Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Madhubala and that almost-forgotten age

You only had to slip her into a wet sari, ask her to lean invitingly into the camera or hand her co-star a feather, and you could comfortably forecast that the cinematic sigh would resonate for at least a hundred years.

I’ve seen Hindi cinema’s most beautiful face in half a dozen of her most popular films, including several times in Mughal-e-Azam, her biggest hit—and the one where everyone finally acknowledged that she could act too.

But I know Madhubala best through her 1950s songs.

Flirty in Howrah Bridge’s Aaiye meherbaan and Chalti ka Naam Gaadi’s Ek ladki bheegi bhagi si; playful in Kala Pani’s Achha ji main haari and Phagun’s Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya; dreamy in Raj Hath’s Mere sapnon mein aana re, Mr & Mrs 55’s Thandi hawa kaali ghata; hazy in Mahal’s Aayega aanewala; to-die-for in every M-e-A song pictured on her.

Also Read | Priya Ramani’s earlier columns

How Dev Anand held his grim expression to her cheeky one for so many stanzas before he accepted her apology in the above-mentioned song from Kala Pani will always be one of Bollywood’s unsolved mysteries for me.

In the updated and re-released The Story of Madhubala, author Khatija Akbar clarifies in the preface itself that she uncovered “no dark secrets, no skeletons in cupboards, no horror tales of drunkenness or mean habits. Only human failings". Akbar swings a 45-minute interview with Dilip Kumar, but it’s only about Madhubala his colleague, not Madhubala his true love.

It doesn’t matter.

There are so few vintage biographies of people who were part of Hindi cinema’s Golden Age that I get excited every time a new one releases. My favourites in this genre in recent years were 2008’s Ae Mohabbat…Reminiscing Begum Akhtar and 2010’s My Name is Gauhar Jaan! (although India’s first gramophone artiste belonged to an earlier time).

Ashok Chopra, CEO and managing director of Hay House, which has published the Madhubala book first released more than a decade ago, says that the main reason there are so few books set in that era is that people don’t want to talk. “Till you don’t meet the person concerned or interview their associates and the actors that worked with them, you can’t do a good biography." Waheeda Rehman, for instance, has refused to be involved in a book about herself, he adds.

“Stars are not open to writing about themselves," agrees V.K. Karthika, chief editor and publisher of HarperCollins. “In India, there’s no concept of letting everybody see what you’re all about."

One way of circumventing the not enough information, not enough insight dilemma is to let pictures do the talking. So HarperCollins will release two coffee-table books, one on Dev Anand’s Navketan and another on the age of silent cinema. Roli Books will also release an illustrated book on Johnny Walker by writer Sanjit Narwekar later this year.

Increasingly, publishing houses are relying on fans to pitch in. Harper’s new release R.D. Burman—The Man, The Music (see page 15) is written by fans with corporate day jobs. “There is a rediscovery of these books mainly because authors are so passionate and involved with the era," says Karthika.

The period from 1947 to 1960 wasn’t known as the Golden Age for nothing, Akbar points out. Music was one big reason we’ll never forget that time. Back then it rained astoundingly talented music directors and trained, ethereal voices. “If films could run solely on their music, no film would have failed in the glorious fifties when all music as a matter of routine appeared to be only good, better or best," writes Akbar, whose book begins with nine-year-old Mumtaz’s entry into this world. Mumtaz, who was born on 14 February with a hole in her heart and who later adopted the screen name Madhubala.

If nothing else, the book ensures a full update of your Madhubala trivia. Of course there are details of how Dilip Kumar and Madhubala fell in love and didn’t live happily ever after—their love story ended with the sensational Naya Daur court case. Personally, I preferred the anecdotes about Madhubala’s daily life. Akbar recounts how when Madhubala asked dance director Sitara Devi to help her improve her dancing, her reaction was typical of the industry: “Why ever do you want to learn to dance? You only have to move your hands about and it looks lovely."

Madhubala was a workaholic. She didn’t attend filmi functions, kept journalists away from her sets and had a fear of crowds. Occasionally, she would slip into a burqa and go watch a film anonymously. She learned to drive at 12 and decided, at 17, that she should learn English. She picked up the language in three months. She dressed simply for shootings in a white sari. Her nails were usually unpolished and her face free of make-up. She was allergic to the fluttering eyelashes and quivering lower lip school of acting.

Akbar questions whether the demands of working on K. Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam, which took nearly a decade to make, hastened the heart patient’s death. “The chains, the continuous night shootings…it killed her," said Sitara Devi.

Like the Madhubala book, Penguin India’s just-out book on K.L. Saigal was also found worthy of repackaging. Author Pran Nevile, a fan and expert on the musician, had published a coffee-table book on Saigal that was sponsored by the ministry of culture. “We asked Mr Nevile to do an expanded version for us, mining his Saigal archives and incorporating as many rare pictures as possible—and we published the book in paperback this year, so as to reach the widest possible readership," says Udayan Mitra, an editor at Penguin.

Mitra says many of these books may not sell that well, “but for old times’ sake, these books are worth doing anyway." I couldn’t agree more.

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