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


For the millennial generation, Madhubala has a near-mythical status. She shines like an iridescent star from a distance, drifting further away, but never burning out or fading away. Like bedtime tales, we’ve heard all the stories about this legendary actor, her ethereal beauty, her tragic life, and can understand why she has such a powerful appeal for fans of Bollywood. She survives in stories told by those were acquainted with her, old news articles and biographies, almost like a fictional character that seems too ethereal to ever exist. Her life was almost like a Bollywood script, filled with immense hardship, and a relentless flow of tragedy since childhood, and it continued till the end of her life. Yet the image that she carved on screen, owing to her impish on-screen persona, was a far cry from the person she was in real life.

It’s ironic that this star, who queened over a million hearts in the Indian subcontinent, had her heart broken irreparably, not once, or twice, but several times over in her brief life. More than her illustrious professional career, it’s her fragile beauty and the men she loved that receive more attention, curiously so. Her looks almost overpowered her acting skills, which is strange, because as the late veteran singer Lata Mangeshkar once noted, Madhubala didn’t really care for her looks. “She was always warm and friendly. Though everyone stressed on her breath-taking beauty, she never took her looks seriously,” recalled Lata Mangeshkar as quoted by Deccan Chronicle. In fact, it was Mangeshkar’s haunting Aayega Aanewala that enhanced the allure of Madhubala.

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala (Photo: Express Archives)

“She stipulated in her contracts that she wanted only me to do her playback singing. This was after the success of Aayega Aanewala in Mahal (1949). During those days, we’d meet socially quite often. That kind of camaraderie no longer exists… Madhubala mujhe bahut pyar se milti thi (She would meet me with a lot of affection),” Mangeshkar once noted.

It was her charm and persona that drew people in –‘like a thunderbolt’ as Shammi Kapoor had once described. Shammi Kapoor had once elaborated to Rediff that when he met on the set for Rail Ka Dibba, ‘he could not take his eyes off her’. Her beauty was so captivating, that he could not remember his lines and was exceedingly nervous. She seemed to enjoy this, he noted. “And she was fully aware of the effect she had been having on me and was relishing it thoroughly,” he said.

Her alluring effect was irresistible, as Dilip Kumar, who famously fell in love with Madhubala, once noted. It was enough for people to wax eloquent about, and to publish heaps of literature on it. Yet, over the years, it grew exceedingly hard for her to persevere with this coquettish image. Even the tales surrounding her heartbreaks, sound like folklore, another reason why the myth of Madhubala persists till today.

Before Dilip Kumar there were others, including her childhood friend Latif, who was reportedly broken-hearted when she moved to Mumbai to pursue acting. Similar to the quality of a Shakespearean tragedy, it is said that he still visits Madhubala’s grave, every year to place a rose (a parting gift that she had given him) on February 23, the day she died.

Madhubala (Photo: Express Archives)

And there was Prem Nath, as her sister Madhur Bhushan once revealed. “Apa first fell in love with Prem Nath. The relationship lasted six months. It broke on grounds of religion. He asked her to convert and she refused.” Later, Prem Nath’s wife, actor Bina Rai, recalled that the couple had even gone to Haji Malang together. However, Madhubala was severely distraught when they got married, and that was when her health started deteriorating. She told Cineplot, “Yes they were in love. My husband was very upset about her 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 happy endings… I’m told Madhubala was very disturbed on the day we got married.”

Yet, the most written about is her ill-fated relationship with Dilip Kumar. They had met on the sets of Tarana and were 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 wasn’t opposed to their match but instead, wanted to turn this marriage into a business venture which did not land well with him.

Madhubala’s father had his own production company and wanted to bring in them both under his roof but Dilip was not in favour of this idea. “I explained to both of them that I had my own way of functioning and selecting projects and I would not show any laxity even if it were my own production house. It must have tilted the apple cart for him and he successfully convinced Madhu that I was being rude and presumptuous,” he wrote. Dilip Kumar shared that Madhubala tried convincing him and promised that “that it would all be sorted out once we married” but Dilip was not ready to “surrender to someone else’s dictates and strategies.” With an air of regret, he mentioned that he was relieved when they parted ways. “I was truly relieved when we parted because I had also begun to get an inkling that it was all very well to be working together as artistes, but in marriage it is important for a woman to be ready to give more than receive.”

mughal-e-azam iconic scenes

This left Madhubala immeasurably broken, and her sister Madhur recalled the days the actor spent crying, trying to desperately piece the relationship back together. “’Leave your father and I’ll marry you’. She’d say, ‘I’ll marry you but just come home, say sorry and hug him’. It was zid (ego) which destroyed their love. But my father never asked her to break the engagement or ever demanded an apology from him,” Madhur remembered. 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’d say, ‘Unke naseeb mein woh (Saira Banu) thi, main nahin’. But she’d also say, ‘He’s got married to a very pretty girl. She’s so devoted. I’m very happy for him’. But a vacuum remained in her heart,” she said.

It’s almost cruel that Madhubala — the actor who created such an unshakeable impact on the film industry — was so exhausted with endless heartache. Madhur recalled that she was ‘just bones and skin’, and was confined to her bed in the last years, saying she didn’t want to live anymore.

Today we can only struggle to piece together the star — famously dubbed as the Marilyn Monroe of Bollywood — though that title is unjust to her. She has her own title, India’s Madhubala.

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