Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehlavi, known by her stage name Madhubala (Devanagari: मधुबाला) (14 February 1933 – 23 February 1969) was a Hindi movie actress. She starred in several successful movies in the 1950s and early 1960s, many of which have attained a classic status. With her contemporaries Nargis and Meena Kumari, she is widely regarded as one of the most talented Hindi movie actresses.
Madhubala was born as Mumtaz Jahan Begum Dehlavi in New Delhi, India on 14 February 1933. She was the fifth child among eleven children of a conservative Muslim couple. Her family was a Nawabi family from Kabul, Afghanistan, and a branch of the royal dynasty of Mohammadzai (also called Barakzay). Her grandparents were exiled by Afghanistan's army to India.
After Madhubala's father, Ataullah Khan, lost his job at the Imperial Tobacco Company in Peshawar, he relocated his family to Mumbai. Young Mumtaz entered the movie industry at the age of nine.
Mumtaz’s first movie Basant (1942) was a box-office success. She played in it as the daughter of the popular actress Mumtaz Shanti. She went on to act in several movies as a child artist. Actress Devika Rani was impressed by her performances and potential and advised her to assume the name Madhubala, meaning "a woman of honey". Madhubala soon garnered reputation as a reliable professional performer. By the time she entered adolescence, she was being groomed for lead roles.
Her first break came when producer Kidar Sharma cast her opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947). She was fourteen when she was given a lead role. The film was not a commercial success, but her performance was received well.
During the next two years, she blossomed into a captivating beauty. After her lead role in Bombay Talkies production Mahal in 1949, Madhubala attained immense popularity. Though she was only 16 at the time, her subtle and skilful performance, upstaged her seasoned co-star Ashok Kumar. The movie and the song Aayega Aanewala in it heralded the arrival of two new superstars: Madhubala and playback singer Lata Mangeshkar.
Madhubala was found to have a heart problem after she coughed up blood in 1950. She was discovered to have been born with a ventricular septal defect, commonly known as a "hole in the heart". At the time, heart surgery was not widely available.
Madhubala hid her illness from the movie industry for many years, but one incident was widely reported by the media in 1954: She was filming in Madras for S.S. Vassan's Bahut Din Huwe when she vomited blood on the set. Vassan and his wife took care of her until she was well again. She continued to work and established herself as an A-grade star.
Madhubala's family was extremely protective of her because of her health problem. When filming at the studios, she would eat only home-prepared food and drink water only from a specific well in order to minimize risks of infection. But her condition took its toll and she died in 1969 at age 36. For most of the 1950s, Madhubala performed successfully despite her illnesss.
In the early 1950s as Madhubala became one of the most sought-after actresses in India, she also attracted interest from Hollywood. She appeared in many American magazines such as Theatre Arts. In their August 1952 issue, Madhubala was featured in an extensive article with a full page photo. The piece was entitled: The Biggest Star in the World (And She's Not in Beverly Hills). It presented the actress as a mysterious and ethereal woman of mythical beauty with a legion of fans.
During this period, on a trip to Mumbai and its film studios, the American filmmaker Frank Capra was pampered and hosted by the elite of the Hindi movie industry. the one star he really wanted to meet was conspicuous by her absence, Madhubala. A meeting to discuss an opening for Madhubala in Hollywood was proposed by Capra. Madhubala's father declined and put an emphatic end to her potential Hollywood
Madhubala as a Star
Madhubala had many successful films following Mahal. With pressure to secure herself and her family financially, she acted in as many as twenty-four films in the first four years of her adult career. Consequently, critics of the time commented that Madhubala's beauty was greater than her acting ability. This was in part due to careless choices in film roles. As sole support of her family, she accepted work in any film, causing her credibility as a dramatic actress to be seriously compromised. Something she later expressed regret over.
She did have aspirations to appear in more prestigious films with challenging roles. Bimal Roy's Biraj Bahu (1954) being a case in point. Madhubala having read the novel, was desperate to secure the lead in the film adaptation. Assuming she would command her market price (one of the highest), Bimal Roy passed her over in favour of a then, struggling Kamini Kaushal. When Madhubala learned that this was a factor in her losing the part, she lamented the fact that she would have performed in the film for a fee of one rupee. Such was her desire to improve her image as a serious actress.
As a star, Madhubala did ascend to the top of the industry. Her co-stars at the time were the most popular of the period: Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Rehman, Pradeep Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand. Madhubala also appeared alongside many notable leading ladies of the time including Kamini Kaushal, Suraiya, Geeta Bali, Nalini Jaywant and Nimmi. The directors she worked with were amongst the most prolific and respected: Mehboob Khan (Amar), Guru Dutt (Mr. & Mrs. '55), Kamal Amrohi (Mahal) and K. Asif (Mughal-e-Azam) . She also ventured into production and made the film Naata (1955) which she also acted in.
During the 1950s, Madhubala proved herself a versatile performer in starring roles, in almost every genre of film being made at the time. Her 1950 film Hanste Aansoo was the first ever Hindi film to get an "A" (Adults Only) rating from the Central Board of Film Certification. She was the archetypal lady fair in the popular swashbuckler, Badal (1951) and was next seen as an uninhibitted village belle in Tarana (1951). She was convincing as the traditional ideal of Indian womanhood in Sangdil (1952) and was well received in a comic performance as the spoilt heiress, Anita in Guru Dutt's classic satire Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955). In 1956 she had success in historical costume dramas such as Shirin-Farhad and Raj-Hath. Equally successful in contemporary characterizations, she was memorable in a double role in the social film Kal Hamara Hai (1959). Madhubala played the cigarette smoking dancer Bella, and her more conventional saintly sister Madhu.