Zubeidaa (2001) – The Fairy Tale That Probably Was

I think this was the first Indian Art House film that I watched as well as the first time I was introduced to Karisma Kapoor and Rekha as well as another wave of love for A. R. Rahman’s music since he did the soundtrack, which is full of underrated classics.


Since the movie tells the story of Zubeida Begum, a real person, there is no summary, but I will write up her life in here as best as I can as there is little information to be found, in English, that is. The timeline and all the facts, like the Maharaja’s political facts aren’t presented here for the sake of Zubeida’s own narrative. So click on the various links after reading this for more information, or just more detailed facts that I couldn’t streamline here.

And the only direct link with more info than Wikipedia I can attribute are: https://nettv4u.com/celebrity/hindi/movie-actress/zubeida-begum https://web.archive.org/web/20130825024650/http://www.maharajajodhpur.com/hh/hist_hanwant.htm

It also doesn’t help that the woman considered Indian’s first silent film (and later talkies) actress Zuibeida Begum Dhanrajgir or just “Zubeida” shares her name, but did not share her life story with Zubeida Begum. One can easily say that Zuibeida Begum Dhanrajgir had the life that Zubeida Begum never had, being a successful actress, already being the daughter of a Nawab and lived a long life and was presumably happy. All the things Zubeida Begum herself lacked in her life later on.

Zubeida Begum was an Indian film actress who never was in any role except the one about her life. Born to a middle-class Muslim family in Bombay, with her father Shri Kasembhai Mehta, a businessman, and her mother Faiza Bai, a singer. There are only pictures of her and there are no recorded songs of hers of the movies she was so the “actress” part can be disputed, but either those films are lost or she took part in movies, but her parts were so small they can’t be found. Either way she certainly must have had a part on the process of Indian film in the early 1940s either in the chorus, or as the film shows lip-synching to a song in a movie as an so called “Item Girl” of that period.

Her father was a stern man and prohibited her acting. And got her married to a suitable man, the marriage was unhappy and she gave birth to a son named Khalid Mohamed. The divorce came some time after the Partition.

Then in to her life came Maharaja Hanwant Singh Rathore, King of Jodhpur. The two were madly in love and wanted to marry, she was 22-24 and he was 25-27 in 1947-1949 when they perhaps might have met for the first time, the timeline’s a bit fuzzy. There though was the opposition of religious as well as class differences. She was an actress, divorcee and Muslim. Everything society opposed, especially since Hanwant Singh Rathore was royalty and Hindu.

He was also already married to Maharani Krishna Kumari whom he had married in 1943 when they were both very young, she was a child-bride of 16 years and he was 20. They had one newborn son and two daughters. It was an arranged marriage as its custom, even more so for royals. In 1947 he inherited his father’s position as King of Jodhpur. He had been married twice already with having a brief fling with a 19-year old Scottish nurse Sarah McBryde whom he married and would quickly divorce as the relationship turned tempestuous, wether this was when he was still a prince or when he first became Maharaja I have no idea. Looking at the timeline it is the classic case of “I am now in my father’s old position, now I can go find happiness for myself without anyone chastising me!” attitude. He also loved playing Polo and was anti-British from the first (as were 98% of all Indians).

(The real Maharaja Hanwant Singh Rathore with his two daughters and Maharani Krishna Kumari)

Needless to say it was quite a scandal, but only for the reasons I already listed, not that he would marry Zubeida and to have her as his second wife, and by society’s standards his Mistress. Polygamy was a practice that is long in both Hindu and Muslim households, though now it is outlawed and illegal in in India since 1956 for all except Muslim’s and Hindu’s living in Goa, a couple of years after the events of all this took place. But the law didn’t much help, a slap on the wrist maybe and a few frowning looks from society, because it wasn’t enforced in any religion, but it’s certainly not common now-a-days and no one would openly take a second wife at this day and age.

Zubeida chose to convert to Hinduism first. According to eyewitness Brijraj Arya, who was part of the conversion ceremony December 17 1950 in Beawar, Rajasthan:

“Brijraj Arya remembers her as a stunning beauty who came freshly-baked and attired in Ghangra and lehenga. The ceremony was performed by Pandit Vrihaspati. The ceremony was organised in secrecy by pehlwan Nanak Ram. Beawar was chosen purposefully as it was under the direct control of Centre after Independence.”

Source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/70458.cms?

So Zubeida and Hanwant Singh Rathore married according to Hindu customs in 1950. They were immediately disowned for this “love marriage” and moved from Umaid Bhawan Singh palace to live on their own in Mehrangarh or Mehran Fort. Both are in Jodhpur, so not exactly running away to a new life, rather more like moving away from your parents house to another house owned by the family. But the distance is still a statement to itself.

(Left: Umaid Bhawan Singh palace; Right: Mehrangarh or Mehran Fort. Fun Fact! The former is partly a hotel now and the latter has been used in various films, Indian and Western, as a set)

We don’t know much more about Zubeida after that, other than that she most likely loved her husband and they were happy together. They even had a son, Rao Raja Hukum Singh or “Tutu” in 1951. India though was changing around them and Hanwant Singh Rathore had political ambitions and overtakes the story of Zubeida in their lives’ narrative, which like it everything it seemed, was shared.

In 1952 he formed a political party named Akhil Bhartiya Ramrajya Parishad in the newly formed state of Rajasthan and was a favourite to win in the Indian State and Assembly elections scheduled for February 1952. But tragically, in the early morning hours of January 26, with only four hours of sleep; he and Zubeida took a flight on their own aircraft. The plane crashed in Godwar, Rajasthan. Both died that day.



(The present day Royal Family of Jodhpur)

Hanwant Singh Rathore’s children from his first marriage married royals and continued the family lineage.

Maharani Krishna Kumari dedicated her life to girl’s and women’s education and has done many charitable work in Jodhpur. She was regent before her son became of age. She died in 2018.

His son Gaj Singh became the next Maharaja of Jodhpur. Was educated in Eton and studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He went in to politics and served in Indian Parliament. In 1970 he returned home to take on the full responsibility of his title, but in a year the privy purses of the former Maharaja’s were abolished. 1973 he married Hemalata Rajye, daughter of the Raja of Poonch, Kashmir and also married Princess Nalini Rajya Lakshmi Devi, daughter of King Tribhuwan Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal. They have a son and a daughter. Gas Singh still serves today as Maharaja and celebrated his Golden Jubilee in 2002.

There are little facts about Sailesh Kumari, his daughter, except that she married to Banswara. Presumably the royal family. Otherwise it seems she is very private in her life.

His other daughter, Chandresh Kumari Katoch, was educated in the University of Jodhpur. Later she married Aditya Katoch of the royal family of Kangra and has a daughter. Her life has been more political, being part of Indian National Congress Party and has been a Member of Parliament (1984-1989 and 2009-2014) and Minister of Culture (2012-2014).

Zubeida’s and his son Tutu was brought up by the Rajmata of Jodhpur. He went to study in Mayo College in Ajmer. He married Rao Rani Rajeshwari Kumari Rathore, daughter of Rao Raja Daljit Singh of Alwar and had a son and a daughter. In 1981 he was found beheaded in the streets of Jodhpur.




This movie was co-written by Zubeida’s son from her first marriage, Khalid Mohamed who is a journalist, film critic, director and writer, and the films is honest about it in its own way. Its premise is what I imagine must have been like when researching for the film. A son looking for fragments of his long lost mother, listening to eyewitness stories and seeing how willing others are about speaking to her, while there are those that deny her existence.

That fact makes this film a love letter and an adult’s rationalisation of events that are beyond his control, while still sympathising with real people that are inherently flawed and not idealising them, but still understanding their situation. In other words, investigative journalism.

This story is as much based on the real Zubeida Begum as Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) was based on Maruthur Gopala Ramachandran (M. G. R.) and Muthuvel Karunanidhi. Thinly disguised events, but also possibilities of her life that must have occurred at some point or are made up for dramatic effect. The film dots a fine line with it, changing names of places and people, conducing events to a shorter time period and glossing over and omitting certain facts to tell a good story.

And what a story it is! Instead of things seeming all lovey-dovey with Zubeidaa and the Maharaja as it looks like from the facts at least to me, like moving away to their own palace, but I have no idea about what happened after so I might be completely wrong. In the film it looks at from a dramatic point of view of Zubeidaa accustoming herself to life at court while being throughly unfit to be in it and trying to break away from the restrictions of life with one rebellion after another.

Karisma Kapoor as Zubeidaa is a free spirit who keeps being locked up by society’s conventions, her family and later on royal protocol and the burden of being left alone while her husband is away. She is magnetic on screen with charisma and charm that makes you understand why the Maharaja fell in love with her. She has a rebellious streak and pushes against opposition to her freedom. Soon she becomes helpless and when asked for help is told to adjust and not cause any rifts that might upset the Maharaja. It is a sad thing in the end, the implication put on her, but we never see the confirmation of it, not visually.

The film also shows the perilous side of being the Second Wife or Junior Wife as its called in the movie. She only wants love and her husband, but when he is away she is subjugated to creeps in the family who see her as something she is not and she cannot tell, because all the blame would be put on her. This infuriates me because it should be the Royal Families responsibility to take care of such things, but they choose not to, just like in the future they ignore and forget instead of acknowledging their own faults in what happened and blame someone who was not prepared for this kind of life in the first place. Rant over.

Rekha as Maharani Mandira Devi is the dignified perfect householder and wife of the Royal Court. She is smart, classy as only Rekha can be and unlike what one first thinks she is not unhappy with the situation, merely jealous, which she keeps hidden way under a formal exterior. But there is room to interpret her help, or only the small parts of it, as a way to see Zubeidaa fail in the court. She had not properly explained to her and neither did her husband about what happens and what are the protocols of it.

Manoj Pajpayee as Maharaja Vijayendra Singh or “Victor” looks nothing like his real life counterpart, but he is charming enough of a prince that Zubeidaa would fall for. He pampers her, makes her feel loved, but when his ambition takes over he doesn’t say the right things anymore and doesn’t understand – or is unwilling to understand – the vulnerable position he has put Zubeidaa in. In the end when she screams that she is nothing but a toy to him we are conflicted, because there is certainly room for interpretation for it to go either way.

In the end this films might be the only lasting record of Zubeidaa except for her Wikipedia page and certain articles. Looking at some of the royal internet pages of Mawar it’s clear Zubeida is erased from the narrative completely. Making it clear that the collective amnesia shown in the movie is true to life. It is sad when a person can be so erased from memory and who we cannot pin to either the good side or bad, since everyone to a degree are shades of grey both in life and in the film.

The best we can do is to remember her. Her son Khalid Mohamed is now planning a sequel to Zubeidaa, this time about Tutu and his mysterious murder that hasn’t been solved, or more accurately is not one everyone wants to solve. Maybe we will get a movie at some point, maybe a play, or a book. But as the Royal Family of Jodhpur is determined to forget Zubeidaa, erase her from history, then her son’s work and remembering this movie and her is the only way to keep her memory alive for generations to come. My only hope is that this review will keep her memory alive somehow, even a little, because it’s the only thing I can do.

Link to Khalid Mohamed’s article about the sequel below:


Thank you for reading! 

5 thoughts on “Zubeidaa (2001) – The Fairy Tale That Probably Was

  1. क्या जुबेदा पर कोई पुस्तक हिंदी मे मार्केट या अमेजन पर उपलब्ध है


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