Mehboob Khan: India’s legendary director died heartbroken; why?

·Contributor
·8-min read

He was a dreamer, who ran away from a kholi in Sarar Kashipura in Gujarat to own the sprawling Mehboob Studio in Bandra.

He was fuelled by instinct. Having no education or training, he went on to make films that reached the Oscar nominations. With his rooted-to-the-soil sensibilities and innate imagination, he broke the glass ceiling.

He was a feminist in that his heroes were women, who took on patriarchy and prejudice.

He was a socialist aligning with ideals of Nehruvian socialism. The humble hammer and sickle remained Mehboob Khan Productions’ emblem no matter how lavish his extravaganza.

The biggest compliment for Mehboob Khan, regarded as India’s Cecille B DeMille, came from DeMille himself, who wrote to the filmmaker, “We look forward to the day when you will contribute to our screen fare… bringing the romance and magic of India.”

But after having reached the zenith with Mother India, Mehboob plunged to the nadir after the flop Son Of India. Plagued by debts, pained by dejection… he succumbed to an untimely death.

Yet his legacy, Mehboob Studio at 100 Hill Road, Bandra, is a reminder of the dream merchant he was. In its precincts continue to be nurtured a million bestsellers, a million romances, a million stars … The dream factory will never let Mehboob Khan be history…

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THE GENIUS

Born on 9 September 1907 in quiet Bilimoria in Gujarat, Mehboob Khan Ramzan Khan grew up with no education.

With dreams of being an actor, 16-year-old Mehboob got onto a Bombay-bound train. But he was dragged back home by his father. At 23, he left home again. Waiting endlessly outside Jyoti Studios near Victoria Terminus, he hoped to get work.

He started as an extra with Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Film Company. Interestingly, his debut was a ‘hidden’ one. Playing one of the 40 thieves in Ali Baba Chalis Chor (1927), he stayed put in a jar throughout.

Years later, he first directed Sagar Movietone’s Judgement Of Allah (1935). Inspired by Cecil B DeMille’s The Sign Of The Cross (1932), the actioner portrayed the Roman-Arab clash. It marked Mehboob’s enduring association with cameraman Faredoon A Irani.

Ek Hi Raasta (1939) gave a glimpse of Mehboob’s social concerns. The film, about a war veteran charged for killing a rapist, mocked the duplicity of the system.

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Mehboob directed Aurat (1940), Bahen (1941) and Roti (1942) for National Studios (Sagar Movietone was thus rebooted). Aurat, starring Sardar Akhtar, traced the journey of a woman, who survives the vagaries of fortune.

While Bahen was about a brother’s obsessive love for his younger sister, Roti was an attack on capitalism. Najma (1943) – a Muslim social and Humayun (1945) were mainstream offerings.

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Meanwhile, Nargis’ singer/mother, Jaddan Bai, had heard of this ‘namazi’ director and was keen that her daughter be launched by him. Mehboob introduced a 14-year-old Nargis in Taqdeer (1943).

Mehboob launched his own banner Mehboob Productions in 1945. Anmol Ghadi (1946) cast three singing stars together – Surendra, Noor Jehan and Suraiya and had melodies by Naushad. The film kickstarted his innings with Naushad.

Mehboob’s chef-d’oeuvre was Andaz (1949). Teaming Raj Kapoor-Nargis-Dilip Kumar, Andaz, the seemingly modern tale, rooted for conformity. Nargis played a rich girl, who’s loved by two men. She marries one and remains friends with the other. The film hinted at female sexuality and questioned platonic equations.

Aan (1952), a The Taming of the Shrew kind of subject, was shot against generous landscapes and scorching skies, cavalier horsemen and bullock carts by Faredoon A Irani. Shot in 16mm Gevacolour, it was blown up in 35 mm Technicolour. The background music was recorded in England with a 150-piece orchestra by Naushad.

In Amar (1954), the hero (Dilip Kumar), swayed by the moment, rapes a helpless woman (Nimmi). His beloved (Madhubala) stands up for the girl and sees to it that Dilip’s character stands by the victim. Though regarded by Mehboob as his favourite film, viewers were unable to accept a flawed hero.

MOTHER INDIA

Remaking Aurat as Mother India (1957) was a significant move. A scathing indictment of exploitation of the weak, it deified the Indian mother (played by Nargis) and gave her an iconic status worldwide. Indian films since then including Ganga Jamuna, Deewar and even Vaastav have had shades of the Mother Goddess.

Nargis in Mother India
Nargis in Mother India

Dilip Kumar was keen to play both father and the son in Mother India. But his starry aura, feared Mehboob, would dilute the impact of his female protagonist Radha. The audience had seen Nargis and Dilip as onscreen lovers. Hence, Mehboob was not keen to cast them in a mother-son avatar.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis were apparently on the verge of a break-up then and Nargis signing an outside banner sealed the deal.

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“Raj Kapoor was a romantic showman. My father was a dramatic showman. Nargis gave maximum hits with Raj Kapoor but they were all hero-based films. My father gave her feminist roles - Taqdeer, Andaz, Mother India. She was only 25 when she did Mother India,” said the late Iqbal Khan, Mehboob Khan’s son, to Filmfare in a rare interview.

While shooting Mother India, a fire broke out where co-star Sunil Dutt rescued Nargis. Later, they fell in love and wanted to get married. Mehboob asked them to wait for some time as their marriage could hamper the authenticity of their onscreen characters as mother and son.

Mother India won the Filmfare Awards for Best Film and Best Director. Nargis won the Best Actress Award at the Karlovy Vary Festival in Czechoslovakia (1958).

Mother India was India’s first submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958. It was chosen as one of the five nominations in the category. However, it was shown on a Saturday when the Academy members were not present in large numbers. Mehboob’s film lost out to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Caberia by a solitary vote, leaving the filmmaker in dismay.

The next day, when Mehboob was at Columbia Studios, 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. The historical romance was supposed to be a co-production with Mike Todd (of Around the World In Eight Days fame).

But after his return to India, Mehboob got busy with the ‘futuristic’ Son Of India (1962), which introduced the underworld for the first time in Hindi cinema. He cast Sajid Khan, the child actor in Mother India, as his hero. The film was a colossal flop and changed the trajectory of his life.

THE PERSON

Mehboob was a devout Muslim. For 40 years he regularly visited Khwaja Garib Nawaz’s shrine in Ajmer and had even built a bungalow there. He never touched alcohol. He loved cricket and would frequent Islam Gymkhana to watch the game. Though he had a Packard car, he didn’t like driving.

Mehboob married twice. With 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.

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The boys were awed by their father whom they addressed as ‘Bava’. Though strict with his sons he was soft towards his daughters. Iqbal claimed their relationship with their stepmother was pleasant. 

Well-connected and lively, Akhtar was always willing to help the children. In fact, when Iqbal underwent an appendicitis operation, he was sent to Akhtar’s home at Marine Drive to recover.

Nadira and Dilip Kumar in Aan
Nadira and Dilip Kumar in Aan

Sardar Akhtar even confided in Iqbal about husband Mehboob’s alleged proximity with Nadira during 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. He left your mother and married me and now he’s friendly with her’,” shared Iqbal in an interview with Filmfare.

SAD SUNSET

Coming back to Mehboob’s final years, the failure of Son of India, wreaked havoc. Creditors would hound him all the time. 

He was told, “Picture kyon banate ho, jab paise nahin hai?”

Heartbroken and humiliated, Mehboob lamented that while he had helped many, no one came forward to help him in his troubled phase.

Mehboob died at 57 of a heart attack on 28 May, 1964. 

Just a day earlier, he was deeply disturbed by the demise of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – someone he looked up to for his ideals.

“My father had left behind a loan of Rs 28 lakh, a huge amount those days. We were left with no organisation, no money. We could not pay salaries to the staff. All his star friends had moved on… Maybe he died of disappointment. Maybe he died of debts,” confided Iqbal to Filmfare.

Before he passed away, Mehboob had asked his son to pay off the Rs 17 lakh that he owed Naushad as remuneration for Son Of India. The amount was apparently paid in instalments.

Things soured between Sardar Akhtar and Mehboob’s children as well. Their company underwent litigation as Akhtar demanded her share. “She was not like a stepmother but only till she wanted her share. She sent an ex parte receiver on the family, whereby every pot and pan in the house was noted down by the police. The hearings came up fast and she was kept the director of the company with all my brothers,” Iqbal said in the same interview.

Sardar Akhtar passed away on 2 October 1986, following a heart attack in New York City, US.

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Decades later, Shah Rukh Khan’s Om Shanti Om paid a tribute to Mehboob Khan by opening his film with the filmmaker’s signature lines, “Muddai lakh bura chahe to kya hota hai, wahi hota hai jo manzur-e-Khuda hota hai (recited by composer Rafique Ghazni).” 

Just proves, Mehboob Khan lives on in all those who dream and sell dreams…

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