Madhubala – The Biggest Star in The World
The actress with the greatest following, in numbers and devotion, is not to be found in Hollywood, but on the opposite side of the planet — in Bombay, India.
Her name is Madhubala. She is nineteen years old, a small girl with arching eyebrows and a shy, sweet smile, who has risen to the top of the Indian movie industry in the last two years.
Madhubala’s local audience is taken from the 420,000,000 people of India and Pakistan (about the population of the United States and all western Europe combined). Her pictures have also a lively export market in Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, and East Africa. In India alone, the movie theatres take in 75,000,000 paid admissions a month, at prices as low as three cents a ticket.
On an average, since she first became a star, Madhubala has completed four pictures a year and at one point early this year was under contract to make as many as nine for various producers — working on two or three at the same time.
She is the highest paid star in her industry, and her industry is fast catching up with the biggest.
India now produces nearly 300 feature pictures a year, as against Hollywood’s 450. About a dozen of India’s films in any year will star Madhubala. A single issue of a movie magazine will run a slew of advertisements, reviews, and pictures of Madhubala. And both she and the Indian movie industry can justly claim that they have hardly started.
American ignorance of Madhubala is understandable. For one thing, the riotous movie boom in India dates only from around 1943. For another, Madhubala’s ascendancy is only two years old, and she herself is a new phenomenon in the eastern world.
The story of India for the past ten years may be condensed as The war, the movie boom, independence, and Madhubala. Independence and Madhubala seem to go together, for reasons that may seem baffling to Westerners. It may help to explain what India looks for in a beautiful woman. It does not, of course, want a blonde. The invariable attributes of an Indian actress are large, languishing brown eyes, a full-lipped mouth, and an aquiline nose. India’s former stars had these, but they were usually generously padded ladies given to overacting.
Madhubala has the classic features, but she has added something. Her modeling is both finer and bolder. She turns the traditional wantonness of a Hindu actress into spiritual recklessness, controlled by pride and fastidiousness. Madhubala not only has intelligence; she even looks intelligent. She uses a typical stare in her love scenes that are both confiding and questioning as if she were challenging the hero to be all she is supposed to think he is. With a look, she defies the Hindu dogma that a man is superior to a woman.
Furthermore, Madhubala has the wide shoulders and athletic body of the modern girl the world over, a type fairly new to India. She walks like a dancer, that is, a western ballet dancer, not a Hindu dancer, who usually stands bowlegged on her heels and monotonously wiggles her neck and arms.
AS A NEW type in India, Madhubala must probably stand for the ideal of the free Indian woman or what India hopes the free Indian woman will be. She is in that sense a symbol of the advance guard of a revolution.
India’s choice of Madhubala becomes truly remarkable when it is remembered that she is a Moslem, and a classic Moslem type, while India is preponderantly Hindu.
She was born Mumtaz Ataullah in Delhi in 1933, the fourth of ten children of Ataullah Khan, At the age of six, she was spotted by a movie producer, given the name of Madhubala and a small part; at a wage of $45 a month. This prospect of added income induced her father, when she was nine, to move his family to Bombay, the center of India’s movie industry.
An atmosphere of sheer nightmare quickly closed in on the family. Almost immediately the dock explosion and fire of April 14, 1944, (a historic date in India) wiped out their home and possessions. Appropriately, the family escaped death or injury because they had been to the movies, at a theater distant from the scene of the disaster.
In 1947 came the tragic communal disorders, during which the Hindus drove 6,000,000 Moslems out of India, massacring half a million and abducting thousands of women. Madhubala and her sisters knew they were among the hunted. But by this time she had acted in five pictures for Ranjit Movietone, in the last one as a star, and her position probably saved the family.
It is a measure of India’s ability to grow in tolerance that, as it became more used to freedom, it reversed itself and chose to love the Moslem Madhubala. However, anti-Moslem prejudice must continue to be one of her chief problems. She is the victim of a whispering campaign that accuses her, for example, of eating the meat of the cow, which is sacred to Hindus. To offset such rumors she gave her life savings of 50,000 rupees to the Bengal Refugee Fund last winter to help Hindu refugees from Moslem East Pakistan. Her friends said that this proved her “a real daughter of Mother India.” Her enemies turned the gift against other Moslem stars: “Why not also Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Suraiya, Yaqub? Or are they hoarding money to be sent to Pakistan?”
Madhubala’s private life is in marked contrast to the roles she plays in the movies. Most often, though not invariably, she takes the part of a bad girl. The typical Indian plot casts her as a rich and frivolous heiress pursuing a poor but noble youth. India is more and more freely borrowing themes from such Western plays as Smilin’ Through and Pygmalion.
Madhubala has a delicately sensuous figure. The movie magazines have called her “the Venus of the screen.” The advertisements for one picture sarcastically show her cowering under the waving hoofs of a rearing stallion. It should be added, however, that a kiss or any extensive exposure of the female person is never permitted in an Indian movie.
The biggest star in the world has one final perfection in her name. The “Bala” part is only a feminine ending, but “Madhu” means variously “fragrant,” “spring,” and “love.” It seems curiously right that free India should have chosen to worship an actress named “fragrant spring of love.”
(Madhubala – The Biggest Star in the World – and she’s not in Beverly Hills by David Cort for Theatre Arts – August 1952)