The triumph and tragedy of being Madhubala: how a nation’s beloved icon died of a broken heart

For millennials, Madhubala has an almost mythical status. It shines like an iridescent star from a distance, receding even further, but never extinguishing or fading. Like bedtime tales, we’ve heard all the stories about this legendary actor, his ethereal beauty, his tragic life, and we can see why he has such appeal to Bollywood fans. She survives in stories told by those who knew her, old news articles and biographies, almost like a fictional character who seems too ethereal to exist. Her life was almost like a Bollywood script, filled with immense hardship and a never-ending stream of tragedy from childhood, and it continued until the end of her life. Yet the image she carved out on screen, due to her mischievous on-screen persona, was a far cry from the person she was in real life.

It’s ironic that this star, who ruled over a million hearts in the Indian subcontinent, had his heart broken beyond repair, not once or twice, but multiple times in his brief life. More than her illustrious professional career, it is her fragile beauty and the men she loved that hold more attention, curiously. Her looks almost overpowered her acting skills, which is odd, because as the late veteran singer Lata Mangeshkar pointed out, Madhubala didn’t really care about her looks. “She was always warm and friendly. Although everyone insisted on her breathtaking beauty, she never took her looks seriously,” Lata Mangeshkar recalled, as quoted by Deccan Chronicle. In fact, it was Mangeshkar’s haunting Aayega Aanewala that enhanced Madhubala’s appeal.

Mughal e azam dilip kumar Dilip Kumar and Madhubala (Photo: Archives Express)


“She stipulated in her contracts that she only wanted me to do her playback while singing. This was after Aayega Aanewala’s success in Mahal (1949). During those days, we met socially quite often. This kind no camaraderie anymore… Madhubala mujhe bahut pyar se milti thi (she used to meet me with great affection),” Mangeshkar once noted.

It was his charm and personality that drew people in – “like love at first sight,” as Shammi Kapoor had described him. Shammi Kapoor once explained to Rediff that when he met on the set of Rail Ka Dibba, “he couldn’t take his eyes off her”. Her beauty was so captivating that he couldn’t remember her lines and was extremely nervous. She seemed to appreciate that, he noted. “And she was fully aware of the effect she had on me and relished it thoroughly,” he said.

Its alluring effect was irresistible, as Dilip Kumar, who fell in love with Madhubala, once noted. People just had to talk about it eloquently and publish lots of literature about it. Yet over the years, it has become extremely difficult for her to persevere with this flirtatious image. Even the tales surrounding his sorrows sound like folklore, another reason why the Madhubala myth persists to this day.

Before Dilip Kumar, there were others including her childhood friend Latif who was said to have been heartbroken when she moved to Mumbai to continue acting. Similar to the quality of a Shakespearean tragedy, he is said to still visit Madhubala’s grave, every year to lay a rose (a parting gift she had given him) on February 23, the day of her death.

Madhubala (Photo: Express Archive)


And there was Prem Nath, as his sister Madhur Bhushan once revealed. “Apa fell in love with Prem Nath for the first time. The relationship lasted six months. He broke up for religious reasons. He asked her to convert and she refused. Later, Prem Nath’s wife, l Actor Bina Rai, recalled that the couple even went to Haji Malang together. However, Madhubala was seriously upset when they got married, and that’s when her health started to deteriorate. She told Cineplot: “Yes, they were in love. My husband was very upset with his condition. He couldn’t accept the fact that she was seriously ill. They must have shared something beautiful but things don’t always work out. Love stories don’t always have a happy ending…I was told that Madhubala was very upset on our wedding day.

Yet the most written about her unhappy relationship with Dilip Kumar. They had met on the sets of Tarana and had been together for nine long years. However, it was said that the reason behind their failed relationship was Madhubala’s father, Atallulah Khan. However, Dilip Kumar shared in his biography that contrary to popular notion, Madhubala’s father, Ataullah Khan was not opposed to their match but rather wanted to turn this marriage into a business venture which did not suit him.

Madhubala’s father had his own production company and wanted to bring them both under his roof, but Dilip was not in favor of the idea. “I explained to them both that I had my own way of operating and selecting projects and that I would not be lax even if it was my own production house. It must have rocked the apple cart for him and he managed to convince Madhu that I was being rude and presumptuous,” he wrote. Dilip Kumar shared that Madhubala tried to convince him and promised ‘everything will be settled once we get married’ but Dilip was not ready to ‘give in to someone else’s dictates and strategies “. With an air of regret, he mentioned that he was relieved when they parted ways. “I was really relieved when we broke up because I also started to understand that it was great to work together as artists, but in marriage it’s important for a woman to be ready to to give more than to receive.”

iconic mughal-e-azam scenes

It left Madhubala immeasurably broken, and his sister Madhur recalled the days the actor spent crying, desperately trying to put the relationship back together. “’Leave your father and I’ll marry you’. She said, “I’m going to marry you, but go home, say sorry to him and hug him.” It was the zid (ego) that destroyed their love. But my father never asked her to break off the engagement or asked her for an apology,” Madhur recalled. History repeated itself, Dilip Kumar married Saira Banu and Madhubala struggled to be happy for him. She wasn’t bitter, as her sister claimed. “She said, ‘Unke naseeb mein woh (Saira Banu) thi, main nahin’. But she also said: ‘He married a very pretty girl. She is so dedicated. I am very happy for him. But a void remained in his heart,” she said.

It’s almost cruel that Madhubala – the actor who created such an unwavering impact on the film industry – is so exhausted by endless heartache. Madhur recalled that she was ‘just bones and skin’ and had been confined to her bed for the past few years, saying she didn’t want to live anymore.

Today, we can only struggle to piece together the star – dubbed the Marilyn Monroe of Bollywood – although that title is unfair to her. She has her own title, Madhubala of India.

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