As an Afghan woman, I have come to view my identity in terms of war and loss, of immigration and assimilation. My Afghan sisters tend to share this view with me when reflecting themselves. It is imperative for us to change our narratives and recognize our potential and identities beyond these limitations.
Hence my WCW pick for this week, Madhubala. Regarded as one of the most influential and beautiful Bollywood actresses, Madhubala has starred in record-breaking hits, including Mughal-e-Azam, crowned the greatest Bollywood film of all time by a poll celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema in the UK. In her short life, she caught the attention of Hollywood, and was even invited to Los Angeles to start a career in American cinema by Academy Award winning American director Frank Capra. She was featured in a magazine spread titled: “The Biggest Star in the World – and she’s not in Beverly Hills”, where her notoreity and immense popularity was described. Madhubala’s birthday is commemorated across India, and modern magazines continue to publish stories on her personal life and career, often promoting her name heavily on the covers to attract sales. In 2008, a commemorative postage stamp of Madhubala was issued, and launched by veteran actors Nimmi and Manoj Kumar. All this fame, all this recognition, for an Afghan.
Yes, one of the most iconic actresses of Hindi cinema was a Pashtun woman. Madhubala was born Mumtaz Jehan Dehlavi, to a Swabi Yousufzai Pashtun family from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Born in Delhi to Ataullah Khan and Ayesha Begum, Madhubala spoke Pashto her whole life and practiced Islam. Adhering to Afghan principles, even in her stardom, Madhubala obeyed her father vehemently, often to a point of self-sabotage.
She came from a family of 11 children, enduring hardships throughout her childhood. Two of her sisters died in their youth, and Madhubala entered Hindi cinema initially to provide financial support for her family, where she took the name “Madhubala”, meaning “honey belle”.
Madhuabala took starring roles in almost every genre of film being made at the time and played in a number of controversial and diverse roles:
Her 1950 film Hanste Aansoo was the first ever Hindi film to get an “A” – adults only – rating from the Central Board of Film Certification. She was the archetypal fair lady in the swashbuckler Badal (1951), and following this, an uninhibited village beauty in Tarana (1951). She played the traditional ideal of Indian womanhood in Sangdil (1952), and produced a comic performance as the spoilt heiress, Anita, in Guru Dutt’s satire Mr. & Mrs. ’55 (1955). In 1956, she acted in costume dramas such as Shirin-Farhad and Raj-Hath, and played a double role in the social drama Kal Hamara Hai (1959). In the mid-1950s, her films including the major ones like Mehboob Khan’s Amar (1954) did not do well commercially. However, she bounced back between 1958 and 1960 when she starred in a series of hit films. These include Howrah Bridge, opposite Ashok Kumar where she played the role of an Anglo-Indian Cabaret singer involved in Calcutta’s Chinatown underworld. In the song Aaiye Meherebaan from this film, she lip-synced a torch song dubbed by Asha Bhosle which has remained popular to this day. Among other successful films, she played opposite Bharat Bhushan in Phagun; Dev Anand in Kala Pani; Kishore Kumar in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi; and Bharat Bushan again in Barsaat Ki Raat (1960). Then in 1960, she appeared in the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam.
Mughal-e-Azam was released on 5 August 1960, and became the biggest grossing film at that time, a record that went unbroken for 15 years until the release of the film Sholay in 1975. It still ranks second in the list of all time box-office hits of Indian cinema. Madhubhala was nominated for a Filmfare Award for her performance in Mughal-e-Azam.
Her life was marred with romantic troubles, often at the fault of her strict Pashtun father. She began a relationship with another infamous actor hailing from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Dilip Kumar: Actor Shammi Kapoor recalled that “Dilip Kumar would drive down from Bombay to meet Madhubala … she was committed to Dilip … he even flew to Bombay to spend Eid with her, taking time off from his shooting stint”…”They even got engaged”, according to Madhubala’s sister.
But her father did not allow them to marry, and her obedience to him cost her Dilip’s love. This came to its peak when Dilip testified against Madhubala and her father in favor of director B.R. Chopra in open court, which ended any chance of reconciliation between Dilip and her father.
However, Madhubala’s sister Madhur Bhushan claimed that “(Madhubala) said she would marry him (Dilip), provided he apologised to her father. He refused, so Madhubala left him. That one ‘sorry’ could have changed her life.
She went on to marry Kishore Kumar for 9 years, a troublesome relationship that was complicated by Madhubala’s heart condition:
Madhubala had ventricular septal defect (hole in her heart) which was detected while she was shooting for Bahut Din Huwe in Madras in 1954. By 1960, her condition aggravated, and her sister explains that “due to her ailment, her body would produce extra blood. So it would spill out from the nose and mouth. The doctor would come home and extract bottles of blood. She also suffered from pulmonary pressure of the lungs. She coughed all the time. Every four to five hours she had to be given oxygen or else would get breathless. She was confined to bed for nine years and was reduced to just bones and skin”
Kumar left her ill, and Madhubala died shortly after her 36th birthday.
Madhubala has left a legacy on the Bollywood film industry to last a millenia, alongside other Bollywood actors of full or partial Afghan origin, like Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Dilip Kumar, Mumtaz Madhvani, among others. Her unmatched success is a source of pride for Afghans across nations. Although assimilated into India, their country of nationality, all these Bollywood actors pay homage to their origins, and Afghans should rejoice over this. Our creativity and artistry conform to no boundaries, and the sheer fame of Bollywood actors of Afghan/Pashtun origin is a true testament to the fact that we can change our narratives, and be recognized for our talents, and not false ideologies imposed on us.
To recognize that they are Afghan is not to take away from their Indian nationality however. But only to understand that arbitrary borders and demarcations serve very little in creating actual boundaries between peoples. It is rather beautiful to see how Afghans have penetrated Hindi film, and have contributed to the beauty that makes Bollywood so immensely successful.
It also serves to recognize that Afghanistan’s history has always been inextricably tied to India, pre-British and post-Pakistan. The region serves to prove that identities and ethnicity are not restricted, but are fluid, and therefore, it serves us better to avoid viewing them from an imperialist lens.
I grew up watching Madhubala, as part of my obsession with old Bollywood. I came to know her through Mughal e Azam, not aware she was a member of our tribe. I fell in love with her grace and beauty, with the bright colors and the intricate saris she wore, long before I knew she spoke my language and called Pakhtunkhwa her home. Knowing this now, I feel a great sense of pride, and a newfound respect for Madhubala, who rose to fame while maintaining her roots. Madhubala zindabaad.