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The movie Mahal, with its black and white ambience and the ghostly strains of "ayega anewala", was my introduction to Madhubala’s ethereal and enchanting beauty. Even as a child given to watching the fast-paced films of the 1970s, I was completely mesmerised by this unutterably beautiful actress of Indian films. I was also intrigued by the mantle of inscrutability that firmly denied ingress into her personal life. Not a lot had been written about this Venus of the Indian silver screen, and whatever was written was limited to film journals. So, Khatija Akbar’s I Want To Live: The Story of Madhubala came as a welcome surprise. Even as I sat down to read the book, I had a moment of misgiving as I wondered if the book would tear away the mystique of the Madonna with the beguiling smile and reveal the underbelly of humanity or add to her enchantment. But my perseverance was rewarded.

Khatija Akbar’s biography has woven together reminiscences of musicians like Naushad and Anil Biswas, stars like Begum Para, Minu Mumtaz, Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand and journalists like B.K Karanjia. In doing so, she has put together a vignette of Madhubala, the person behind the dazzling face with its mix of innocence and subtle sensuality. And the image that takes shape is that of a woman who was beautiful inside out but who had to pay for her goodness with her life. She started her film career as a child star in the film Basant. Despite her ease and spontaneity before the camera, Madhubala joined films only to earn a living and ensure survival of her family. She even gave up the bliss of married life with Dilip Kumar as her father Ataullah Khan would not give their alliance his blessings. This supreme sacrifice cost her emotionally as well as physically and sowed the seeds of her tragic demise.

Madhubla despite being blessed with a dazzling beauty was also cursed with a hole in the heart for which there was no cure in the 1960s. Madhubala’s dedication to her career took a physical toll that did not augur well for longevity and the break up with Dilip Kumar broke her completely. Her marriage with Kishore Kumar ended unhappily and she died lonely and sad at the young age of 36. Her heartrending cry "Allah main marna nahin chahti" defines the tragedy of Madhubala’s life.

Khatija Akbar’s biography has all the ingredients of an Indian film—a beautiful heroine, a Prince Charming, an overbearing father who is a spoke in the romantic wheel and a dreaded disease that is the knell of doom for the beautiful heroine. But more than that, there is a quality of warm empathy underlying the biography that brings to life the character of Madhubala with her natural vivacity, her compassion for the poor and needy, her dedication to her work and the fear and anxiety that beset her in public. A book that is a befitting tribute to not only a gorgeous and skilled actress but also a great human being.

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