Mehboob Khan Death Anniversary: Why the filmmaker died a broken man
Fame and fade, Mehboob Khan lived through it all. Remembering the legendary filmmaker on his 58th death anniversary.
The unlettered Mehboob Khan scripted his own dreams. From a one-room dwelling in Sarar Kashipura in Gujarat, he became the founder of the expansive Mehboob Studios at 100 Hill Road, Bandra. From beginning as a junior artiste, he became part of the august audience at the Oscars where his magnum opus, Mother India, was screened.
The epic canvas of his films including Amar, Andaz and Amar, his earthy sensibilities in sync with his sumptuous imagination…won him the title of ‘India’s Cecil B. DeMille’. “My story is a story of struggle and hard work…. Life has been my school and experiences my mother,” he was quoted saying in an interview published in Bombay Cinema Letter 1957, which later appeared on cinemaazi.com.
Mehboob was the man of the moment when Mother India became India’s first submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958. But trailing by a single vote, it lost the Oscar. This was a shock the filmmaker perhaps never could overcome. A heart attack the following day was perhaps a precursor to his downward spiral.
Back home, the tanking of his ambitious Son Of India only hastened his plummeting finances and spirit. The demise of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on 27 May 1964 somewhere expedited his own. A devotee of Nehruvian socialism, the hammer and sickle being Mehboob Khan Productions’ logo, the filmmaker was filled with despair. A day later, he succumbed to yet another heart attack.
But even six decades later, the Mehboob Khan narrative has no ‘The End’. He lives on in Mehboob Studios, a concrete castle of his dreams. He breathes in its sacred environs where a million bestsellers roll, where daydreams reach for the stars…
MEHBOOB – THE MAKER
·Born on 9 September 1907 in faraway Bilimoria in Gujarat, Mehboob Khan grew up with stars in his eyes. At 18, he ran away from home with just three rupees in his pocket, wanting to try his luck in films. But his furious father soon brought him back home. At 23, he set off for Mumbai again, only to queue up outside Jyoti Studio near V.T, looking for work as a junior artiste.
·Mehboob made an ‘invisible’ debut in Ali Baba Aur Chalis Chor (1927). Playing one of the 40 thieves in the legend, he sat hidden in a chest. Later, he became an assistant in filmmaker Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Film Company before directing his first film Judgement of Allah (1937).
·Mehboob directed three of his most vital films - Aurat, Bahen and Roti for National Studios in the ’40s. While Aurat featuring Sardar Akhtar, was about maltreatment towards women, Bahen was about a brother’s compulsive love for his sister and Roti a protest against capitalism.
·Meanwhile, singer Jaddan Bai, who had heard of this talented and ‘namazi’ director, was keen that he launch her daughter Nargis. Mehboob introduced a 14-year-old Nargis in Taqdeer (1943).He launched his banner Mehboob Productions in 1945. His modern tale Andaz (1949), teaming Raj Kapoor-Nargis-Dilip Kumar, hinted at female sexuality and questioned platonic equations.
·The pastoral extravaganza Aan (1952) was shot by FaredoonA Irani. First filmed in 16mm Gevacolour, it was blown up in 35 mm Technicolour. Naushad recorded the background music in England with a 150-piece orchestra. In the Hitchcockian Amar (1954), the hero (Dilip Kumar), swayed by the moment, rapes a helpless woman (Nimmi) only to be put in the dock by his beloved (Madhubala).
·What gave Mehboob legendary status was Mother India (1957). About soil and toil, might and right, oppression and resistance, it deified the Indian mother played by Nargis. It was one of the first films made in Technicolor. Raj Kapoor and Nargis were on the verge of a break-up, when Nargis signing the outside banner served as a parting shot. Mehboob had cast Nargis in feminist roles earlier in Taqdeer and Andaz. Mother India was the crowning glory.
·The film’s budget escalated to Rs 40 lakh, a huge sum those days. Mehboob had to halt the film for a while. In a bid to help guru Mehboob, Nimmi (his Aan heroine) apparently went to his office with money wrapped in her saree pallu and handed it to his manager. She requested the manager not to divulge her name.
·Mother India created ripples worldwide, even in the North African countries. Reportedly, President Nasser of Egypt saw it twice; once when he visited India. While it won the Filmfare Awards for Best Film and Best Director, Nargis won the Best Actress Award at the Karlovy Vary Festival in Czechoslovakia (1958).
MEHBOOB – THE MAN
·Mehboob married twice. With his first wife Fatima, he had three sons Ayub, Iqbal and Shaukat and three daughters Zubeida, Mumtaz and Najma. He married his Aurat heroine, Sardar Akhtar, in 1942. He had no children with Akhtar.
·The children addressed him as ‘Bava’ and were awed by their father’s powerful persona. Mehboob was caring towards his daughters Zubeida and Najma though he remained reserved with the boys. A cricket buff, he often visited Islam Gymkhana to watch the game. Though he possessed a Packard car, he didn’t enjoy driving.
·A devout Muslim, he offered namaz five times a day and also observed fasting. For 40 years, he regularly visited Khwaja Garib Nawaz’s shrine in Ajmer and even built a bungalow there. He never touched alcohol.
·But Mehboob was often linked with women. He hardly stayed with first wife Fatema but visited the family every morning before going to the set. He lived with second wife Akhtar. The children shared an amicable relationship with their stepmother. Akhtar, a ‘vibrant lady’, was also ‘well-connected’.
·The late Iqbal shared a good bond with stepmom Akhtar, who also confided in him about his father’s rumoured proximity with Nadira during the making of Aan. “There was a certain seriousness in my father’s relationship with Nadira. My stepmother was a vociferous woman. She’d complain, ‘Aadmi ki fitrat hi aisi hai (it’s a man’s nature), he left your mother and married me and now he’s friendly with her (Nadira),’” Iqbal said in an interview (Filmfare).
·Nadira, on her part, was in awe of her ‘mentor’. “I did everything for the first time in Aan — riding a horse, driving a Mercedes, swimming, getting my eyelashes burned in a fire sequence... Mr. Mehboob was a very, very beautiful man to work with. He was ‘The Mehboob Khan’ and he was a God. He was a giant of a man and yet had such tremendous humility. I had everything on a silver platter,” she said in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s interview for Movie Mahal (Channel 4 TV, UK), reproduced in thehindu.com.
Oscars – the beginning of the end
·Coming back to Mother India, it was India’s first submission for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958. It was chosen as one of the five nominations for the category. Inexplicably, the film was shown on a Saturday when the Academy members were not present in large numbers. Mother India lost out to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria by a single vote, leaving Mehboob shattered.
·The next day, Mehboob was at Columbia Studios for a meeting when he suffered a heart attack. He stayed back for a few months in the US to recover. There he wrote the script of his ambitious project Taj Mahal with UCLA (University of California and Los Angeles) students. Cecil B DeMille (of Ten Commandments fame) dubbed it as ‘a great property’!
·The historical romance was supposed to be a co-production with Mike Todd (of Around the World In Eight Days fame). Mehboob was asked to rework it in Hollywood style. It’s said the empty stretch of land between the gate and the stages in the Mehboob Studio premises was left vacant to construct a set for his dream project Taj Mahal and to shoot it from a helicopter.
·However, after his return to India, Mehboob got busy with the ‘futuristic’ Son Of India (1962), a film he believed would take him higher than Mother India. He cast Sajid Khan, the child actor he’d introduced in Mother India, as his hero. Also, he introduced the concept of the underworld, a first for Hindi cinema. But the ambitious film sank.
DEBT & DEATH
·Mehboob was hassled by creditors. Apparently, he was told, ‘Picture kyon banate ho, jab paise nahin hai?’ The filmmaker would lament, ‘I helped all but no one helped me’.
·Mehboob passed away on 28 May, 1964 just a day after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s demise. A diehard socialist, Mehboob was shattered by the passing away of his idol. The New York Times carried the news with the headline ‘Indian Dies at News of Nehru’.The story read, “Mehboob Khan, president of the Motion Picture Producers Association of India, died of a heart attack last night after hearing of Prime Minister Nehru’s death.”
·Mehboob had left behind a reported loan of Rs 28 lakh, a huge amount those days. Before his death, Mehboob had asked his sons to pay off Rs 17 lakh, which he owed composer Naushad as remuneration for Son Of India. The amount was apparently repaid in instalments. It took the family almost 12 years to free themselves of the huge liabilities.
·“Maybe, Bava died of disappointment. Maybe he died of debts,” mused Iqbal. But Mehboob Khan lives on. In his cinema that is the stuff of syllabi. In the studio that stands as a milestone. In the fantasies that find fruition in its haloed portals.
·Things soured between Sardar Akhtar and Mehboob’s children, when she demanded her share. Reportedly, she sent an ex-parte receiver to the family, whereby every pot and pan in the house was noted down by the police. She was kept the director of the company along with Mehboob’s sons. Akhtar passed away on 2 October 1986, following a heart attack in New York.