports. Any film whose scale of production extends far beyond expected norms is crowned with the epithet. Mughal-e-Azam is an exception for its ability to provide evidence of its epic nature. Generations of Indians cannot imagine an Akbar without the booming baritone and harrumphing gait of Prithviraj Kapoor. Dilip Kumar embodied the rebellious lover Salim in every possible way. And for anyone who came after 1950, Madhubala was Anarkali, the embodiment of a passionate woman who would take on an emperor for her love.

It was the last film she shot for. Like her character, Madhubala walked into the sunset having delivered one of the greatest performances in 'the' greatest film in Indian cinematic history. It was the perfect end to a career embodying defiance.