In the late 1930s Bombay, two men hung around the studios of the Hindi film industry, looking for a way inside. Each was accompanied by his daughter, dressed in her prettiest frock, and told to be on her most angelic behaviour. The doors opened for Ali Baksh and his five-year-old daughter Mahajabeen Bano, as they did for Ataullah Khan and nine-year-old Mumtaz Jehan. The two most beautiful actors of Hindi cinema in the Fifties and Sixties, Meena Kumari and Madhubala, whose radiance lit the desires of men across the country, began as child artistes Baby Meena and Baby Mumtaz respectively. They would go on to play the grandest stories of love and fulfillment, but had their hearts broken in real life.
“To understand their choices in love later, it is crucial to go back to their childhood and to understand that they had none,” says Ali Peter John, 53, a film journalist in Mumbai who followed their careers closely. “They were as young as five and nine when the two began working under their fathers’ strict supervision. They grew up facing the camera and became the sole breadwinners for their families,” he says. Khan had come to Bombay, having lost his job at the Imperial Tobacco Company in Delhi. Ali Baksh was a veteran of Parsi theatre in the city.
In 1952, Meena Kumari was on her way out of the child actor slot with her role in Baiju Bawra, which earned her a Filmfare award for Best Actress. While flipping through a film magazine, the actor, then barely 18, came across a picture of the famous writer-director Kamal Amrohi. Fourteen years her senior, his recent film, Mahal, was a roaring success (it starred Madhubala). If the story is to be believed, Meena Kumari became besotted by this much older, successful man. They fell in love on the sets of Amrohi’s film, Daera, where she played the female lead. On February 14, 1952, the couple got married. A fairytale was coming true.
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The marriage that Meena Kumari thought would free her from her father’s control went well for a couple of years. “But Kamal Amrohi was never a good husband to her,” says John. Through the years her career soared, with films such as Parineeta (1953), Sharada (1957) and Chirag Kahan Roshni Kahan (1959), her life was bound by the rules laid down by Amrohi. She could work, but was to come home at six or seven in the evening. No one was allowed in her make-up room, and she was to travel in her own car, alone. “She was also escorted everywhere she went by Baqar, Amrohi’s friend who kept a close tab on her,” says John. It was exactly the kind of life she wished she didn’t have.
Meena Kumari also loved children, but Amrohi refused to have a child with her. She was his third wife and he already had three children when he married her. Meena Kumari doted on them. Tajdaar Amrohi, Kamal’s second son, remembers travelling in a train one night from Amroha to Bombay, when he was five, to meet his father’s new wife. “I was scared she wouldn’t like me,” he says. “But when I met her, she was sitting by my father’s side, and she spoke to me gently, asking me to sit next to her.” She was beautiful, he recalls, dressed in a simple white sari, her favourite choice of clothing. “She was very fond of me, as I was of her,” he says of his chhoti ammi.
While Meena Kumari chafed against the fetters of marriage, another actor was falling in love. “Madhubala was an extremely passionate and impulsive person,” says Khatija Akbar, who wrote the biography I Want To Live: The Story of Madhubala. The actor, whose mischievous smile and unforgettable screen presence had the industry at her feet, fell irrevocably in love with “the most charming man of the industry”, Dilip Kumar. “He was not only a hugely successful movie star but a charming man with impeccable manners, one who treated women with love and respect,” says John. They met on the sets of the film Jwar Bhata (1944) and fell in love during the shoot of Tarana (1951).
A whirlwind romance followed. The couple was together for almost seven years and became inseparable. But Madhubala’s father, Ataullah Khan, did not approve of Dilip Kumar. “The reason was simple: money. Madhubala had been providing for her family for more than a decade. Marriage would end that, Khan feared,” says Akbar.
During the shoot of Naya Daur (1957), for which the couple had been signed on, Khan’s interfering ways led to a standoff that ended this romance. Director BR Chopra had arranged an outdoor shoot, but Khan forbade Madhubala from attending it. Chopra dragged the affair to court and Dilip testified in Chopra’s favour. Caught between the two most important men in her life, Madhubala gave in to her father’s stubbornness, and broke up with Dilip Kumar.
The fairytale was over and the nightmare had begun. Madhubala coped with heartbreak recklessly. Angry with Dilip for not fighting for her and abandoning her, she grew closer to Kishore Kumar. “Madhubala was an uncomplicated person. She was famous, rich but lonely. She needed company and, perhaps, she thought Kishoreji would be the balm to her feelings,” Akbar says. Kishore made her laugh on the sets of movies they did together such as Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi and Half Ticket. They married in 1960. But it was not love. “The marriage was a mistake, as she was soon to find out,” Akbar says. Kishore did not bother to make the relationship work. “He told her he couldn’t visit her regularly, and just came to see her once in two months,” Akbar says.
Madhubala’s health was already in tatters as she had been diagnosed with a ventricular septal defect in 1954. She had a failed marriage, a hole in her heart, and not many years to live.
Meena Kumari divorced Amrohi in 1964. Soon, what began as a doctor’s prescribed medicine — a small dose of brandy once in a while to help her sleep better — turned into an addiction. “She became an alcoholic. She was never found without a drink,” John says. Finally free from the restrictions of her father and husband, she lived on her own terms. She entered into, and then broke off, many relationships. “But they all took advantage of her fame and success,” John says.
It was believed that she would offer anything — food or money — to someone who was ready to listen to her poetry. She was extremely attached to Gulzar, who shared her love for poetry. “They would sit together for hours discussing poetry and reciting ghazals,” John says. This was also around the time her marriage was crumbling. Another young actor, then unknown in Bombay, began courting her. They did films together such as Purnima and Phool Aur Patthar. She mentored him and was believed to be openly fond of him. Dharmendra, as it is widely believed, took advantage of her fame, to make his way in the industry. He left her soon after.
In l968, Meena Kumari visited a special facility in London, where doctors told her that her next drink would kill her. She lived in her house, with only her sister for company. Much earlier, when she was 27, Madhubala’s condition worsened and doctors gave her two years to live. By then, there was no love left in either of their lives.
But both the actors, in their final films, would go on to enact their bitter, but passionate love stories, and work with the men who they had once loved.
Pakeezah was Amrohi’s dream project, in production for 14 years, and was abandoned when the couple split. When he showed the film’s rushes to actors Sunil Dutt and Nargis, they convinced Meena Kumari to act in it again, as it was a story that had to be told. She agreed. Her health had severely deteriorated by then, and she was barely able to finish the shoot. She died three weeks after the release of the film, succumbing to her illness on March 31, 1972. She was 39.
For Mughal-e-Azam (1960), a film whose production was delayed for years, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar played the star-crossed lovers, Salim and Anarkali. It was their first meeting after their break-up. Madhubala was a pallid shadow of her former self, ill during the film and was confined to bed after the shooting was over. Nine years later, she passed away on February 23, when she was just 36.
In the women that they played on screen—the Anarkali who braves imperial wrath, and the Chhoti Bahu who defies the world and takes to drink in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam — they channelled their own lives, their grand passions and longings. They loved and lost, and it was impossible that they would not have loved at all.