'Superstar at 16, dead at 36': Madhubala, the original heartbreak girl

Farhana Farook
·10-min read
'Superstar at 16, dead at 36': Madhubala, the original heartbreak girl
'Superstar at 16, dead at 36': Madhubala, the original heartbreak girl

Superstar at 16, bedridden at 27 and dead at 36, Madhubala, the heartthrob of millions died as much of heartbreak as of a heart ailment.

Ironically, she was born on 14 February, #Valentine’s Day.

Five decades after she passed away, Madhubala lives on.

In the loads of social media posts dedicated to her by fans and followers. In the exhaustive photographs that celebrate her lop-sided smile.

In the songs that celebrate her beauty, both erotic and ethereal. In the films that showcase her unstudied talent. As also in the stories of the heartbreaks she suffered and the breakdown of the heart she succumbed to.

She was referred to as the Venus of the Indian screen, her comparison to the goddess of love obvious. Moreover, she was born on a day – 14 February – when the world celebrates love. But love remained a chimera for Madhubala.

Her romance with good-looking Pathan, Dilip Kumar, seemed a match made in heaven. Only thing it proved erroneous on earth. Bitten by ego and flawed by familial complexities, the shards of the shattered relationship bruised her heart forever.

Her marriage with Kishore Kumar, in quest of laughter and comfort, inadvertently brought her more tears. Coinciding with her worsening heart condition, the nine years following her marriage, marooned her physically and emotionally.

Someone whose smile lit up a million cameras, Madhubala broke down each time she saw her fading form in the mirror. While she died as Mrs Kishore Kumar Ganguly and Dilip Kumar flew down for the final farewell, she spent a chunk of her life yearning for them. That her favourite song was Rula ke gaya sapna mera… sums up her tragedy…

Madhubala in Neel Kamal
Madhubala in Neel Kamal

Delhi-based Attaullah Khan and Ayesha Begum had 11 children - eight girls and four boys (sadly, the boys never survived and died young). In the ’40s, Ataullah Khan lost his job in the Imperial Tobacco Company in Delhi and came to Mumbai.

To make ends meet, his fifth daughter, nine-year-old Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi (Madhubala’s real name), was introduced to films. She first appeared in Basant (1942), her song Mere chote se man mein choti si duniya re becoming a hit.

At 14, Madhubala played the lead in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal. She achieved stardom with Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal (1949). Hits like Dulari, Tarana, Amar, Mr. & Mrs. ‘55, Mughal-E-Azam (1960) and Barsaat Ki Raat between 1949-1960 added to her allure, so much that Life magazine described her as ‘the biggest star’ in the world.

Rumours linked her with Mahal director Kamal Amrohi and later co-stars Premnath and Bharat Bhushan. Premnath was said to be deeply in love with her but religion played spoilsport between them.


Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam
Dilip Kumar and Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam

Dilip Kumar and Madhubala first met on the set of Jwar Bhata (1944). Their relationship began during Tarana (1951) after which they paired in Sangdil (1952) and Amar (1954).

Theirs was apparently a nine-year-long affair. Reportedly, they even got engaged. “Unki Aapa aayee thi, chunni lekar (his sister had come with a chunni as per custom). Bhaijaan (Dilip Kumar) and Madhu Aapa looked made for each other,” recalled youngest sister Madhur Bhushan.

Speaking about it in his autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and The Shadow, the thespian too reminisced, “I was attracted to her both as a fine co-star and as a person… she was sprightly and vivacious… she could draw me out of my shyness... She filled a void that was crying out to be filled.” Their happiness was however short-lived.

The infamous court case during B. R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) sounded the death knell of their romance. The unit was to shoot around Gwalior, something Ataullah Khan disapproved strongly. Reason being that apparently, during the shooting of another film with actress Jabeen Jaleel at the same location, a mob had attacked the women cast.

The irate makers threw Madhubala out of the film and a court case ensued. Dilip reportedly labelled Ataullah Khan ‘a dictator’ in court and sided with the Chopras. He testified against his ladylove even as he declared his undying love for her in court.

The relationship suffered irrevocable damage. “Bhaijaan (Dilip Kumar) said, ‘Leave your father and I’ll marry you’. Aapa (Madhubala) said, ‘I’ll marry you but just say sorry and hug him’. It was zid, which ruined their love,” sister Madhur Bhushan said lamenting their fallout.

In a case of art imitating life, K Asif’s magnum opus Mughal-E-Azam (1960) had Madhubala play the doomed Anarkali, who loses Prince Salim (Dilip Kumar) due to his father, King Akbar’s disapproval of her.

The film was excruciating for her. To portray­ the incarcerated Anarkali, an ailing Madhubala was tied with chains and had to walk around with them. By the end of the day, her hands would turn blue. She ate little as she had to look ‘anguished and weary’ for the jail scenes.

While the ‘feather scene’ with Dilip Kumar in the film is rated as the most sensuous, the estranged lovers weren’t even on talking terms then. Heartbroken Madhubala never revisited the film or its epic songs, as they left her disturbed.


Madhubala’s fatal illness had first manifested itself during the shooting of SS Vasan’s Bahut Din Huwe (1954), when she spat blood while brushing her teeth.

Reportedly, Dilip Kumar, who was in a relationship with her then, flew in with Dr Rustom Jal Vakil from Mumbai. The doctor diagnosed she had a hole in the heart (ventricular septal defect). A seemingly healthy Madhubala refused to believe it and kept on working.

Kishore Kumar and Madhubala in Chalti Ka Naam Gadi
Kishore Kumar and Madhubala in Chalti Ka Naam Gadi

After her break-up with Dilip, Madhubala got involved with actor/filmmaker Kishore Kumar, who was going through a divorce with actor/singer Ruma Devi Guha Thakurta. She had worked with him in Dhake Ki Malmal (1956), Chalti Ka Naam Gadi (1958), Mehlon Ke Khwab (1960) and later Half Ticket (1962).

“Kishore Bhaiyya loved Aapa a lot at one point of time. Initially, when he showed an interest in her, she didn’t respond. She wouldn’t take his calls. She’d refuse to meet him and shut the door when he came to see her. He’d say, ‘I will die. I’ll take poison. I’ll put my hand in the fan…’,” revealed Madhur in a recent interview.

Madhubala finally thawed and got married to Kishore in 1960. “Perhaps, she got attracted to his beautiful voice and his ability to make her laugh,” explained sister Madhur.

Within 10 days of getting married, the couple flew to London with Dr SV Golwala to consult a specialist given her troubling health. The 27-year-old superstar was told she had just two years to live. On their return, after sometime, Kishore asked Madhubala stay with her parents.

Kishore Bhaiyya said he wouldn’t be able to look after her as he’d be out for recordings, shows and shootings… Perhaps, he felt that she was no longer of use to him. She couldn’t work. They couldn’t have a man-woman relationship nor could she give him the happiness of a child,” claimed Madhur in an interview.

Initially, Kishore visited her every evening and would take her out for a drive. But an indisposed Madhubala would soon tire and they’d return home

Gradually, his visits lessened. At times, she’d get possessive and insist he take her along for shootings. “During the last three-four years Kishore Bhaiyya hardly came. He’d say, ‘I get disturbed seeing you. I can’t get you off my mind then’,” reportedly said Madhur. But she also clarified that Kishore never abused her.



Through time, the disease got the better of Madhubala and she was reduced to a ‘skeleton’. She didn’t want anyone to see her. She’d look at herself in the mirror and say, “Dekho main kya se kya hogayi!

Given her ailment, her body produced extra blood, which spilled out from the nose and mouth. She also suffered from pulmonary pressure of the lungs due to which she coughed all the time. Every four to five hours she had to be given oxygen or else she’d get breathless.

In weak moments, she’d cry and say, “Mujhe zinda rehna hai, mujhe marna nahin hai!” She was supposed to live only for two years. She went on to live for nine given her formidable willpower.

Largely confined to the bed, she’d spend her time reading the poetry of Mirza Ghalib and Daagh Dehlvi. She’d peform the fajr (morning) namaz regularly. The other times, she’d pray lying down.

Dilip Kumar paid her a visit when she was once admitted to Breach Candy Hospital.

“Once when she was hospitalised, Aapa sent for Dilip saab. He came. ‘Tum acchi ho jaaogi Madhu. Hum wapas karenge kaam,’ he said. She asked him, ‘Tum mujhe yaad karte ho ya nahin?’ He replied, ‘Agar yaad nahin karta toh kaise aaya tumhare bulane par.’ He sat for an hour. He was not married to Sairaji (Banu) then,” revealed Madhur .

When Dilip married Saira Banu in 1966, Madhubala ‘cried’ but she was happy that he’d found a good wife.

On February 23, 1969, Madhubala’s condition deteriorated. Ataullah Khan called Kishore Kumar, who was flying to Kolkata for a show. He asked Kishore to cancel his trip or else he’d never see her again. Madhubala passed away at 9.30 am that day.

Dilip Kumar flew down from Madras to attend her funeral. But by the time he landed, she was buried. He then went to the kabrastan to pay his last respects. Food was sent from his house to Madhubala’s for three days as a customary gesture.

A grief-stricken Ataullah Khan would often visit his daughter’s grave and weep. He passed away in 1975, just six years after Madhubala. It was his third heart attack. Her mother, Ayesha Begum, suffered from tuberculosis but carried on for 18 years, the sorrow never leaving her.

Generations have come and gone but Madhubala’s grave in Juhu, till date, continues to be strewn with flowers.

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