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14 February 2018

The Many Moods of Madhubala

14.02.1933 - 23.02.1969
Madhubala. That one word is enough to evoke a memory of a dazzling smile, a trademark giggle, and an on-screen charisma that remains hard to beat. Catapulted to fame in Kamal Amrohi's Mahal when she was barely 16, a slew of unremarkable films before maturing into a fine actress. Her career, cruelly cut short by her untimely death, was however, marked by variations of the usual Hindi film heroine. Her obvious beauty blinded people to her talent, and her ill-health didn’t allow her much of a chance to explore roles that might have rewarded her latent talent. 

Yet, with all her constraints, she did manage to turn in relatively nuanced performances in a handful of films. In others, she dazzled by virtue of her sheer screen presence.
Her porcelain prettiness is still talked about in awe. She was photographed for Life magazine by James Burke; America's Theatre Arts profiled her in an article headlined 'The Biggest Star in the World - and she's not in Beverly Hills'. Ten years ago the Indian Postal Department released a stamp in her honour
Today is her 85th birth anniversary. In lieu of a Valentine’s Day presentation I’m all valentined out, and in any case, I’d much rather celebrate a ‘Madhubala Day’ – I offer you Madhubala in her myriad moods.

Tarana (1951) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Anil Biswas Lyrics: DN Madhok
Fingers clasp and unclasp, trail over faces and hair, eyes meet in half-smiles… romance is in the air. Who would have thought that a hero curling the heroine’s hair around his finger could be so erotic? Or that a heroine running her hands through his hair as she sings him to sleep would be so sensuous? Featuring Madhubala in her first outing with Dilip Kumar, their chemistry not only set the screen on fire, but lent charm to a straightforward love song. Anil Biswas’ music plays languorously in the background while Lata’s voice softly caresses each note the way Madhubala caresses Dilip Kumar on screen. The actress brought an innocent sensuality to this on-screen picturisation, quite in keeping with her character of a young village maiden besotted by a stranger.

Aayiye meherbaan
Howrah Bridge (1958) Singer: Asha Bhosle Music: OP Nayyar Lyrics: Qamar Jalalabadi 
Older, wiser, and more jaded, Madhubala is Edna, a nightclub singer, whose job is to seduce the club’s patrons to sitting awhile, so they can spend more than they can, or should. From the first notes in Asha’s smouldering voice, Madhubala weaves her magic – she sizzles as only she can, even dressed as she is in a demure ghagra choli, moving languidly as she makes every man in the audience believe she’s singing just for him. The sensuality is more overt than in Beimaan tore nainwa, expressed in the swish of her hair, a gesture of her hand, the smokiness of her gaze. 

Humein kaash tumse muhobbat na hoti
Mughal-e-Azam (1960) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Naushad Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni 
The depth of love, the knowledge of what lies in store, the wistfulness of if only… For a lowly courtesan to fall in love with the prince of the realm is not to be thought of, but Anarkali hasn’t just committed that error but gone a few steps ahead on that path to self-destruction. Aware of the Emperor’s displeasure, knowing of her rival’s machinations, and realising the consequences of this love, she queries of her beloved – couldn’t he have stopped her falling in love with him? There is an exquisite poignancy to her plea – because a force stronger than her reason is pushing her inexorably forward like a moth to a flame. 

Mughal-e-Azam (1960) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Naushad Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni 
From the same film, another day, another emotion. The time for nascent regrets is past. The Emperor has demanded she renounce her love. Her beloved has accused her of betrayal. Her rival is celebrating her downfall. And Anarkali? She has staked her all in one last throw of dice – a public avowal of her love for her Prince, and a clarion call of defiance – a song that became the anthem for doomed youth forever more. A blazing glance, the swirl of a veil, the present of a dagger… defiance has never been so beautiful, or so determined. 

Aankhon mein aa ja
Dulari (1949) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Naushad Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni 
Dulari (Madhubala), the pride of a gypsy tribe, has fallen in love with Prem (Suresh), the son of a wealthy zamindar. He loves her too, but since the course of true love never runs smooth, they have to meet in secret. Like all lovers, they make plans to meet when they can. And when they can’t meet, she lives in anticipation of the next meeting.  A lost and found tale, with identifying lockets, and disapproving parents, it all ends happily ever after. At least, for Dulari and Prem.  

Unse pyaar ho gaya
Baadal (1951) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Shankar-Jaikishan Lyrics: Shailendra 
Princesses falling in love with commoners is extremely common in our films. Only, the man this princess has fallen in love with (Premnath) is less a ‘commoner’ than a combination of Robin Hood and Zorro. A very young Madhubala was at her effervescent best here and got a chance to show off both that dazzling smile and her penchant for purely physical comedy in this lovely song. (She was known to be an inveterate giggler in real life.) 

Darshan pyaasi aayi daasi
Sangdil (1952) Singer: Geeta Dutt Music: Sajjad Hussain Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan 
Bhajans are not my favourite genre of songs. However, there are always exceptions to a rule, and this happens to be one of them. In a serious psychological study of love, guilt and redemption, this bhajan is a devoted ode to the almighty to whom Kamala (Madhubala) has dedicated her life. Ignore her 'dancing like a marionette' (as my husband remarks); just focus on Madhubala’s simplicity, Geeta Dutt’s voice and Sajjad’s music. 

Phagun (1958) Singer: Asha Bhosle Music: OP Nayyar Lyrics: Qamar Jalalabadi 
Banani (Madhubala) and Bijan (Bharat Bhushan) play star-crossed lovers, betrayed by the villain who is obviously in love (or lust) with Banani. While Bijan is trapped in a hut set ablaze by the men of Banani’s tribe, she is tied to a stake just outside so she can see her lover be burnt alive. In desperation, Banani prays to the rain gods, begging the heartless clouds to pour forth so her lover can be saved.  

Sabkuch luta ke hosh mein aaye
Ek Saal (1957) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: Ravi Lyrics: Prem Dhawan 
A relatively decent love story, Ek Saal saw Madhubala as a terminally ill patient Usha, with just a year to live. Wanting to give her all the happiness he can before she dies, her fond father hires a husband – Suresh (Ashok Kumar), a conman with whom she has fallen in love. Unfortunately for her, Suresh has a paramour, Rajini (Kuldip Kaur) who, jealous of Suresh’s deepening feelings for Usha, decides to put an end to all the drama by Revealing All to Usha. Whereupon a heartbroken Usha has no other recourse but to sing out her pain.   

Mehfil mein jal uthi shama
Nirala (1950) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: C Ramchandra Lyrics: PL Santoshi 
PL Santoshi should have stuck to writing lyrics. The story, an illogical, contrived mess, did the lead pair of Dev Anand and Madhubala no favours at all. And so, Poonam, a village maiden, in love with a foreign-educated Dr Anand (Dev), is forced to marry a three-time-widower old enough to be her father. (Why? Don’t ask.) There, she also has to deal with a virago of a sister-in-law (who offers the new bride a vial of poison – see ‘don’t ask’ – so she can die if/when she wants). What’s a woman to do when faced with a spineless lover and a spineless husband?  

Tragic farewell 
Guzra hua zamana
Shirin Farhad (1956) Singer: Lata Mangeshkar Music: S Mohinder Lyrics: Tanveer Naqvi 
Okay, so this is context and not mood, but I had to get this song in, somehow. We have plenty of home-grown versions of Romeo and Juliet; Punjab seems to have provided most of them – Laila Majnu, Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Mirza Sahiban, Sassi-Punnu, and… Shirin Farhad. Of course, this comes to us from Persia via Punjab. And so, Shirin (in the original tale, an Armenian princess) becomes Shehzaadi Shirin of no known region, while Farhad becomes her childhood sweetheart. Here, on her way to wed Khosrow, Emperor of Persia, she bids her beloved farewell, begging him not to think her unfaithful.

These are but a few songs celebrating the life of an actress who has livened up many a film with her luminous presence. It’s a shame she died so young, but she’s immortalised forever on screen and in our memories. Guzra hua zamana aata nahin dobara... Remembering her today, and forever. 

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