Mumtaz Jahan Begum, born in a conservative family with its  ancestral roots in Afghanistan, acted as baby Mumtaz in her maiden film Basant in 1942 when she was just nine years old. She got her celluloid name Madhu Bala (woman of honey), thanks to the reigning queen of that era, Devika Rani. Interestingly, it was Devika Rani who was instrumental in Yusuf Khan adopting the silver screen name Dilip Kumar. Rest is history.

How many stylish, swinging stars of Bollywood today know that Madhu Bala’s first lead role was opposite none other than Raj Kapoor in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal when she was barely 14 years old; younger than Dimple Kapadia when she appeared in Bobby and younger than Hema Malini when she appeared in Sapano Ka Saudagar. At the tender age of 16, she was the leading lady of Ashok Kumar in Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal, and stole the thunder from the most celebrated star of his generation in the suspense drama whose song “Ayega, Ayega”, sung by Lata Mangeskar, remains one of the most favourites of all times for millions of Lata fans.

Much is made of the foray of Bollywood actors in the US from time to time. Priyanka Chopra being the most recent and most high-profile example. But how many young actors of today know that in the early 1950s, when the reach of international TV was very limited and social networking wasn’t even born, Madhu Bala was featured in several American publications.  In 1952, in their August issue, the popular American magazine Theatre Arts carried a long feature article on Madhu Bala with the headline: “The Biggest Star in the World (And She is not in Beverly Hills)”! And none other than the Iconic film  director, Frank Capra tried to woo her with lead roles in Hollywood films but her disciplinarian father, Ataullah Khan, would have  none of it.  Had she gone, who knows, she would have given Marilyn Monroe a run for her money. While Madhu Bala could have easily carried off Monroe’s light comic roles in films like Some Like it Hot, Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, it is unthinkable if Monroe could live the role of Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam even at
her best.

Though snatched away at an early age of 36 after a prolonged and painful illness (hole in her heart), she acted in different genres of films with conviction. However, thanks to her captivating beauty, her histrionic versatility was often under-appreciated. She could be an uninhibited village belle in Tarana, a conventional Indian woman in Sangdil, a sauve and urbane journalist in Kala Pani, swashbuckling in Badal, restrained and tradition-bound in the historical costume drama Raj-Hath, a mesmerising nautch girl in Mughal-e-Azam, comic capper in Mr & Mrs 55 and Chaati Ka Naam Gadi, and a cigarette-smoking Anglo Indian cabaret singer in
Howrah Bridge.

She was paired with all the top actors of her time: Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Rehman, Bharat Bhushan, Guru Dutt, Sunil Dutt and Shammi Kapoor. And she was never a decoration piece in any of her films; hers were not itsy-bitsy roles which many heroines do in muti-starrer films today; she always commanded as much exposure on the screen as her male co-stars.

The five year long saga of Dilip-Madhu Bala romance, which ignited during the shooting of the film Tarana, met a bitter and an acrimonious end with B.R. Chopora’s court case against her for refusing to go for shooting outside Delhi with Dilip Kumar on account of her father’s objections. After seeing Mughal-e-Azam, can one believe that during the shoot Madhu Bala and Dilip Kumar weren’t even on speaking terms? That’s the epitome of acting.

Some of her films will remain challenging milestones for any actor to emulate. In spite of the presence of dominating veterans like Prithviraj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Duraga Khote, Madhu Bala stood her ground and didn’t allow anyone to steal even a single scene from her. She looked unbelievably beautiful in that unforgettable song: “Mohe Panaghat Pe Nandlal Chhed Gayo Re”. No wonder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is believed to have seen Mughal-e-Azam 12 times! In her meetings with Prince Salim, she looks deeply in love but extremely vulnerable and apprehensive about the dire consequences of her romance with the would-be Emperor of the Mughal Empire. In just a few words uttered almost in a whisper—“Sahib-e-Alam, kaneez ko aise khwab na dikhaiye”—she pours all her vulnerability and fears. With no hugging and kissing and no body entanglements which have become the hallmark of Bollywood films’ intimate scenes today, in the meeting of Anarkali and Salim—dressed in spotless whites, Bade Ghulam Ali’s thumris rising from the background, white jasmine flowers falling and covering both, Salim touching Anarkali’s face with a feather, Anarkali getting up with a yawn—K. Asif has captured the most romantic and the most sensuous scene ever filmed in Indian cinema and without a word from either of the characters. The sheer beauty of the scene takes your breath away. It proves, if any proof was needed, that one can create the magic of romance without lengthy pledges like Shah Rukh Khan in Jab Tak Hai Jaan.

Half a century has passed but the gut, grit and fearlessness to challenge the mightiest epitomised by the song “Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya?”—“parada nahi jab koi khuda se, bandon se parada karana kya”—picture of dancing Anarkali beaming in hundreds of mirrors, Mughal Emperor Akbar squirming with rage, Madhu Bala looks every inch the material girl of the 21st century.  All the girls of today, who face the tyranny of khap panchayats and dirty designs of their cruel parents who conspire to eliminate them in the name of saving the family honour, can draw some inspiration from the doomed Anarkali.

All the protagonists of comedies like Golmaal, Houseful and Dhamaal can learn from Madhu Bala’s act in Chalati Ka Naam Gadi that one can create infectious comedy without being cheap, vulgar and using double-entendre dialogues.

In Howrah Bridge, with her effortless fluid moves, her entire body language and facial expressions as an Anglo-Indian cabaret dancer in the song “Aayie Meherbaan”, Madhu Bala looks classy yet sexy. Apparently one could look sexy without  being Chameli or Sheila, or using Fevicol!

Years have gone by but the image of Madhu Bala flashes from the deep recesses of mind whenever Mohd. Rafi’s voice rises from the radio: “Zindagi bhar nahi bhoolegi woh barsat ki  raat.”