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Why Are We So Fascinated By Tragic Lives Of Beautiful Women?

Some time ago, Imtiaz Ali and Hansal Mehta respectively spoke of biopics of Madhubala and Meena Kumari. But do these biopics do justice to these women?

I recently came across a Reddit thread that discussed the fact that filmmaker Imtiaz Ali had announced making a biopic of Madhubala, and I wanted to explore this a little.

Of late, biopics based on the lives of beautiful but fatefully tragic women such as Lady Diana and Marilyn Monroe have created waves. Closer at home, we hear about the possibilities of biopics being made on the lives of Meena Kumari and Madhubala as well. These were hugely famous, stunningly beautiful women who were the heartthrobs of millions; who died tragically young.

Recent biopics

Image source: Blonde trailer, Marilyn Monroe biopic

There has been a slew of biopics on beloved personalities such as Lady Diana and Marilyn Monroe just in the past year or so. The Netflix movie Blonde was the sensational fictionalised account of the Hollywood diva.

Image source: Spencer trailer, based on Princess Diana

Spencer similarly claims to tell us the story of Lady Diana. These are far from the only narratives spun round these famous women; other series and movies have done the same over the years.

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Biopics of Madhubala, Meena Kumari in the works?

Industry insiders have, from time to time announced biopics based on the stunningly beautiful, but ultimately tragic queens of the Bollywood silver screen as well. Earlier there had been talks of Imtiaz Ali doing a biopic on Madhubala but that fell through because of unwillingness of part of some among the actor’s family. Last year, it was reported that the biopic would go ahead with other filmmakers.

Image source

It was also reported that Hansal Mehta would be making a biopic on Meena Kumari, possibly with Kriti Sanon playing the titular character.

The voyeuristic almost salacious gaze

Image source

These are far from the only famous, tragic women whose stories have been told and retold; there are many more. What is common among them is that these were famous, beautiful women adored by countless people. They all died young. Meena Kumari died at 38, Madhubala at 36. Lady Diana and Marilyn Monroe both died at the age of 36.

These women also led tragic lives. Physical and/or mental illnesses, substance abuse, abusive relationships seemed to plague their lives. In the event, the portrayals of these women tend to focus largely on those aspects of their lives. It is as though the filmmakers are catering to the voyeuristic gaze of the film going public by focusing more on the salacious aspects of these stories.

Where is the woman in the narrative?

Image source

The narratives tend to be highly exploitative as in the case of Blonde, which dwelt excessively on sexual violence, domestic abuse, and was unnecessarily graphic visually, many commentators have said. Similarly, all narratives of Diana have focused on her eating disorders, unhappy marriage and the difficult relationship she had with the Royal family.

The narratives also tend to be very reductive. We don’t often hear about the fact that Meena Kumari was an accomplished poetess for instance. Marilyn was the blonde bombshell desired by countless men we are told. What of the fact that she was also a very intelligent woman? According to some sources she had a genius level IQ, but all we know is that she was a sex symbol, was miserable, and that she killed herself (or was murdered as some biographers insist).

The female characters of Imtiaz Ali who first spoke of a Madhubala biopic are often problematic

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Imtiaz Ali was one of the filmmakers earlier in talks to make a biopic on Madhubala. The fact that it fell through is neither here nor there. Ali’s previous portrayals of women have been problematic where they appear to be a foil for the man-child (Rockstar), damaged man (Highway and Tamasha) commitment-phobe (Love Aaj Kal) and so on. Bollywood handling these stories, seems fraught with peril.

How about a biopic that takes an empathetic look at the women themselves, their dreams, and their motivations? How about looking at a Madhubala not as someone with a fatal illness or a love affair gone wrong, or a Meena Kumari as having a substance abuse problem? How about going beyond the obvious to the superficial to the actual woman, her talents, her aspirations… to what made her happy rather than what made her want to kill herself?

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