Since 1851, obituaries in the New York Times have been dominated by white men, according to the publication, which is now paying homage to 15 remarkable women, one of whom is Indian actress Madhubala.
On International Women’s Day March 8, The New York Times launched “Overlooked,” a project to write the obituaries of the women who “left indelible marks but were nonetheless overlooked.”
“Overlooked” will continue into 2018, expanding to include others who were overlooked – especially people of color and women – with new obituaries published every week. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a “stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers,” it writes.
Madhubala is the only Indian featured in the series, which includes Chinese revolutionary and feminist poet Qiu Jin, photographer Diane Arbus, transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson, and poet Sylvia Plath.
Written by Aisha Khan, the tribute, with the title, “A Bollywood legend whose tragic life mirrored Marilyn Monroe’s,” paints Madhubala as a tragic figure in Indian cinema, whose life ended at the age of 36 because of an incurable heart condition.
Khan describes Madhubala, who died 20 years after starring in the film, “Mahal,” which made her a superstar overnight, “as an icon of beauty and tragedy — her dazzling career, unhappy love life and fatal illness more dramatic than any movie she starred in.”
The actress’ dreamy eyes, vivacious smile and mischievous laughter gave her a girl-next-door appeal, notes Khan, adding that unlike other actresses of her time, she wasn’t typecast. “Her natural, understated acting style brought her equal success in serious social dramas like ‘Amar’ (Eternal) and in lighthearted comedies and period pieces.”
Madhubala, who began her acting career at the age of nine, went on to feature in timeless classics such as “Amar,” “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi,” “Mughal-e-Azam” and “Barsaat Ki Raat.”
Khan notes that Madhubala’s movies were also hits abroad, even in faraway places like Greece, but the actress’ acting skills were underappreciated and she never won any awards, even for her biggest hits.
The obituary, along with her films and stardom, also captures her failed romance with legendary actor Dilip Kumar.
“They had been eager to marry, but Madhubala’s father had set conditions, including that they star in movies he would produce,” Khan writes. “Kumar demanded that she choose between him and her father. She chose her family. An ugly lawsuit over another movie hastened their breakup.”
She later married actor/singer Kishore Kumar, and while their on-screen pairing was cinema gold, offscreen the two were quickly estranged.
Madhubala died Feb. 23, 1969, just nine days after her 36th birthday. She spent her last years at home, out of the public eye.
The tribute ends with highlighting Madhubala’s desire to live. In her final days, according to her sister, Madhubala would say: “I want to live. Please God, let me live.”