Thursday, 25 June 2015

A certain Honey Girl : Madhubala

Bollywood is vulgar, period . For decades young middle class movie buffs in India have been brought up on this truism . Just as they have ben led to believe that there can be no decent romance in languages other than the Queen’s English, or that  the Punjabis get it mostly right in matters of food, mounting of gala weddings and defying parents in matters of heart.
It is therefore, time to go against the tide of public opinion . For starters let us look at the very concept of vulgarity . The term Vulgar you see, comes from the Biblical fold, and it literally means ‘of the people’(hence the term Vulgate’s Bible. So if Mughal e Azam is vulgar, so be it . Why should we blanch from asserting that the romantic musical still remains a form shamefully close to all Indians, across generations. Mughal e Azam, a timeless 50s musical, a romantic veritable Midsummer Night's Dream, took K A Asif a decade to make and has been on every Indian movie lover’s short list ever since, was released in 1960 . If it is vulgar, go on ! give me an excess of it, as the Bard had said .
At the heart of this romantic musical is the haunting and luscious beauty of Madhubala, a young beauty from an impoverished Muslim family, pushed into films by an avaricious father with a Hindu name (like her colleagues Meena Kumari and Dilip Kumar) . A Hindu name, it was felt in the immediate post Partition years, would smudge her Muslim identity for the majority audiences and they would accept her as Madhu Bala, literally the Honey Girl ! In the film the much celebrated role of Akbar was played by Prithvi Raj Kapoor to much approbation . His Akbar today seems more of a cross between a madman and a Khap Panchayat patriarch. Similarly Saleem, his rebellious son  played by Dilip Kumar, seems a bit of a wimp despite his good looks. He remains a resonant and remote son of a bossy father whom he defies weakly mumbling his displeasure .It is the young, mischievous Madhubala as the dancer Anarkali, who truly sparkles as a Rakkasa ( dancer) with her combination of a giggly unself conscious sexuality, and her bold declaration of her love for the Prince as she dances. She all but burns the screen. 
From the 21st century Divas in Bollywood, the audiences demand hot bods. But in case of Madhubala,Her body is an irrelevance.  it is her face that even now can launch a thousand movie battles . Madhubala is Woman, as opposed to other talents like Meena Kumari, who despite better acting talent will remain a woman in Parineeta or Sahib Bibi...and so on. It is Madhubala whose natural beauty the stars and all those modelling for high end international brands of cosmetics, seek to emulate today and fail. Take her bewitching smile and those heavy lidded eyes streaming a fluid sexuality that no mascara can lend, no eyeliner enhance .Post Madhubala Bollywood , in trying to create a clone is only ending up making beauty a commodity that can sell other commodities : toothpastes, red lip gloss, eyeliners and even Maggi noodles. It does not stun us with being only what it is, beauty as God creates to no purpose other than soothing the eyes .
Madhubala was perhaps not an actress the way Meena Kumari was, or Nutan or Waheeda Rehman. She was a presence, whether the scene played out in a regal hall of mirrors or a forlorn auto workshop. Only music seemed to showcase such a presence. And some of her best scenes play out through the haunting music that accompanies her arrival. Her best directors were musically sensitive photographers like K A Asif, who in some strange way understood the unavoidable attraction of her half mischievous, half tragic self containment that rode the wings of songs like Mohey Panghat Pe..or Ik Ladki Bheegee Bhagee si..It is notable that KA Asif's earlier reels of an earlier version of an unfinished Mughal e Azam with a different cast were discarded totally after Madhubala stepped in. Asif did not try to extend the quintessential appeal of Madhubala for his audiences by giving her long wordy dialogues (the kind Akbar or Saleem were to mouth with all the thunderous resonance of popular Parsi theatre style ‘dialogue delivery’). He accepted her wisely for what she was, and almost became the camera panning her face .
Madhubala till the end remained the way she was, somewhat shapeless by today’s standards. Closer looking reveals a dangerous lack of vitality around her eyes, brought on by a congenitally defective heart and caused her to die so young. Legend has it, that before her illness was discovered and shooting for Mughal e Azam began, she and her great love Dilip Kumar came close to marriage . But her father would not let go of his golden goose and forbade matrimony for 'Baby'. 
Madhubala seems to have receded thereafter in some place deep within herself and in Mughal e Azam, she seems to be responding to situations created for her by the script writer with a profound world weariness and a premonition of an early death. This make the tragedy of Anarkali even more touchingly real and haunting . Think of the slow ravishment by just a gently waving peacock feather caressing her face or a bunch of grapes being dangled seductively close to that luscious mouth by Saleem . She seems to be responding to an inner reality, less to her lover. 

Madhubala’s kind of sad interiority soon came under threat by the new breed of actresses that went on to rule the screen in the 70s : the not so good looking but intellectually sparkling triad of Jaya, Shabana and Smita Patil, the earthily buoyant Mumtaz, Zeenat Aman and Smita Patil . The new divas were trained and well read. They projected everything they had towards their screen lovers and villains, leaving nothing in reserve. Madhubala's passive acceptance of the inevitable by women was by now a thing of the past.
Her illness, cruel and lingering though it was, saved Madhubala from being pushed into emulating the others while fighting the ravages of an advancing age. Like MarilynMunro her kind of special beauty and her early death before its decline, have made Madhubala a timeless icon, inimitable and strictly not for sale.   


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