Courage Under Fire

The Golden Girl of yesteryears, Mumtaz, sill shines bright despite the trauma of cancer.

"Whenever you pray, pray for me." Tears threaten to spill down the once-beautiful face of Hindi cinema. One can’t believe that the woman in question is yesteryears star Mumtaz. It takes a while to accept the fact she’s the same glamorous actress, now she’s recovering from breast cancer.

To the Iranian Born

Mumtaz was born to Iranian parents. Her mother Sardar Begum Habib Agha came from a moneyed family, but married the middle class Abdul Sameed Askari who sold dry fruits in Mumbai. They had two daughters – Mumtaz, the younger one was born on July 31, 1947. But the marriage didn’t last and Mumtaz’s parents separated soon after her first birthday. Little Mumtaz soon had two families – her parents remarried, and she had two stepbrothers. In fact, Mumtaz and Ali (her stepbrother in Hyderabad) resemble each other – having inherited their looks and upturned noses from their paternal grandmother.

Starry Nights

As a child, Mumtaz was fascinated by the arclights and would often visit the film studios near her house. Producer-director O. P. Ralhan noticed her when she was barely 12 years old, and offered her a role in his movie Gehra Daag. However, life was not all lights, camera, and action for Mumtaz. She lost her mother at the age of 16 and was forced to take up acting as a career as she was the only earning member of the family, But Mumtaz loved the heat and dust of cinema, and never regretted leaving her education to become an actress. "The best period of my life was when I was a part of the Hindi cinema. I loved every bit of it, and given a choice, I would love to go back to that phase," she says.

Mumtaz entered the competitive world of big league films with Do Raaste and Bandhan. She has acted with almost every hero of mainstream Hindi cinema – from Jeetendra in Himmat and Sanjay Khan in Mela, to Manoj Kumar and Sanjeeev Kumar. Mumtaz and Rajesh Khanna were one of the top pairs of yesteryears and gave the audience some memorable movies and songs. To quote Shobha De, "Mumtaz was in the Marilyn Monroe mould – every man’s fantasy woman. She is the kind of woman any man would want to pamper and bury in diamonds, silks, satins… She had a courtesan kind of charm. Absolutely top marks should go to the greatest sex symbol. She was cute, impish, and voluptuous. The way she used her body was so natural…"

Fairy Tales and Dreams

Mumtaz’s movie career of 12 years came to an end when she decided to marry Mayur Madhvani, an eligible bachelor at the time. The couple seemed to have found the perfect recipe for a dream marriage. It was a life of chateaux, limousines, solitaires and two gorgeous daughters, Natasha and Tanya.

Not the Perfect Wedding

The fairy tale almost had a tragic end when Mayur fell in love with another woman. Suddenly, the princess was left alone in her golden cage with her pretty daughters. "I wanted a divorce, but he did not want one. He claimed to love me and would talk about being able to love two persons," recalls Mumtaz, "I fail to understand this as I can love only one man. He may keep in a palace or slum that doesn’t matter. I can even sweep and clean for him. I will do anything for love…"

Mayur faced a lot of flak when the news of his affair filtered out. People began questioning his motives for marrying Mumtaz; was it only for her looks and glamour?

But Mumtaz is quick to come to his defence. "Mayur is not a flirt or a womaniser, he just fell in love one more time," she asserts. "But I have my children and Mayur has never kept me wanting on any front, he has been there whenever I needed him," she says.

C for Cancer

Circa September 2000, it all began with a lump, which turned out to be malignant. But Mumtaz always had the courage to face the truth. So it was not tears, but a quite determination with which she helped her daughters deal with her illness. "I told them to accept it. What happens to others can happen to us as well," she says. Natasha, Tanya and Mayur supported her in those trying times. She recalls, "Mayur thought I was a goner. It suddenly hit him that I could die. He has been wonderful and by my side all the time in hospital.

Bold and Beautiful

In the past year, Mumtaz has had to undergo three surgeries. Friends who visited her before she went for chemotherapy were amazed at her grit. Pamms, a friend, says, "She was so matter-of-fact, so accepting and so cool. She smiled and told us that she was prepared for the treatment and was well aware of the side effects like hair loss and bloating."

As Mumtaz says, "Cancer, like any other major disease, is a setback in life, but it has to be dealt with." And she carried on with life. She loves to cook and has always cooked for herself and the girls. "I don’t like cooks. My mother used to say that a woman who can’t cook is not a homemaker. I grew up with that mind set and find cooks to be a nuisance. Moreover, to arrange their food in a country like England is more of a problem than cooking," she smiles.

For someone who always had soft hair draped around her shoulders, Mumtaz today has scanty hair after chemotherapy. "I feel naked with this crew cut like growth," she says. But she is neither a hypocrite nor one to hide behind wigs. "I hate double standards and pretences," she asserts, "Whatever is, is." And it was Mayur who held her hand through this traumatic time. She had no eyebrows, no eyelashes and no hair. "I will never forget that he would hold me like a child and call me the most beautiful woman. I know what I must have looked like, but he made me feel beautiful," she recalls.

But that was not all. Then came the thyroid problem, "The chemotherapy upset the gland and I bloated like a balloon. People would not recognise me," says Mumtaz, But I am not the one to give up. Medicines, diet control and regular exercise are helping me get back into shape. I am not looking for excuses – pain, low feelings, nothing can keep me from respecting my body while I am alive. To keep my sanity, I am also staying away from hurt and people who cause it. A happy mind helps me in my motto to lead a beautiful life."

A candid soul despite all the emotional and physical upheavals, she philosophises, "as you grow old, you realise nothing makes a difference. My life has been a open book. I am not ashamed of anything, so what is there to hide."

Teena Singh in Legend Section of Femina, October 15, 2001

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