Rare Madhubala picture Indian actress

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

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Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat Aazmaakar Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

The mehfil for the qawwali looks particularly vibrant in the recolored version of Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Directed by K. Asif, Mughal-e-Azam (1962) is one of the most cherished films in the history of Bollywood cinema. Although several films have been made around the same premise, Mughal-e-Azam is by far the most well-known depiction of the forbidden love story between Prince Salim and courtesan Anarkali.  We could write (and probably will) at least ten different posts to describe all the things we love about this movie: the intricate Urdu dialogue, the beautiful soundtrack composed by Naushad, the elaborate costumes and set design, the heartwrenching plot, and so on. Here, I’d like to  share the lyrics and translation for one of many gems found in this film’s soundtrack: terii mahfil me.n qismat aazmaakar.

This qawwali is set between Anarkali (played by Madhubala) and her chief rival Bahar (played by Nigar Sultana) as a musical debate on the nature of love. As both women fight for his affections, Prince Salim (played by Dilip Kumar) watches the performance and is supposed to give a rose to the winner of the debate at its conclusion.The back-and-forth debate style of these lyrics is quite a rare find in Bollywood cinema, and it is even rarer to encounter such lyrics (penned by Shakeel Badayuni!) as a female-female duet. Despite being a female-female duet, there is still a subtle division of gender roles if you pay close attention to the song. From her costume, mannerisms, and lines, it could be argued that Bahar is taking on the more masculine role in this qawwali. In fact, her singing part is rendered by the more masculine of the two voices:  Shamshad Begum.

Although the lyrics of this qawwali can be interpreted as universal statements about love, there are a couple of interesting things to point out here with the context of the film’s plot in mind. For example, Bahar introduces a pun on her name when she sings “bahaare.n aaj paigham-e-muhabbat leke aayii. hai.n” (the spring has brought a message of love). Moreover, Bahar snarkily calls attention to the secret love affair between Salim and Anarkali when she claims, “kisii din yeh tamasahaa muskuraakar ham bhii dekhe.nge” (we shall smile one day and watch this spectacle). Aware that her affair with Salim is unacceptable by society’s standards, Anarkali admits that love can be hard when she sings, “muhabbat hamne maanaa zindagi barbaad kartii hai” (we admit that love can destroy one’s life”). She then posits, however, that suffering for the sake of love is worth it because lovers can leave a lasting legacy on the world after they die: “yeh kyaa kam hai ki mar jaane pe duniyaa yaad kartii hai?” Even though she’s being a little dramatic with her lines here, it’s hard not to be rooting for Anarkali over Bahar.

Salim, played by Dilip Kumar, judges the musical debate between Anarkali and Bahar.

At the end of the qawwali, Salim actually declares Bahar the winner of the debate by giving her the rose. This isn’t really a genuine victory because we know that even though Bahar wins the rose, Anarkali has already won Salim’s heart. Also, who could really lose when you have Madhubala and Lata Mangeshkar on your team at their peak of their careers? Come on, Salim, keep it real.

-Mr. 55

Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat Aazmaakar Lyrics and Translation:

Shamshad: terii mahfil me.n qismat aazamaakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
In the gathering of your court, we will test our fate. 
ghaDii bhar ko tere nazdiik aakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
We shall come close to you fleetingly and watch this spectacle. 
ajii haa.n ham bhii dekhe.nge
Yes, we shall watch this spectacle.  

Bahar, played by Nigar Sultana, being sassy as she sings a classic qawwali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Lata: terii mahfil me.n qismat aazamaakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
In the gathering of your court, we will test our fate. 
tere qadamo.n pe sar apanaa jhukaa kar ham bhii dekhe.nge
We shall bow our heads at your feet and watch this spectacle 

ajii haa.n ham bhi dekhe.nge
Yes, we shall watch this spectacle.  

Madhubala charms all of us with her beautiful smile in Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

Shamshad: bahaare.n aaj paighaam-e-muhabbat leke aayii hai.n
The spring has brought a message of love.
baDii muddat me.n ummiido.n kii kaliyaa.n muskuraayii hai.n
The flowerbuds of hope have smiled  after  a long time. 

gham-e-dil se zaraa daaman bachaakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
We shall protect ourselves from heartache and watch this spectacle.
ajii haa.n ham bhii dekhe.nge
Yes, we shall watch this spectacle.   

 Lata: agar dil gham se khaalii ho to jiine kaa mazaa kyaa hai?
If the heart is empty of pain, then what pleasure can one find in living?
na ho khuun-e-jigar to ashq piine kaa mazaa kyaa hai?
If the heart does not bleed, then what pleasure can one find  in swallowing tears? 

muhabbat me.n zaraa aa.nsuu bahaakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
We shall shed a few tears in love and watch this spectacle. 
ajii haa.n ham bhii dekhe.nge
Yes, we shall watch this spectacle.  

Shamshad: muhabbat karnevaalo.n kaa hai bas itnaa hii afasaanaa
Such is the story of lovers: 
taDapnaa chupke chupke aahe.n bharnaa ghuT ke mar jaanaa
They quietly suffer; their eyes fill with tears; they  suffocate and die. 
kisii din yeh tamaashaa muskuraakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
We shall smile one day and watch this spectacle.  

ajii haa.n ham bhii dekhe.nge
Yes, we shall watch this spectacle.   

Lata: muhabbat hamne maanaa zindagii barbaad kartii hai
We admit that love can destroy one’s life.  
yeh kyaa kam hai ki mar jaane pe duniyaa yaad kartii hai?
But, is it unworthy if the the world remembers lovers after they die? 
kisii ke ishq me.n duniyaa luTaakar ham bhii dekhe.nge
We shall sacrifice the world for someone’s love and watch this spectacle. 
ajii haa.n ham bhii dekhe.nge
Yes, we shall watch this spectacle.  

terii mahfil me.n qismat aazamaakar ham bhi dekhe.nge
In the gathering of your court, we will test our fate. 

Glossary

qismat: fate;  aazamaanaa: to test; ghaDii bhar ko: fleetingly; nazdiik: close; qadam: feet; paighaam-e-muhabbat: message of love; baDii muddat me.n: after a long time; ummiid: hope; daaman bachaanaa: to protect; khuun-e-jigar: blood of the heart; ashq piinaa: to swallow tears; aa.nsuu bahaanaa: to shed tears; afasanaa: story; aahe.n: eyes; ghuTnaa: to suffocate; tamaaashaa: spectacle; barbaad: destroyed; luTaanaa: to sacrifice.

Bharat Bhushan Barsaat Ki Raat qawwali

Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai Lyrics and Translation: Let’s Learn Urdu-Hindi

Bollywood Qawwali Barsaat Ki Raat Shyama Ratna
Ratna (left) and Shyama (right) lead the qawwali “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” from the hit Bollywood film Barsaat Ki Raat (196)

For our next post, we provide an English translation of “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” qawwali (and its prelude “Na to Caravan ki Talaash Hai“) from the all-time classic film Barsaat ki Raat (1960). For anyone familiar with the beautiful lyrics of this Sahir Ludhviani masterpiece, you know that “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” is the crowning jewel of the qawwali genre. The ultimate in lyrical poetry, allusions, wit, and transcendent symbolism, “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” was no easy task to translate and dissect. Sahir Ludhviani, who also later penned the gems from films like Taj Mahal (1963), wrote an album of love poetry for Barsaat Ki Raat--from “Zindagi Bhar Nahii.N Bhoolegi” to “Mai.N Ne Shaayad Tumhe” to la pièce de résistance, “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai.”

Bharat Bhushan Barsaat Ki Raat qawwali
Bharat Bhushan jumps in to save the girls’ qawwali team in “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

Through this culmination piece of the film’s ongoing qawwali competition, both hero (Bharat Bhushan) and the heroine (Madhubala) are reunited after a long and painful separation. Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhonsle, and Manna Dey vie to out-do each other in this clever, powerful discussion of the meaning of love, but at the song’s climax Rafi brings the qawwali to a heart-stopping triumphant finish that wins his team the competition. It is a real pleasure to appreciate the many levels on which the qawwali can be understood–from religious, to romantic, to quite literal–after singing “ilaaj koi to maut hai,” Shyama literally falls sick to her deathbed, or as Bharat Bhushan croons, “nikalii Radha saj ke,” Madhubala appears miraculously at the doorway from the prison of her house. Come follow along with our translation of this epic qawwali and it will be clear why “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” made Bollywood film history!

Madhubala Barsaat Ki Raat
Madhubala hears Bharat Bhushan on the radio and decides to find him in Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)

Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai Lyrics and Translation

MALE:

Na to caaravaan ki talaash hai
I am not in search of a caravan
Na to humsafar ki talaash hai
I am not in search of a fellow traveler
Mere shauq-e-khaana kharaab ko teri rehguzar ki talaash hai
That ruined place of my desire searches for the path that leads to you

FEMALE:

Mere naamuraad junoon ka hai ilaaj koi to maut hai
If there is any cure for my unfortunate obsession, then it is death
Jo davaa ke naam pe zehar de
Give me that medicine whose name is poison
Usi chaaraagar ki talaash hai
I am in search of such a healer

Tera ishq hai meri aarzoo,
Your love is my desire
Tera ishq hai meri aabroo,
Your love is my honor
Dil ishq, jism ishq hai, aur jaan ishq hai
My heart is love, my body is love, and my life is love
Imaan ki jo poochho to imaan ishq hai
If you ask for faith, then that is love too
Tera ishq mai.N kaise ChhoD doo.N?
How could I ever leave your love?
Meri umr bhar ki talaash hai
That love is what I have been searching for all my life

MALE:

Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love
Jaan-soz ki haalat ko jaan-soz hi samjhegaa
Only one in torment can understand the condition of a fellow sufferer
Mai.N shamaa se kehta hoo.N mehfil se nahii.N kehta
I am speaking to the flame, not to the company gathered here
Kyonki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

FEMALE:
Sahar tak sab ka hai anjaam jal kar khaak ho jaana
By dawn, everything will burn and be reduced to ashes
Bhari mehfil mei.N koi shamaa yaa parvaana ho jaaye
Everyone in this gathering shall became either flame or moth
Kyo.N ki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

MALE:

Vehshat-e-dil rasn-o-daar se roki na gayi
Love is not stopped by the madness of the heart or ropes and the gallows
Kisi khanjar, kisi talvaar se roki na gayi
It is not stopped by any dagger, by any sword
Ishq Majnu ki woh aavaz hai jiske aage koi Laila kisi deewaar se roki na gayi,
Love is that voice of Majnu’s which Laila followed and which no barrier could stop
Kyo.N ki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

Woh hanske agar maa.Nge.N to hum jaan bhi dede.N,
If she laughs and asks, then I would even give my life
Haa.N yeh jaan to kya cheez hai? Imaan bhi dede.N!
Yes, after all what is this life? I would even give up my faith!
Kyo.N ki yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

Naaz-o-andaaz se kehte hai.N ki jeena hoga,
I am told that I must live with my fate gracefully
Zehar bhi dete hai.N to kehte hai.N Ki peena hoga
They give me poison, and say I must drink
Jab mai.N peetaa hoo.N to kehte hai.N ki marta bhi nahii.N,
But when I drink it, then they say I won’t die
Jab mai.N martaa hoo.N to kehte hai.N ki jeenaa hogaa
When I am dying, they say I must live
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
For this is love, this is love, this is love

Mazhab-e-ishq ki har rasm kaDi hoti hai,
The laws and customs of love are very strict
Har qadam par koi deewaar khaDi hoti hai
At every step, there is a barrier standing
Ishq aazad hai, Hindu Na Musalmaan hai ishq,
Love is free, love is neither Hindu nor Muslim
Aap hii dharm hai aur aap hii imaan hai ishq
Your own duty and your own faith alone is love
Jis se aage nahii.N shekh-o-Brahaman dono.N,
Both Hindu and Muslim religious men cannot surpass this
Us haqeeqat ka garajtaa hua ailaan hai ishq
The reality of that thundering proclamation is love

(FEMALE in Panjabi):

Ishq na puchhe deen dharm nu, ishq na puchhe jaataan
Love does not ask your religion or creed, love does not ask your social class or caste,
Ishq de haatho.N garam lahu vich doobiyaan laakh baraataan ke
Love has drowned thousands of wedding revelers in its fiery blood
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love

MALE:
Raah ulfat ki kaThin hai ise aasaan na samajh
The path of love is dangerous, do not think it easy
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love

FEMALE:
Bahut kaThin hai Dagar panghat ki
The path to the riverside is very dangerous
Ab kya bhar luau.N mai.N Jamuna se matki?
Now how can I fill my jug with water from the banks of the Jamuna River?
Mai.N jo chali jal jamuna bharan ko dekho sakhi ji mai.N jo chali jal jamuna bharan ko
As I was on my way to fill my jug with water from the Jamuna,
Nand kishor mohe roke jhaadon
The young boy of Nanda [Krishna] stopped me
To kya bhar luau.N mai.N Jamuna se matki?
So how can I fill my jug with water from the banks of the Jamuna River?

MALE:
Ab laaj raakho more ghoonghat pat ki
Now protect my honor, this veil of mine
Jab jab Krishn ki bansi baaji,
When Krishna played his flute
Nikali Raadhaa saj ke
Radha emerged, dressed up
Jaan ajaan ka dhyaan bhulaa ke,
Forgetting all she was taught
Lok laaj ko taj ke
She left the honor of society
Haaye ban ban Doli Janak dulaari,
The darling child of King Janak [Sita] swayed into the forest
Pehenke prem ki maalaa
And wore a garland of love
Darshan jal ki pyaasi Meera
Meera thirsty for her a glimpse of her Lord
Pii gayii vishh ka pyaalaa aur phir araj kari
Drank a glass of poison and then pleaded
Ke laaj raakho raakho raakho, laaj raakho dekho dekho,
Protect my honor, protect my honor, protect my honor
Yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
This is love, this is love, this is love

Allah rasool ka farmaan ishq hai
The commands of God and Mohammed are love
Yaanii Hadith ishq hai, Quraan ishq hai
The teachings of Mohammed are love, the Quraan is love
Gautam kaa aur Maseehaa kaa armaan ishq hai
The wishes of Bhudda and Christ are love
Yeh kaayanaat jism hai aur jaan ishq hai
This material existence and this life are love
Ishq sarmad, ishq hii mansoor hai
Love is everlasting, love alone is victorious
Ishq Moosa, ishq Koh-e-Toor hai
Love is Moses, love is Mt. Sinai
Khaaq ko but, aur but ko devtaa karta hai ishq
Love turns clay into idols, and idols into Gods
Intahaa yeh hai ke bande ko khuda karta hai ishq
The pinnacle is that love has the power to turn a man into a revered God
Haan.N yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq, yeh ishq ishq hai, ishq ishq
Yes, this is love, this is love, this is love

Glossary:

caravaan: caravan; talaash: search; humsafar: fellow traveler; shauq-e-khaana; desires, hobbies; barbaad: ruined; rehuguzar: pathway; naamuraad: unfortunate; junoon: obsession; ilaaj: cure; maut: death; davaa: medicine; zeher: poison; chaaragar: one who treats you, doctor, healer; aarzuu: desire; aabruu: honor; jism: body; imaan: faith; jaansoz: torment, soul-burning; sahar: the time before dawn; anjaam: conclusion; khaak: ashes; parvaanaa: moth (used allegorically as one blinded by love); vehshat: madness; rasn: rope; daar: gallows; khanjar: dagger; talwar: sword; LailaMajnu: legendary ill-fated lovers; awaaz: voice; deewaar: barrier, wall; cheez: thing; naazoandaaz: pride and style, grace; mazhab: law; kaDi: strict, harsh; qadam: step; azaad: free; dharm: Hindu religious duty; haqeeqat: reality; garajnaa: to thunder; ailaan: proclaimation; deen: Islamic obedience; jaataan: caste; lahu: blood; ulfat: love; kaThin: dangerous; aasaan: easy; Dagar: pathway; maTki: jug, pot; Nand kishor: young Krishna laaj: honor; ghuunghat: veil; bansi: type of flute; dhyaan: meditation; lok: people, society; ban: forest; Dolna: to sway; Janak Dulari: The darling daughter of the mythological King Janak [Sita]; prem: love; maalaa: garland; darshan: glimpse of a deity; pyaasi: thirsty; vish ka pyaalaa: glass of poison; araj: plea; rasool: messenger [of God, Mohammed]; farmaan: commands; hadith: a report of the deeds and the teachings of Muhammed, Gautam: Buddha; Maseehaa: Jesus Christ; kaayanaat: material creation; sarmad: everlasting; mansoor: victorious, Moosaa: Moses; Koh-e-Toor: Mt. Sinai; khaaq: clay; but: idol; devtaa: God; intahaa: pinnacle, culmination

Yes, that glossary was a mouthful. Even as it is, I must warn that many of these words have a far deeper religious meaning to them that cannot be summed up in the one or two words as I have defined them. But no one said the Hindustani language was easy, and this song is just loaded with Arabic-based and Sanskrit-based vocabulary as well as references from both Hindu and Islamic traditions. It’s part of why Urdu-Hindi is such a complex, beautiful and absolutely fascinating language. Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of these lines:

  • “Ishq Majnu ki woh awaaz hai…” according to the Arab legend, similar to Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu (whose nickname means “madly in love”) were two star-crossed lovers from rival families. However, Laila fled from her house to be with the one she loved and it is said that as Majnu was caught and whipped, their love was so strong that Laila screamed and blood appeared to flow from Laila’s skin instead.
  • “Bahut kaThin hai Dagar panghat ki…” is actually a line from the great Amir Khusrau qawwali written during the 13th century. The qawwali refers in one sense to the risks of dishonor faced by Radha as she attempted to fetch water, another sense explores the risks of standing up for religious beliefs (in Khusrau’s case, an allegiance to Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya.) The line has now become a sort of idiomatic warning to not underestimate the burden of any difficult task.
  • “Jab jab Krishna ki bansi baaji…” refers to the tales of Hindu folklore of childhood lovers Krishna and Radha, the latter of whom risked familial honor and suffered teasing and torment from her girlfriends in her love for the young Lord.
  • “Janak dulari ban ban Doli…” is a reference to the Ramayan in which Sita, upon learning of her husband Ram’s banishment to the forest, renounced her title as well. Sita, it should be recalled, had a very lavish upbringing as she was the daughter of King Janak, so this was no simple sacrifice to live in the dangerous jungle. But Sita’s love was unparalleled, and although she was not otherwise compelled to accompany Ram to the jungle, did indeed join him out of pure devotion.
  • “Darshan jal ki pyaasi Meera…” refers to the legend of Krishna devotee and Rajput Princess, Meera Bai of the 16th century. Her zealous worship and love of Krishna inspired not only many famous bhajans we know and sing today, but the resentment of her brother-in-law who frowned upon her actions (eg. mingling with the poor, ignoring her husband, etc.) He made several notorious attempts to kill her, including forcing her to drink a glass of poison that Lord Krishna is said to have transformed into nectar and saved her when she pleaded for the Lord to protect her honor.

As you can probably tell, I LOVE this qawwali. I discover new things every time I enjoy it (for example, anyone else notice how the background clappers only start shrugging their shoulders cliched bhangra-style ONLY when Ratna starts singing in Panjabi? Coincidence? I think not!) The song indeed transcends all religious and material loyalties, bringing the audience a dazzling, other-wordly experience. For anyone who’s tired of all the allegories and vocabulary quizzes, here’s the long-awaited behind-the-scenes gossip:

Did you know Bharat Bhushan actually got married in real life to Ratna (who ironically played the only character in the film NOT in love with him!) Surprise, right!? She was his second wife, and some even say that later mild-mannered Bharat Bhushan had had an affair with none other than Meena Kumari. Did the scandals never end in this town?

For more Urdu bliss, check out our post on the beauty of Urdu poetry in Hindi films!

-Mrs. 55

Ratna Barsaat Ki Raat
Ratna, wife of Bharat Bhushan, plays a sassy side-kick in the film Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)
Rishi Kapoor Amar Akbar Anthony Bollywood Qawwali

The Best Qawwalis of Bollywood Films

Rishi Kapoor Amar Akbar Anthony Bollywood Qawwali
Rishi Kapoor charms his audience singing the famous qawwali “Pardah Hai Pardah” from Amar Akbar Anthony (1979).

The qawwali from films has a hallowed place in the history of the Hindi music industry. A mystic tradition more than 700 hundred years old, the qawwali gained prominence in Bollywood initially through 1950s Muslim social dramas and grew so much in popularity that its influences became mainstream–even continuing to live on today. We present our list below of the best qawwalis of Bollywood films.

But let us first define what precisely is a qawwali? The great Indian poet Amir Khusrau (d. 1326) is considered the founding father of the qawwali genre, having composed songs for the first time in this style to celebrate the death of his spiritual guide Nizamuddin Aulia. The qawwali is the authentic Sufi spiritual song that transports the mystic toward union with God. For centuries, Sufi communities in the Indian subcontinent have sustained this musical tradition in the mahfil-e-sama, or assembly for listening. The qawwali was a religious experience for both listener and performer: as the listener hopes for a spiritual experience of intensity and immediacy to transcend his or her conscious striving, the trained performer seeks to present in song a vast treasure of poetry that articulate and evoke a mystical experience for the audience.

Madhubala impresses the Mughal prince in the classic qawwali “Teri Mehfil Mei.N Qismat” from Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

The qawwali performance usually begins after the evening and may last all night until the morning prayers. The word qawwali means “words” worthy of remembrance, and as such the qawwali traditionally has a devotional aspect in praise of God. Even most “secular” qawwalis found in popular Bollywood movement can be read in this way, although superficially the lyrics have another literal meaning. The harmonium has replaced what was traditionally a sitar as musical accompaniment, but equally important are the tabla and the signature qawwali cyclic hand clapping that increase in speed during the performance. The tarz or tune of the qawwali is normally identified by the first line of the text, which is often a part of the refrain couplet. Although the qawwal was traditionally male, both men and women have enjoyed and excelled at performing the modern qawwali.

Rishi Kapoor dazzles his audience as a popular qawwal in the 1979 blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony.

Unlike in Hindustani classical music, while taal and raagaa usage is the same, the qawwali places a greater emphasis on the poetic text and the delivery of its message than on musical ornamentation. In many of its vast incarnations within Bollywood, the qawwali became synonymous with a musical debate, a verbal battle (often between the sexes) to outwit the other side on topics that usually boil down to love or the pain of love. That kind of screen chemistry, as you can imagine, is prime Bollywood flirting territory just waiting to be sung.

Let’s take a look at how this genre evolved in mainstream Bollywood into one of the most beloved musical genres of the industry. Here are some highlights:

Humen To Loot LiyaAl Hilal (1958):

One of the first qawwalis to hit the silver screen, no list is complete without this retro low-budget gem. The music is really quite simple, but extremely catchy.

Yeh Ishq Ishq HaiBarsaat Ki Raat (1960):

This qawwali is an Urdu-lover’s paradise. Filled with complex words and allusions you’ll never use in real life, “Yeh Ishq Ishq Hai” set the stage for classy performance duels between men and women that is still considered the greatest Bollywood qawwali for its poetry (see our post for a full English translation!)

Sharma Ke Yeh Kyo.NChaudhvin Ka Chand (1960):

A fun twist on the traditional qawwali, two women sing (Asha Bhonsle and Shamshad Begum) with the latter taking the masculine side and the former taking the feminine.

Teri Mehfil Mei.N QismatMughal-e-Azam (1960):

Oh, does it get any better than this? Every moment of Mughal-e-Azam is a poetic dream and this briliant qawwali is no less. Shamshad Begum battles Lata Mangeshkar for the Prince’s approval of their take on love, each lyric outwitting the last. See our translation with glossary for more!

Nigahe.N Milane KoDil Hi To Hai (1963):

Asha Bhonsle’s greatest contribution to this genre, this qawwali has some beautiful Urdu and probably the most thrilling sargams you’ll find in any of her songs. See our translation with glossary here!

Tumhe Husn Dekhe – Jab Se Tumhe Dekha Hai (1963):

OK, so sure, this qawwali is not particularly memorable for its musical ingenuity (you may or may not cringe the entire way), but how often are you going to behold Shammi and Shashi Kapoor on screen at the same time?! This fascinating qawwali is worth a watch if only for its star value! Kudos to Geeta Bali for holding her own!

Mehengai Maar GayiRoti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974):

This qawwali has a unique flavor–taken from one of Manoj Kumar’s popular Indian propoganda films, the lyrics carry an interesting social message outside the realms of romantic love.

Pardah Hai PardahAmar Akbar Anthony (1979):

A Mohammed Rafi gem, this qawwali ranks among the best of the best. After watching Rishi Kapoor’s enthusiastic performance, you’d believe he was born to be a qawwal. The song is a must-see for anyone interested in the genre.

And just to throw in the contemporary, here’s a picture of me performing the qawwali at last year’s Harvard Ghungroo!

At a Harvard Ghungroo performance of Asha Bhonsle’s “Nigaahe.N Milane Ko.”

-Mrs. 55

Defining Bollywood Film Noir

Sadhana enters a graveyard as the femme fatale of Woh Kaun Thi? (1964)

In the U.S. historians and film theorists have debated for decades about the meaning of the elusive term: “film noir.” Although many of us conjure an image of a hard-boiled detective and a mystery made more mysterious by the femme fatale, few “film noirs” actually contain these elements. This so-called genre had its roots in German Expressionism with films like Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and in depression-era crime novels. But what does the term “film noir” mean as it applies to Hindi cinema? What are the hallmarks of this genre as it played out in Bollywood and how did it begin?

I will present five films that I propose to be in the genre of Indian film noir. This is no easy task. Just as the term is vague in the American lexicon, so too does it only hazily engulf a variety of Hindi films with low-key lighting. And so I shall begin with an illustrative example. We can debate the precise definition of the genre until the end of time, but I think I can safely say that whatever Indian film noir is, Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) is Indian film noir.

Woh Kaun Thi? has 4 main basic elements. The first is in its distinct cinematographic style and setting—low-key lighting throughout a mysterious mansion and slow unhurried shots with a somber film score to match. The film gives a sense of the world being trapped in a fatalistic dream, whether alone by a graveyard or in a crowd of dancing people.

The second is the film’s overall tone and pacing—there is an uncomfortable sense of being pursued, of an impending doom unless a mystery is solved in time by the hero. Unlike in American film noir, the hero is no cynic and there is no quick sardonic dialogue to off-set the dreary mood. The hero is instead a righteous and innocent man of affairs, an heir to a fortune who becomes a victim. Though mingled with occasional musical highs, the film spirals from a slow and deliberate set-up to a climax closer and closer to complete ruin.

An interesting element of many American film noirs is the flash-back structure, which takes on an interesting form in their Indian counterparts. Woh Kaun Thi? centers around a mysterious background that occurred in the protagonist’s past life. Because the audience of Hindi films was largely composed of practicing Hindus, the world of reincarnation narrative is able to begin on a new and creatively extremely fertile ground. The hero must revisit through song, hearsay, and secrets events that took place in a past life, but whose consequences (whether karma or otherwise) now haunt him. This is the third element.

Fourthly, the film does indeed revolve around the appearance and (mis)guidance of the femme fatale, who is heard singing alluring, tragic songs. The hero is never able to wholly communicate with her, but her intentions are clearly marked with a deadly undertone. The femme fatale remains an elusive character–sometimes he chases after her, sometimes she chases after him—when her story is fully told, only then can the mystery be solved.

The films below can be placed into the category of Indian film noir along with Who Kaun Thi?:

Mahal (1949): Perhaps the grandfather of this genre, Mahal tells of a man tortured and madly in love with an apparition who haunts his mansion and claims a connection from an earlier life. The film also features the haunting vocals of Lata Mangeshkar’s all-time hit Aayegaa Aanewaalaa.

Madhubala mesmerizes Ashok Kumar in Mahal (1949)

Madhumati (1958): This classic Vijayantimala-Dilip Kumar blockbuster is told in flashback to a previous lifetime of the murder of the woman the hero still loves. The gently alluring Aajaa Re Pardesi encompasses the film’s themes of love and debts spanning several lifetimes.

Vijayantimala is reincarnated to find her lover once more in Madhumati (1958)

Bees Saal Baad (1961): A rich man comes to live in his new mansion and must solve a tragedy and murder that occurred 20 years earlier. The film contains a brilliant surprise ending, and Lata Mangeshkar scores once again with the beautiful Kahin Deep Jale, Kahin Dil.

Biswajeet follows a mysterious voice in Bees Saal Baad (1961)

Kohra (1964): This twist on Hitchcock’s Rebecca is told through the eyes of a female protagonist, living in a large, unexplored mansion that is haunted by the apparition of her husband’s first wife. Waheeda Rehman must discover the true circumstances surrounding the first wife’s death before she is driven insane. The song of the femme fatale (Jhoom Jhoom Dhalti Raat) is an absolutely genius and rare example of symbolic imagery in montage to create a feeling of horror from the song.

Waheeda Rehman sees a ghostly vision atop her mansion roof in Kohra (1964)

There are some films that contain one or more of the above elements that I have not classified as Indian film noir. These include Mera Saaya, Gumnaam, and Karz, for different reasons–often overall tone or cinematographic style. Additionally, others might argue that these films should not be categorized at all as Indian film noir, but rather as Indian gothic horror films or other such genres. Watch some of these classics and let us know your take on this chapter in cinematic history!

– Mrs. 55