Book Review: ‘I Want to Live’: The Story of Madhubala

On a cold, cold night when I could no longer succeed in coercing Brain into reading a little Ayn Rand, I glanced over the gay yellow cover silently watching me, dying to know if that night would be the night. Well, was it?


We’ll get to that in a while. My mother has been gunning about for a title interesting enough to help her kickstart her reading habits after years. She is my Manorama and Derek O’Brian, like a supermegasourcecode when it comes to old Hindi cinema and Hindi and Sanskrit (through middle school at least, the latter).

She had sailed through the first few pages with the enthusiasm of a six year old wolfing down his greens during dinner: sparse, because running a household is some serious shite. Especially with a daughter like that.

So was it the night?

Why, of course. In two hours, I was done with six chapters of the ten, all of 264 pages.


Khatija Akbar begins with the acknowledgments and a gushing preface follows. She wastes no time and tells you how and when she first saw Madhubala, unblemished, the movie shot at a time when no tragedy had brushed past her.

I see the ghost of a fangirl as she recalls watching the morning shows for Madhubala’s hits at a time when her sun had already set and ‘the age of color and Kashmir’ had already begun.

Very little was known about the star in her time, apart from whispers of a dream romance with Yusuf Khan and the public’s refusal to believe anything that suggested that she really had married the whimiscal Kishore Kumar. We’ve heard of the laughter, the serenity, my generation. Of the feminine charm.

Mystique lent her a quality and there wasn’t one man amongst the many, swooning and stepping over each other’s feet when they saw her in desire of her. Those who did in person would tell you that the camera always fell short of capturing her magic.
Khatija searched for any source that might tell her of Madhubala’s life – there were none. Time was rumbling away in distance and the people who knew her would follow too. The desolation sparked by this thought saw Akbar scout for shards
of Baby Mumtaz’s life with an alarming alacrity. 
The first chapter assumes the tone of a general knowledge book, monotonously belting out names of actresses and hits in each decade and era with the craft of a book keeper. It is the sort of tone that makes you question whether the author fully realizes the meaning of a biography and that of holding interest. She knows this is supposed to be a biography, right?
If you have the patience to read through it (a little background?) or the brains to skip it, you begin to marvel at how her detailed research delves into the archives, reaching into older film magazines like Film India, Filmfare and whatever anecdotes she could lay her hands on, counting on her friends and colleagues from ‘back when…’ and a hard earned interview with Dilip Kumar.
Khatija eventually goes down the road that many of my elders have enjoyed walking on — drawing parallels between Madhubala and Anarkali, all while pegging her Yusuf to be Salim. It sounds almost poetic, as if they were living  a movie themselves.
Across decades, the Indian audience is yet to find her equal in charm and art by way of skills. Akbar  repeatedly mentions her  famed punctuality and professionalism,  most of which was a realization of her father Ataullah Khan’s frantic efforts to keep his Mumtaz and the world’s sensuous powerhouse of talent out of harm’s way and stalkers’ too.

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I was born in the 90’s, so I missed this awesomeness by a very long spell of about 40 years. Sadly, the 90’s heralded the mediocrity the Hindi film industry (that prides itself on being called as Bollywood) that is rampant today, save for a few motion pictures that save the film fraternity’s ass.
This which could have been a better piece of work given all the effort taken, is marred by unorganised book chapters and the Akbar’s words are at times either too comprehensive or not. Moreover, since most people who knew Madhubala have passed away, gathering information largely from magazines is sifting through old school gossip, really. We’re talking about a woman who almost never interacted with the media or much of the outside world (thank you, Ataullah Khan) and never attended award ceremonies or film premieres… Your guess is as good as mine. Kidding.
Mine is better: it is part truth, at the very least. I wonder why no one else thought of it sooner; there are portions of her life that even this endeavor falls short of doing justice to.
Also, there are quotations that have not been attributed to any media source.
This book is not a biography. It is an ardent fan recounting and discussing about her favorite star.  Akbar treats Madhubala as sui generis, talking of her in bumps and hops.



Should you be reading it?
A 90’s baby like me or not, read the book. You will meet a woman you have never met. You won’t know everything about her, but you will end up falling for her merely through the device of a book, for passion and her longing. For unrequited love that wasn’t staged to rake in cheap and easy publicity for an upcoming movie. For devotion. For a hole in the heart that couldn’t stop her, not for 36 years. For the longing she never acknowledged: one to be free and to be loved. For the love she harbored for her family despite being forced to work since childhood to earn for all seven of them. For her forgiveness to a father who gave her death. For the air of unknown that still envelops her grave. For that which we will never know.

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