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Article Hindustani

75 years of Neel Kamal (1947): The film that launched Raj Kapoor and Madhubala

Released on 24 March 1947, Kidar Sharma’s love triangle also featured the glamorous Begum Para in a dual role.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Kidar Sharma’s tragic love triangle Neel Kamal (The Blue Lotus, 1947), starring Begum Para, Raj Kapoor and Madhubala, is primarily known for launching the last two as lead artistes. The film, written, directed and produced by Sharma, was released on 24 March 1947.

Raj Kapoor had appeared in a scene in Kidar Sharma’s Gauri (1943) and become an assistant with the filmmaker. Impressed by his dedication to his craft, Sharma offered the young actor the lead role in Neel Kamal for a sum of Rs25,000.

Although Kapoor had done small roles earlier, this was his debut as leading man. Just one year later, aged 24, he established his banner, RK Films, and made his first film as producer and director, Aag (1948). with Nargis as his leading lady.

Kidar Sharma slapped his assistant Raj Kapoor before casting him in his film

The glamorous Begum Para got top billing in Neel Kamal while Madhubala got her first role as an adult, having appeared as a child artiste in numerous films earlier.

Neel Kamal was also the last film where she was credited as Mumtaz, her original name being Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi. It was Bombay Talkies boss Devika Rani who gave her the screen name that was to become legendary — Madhubala.

Set in the fictional kingdom of Janakgarh, the film begins with scenes of destruction as a coup is underway. The king’s brother-in-law, Mangal Singh, has orchestrated a mutiny and attacked the palace at night, forcing the royal family to flee. They take refuge in a temple but are discovered by Mangal Singh who beheads the king and kills his own sister, the queen.

The only survivors of the massacre are two sisters who are separated and do not know that the other is alive. The younger one is adopted by a Dalit, who names her Ganga. Although his wife ill-treats her, the girl grows up to be a loving daughter (Madhubala) to the doting foster father. The older sister, meanwhile, takes the help of her mutinous uncle and takes her rightful place as the princess of Janakgarh (Begum Para).

Raj Kapoor and Madhubala in a still from the film

Ganga grows up to be a carefree young woman who is smitten by the sculptor Madhusudan (Kapoor). Although Madhusudan makes temple sculptures, he is an atheist and a man of artistic ideals who feels that Ganga is a distraction from his art and tries to get away from her.

Madhusudan is employed by the princess and takes the opportunity to work in the palace. But Ganga follows him there, too, trying to woo him with her antics, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the princess, too, becomes enamoured of the handsome young sculptor.

Although the film is a love triangle, Sharma includes a debate on art and its function through a dialogue between the sculptor and his teacher. As a self-absorbed artist, Madhusudan is consumed by lofty ideas which are not grounded in reality. He needs to realize the soul of art and embrace love that is innocent and pure. The Neel Kamal or Blue Lotus symbolizes this change and realization in the artist. The film also includes the socially relevant theme of untouchability as Ganga’s adopted family is not allowed to enter temples but she yearns to do so, questioning the prevailing social norm.

Madhubala was only 14 when the film was made and her innocence is in perfect harmony with her role. Her Ganga is lively and chirpy, and a foil to the serious, brooding Madhusudan, also performed with maturity by the young Kapoor. Begum Para is sophisticated and poised in her double role as the queen and, later, the princess who takes a fancy to Madhusudan.

Known for her magnetic allure and glamour, Begum Para had made her debut with the film Chand (1944). Sohni Mahiwal (1946), Shalimar (1946), Mehandi (1947), Shahnaz (1948), Sohag Raat (1948), Dada (1949), Laila Majnu (1953) and Aadmi (1957) were some of the films she worked in.

In 1951, Begum Para was photographed by James Burke for Life magazine, which brought her international fame. It is said that American soldiers in the Korean War (1950–53) had pinned up her pictures in their barracks, making her known as the Korean pin-up girl, a first for an Indian actress!

Her last performance was in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (2007), where she played the role of Sonam Kapoor’s grandmother.

In an interview with Filmfare magazine in 1953, Begum Para was asked about the kind of roles she looked forward to playing, and answered, “A siren. Either a sultry one or a fiery charmer with a hair-trigger temper. I would also like to play a good dramatic role, a light comedy role and a modern play-girl. Any kind of role, in fact.”

Although Neel Kamal was not a great box-office success, it remains memorable as the launch pad for two of Hindi cinema's biggest stars, Raj Kapoor and Madhubala.