Stardust and sorrow

SIRAJ KHAN | Updated on January 27, 2011

Madhubala in Roshni Films' `Teerandaz'.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES


The ever-versatile Geeta Bali plays the feminine lead in Amar Chhaya's maiden offering "Intezar".   -  THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

Geeta Dutt   -  The Hindu Archives

There were four women who ruled the Hindi film industry during its golden decade (1950-60) — Geeta Bali, easily one of the most gifted actresses to grace the silver screen; Geeta Dutt, who has over 1,500 soulful songs to her credit; Madhubala, the Venus of the Indian screen; and tragedy queen, Meena Kumari.

But besides the professional success these phenomenal stars of the past shared, there was another common thread, not generally discernible, that ran through their lives. Sure, they were talented, famous and even good friends with each other, but they also shared a tragic life story.

Endowed with an effervescent natural personality and a great sense of comic timing, it's difficult to associate Geeta Bali with tragedy, but this artiste — who acted in 70 films in a career spanning 12 years — saw an abrupt end to her life. Born in 1930 in pre-partition Amritsar, Punjab, it was extreme poverty that brought this daughter of a Sikh missionary to the world of films, which she conquered with a string of hits that included Badi Bahen (1949), Baware Nain (1950), Baazi (1951), Albela (1951) and Anand Math (1952). In 1955, she married the as-yet-unsuccessful Shammi Kapoor at an impromptu wedding ceremony. She became a mother of two — a son and a daughter — while her career, although somewhat sidelined, continued.

But an outdoor shoot in Punjab changed all that. The actress contracted smallpox from which she never recovered. According to reports, the illness had such a debilitating effect on her that during her last days she was a shadow of her former self. Geeta Bali passed away in the winter of 1965, at the young age of 35.

Her namesake, Geeta Dutt, actually pushed herself to the brink of death. The history of Hindi film music would be incomplete without her contribution; none before or after her has been able to match the texture and modulation of her voice. Legendary music director O.P. Nayyar once described her voice as a “natural miracle”. She gave unforgettable hits like Tadbeer se bigadi hui taqdeer bana le ( Baazi ), Babuji dheere chalna ( Aar Paar ), Thandi hawaa kaali ghata ( Mr. & Mrs. 55), Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan ( C.I.D.), Hum aapki aankhon mein ( Pyaasa ), Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam ( Kaagaz Ke Phool ).

So what could have pushed Geeta Dutt, who was born into a rich zamindaar family of Faridpur (East Bengal) in 1930, into a depression so severe that she could not find the will to live?

The year was 1956; Geeta Dutt's career was going great guns. She was married to the phenomenal actor-director-producer, Guru Dutt. Then came C.I.D., and Waheeda Rehman entered their lives.

The relationship between Geeta and Guru Dutt started deteriorating and things were never the same. Geeta and Guru Dutt were part of many movies together with Geeta singing great hits for Dutt's masterpieces like Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) and even Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). But as these films were playing in the cinema halls of the day, their marriage had hit rock bottom.

Although Kaagaz Ke Phool is now regarded as Guru Dutt's finest creation, it was a dismal failure at the time of its release. That weighed heavily on his mind. This, combined with the stress of a failing marriage, led Guru Dutt into a cycle of depression. He died of an overdose of pills in 1964. Geeta Dutt suffered a breakdown after his death. She found it difficult to come to terms with her personal problems and financial ruin, and began to drink heavily. In July 1972, Geeta Dutt succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. She was just 41.

Heartbreak, a loveless marriage and ill health were also the reasons for the pain-ridden life of Madhubala. A Muslim from a conservative Pathan family, Mumtaz Begum metamorphosed into Madhubala with the film Basant (1942) when she was nine. Her first break came when producer Kidar Sharma cast her opposite Raj Kapoor in Neel Kamal (1947) but she gained immense popularity with Mahal in 1949. Only 16 then, Madhubala had captivated everyone with her beauty and talent.

Throughout the 1950s, Madhubala proved to be a versatile performer. She was at the height of her acting prowess, when she discovered that she had a ventricular septal defect, commonly known as a “hole in the heart”.

Nevertheless, she continued playing lead roles in many hit films such as Amar (1954), Mr. & Mrs. 55 (1955), Kalapani (1958), Howrah Bridge (1958) and Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958). Her personal life was also on a high — she had a long affair with actor and co-star Dilip Kumar. But when things didn't work out between them, she was heartbroken and, in despair, plunged into a loveless marriage with Kishore Kumar.

As Anarkali in the epic Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Madhubala scaled the zenith of cinematic success, but the making of the film took a toll on her as she had to work with her now estranged co-star, Dilip Kumar. With the back-to-back success of Mughal-e-Azam and Barsaat Ki Raat, Madhubala became a legend in her lifetime. But she could not savour this success because life seemed to be heading for a tragic finale, with multiple health issues surfacing. Madhubala passed away in February 1969; she was only 36.

Can any trip down tragic memory lane be complete without the Tragedy Queen of Hindi cinema, Meena Kumari? Mahjabeen Bano, who we all know and love as Meena Kumari, had a sad personal life. Her marriage with filmmaker Kamal Amrohi proved a nightmare. And every successful movie of hers — there is a long list, including perennial hits like Baiju Bawra (1952), Parineeta (1953), Daera (1953), Ek Hi Raasta (1956), Sharda (1957), Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi (1960), Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) — only widened the cracks in her relationship with her egoistic husband. Their long imminent split finally took place in 1964. She then became an emotional gypsy and got involved with many famous men, from actor Dharmendra to lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar, although her constant companion through all the ups and downs of this period was alcohol.

What Mughal-e-Azam was to Madhubala, Pakeezah (1972) was to Meena Kumari. It took 17 years to make the film but this great passage of time could not tamp down Meena's immense acting talent. She died within weeks of its release, in March 1972, from cirrhosis of the liver. She was just 39. Of course, at that point, little did anyone realise that Geeta Dutt would pass away a few months later from the same condition.

Professional contemporaries, friends and partners in pain, these four legends have left an indelible impression on their audience. They may have left the journey of life midway, but they were able to achieve in those few years what ordinary mortals could not in a whole lifetime.

© Women's Feature Service

Published on January 27, 2011

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