Madhubala bears an uncanny, almost unbelievable resemblance to Hollywood’s iconic bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. Both burst into the world of acting after a heartbreaking childhood, both enjoyed a decade of enormous success, and both had incredibly tragic downfalls at a shockingly young age. Here is the meteoric rise and heart-wrenching end of Bollywood’s first female superstar.
1. She Had A Tragic Beginning
Madhubala was born Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehalvi in 1933. Her beginnings were surprising: The fifth of eleven children, she was liable as the middle child to get swallowed up in the needs of the rest of her family. Until fate threw her a cruel twist. No fewer than four of her siblings died in infancy, forging the family in tragedy. Her parents didn’t react well.
2. Her Parents Controlled Her
After losing nearly half their brood before they hit adulthood, Madhubala’s mother and father kept a tight hold on their surviving children. They didn’t allow Madhubala or her sisters to attend school, although they did teach them a variety of languages, which the little girl learned with astonishing ease. Still, she was already showing real interest in a very scandalous subject.
3. Her Father Was Ashamed Of Her
Although her family was far from well off, Madhubala had glamorous, glittering dreams of stardom. She loved watching movies and would entertain her mom and sisters by reenacting scenes and dances from films she’d seen. Unfortunately, this backfired sharply. While the women in her family were delighted, her father, Ataullah Khan, was ashamed.
He didn’t think her silver screen ambitions were appropriate and tried to quash them with all his might. But no one could have known what was coming.
4. She Was The Family Breadwinner
When Madhubala was just seven years old, her father messed up big time. He got fired for being rude on the job to a senior colleague—and suddenly, his daughter’s dreams of fame and (especially) fortune didn’t seem so shameful after all. Doing an abrupt about-face, he started pushing Madhubala into auditions, even though her mother was now worried their conservative social circle would ostracize them. They were both in for a surprise.
5. She Was A Child Star
Madhubala caught on very quickly indeed. She almost immediately earned a gig singing kids’ songs at the All India Radio station and started work under the name “Baby Mumtaz.” It was a date with destiny. In 1941, the general manager of India’s only movie studio, Bombay Talkies, recognized her talent and convinced the family to move to Bombay to get serious about Madhubala’s future.
As it happened, they walked right into a nightmare.
6. She Got Fired
Still trying to make ends meet despite Madhubala’s nascent success, the family spent nearly all they’d saved up on their big move, and only had enough to rent a literal cowshed outside Bombay. And while Madhubala got a role in the hit Basant and earned praise, she also got her first taste of betrayal. The studio that had hired her instantly dropped her after the film, claiming they didn’t have any further need for child actors. But this was just the beginning.
7. She Had To Beg For Money
Madhubala spent months working herself back up from the bottom…and just as she started to gain a professional foothold again, her personal life fell apart. Her mother, who was pregnant at the time, fell violently ill. The clan didn’t have enough saved to pay for a doctor, so the young girl had to beg and borrow money from one of her producers. Yet that was the least of her worries.
8. She Had A Strange Illness
One day while filming, the worst crisis of Madhubala’s young life happened. Suddenly overcome with illness, she bent over and vomited right there on set. When she looked down, her face went white. She hadn’t just vomited; she’d vomited blood. At the time, she didn’t understand what it meant, but she’d find out all too soon. I wish I could say that was the end of that, but more was on the way.
9. She Nearly Died
As all of this was going on, another overwhelming disaster ripped through Madhubala’s life. In the spring of 1944, the family went out to a theatre together…and came home to a nearly unbelievable sight. A dock explosion had completely annihilated their rented home in Bombay while they were gone, and they’d been supremely lucky to live through the day. Still, next up was a change of an entirely different color.
10. She Got Her First Break
At the tender age of 14, Madhubala stepped out of kid roles and into the wild world of an ingenue. In 1947, she nabbed the lead role in Neel Kamal (Blue Lotus), a huge break for the super young starlet. Yet even this came at an intensely high cost. The director only considered her for the part after his original choice, Kamla Chatterjee, died. Did this stop Madhubala? Nope.
11. She Became A Starlet
Madhubala might have needed to climb over a corpse to get the part in Neel Kamal, but it was certainly worth it. Audiences took sharp notice of her this time around, and so did Bombay Talkies’ head Devika Rani, who knew a thing or two about stardom, having been a famous actress herself once upon a time. Rani also made a suggestion that would change the public’s perception of the doe-eyed beauty forever.
12. She Got A Famous Name
Although Madhubala had worked on Neel Kamal under the name “Mumtaz,” dropping the “Baby” from her name, Devika Rani thought she could do much better. Instead, she presented the girl with “Madhubala,” meaning “honey belle,” as an option. She was all for it. Post Neel Kamal, this became the name everyone would know her by. And she’d soon give them a reason to have her name on their lips.
13. She Was Stunning
By now, Madhubala’s beauty was undeniable. Her younger sister remembers that none of the siblings could hold a candle to Madhubala. Growing into her adult looks, she had “dreamy eyes, [a] vivacious smile and mischievous laughter,” which all pulled together to make her look like the most beautiful girl-next-door you’d ever seen. So before Madhubala knew it, her popularity was careening out of control.
14. She Was A Femme Fatale
In 1949, the barely 16-year-old Madhubala starred as a femme fatale in the Indian ghost horror film Mahal (Castle). It went from blessing to curse. Although it sky-rocketed Madhubala to genuine stardom and is still a classic today, the actress later admitted that she was already starting to lose who she was to fame. And her family did not help with that.
15. She Was Lonely At The Top
Madhubala’s work in Mahal was helped by the fact that, as a relative unknown, she could exude the icy mystery the character needed. But in her case, life imitated art: Still tightly controlled at home, Madhubala’s father forbade her from going anywhere except the studio set. She couldn’t even attend any premieres, functions, or parties. Needless to say, she had almost zero friends. But she did have too much of another thing…
16. Fans Mobbed Her
Madhubala’s fans were rabid for any tidbits about their mysterious starltet, and would travel from distant places just to stand outside the studio gates to catch a glimpse of her. Madhubala’s reaction to this was heartbreaking. Although she loved going to eat chaat (a spicy street food made with yogurt and fritters) and kulfi (Indian ice cream) with her sisters, she was careful to always wear an abaya (a coat with a veil) to cover herself because she was so wary of mobs.
She even wore an abaya when she went to the cinema to watch her movies incognito. Utterly isolated, it led her to some bizarre behaviors.
17. She Went After Men
Desperately lonely but also supremely aware of just how beautiful she was, Madhubala developed a strange way of approaching men. If she noticed someone, particularly a co-star, who took her fancy, she would often give them a red rose along with a handwritten note that read, “Accept it if you love me.” Unfortunately, this very same tactic led her to a doomed romance.
18. She Propositioned Her Co-Star
In 1951, Madhubala was working with fellow star Prem Nath on a film and realized she’d developed a massive crush on the heartthrob. Using her signature move, she offered him a rose and a note. Considering there weren’t too many straight men out there who were going to say no to that face, Prem Nath accepted, and Madhubala plunged headlong into her first Bollywood relationship. Before the year was up, she’d regret everything.
19. She Had A Bitter Breakup
Madhubala’s relationship with Prem Nath was hot, heavy, and fast-moving. Just six months in, he wanted her to convert from her Muslim faith as a Yusufzai Pathan to his own Hinduism so that he could marry her. Instead of wedding bells, it ended in tears. Whatever her feelings for Prem Nath, Madhubala refused to convert and ended the tryst. Then she rebounded in a big way.
20. She Met Her Match
Just as Madhubala was nursing her wounds from her breakup with Prem Nath, a Prince Charming entered her life. Dilip Kumar, who was born Yusuf Khan, had the same ethnic and religious background as she did, and was even using a Hindu-sounding name as his stage name. More than that, he was just as famous for his good looks as she was for her beauty.
So when they were working in close quarters together on the film Tarana (Anthem), they seemed practically destined to fall in love. But this romance would have an even worse ending for Madhubala.
21. She Had A Thing For Father Figures
Given everything they had in common, Dilip Kumar seemed perfect for Madhubala. But behind closed doors, the truth was much different. He was over a decade older than the still-naive starlet, and Madhubala was falling hard and fast. One of her friends said that “Yusuf” was all she talked about, and she would blush and squeal at the mere mention of his name. It would only make their end hurt all the more.
22. She Had A Star-Crossed Love
She may have come a long way from daddy’s little girl, but sadly Madhubala couldn’t break free from her father’s influence. So when Ataullah Khan found out that his daughter was deep in love with an adult man, he tried to tighten his hold on her further rather than letting her go. Khan even insisted that Kumar act in the family’s new production company so he could keep a closer eye on the lovers. Spoiler: This went horribly.
23. Her Boyfriend Hated Her Family
Fully grown man that he was, Kumar did not take kindly to the patriarch’s suggestions, and flatly refused to have anything to do with his production company. Then he took it one controversial step further. Dilip Kumar made it clear to Madhubala that if they continued to be serious and got married, she would need to cut off contact with her meddling family. And then things really spiraled.
24. She Got Engaged
By the mid-1950s, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar had pushed through their Romeo and Juliet story and gotten unofficially engaged. Need I say that her father disapproved? Because he did. Still sore from Kumar’s rebuffs of his studio advances, Madhubala’s dad sat there, steaming and praying the pair wouldn’t get any closer. When that didn’t do anything, he took matters into his own hands.
25. She Was A Diva On Set
In 1957, Madhubala was all set to star alongside her lover Dilip Kumar in the hotly anticipated Naya Daur (New Age); she’d received a cash advance and was starting to film. Then it all got ruined in one instant. When her father heard that she and Dilip Kumar were shooting a series of secluded outdoor scenes, he blew a gasket, fearing the canoodling they could get up to. Eventually, Madhubala quit the film. Ooh boy, it bit her in the butt.
26. A Director Took Her To Court
The director of Naya Daur, B.R. Chopra, did not take kindly to losing his leading lady in such a troublesome way. He immediately took her and her father to court, suing her for the advance she had received. For months, the fiasco enthralled and appalled the tabloids, as everyone watched to see what would happen next to their Bollywood darling. Answer: Unbelievable heartbreak.
27. Her Fiance Testified Against Her
As the court heard arguments from both sides, Madhubala got a very nasty surprise. Although she was standing behind her father in the matter, her fiance Dilip Kumar actually testified for the director and against his bride-to-be. That one had to hurt. Chopra withdrew the case after he released the film, but for Madhubala, the damage was done.
28. Her Love Gave Her A Cruel Ultimatum
Following Dilip Kumar’s testimony against her, Madhubala was still willing to make her relationship work. She merely asked the actor to apologize so they could move on together, but Kumar had had enough. He refused and instead asked Madhubala to choose, once and for all, between her father and her lover. And the way he did this was an absolute doozy.
29. She Had Once Last Chance
Reportedly, Kumar visited Madhubala on set and took her to her dressing room. He made a jaw-dropping announcement. He asked her to leave with him, as he had a qazi (priest) waiting to marry them immediately…as long as she turned her back on her father. Madhubala’s first response was to say it was “Impossible”…and then it truly turned to catastrophe.
30. Her Words Failed Her
Dilip was incredibly reluctant to give his ultimatum, and he spent a long time trying to convince Madhubala to leave. She didn’t. In fact, she couldn’t even speak and stayed silent while he implored her in various ways that her life would be so much better without her father. Eventually, he had to give up and walk out of the set, and her life, forever. From then on, the tide turned against her.
31. Her Father Ruined Her Career
In truth, when Madhubala’s relationship broke down, her career was in dire straits, too. For years, her father (who else?) had pushed her to star in more and more films, regardless of their quality. Soon, she had a series of flops under her belt, and the press labeled her “box office poison.” Only, there were graver consequences. All this grueling work revealed a chilling truth.
32. She Fell Seriously Ill
Around this time, Madhubala’s health took a terrifying dip. All those years ago when she vomited blood on set, she’d thought it was just a one-off aberration. How wrong she was. She started experiencing more medical issues and similar symptoms, until she finally went to a doctor for a check-up. The news they gave her was nothing short of jaw-dropping.
33. She Got A Death Sentence
In the mid-1950s, doctors made a tragic discovery. She had a congenital “ventricular septal defect,” AKA a hole in her heart, and had since the day she was born. That wasn’t even the worst part. At the time, there was no cure, much less treatment, for the condition, and the prognosis was extremely fragile. Yet Madhubala’s reply was surprising.
34. She Kept A Huge Secret
Instead of giving up her stardom in the wake of her diagnosis, Madhubala only pursued it with more fervor. This was not a good thing. She was relentless, only taking breaks from filming when her body was about to give out, and trying to keep it a secret from anyone she could in the industry, and especially from her audiences. Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking down.
35. She Worked With An Old Flame
One of Madhubala’s first trials without her fiance Dilip Kumar was pretty much everyone’s worst nightmare: She had to act as his love interest in a film. 1960’s Mughal-e-Azam (The Great Mughal) was a huge, star-crossed lovers epic where filming lasted several years…so when it started, Madhubala and Kumar were together in real life, but by the middle of filming they had already split. This led to one intensely awkward moment.
36. She Made Love To Her Ex
Madhubala and Dilip Kumar ended up filming some of their most intimate love scenes when they weren’t on speaking terms with each other. In one famous scene from Mughal-e-Azam, Kumar caresses his lady love’s lips with a feather, acting as her paramour when in reality he was her bitter ex. Even so, there were more worrying things going on.
37. She Punished Herself On Set
Madhubala put in backbreaking work for the Mughal-e-Azam, almost literally. While doctors wanted her to rest, she subjected her body to punishing trials by starving herself to correctly depict her character’s anguish. She filmed a scene wearing real metal chains, which were so heavy that she fell under their weight and had bruises all over from wearing them. Even the complicated dance sequences left her exhausted for days.
Running out of vigor, Madhubala turned to the one safe space she had left.
38. She Fell In Love With Her Childhood Friend
In 1958, Madhubala got the chance to act alongside one of her childhood friends, Kishore Kumar, in Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (If It Ain’t Broke). They had remained close throughout their respective Bollywood careers, and Kishore was even married to one of Madhubala’s friends. But one day, something changed. The pair kindled a romance on set…and yeah, it was even more ill-advised than you’re imagining.
39. She Had Bad Habits
Madhubala often found herself following the same patterns, and her relationship with Kishore Kumar was no different. Not only was he married and in the middle of a long breakup, but he was also Hindu, creating yet another religious divide in her love life. Still, Madhubala was through with taking no for an answer, no matter the consequences. Oh, and there were consequences.
40. She Finally Walked Down The Aisle
In 1960, Kishore Kumar married Madhubala in a small, private ceremony. The big day was full of tragedy. In order to tie the knot, Kumar converted to Islam and renamed himself Karim Abdul—an act of love and devotion that infuriated his parents, who refused to attend the ceremony. They weren’t the only ones against the match, either. The studio kept the union as hush-hush as possible, since most audiences disapproved of the couple.
Not exactly auspicious beginnings, and as it turned out, Kishore Kumar may have had an agenda for marrying her.
41. Her Husband May Have Used Her
Some believed that Kishore Kumar was a gold digger marrying Madhubala for her money. He was, after all, under a lot of debt from back taxes, and may have figured his famous new wife was wealthy enough to take care of it for him as a wedding present. But Kishore must have quickly realized he got much more than he bargained for. Madhubala wanted something from him.
42. She Tried To Save Herself
At this point, Madhubala was so ill that there was no hiding it from anyone, much less her husband. Indeed, she was looking for a savior in Kishore Kumar. The pair spent their honeymoon traveling around to doctors and trying to get someone, anyone, to perform surgery on her heart and lengthen her life. They received gut-wrenching news.
43. Doctors Gave Her Horrible News
When they visited with top doctors in London, the medics had nothing good to tell them. Not only did they believe surgery was absolutely off the table for Madhubala because of her complicated condition, they predicted she had just two more years to live. Twisting the knife in, they insisted she give up the thought of having kids and avoid any stress altogether. It was the beginning of the end.
44. Her Relationship Soured
When they came back to India, Madhubala moved to her husband’s apartment in Bombay. He immediately betrayed her. Kishore Kumar grew distant, leaving her alone for long periods of time with just the nurse and a driver to keep her company. While some believed he was trying to distance himself to soften the blow of her inevitable passing, Madhubala thought he was straight-up abandoning her. Sadly, things just went from bad to worse.
45. Her Condition Worsened
Madhubala’s condition deteriorated with time, and she spent the last few years of her life bed-ridden, watching old movies, and getting weekly transfusions. Her body produced an excess of blood, which spilled out of her nose and mouth. Kishore hardly visited her in those final, dark days of her life. But Madhubala still had one battle left in her.
46. She Gave It One Last Shot
In the summer of 1966, Madhubala was well enough that she was planning to return to filming on the long-delayed Chalaak. She made it as far as the set on the first day. Then everything unraveled. Clearly not well enough to perform, she fainted right then and there and had to retire her screen dreams forever. Still, she didn’t go gentle into the goodnight.
47. Her End Was Tragic
Madhubala was a fighter right up until the very end. Never one to say die, she was even planning on trying her hand at directing…and then she got extremely sick in 1969. After weeks of decline, she suffered a heart attack on the night of February 22 and passed the next morning. It was just nine days after the superstar’s 36th birthday.
48. She Almost Became An International Star
In 1951, James Burke photographed Madhubala for the American magazine Life. Another international publication, Theater Arts Magazine featured her as the “biggest star in the world—and she’s not in Beverly Hills.” A Hollywood director, Frank Capra, even offered her a role in a movie. But as with everything else, her father entered the picture and declined the opportunity.
She did, however, have a huge following in South Asia, the Middle East, East Africa, and even Greece.
49. She Lives On
The untimely death of any young person is a tragedy, and that of a person as vivacious, beautiful, and full of life as Madhubala was nothing short of a travesty, especially considering how little she’d experienced happiness and love in her short life. Nevertheless, she lives on for Bollywood enthusiasts as one of the most iconic superstars of all time.
50. She Was Ahead Of Her Time
What stands out in Madhubala’s body of work is the fact that she never played the damsel in distress. On the contrary, her heroines were feisty, fiery, opinionated, and thinking women. Her third film with Dilip Kumar was Amar, in which he plays the rich yet flawed titular character, and she plays a social worker who ensures the victim receives justice.
While the film did not garner commercial success, it was a win for Madhubala in terms of performance. Critics agreed that she outdid her costars and applauded her mature performance.
51. She Had An Ominous Warning
On her birthday when she was young, Madhubala visited a fair where a fortune-teller caught her eye. She went up to them hoping to hear happy things, but this fortune-teller clearly hadn’t got the memo to keep it light. They predicted that Baby Mumtaz would earn great fame and fortune, but wouldn’t find love or live long.
52. India Remembers Her
While Madhubala never won any awards, and there are many who feel she didn’t receive the acknowledgment she deserved in her lifetime, there is no denying that she remains one of the most important female actors of her day. The Indian and international film industry still talk about her talent, her wit, her smile, and her beauty. The government of India paid tribute to her by taking out a commemorative stamp in 2008.
53. She Loved Dogs
Apparently, Madhubala had 18 German Shepherds at one point in time. Clearly, the woman was a dog person.
54. She Never Got Over Her Heartbreak
Madhubala may have ended things with Dilip Kumar, but that didn’t mean she forgot about him. When he married another costar, Saira Bano, who was 18 years his junior, Madhubala was gracious. She sadly commented that while destiny had separated them, it led him to Bano, who was “very pretty” and was probably the right person to care for him. For his part, Dilip made Madhubala one final tear-jerking tribute.
48. Her Love Said One Last Goodbye
Since she hadn’t been in the news at all since her marriage to Kishore Kumar, Madhubala’s end was a surprise to the public. Fans mourned her passing and paid attention to her funeral in Juhu Muslim Cemetery in Bombay. Especially keen devotees might have noticed one funeral guest in particular: Dilip Kumar made the trip down to personally pay respects to his long-lost love.