I want to live

Biography of the actress Madhubala by Khatija Akbar. I had read somewhere in the internet that it was the only authentic one about the famously reclusive actress and so ordered myself a book. At the outset, I need to say that I know next to nothing about the woman behind the name. I have seen her movies and like everyone thought her a very beautiful woman. I also think she is a much better actress to watch on screen than her over-acting contemporaries. Also the biographies of great people that I have read were mostly of great men and women of the western world and I really wanted to read something about a great Indian woman. To gain an insider’s perspective of the Indian film industry and especially of a woman of the early ’40s, pre-independance India seemed like an ideal book. Besides I vaguely remembered that there was some drama associated with her early demise, as being brought on by a “hole in the heart disease”. So there was sure to be some intrigue. What more can one ask of a biography?
Apparently a lot less. This book should have been called ” Repetitive Quotes of famous bollywood stars on Madhubala” because really that is what it is. There is absolutely nothing about her early life. Apart from saying (over and over again) she was born on valentine’s day with a hole in the heart, there is no mention of her birth. There is no word of her early childhood apart from her first movies. Nothing about the struggle the family must have undergone to make ends meet. There is a lot of judgement passed on the father*, instances of a few of his high-handedness repeated often at all stages of the book for no other purpose, seemingly, than to point out the fact that Madhubala was under his “despotic” rule. But at the same time saying over and over again what a fiercely independent woman she was! The author assumes everyone knows all the major incidents in the life of the actress and she seems to just be adding quotes from famous co-stars to that knowledge. She does state at the beginning that she has nothing new to add, but I didn’t realize she had nothing to say at all, never mind nothing new.
Not only is there no mention of her early childhood (her mother is dismissed in one sentence and her older sisters in half a one!) there is nothing about her youth not related to her filmography either. Other than saying she was extremely punctual about 5 different times, and that she was in love with Dilip Kumar about 20 different times and that this lost love lead to her death, for the entire book, the only other thing she says is how beautiful the woman was in real life without any makeup and in a plain white sari**. This after claiming that she was great actress and her talent went unnoticed because people were too caught up in her looks to see past it. Akbar falls into the same trap and waxes eloquent about her looks at every turn (even at her death bed!) about her pure beauty and forgets to give us a glimpse of the woman underneath.

I realize that it is difficult to write a biography of someone who was a very private person. I also realize that many interviewees would prefer not to say anything controversial so as to offend sensibilities of the living, but isn’t that the challenge of writing a biography? If Irving Stone could manage to get material about Da Vinci and Rebekka Skloot about Henrietta Lacks, it seems incredible that Khatija Akbar could get nothing more than brief sound bites from Madhubala’s living costars and access to old film magazine articles.
This book comes with a complimentary VCD of the actress’s songs. If you think that is a great bargain, let me tell you that all the VCD has are 5 songs from Mughal-e-Aazam, 2 songs from Kala Pani, Jaali Note and sharabi.  Nothing from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, or Barsat ki Raat or Mahal or even Amar Prem! If that is a bargain, you obviously do not know how to shop!

* He was apparently very strict and everyone had to talk to him about contracts and not her. But then she quotes instances where Madhubala, takes  a director aside after her father has denied him and agree to the movie. So where is this strictness and “despotic” rule?!

**  Apparently Madhubala wore nothing but a plain white saree when not on the set. This saree was mentioned at least twice at two varied times, once accompanied with a red lipstick and once with no make-up on. One is forced to conclude cynically that either the author or the interviewee was giving in to a fit of romanticism.

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