What Killed Madhubala: A Close Look at the Death of A Bollywood Icon

Rare Madhubala picture Indian actress

Madhubala, classic Bollywood actress, (1933-1969)

Madhubala was born Mumtaz Jahan Nehlavi on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1933. Perhaps was no coincidence with such a birthday that Madhubala would grow up to become one of the most beloved romantic heroines of India. But her life could not share the happy endings of many of her films. This month, Madhubala would have turned 80 years old. Her premature death has likened Madhubala to iconic Hollywood greats like Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Carol Lombard and even Bollywood’s own Meena Kumari–women of the silver screen who died before the world was ready.

Madhubala’s unique allure was known worldwide–she had been featured in many American magazines including LIFE magazine whose rare photographs are featured in this post. Legendary director Frank Capra was eager to bring the mysterious Indian beauty to Hollywood and launch an international career–but his efforts were halted quickly by Madhubala’s conservative father. She was sought after by every great Bollywood director and actor from Dilip Kumar to Dev Anand and even romanced and married playback singer Kishore Kumar at the height of her illustrious career. For years, Madhubala was the Queen of Bollywood and the hearts of millions.

But what killed Madhubala, ending her short-lived reign? Could it have been prevented?

Rare vintage photograph of Indian actress Madhubala by LIFE magazine

Indian actress Madhubala as photographed by James Burke for LIFE magazine in 1951.

When Madhubala was born to a traditional Muslim family in Delhi, her elder sister Madhur Bhushan recalled that the baby was “blue”–a serious sign of cyanosis and poor oxygen perfusion. Madhubala had a Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD), a disorder colloquially referred to as a “hole in the heart.” A congenital abnormality of that kind allowed for mixing of both normal oxygenated blood and deoxygenated blood to be shunted through her body–an unhealthy adulteration with a bad prognosis. While a somewhat common birth defect (1 in 500 babies are born with a VSD), the medical community’s understanding of  the condition was in its infancy–VSD had first been described in 1879 and at the time of Madhubala birth, there was no treatment. Yet Madhubala continued to grow into a vivacious and beautiful young woman whose fragility was for many years known only to a few.

madhubala life magazine bed

Indian superstar Madhubala was sought by directors across the country and internationally during the height of her career.

The young beauty shot to fame in 1949 at the age of 16 in Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal with Bollywood veteran Ashok Kumar. One success followed another, establishing Madhubala as an A-grade star with a rare versatility and ebullience that hid her growing fatigue and weakness. In was not until filming scenes for Bahut Din Hue in 1954, Madhubala vomited blood on the set. It was an ominous sign that electrified the Indian media. The history of her heart defect came to public light as the mid-1950s brought her a string of failures, earning her the label “box office poison.” With skyrocketing notoriety, no longer was Madhubala’s illness a family secret.

Beautiful madhubala in a personal photograph

The lovely Madhubala in an unscripted moment in her room in Bombay.

Little did her family know, in the same year on the other side of the world at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Walt Lillehei was about to make medical history. After years of research in the field, on the morning of March 26, 1954, Lillehei performed the first surgical closure on a child with VSD. The surgery was a success that brought hope to thousands of families whose children were otherwise not expected to live past their 30th birthday.

Meanwhile in Bombay, Madhubala’s career revived and reached dazzling heights with smash hits like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) and the pinnacle of her career, Mughal-e Azam (1961). However, as Madhubala neared her 30th birthday, the grueling filming of historical epic Mughal-e Azam was to take a toll on the young actress’ health that is speculated to have hurried her demise.

An unscripted moment with Madhubala

Madhubala died on February 23, 1969 at the age of 36.

During the filming of the famous song, “Bekas Pe Karam Kijiye,” Madhubala’s performance turned art into life. The scene was of defiant courtesan Anarkali chained in the palace prison, singing for mercy. Director K. Asif actually made Madhubala perform in heavy, burdensome metal chains that weighed the actress down and cut into her skin. Her exhaustion and despair that you can see in the song are real–for a patient with VSD, such an amount of physical exertion truly mimicked the torture of her Mughal character. It became clear that her only hope lay in the the rumors of a surgical cure with the techniques recently pioneered by Dr. Lillehei.

Madhubala Life magazine

Bollywood Actress Madhubala was most remembered for her roles in Mahal (1949), Mughal-e Azam (1960), and Barsaat Ki Raat (1960).

In 1960, the actress sought treatment in London, but physicians refused to operate. Although Lillehei’s surgery had worked in children, physicians across the West had not perfected the technique in adults, and the first heart transplant in a human adult would not be performed for 7 more years. It was with a heavy spirit that Madhubala returned home to Bombay where she realized her career as an actress was over. She sought instead to enter film as a director, setting the stage to make tremendous strides for women in her directorial debut of the film Farz Aur Ishq. However, while the project was still in pre-production, Madhubala–the immortal woman with a mischievous smile and a mystical aura–succumbed to her illness at the age of 36. Tragically, within a few short years of her death, operations that closed VSDs were made widely available to adults. The history of heart surgery and Madhubala’s life crossed paths at a critical corner, but for a matter of time, never made that life-saving collision.

Rare beautiful photograph of Madhubala

The enigmatic beauty of Madhubala captures audiences generations after her death.

Perhaps if Madhubala had been born just a few years later or if Dr. Lillehei had begun his famous experiments just a few years earlier, Madhubala would have lived to see a surgery that would have allowed her to celebrate her 80th birthday today with us. Perhaps it was Madhubala’s early death itself that has immortalized her as a forever beautiful, forever carefree young woman who will remain always elusive. That ethereal woman haunting the mansion of Mahal (1949) or glittering in jewels of Mughal-e Azam (1961) is now only a shadow in our memories who vanished before time could transform her. In the words of her famous character from Mahal in which she starred at the age of 16:

Mai.N vehm nahii.N hoo.N, haqeeqat.” [“I am not an apparition, I am reality.”]

For fans of Madhubala all over, her words proved true only for a short while.

– Mrs. 55

46 thoughts on “What Killed Madhubala: A Close Look at the Death of A Bollywood Icon

  1. Who Knew? So it was not the drinking or drugs story that is so familiar to other stars even though she has so many rumors still surrounding her early death. Very interesting and sad story!

    • It’s true! Unlike many of the other actresses mentioned in the article (Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Meena Kumari), Madhubala did not have those rumors of drugs and alcoholism surrounding her passing. It was a tragedy for Bollywood and a great personal loss to her family and loving husband, Kishore Kumar.

  2. Love the photographs !
    As also the ethereal beauty & mischief of Madhubala ….
    We will always remember her young – something that destiny forced on her.
    Then there’s Suchitra Sen, another beauty & superb actress, who Chooses to be remembered as young by sequestering herself from the public eye !

    • Yes, the photographs are such a find! It’s rare to see the beauties of yesteryear photographed “au natural” as James Burke managed to capture Madhubala for LIFE magazine. Suchitra Sen and Sadhana both have disappeared from the public eye, but you’re right, their films live on as if they exist still in the forms of their heyday!

  3. It’s true, she will forever remain that young, vivacious, beautiful, honest, and innocent face in our minds.
    I can never get sick of watching movies in which I can get lost in all of her different kirdaars. Whether it be the role of a spoilt brat in Mr & Mrs 55, or the model of virtue in Amar, her beauty out shone her talent, but if you watch her method closely, it is both timeless, never over acted, and done with such class.
    Madhur Bhushan was her younger sister, no?
    Some stories were that she had leukaemia, which could also fit the sad tale of the stars early demise – but then again, why would her sister lie about her having a VSD in the numerous interviews she’s given? It’s all so confusing.
    I really love the way she is remembered even today, and I really do hope her soul is at peace despite all the agony she had to go through.

    • Thank you for your comments! Madhubala was indeed unmatched in her prime and watching her evolve into new, absolutely different characters with every film is a delight! The stories of VSD are confirmed and fit with her clinical course. Fortunately, her particular tale is one that most children born today with VSD will not suffer.

  4. I am glad to know more about Madhubala through this article. It’s really unfortunate that we lost a star because VSD surgery was not perfected in time. We should be so thankful for all the medical advances that allow medical conditions like these to be treated easily today. Thanks for doing the research and sharing!

  5. ….I think that . …madubala one of girl..beautiful heroin . …I miss you forever whole future…I love you my madhubala

  6. I am a big fan of Madhubala. Your article is very informative and her photographs are a real treat. There have been many beautiful heroines in Bollywood but Madhubala is numero uno, forever! Thank you for the article and for such a nice blog.

  7. Madhubala was the most beautiful and talented actress in Bollywood.She was also the sole bread winner of her large family.Yes,she did make some poor choices and hence the comment”box office poison”.I personally think that she did not deserve this comment.I also think that she was cheated out of a filmfare award for her performance in mughleazam.Bina rai did not deserve it in ghunghat.I have seen both movies,in fact I have watched mughleazam multiple times.How sad!Iwish they would create a special award for her and present it to her family now.There is no one ,there never was another Bollywood actress like her!

    • There is a parallel in history, reflecting this episode. The Nobel committee missed in giving Nobel prize to Mahatma Gandhi. Today, the society feel that the Nobel Prize did not deserve to don the Mahatma, because, he was far greater than any awards in Earth for all times to come. He was himself an award unto himself. The Nobel prize was not so great to deserve Gandhi. Similarly, no one can create an award that deserves Madhu. She is a personification of the whole film industry. No actor greater than her would ever be born again.


  8. Love this article, but you could have given some better photos of Madhuabala, rather than a series of similar pictures. She generally looked dazzling in every photo, but her beauty is unmatched ot this day in Howrah Bridge, Mughal-e-Azam, Taraana, Kala Pani and Mr & Mrs 55. Her versatility and natural ease in front of the camera as well as the Xfactor make her a true icon

  9. Madhubala the name of a tragic heroine or actress whom i love most. I fell in her love when i was a six standar student watching her movie “mugle e azam”. Now i am a 26 year old unmarried boy can not forget her for a single day and every day i pray to allah through my namaz to get her after my death

  10. Pingback: Aayega Aanewala Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi | Mr. & Mrs. 55 - Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  11. Pingback: Bekas Pe Karam Kijiye Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi | Mr. & Mrs. 55 - Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  12. Glad that I just stumbled upon this site accidentally….what a nice accident!

    Great Photographs…thanks for providing this rare peep into the life of Madhubala..the etherial beauty..that mysterious and mischievious smile is lurking just behind the eye lashes…can come out and mesmerize you instantly!

    I would like to mention a few songs of Madhubala which bring-out her spontaneity and charm…Acchha ji mein hari chalo maan jao na (Kala Pani)…Aaiye meherbaan…..Ye kya dar dala tune…and…Dekh ke teri Nazar (Howrah Bridge)…Ankhon mein tum dil mein tum ho (Half Ticket)…Paanch rupaiya baara aana (toooooo good) (Chalti ka Naam Gadi)….Just view these songs and have a feast! Her performance in these songs are / and will remain unparalleled forever…..


  13. It is so true…I have always felt that we lost legends like Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt, Geeta Dutt, even Mohammed Rafi, one of my favorite singers, who’s obesity eventually caused his heart attack which led to his early demise. We lost these people and so many more because they did not at all take care of themselves…they gave themselves over to alcoholism and drugs and didn’t take care of themselves. But Madhubala’s story is truly tragic because her death had nothing do to with that….she was just unlucky and the treatments at the time could not help her. Her death was not a result of her own personal habits (not that I’m judging any of the others—-Meena Kumari’s life was also incredibly tragic, and I cannot pretend to understand what drove all these incredible legends to into drugs and alcohol), but rather of ill-fate. Her short-lived career was still one of the most memorable, and she will always for me be one of the most iconic and talented actresses of Hindi cinema.

  14. if, as alleged, k asif did ask the actress to wear those heavy chains to lend authenticity to her grief, then, then this could be deemed as a serious breach. under normal circumstances, dummy objects are used

  15. Surgery for VSD is so common nowadays….alas! she died just before…the VSD patient is not vulnerable to such a hardship as seen in Mughle Azam!

  16. When she acted, one cold feel it. Her dialogues, the smile could just move you. In a way, she gave her life for Mughal E Azam. Madhubala will always be the only Queen of Bollywood………Amazing website.

  17. The pants and shirt! Quintessential french girl style! No wonder Hollywood was eager to have her, these photos are beautiful!

  18. Watch Mughale Azam again and again and still can’t get enough of madhubala. She did not deserve the tragic end. My heart bleeds for her. Could it have been avoided? Did the bitter breakup and the heavy chains had anything to do with her earlier demise? Well, she will always stay young in our memories. Madhubala, you were the best and will always remain so in our hearts and memories.

  19. I read this just today. Over 20 years ago, I read in a Delhi newspaper an article on Madhubala in which she was reported to have once quoted the following verse:

    Jab kashti saabit -o-saalim thi
    Saahil ki tamanna kisko thi
    Ab aish shikashtaa kashti par,
    Saahil ki tamanna kaun karen, kaun karen.

    I do not know whose verses these are, but I just noted it in my diary.
    We still feel for Madhubala.

  20. Actually i just started watching Madhubala of recent in june 2018. then later afriend told me that madhubala passed on long time ago. i could not believe what she was telling me untill today when i researched about her! she is still loved and MHSRIP.

  21. Saw the blog today. Interesting informative and well written. Blog is useful to me a Tamil – non Hindi/ Urdu knowing but yearning to know the meaning of melodies.

  22. Madhubala was super really. I have been studying on her in 2019, I could not believe myself how an actress could be so versatile in 1948 to 1950s. She had incredible quality. Her facial expression in Moughal-E-Azam was unmatched. I have unreal sympathy of her demise. She should not be gone from us, alas ! The medical treatment could save her. We could see a different cinematic world today. The written about her is mesmerizing. I only wish that Allah certainly grant her Jannah.

  23. In 1950s a US magazine called ENTERTAINMENT had Madhubala on coverpage and called her the most beautiful woman of the world, naming her as Marilyn Monroe of the East . In fact, FRANK CAPRA came to India to meet her and invited her to come to Hollywood. Herr parents did not permit her. I wish she did come to USA. Herr congenital heart condition (a hole in the heart) would have been diagnosed and treated.

  24. With other friends holding the same opinion on the EVER Great super star Madhubala and Angelic BEAUTY I BEWAIL the INJUSTICE done to her by FILMFARE by trafficking the best actress award to BINA RAI whose both in terms of performance and BEAUTY did not deserve the coveted award. All those who demand that MADHUBALA should be POSTHUMOUSLY awarded are people with A CONSCIENCE and consider FILMFARE’s decision as FOUL PLAY.

  25. Definitely she deserved the best actress in Mughal-e-Azam. Her beauty and that performance of her is light years from Bina Rai in Gunghat. Daylight robbery

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