Why Bollywood's obsession with waif-like actresses is especially troubling in India
Kareena Kapoor's photoshopped Vogue shoot and Karan Johar schooling Alia Bhatt about losing weight are recent examples of Bollywood's age old obsession with actresses slim and slender.
Karan Johar created a stir when he stated that he wants to apologize to protégé Alia Bhatt for making her obsess over her weight. He has a point. But he is not alone in doing this.
Those in power within the Indian film industry are obsessed with thin, waif like forms for leading ladies. They also consider over weight male actors a bit of a burden. Here is one reality of showbiz that is contrary to the reality of people on the street. The average Indian school going kid or the average Indian thirty something person tends to be well rounded. With nutrition transition in grains, a sedentary lifestyle, sitting jobs in one of the most over worked nations, and lesser playtime for kids, overweight is an Indian reality.
The counter argument to this is that cinema is about manufacturing reality, not necessarily mirroring it. Thin looks good on camera as the device automatically adds weight to a person. Fitter actors make the job easier and look pretty. It is a universal fixation, not limited to the Indian showbiz.
But the flipside of this is an obsession with being thin that has overtaken identities of heroines in Hindi cinema. By no measure, is this trend healthy. Let us park the debate around role models and unhealthy, extreme diets. The bigger question here is of self-esteem.
Scrutiny is many times higher on the women in film than on men. Having tracked celebrities for some time, observations of how a female actor’s weight plays on people’s minds all the time, strike me. Sitting in a meeting with a reigning female star while she was having dinner, I could not help notice how executives from a company (she endorses) and her own representatives kept stealing glances at her plate. While the actor effortlessly heaped portions of greens, steamed proteins and a tasty fruit based dessert on her plate, discussions (centered on work) would automatically pause. When she reached out for a second helping, one could hear gasps in the room. The actor continued nonchalantly with the conversation, sipping on coffee post dinner. But everyone around her continued to struggle to tally her waif like form with her appetite. Imagine the impact scrutiny from such close quarters can have on a young girl.
The scrutiny that this heroine faced is fairly common and has impacted how these beautiful, successful young women feel about themselves. Setting a change in thinking, Anushka Sharma has said that she chose to get treated for anxiety disorder and owns the fact that she dealt with this. A few others have spoken in public about their own battles with weight. Ileana D’Cruz has also spoken about her own battle with perception. Despite being super thin, Ileana felt fat at one stage, given constant judgment on how she looks. Huma Querishi owns her curvy figure. Nargis Fakhri has gone on record that she will not ever gain weight for a part and recently, at an awards show, was grumbling about gaining a few kilos.
Parineeti Chopra, whose acting potential was applauded right from her first film and was applauded, went through a truly discomfiting phase of sparring with the media when she had gained weight. Svelte, slim and disciplined about her diet and exercise, Parineeti has managed to reverse this but the press that put her through the acid test has not ever acknowledged the uncomfortable situation that it built around her weight. All they could see was a fat girl. For one who is just 25, this can impact their personal image harshly.
Being thin, therefore, is top priority and an inescapable reality for all female actors all the time. Kareena Kapoor Khan, who has lived out her pregnancy, motherhood and maternal bliss in paparazzi glare with ease, has recently done a photo-shoot for Vogue magazine. It features her in designer beachwear, making her look like a million bucks with focus on her fit, slender form. Twitter slander apart, one wonders if the focus, instead, should just have been on the natural maturing and changes to a woman’s body undergoes after motherhood. It is also a bit ironical given the fact that Kareena has sworn off size zero since her super slim look for Tashan, a big budget film that put her through the wringer to gain a perfectly flat stomach. Celebrating life after motherhood — visually and through a cover story — could have set Kareena apart as progressive. Instead, top marks were awarded for her figure here.
At least, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan did not succumb to the temptation of going thin in a rush. She endured nasty criticism in India from the press. One recalls an Internet news video of a Hindi news channel where sounds of an elephant’s trumpet were superimposed on Ash’s post delivery images. The world’s most beautiful woman was knocked off the pedestal with crude glee by a large section of mainstream Indian media, and also on social media. Ash wore her weight with élan at Cannes that year, to much applause from the Western press which has warned of ultra thin new mommies and the health hazards they suffer, only to be completely ignored by both celebrities and their readership. Having been in the UK during that year, one recalls the praise British media heaped on her for chutzpah. Now that Ash has regained fitness, and her stunning self in a manner that befits a 40 plus mother, one hears no apologies for the humiliation heaped on her. That she stood her ground on being a mother sets her apart.
Calling out the ‘fat’ actor is a near ritualistic practice for the press, and those responsible are the honchos of media outlets. It is the foot soldiers who need to the dirty work — like asking Vidya Balan, India’s finest actor today (across genders), after she won an award if she would want to lose weight to get a glamorous part. Vidya’s retort was smart — "Change your mindset, I am happy with my weight and roles and don’t need to change that". But that a Vidya has had to take on this kind of cheeky humiliation time and again is a reflection of how the Indian media discourse perceives an overweight actor.
The strongest counter to this is taking a good look around. Longevity and consistency remain the perfect litmus tests for female actors worldwide. Those who lasted it out or built super careers beyond acting are Not necessarily thin. Look at Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep or here at home, Shabana Azmi. They look normal and are not reed thin. Amongst the current actors, Vidya has company in Tabu, an actor who keeps stunning us with each new performance. So beyond the beauty myth, lies a reality of genuine talent and effort winning the long race.
I do recall Alia lunching over an interview and she did eat well. She has publicly committed to Rujuta Dwivekar, a celebrity dietitican who recommends balanced eating. Subsequently, on the same day, a celebrity fitness trainer mentioned that two leading heroines were now working out at all hours, including post midnight, to look their best they had to, just to ensure they survive. It was rather upsetting, the thought of pumping iron at that hour! But that is just how it is for some in Bollywood. Fortunately, Bhatt is a powerhouse of talent and willing to take risks as an actor. She must focus on the bigger picture — for the weight won’t matter when her body of films stands tall amongst contemporaries in the future.
Flashback: On Saeed Jaffrey's birth anniversary, remembering his jovial character Lalan Miyan from Sai Paranjpye's Chashme Buddoor
Saeed’s laughter preceded his presence wherever he went. It is for that laughter vivacity and the joie de vivre that we would like to remember Saeed Jaffrey
"Ain't no place for shady rumours," wrote Arjun Kapoor.
Aamir Khan’s words in 2015 about the safety of his children now reverberate across the entertainment industry, thanks to the Aryan Khan case.