Book Review 'Fifty films that changed bollywood: Bollywood films and body images'

Even as the idea of the ideal keeps shifting and changing, some things have remained rock steady.

From the chapter Dum Laga ke Haisha

The connection between cinema and the creation-and-perception of body image is both complex and fascinating. The notion of what constitutes beauty, and how it resides in the eye of the beholder, has been a conduit in the movies, which reflect, impact and shape those ideas: what is ideal, and even more intriguingly, what is not.

Even as the idea of “the ideal” keeps shifting and changing, some things have remained rock steady. Anything out of the “norm” is usually included in the plot only to be mocked and ridiculed, to provide us cheap, low-rent laughs. Too short, too tall, too dark (not too fair, there is no such thing as being “too fair”, or I dare say, too thin) are all considered aberrations, and the camera being trained on any character with any of these characteristics is the cue for us to smirk and snigger.

Being fat, or its politically correct usage, overweight, is right on top of that totem pole: you show us a person in a fat suit, and we are conditioned to laugh, becoming instantly unable to make the distinction between the person and the layers of latex they are encased in. They become the latex.

Why Dum Laga Ke Haisha is such a path-breaker is that it presents a leading lady, Bhumi Pednekar, who wears her weight with grace, who is aware of it and yet doesn’t feel the need to apologise for it, and who is not made to submit to the ministrations of a beautician or a dietician for a makeover.

She doesn’t lose oodles of weight in order to swap her very middle-class “sari-and-bindi” aesthetic (which adds immensely to the authenticity of the character and which fits the milieu) for a short skirt. She doesn’t, in other words, become “ramp ready” so that her newly-acquired spouse, who is behaving more like a spoilt, entitled brat, will begin to look at her differently.

As an aside, it must be noted that only because the leading man is not confined to the “tall dark handsome singing-dancing-fighting-romancing” tiresome template of the Bollywood hero, is his partner accorded some leeway. Ayushmann Khurrana does a good job of playing the petulant class 12 pass out fellow who thinks that his bride should be an “apsara” (angel), regardless of his worth. He is male, and therefore entitled to the best.

I’ve always maintained that unless the Bollywood hero changes, we can’t really expect the Bollywood heroine to change. Because themes and budgets and plots all flow from the hero: director-writer Sharat Katariya rescues and refashions both the leads (we can’t really call them “hero and heroine”, and that’s all to the good) and gives us people we can relate to.

The “Fat is equal to Funny” equation predates cinema: films just amplified the quality and the feeling. Comedians and clowns were the better for being a little heavy around the middle; the weightier they were, in fact, the easier it was to rustle up a laugh. When you put “fat female actor” and “Bollywood” together, almost everyone who knows anything about Hindi cinema will come up with Tun Tun’s name, a comedienne very popular from the late 1950s to the early ’80s, especially in the middle decades of the ’60s and ’70s. Her original name was the far more prosaic Uma Devi, and she made a mark in Bombay cinema as a singer (‘Afsana likh rahi hoon dil-e-beqarar ka’ is still remembered with a great deal of affection), but had to switch to comic roles, with a change in name. Leading ladies could not, of course, be overweight. They could, and were, voluptuous. They had to be buxom. They had to be well-endowed. But, they had to have a “patli kamar” (narrow waist). A tummy was an absolute no-no.

The gym-toned body, which started rolling off the assembly lines got a huge fillip after two Indian models, Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai, won two top beauty pageants, and then made a swift transition to Bollywood. This was not the first time that this had happened: the late ’60s and early ’70s had seen the first crossovers of this kind. From Persis Khambatta to Zeenat Aman to Parveen Babi, the ramp had led to Hindi cinema. But, it was only after Sen and Rai won the Miss World and Miss Universe crowns respectively did the floodgates open.

The difference between then and now is significant: despite their popularity, Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi were never able to shake off their model tags, despite the former trying to pass off as a village belle in Satyam Shivam Sundaram and the latter appearing on the cover of Time magazine as the representative face of Bollywood. They were completely comfortable with their bodies as befits experienced models, but they just could not speak Hindi well enough, and were never in any real contention for the “desi” “sari-clad” good-girl roles which went to Hema Malini and her ilk.

As opposed to the Aman and the Babi, Sen and Rai were considered much more “Indian” and managed to get into leading lady roles much faster. But by then the damage had been done: to be a “heroine” you had to be “bikini-ready”, with not an ounce of extra flesh. Which is why it was so ironical and yet completely fitting that the studio which stood for Bollywood romance, and set the bar on just how thin leading ladies should be (Kareena’s Tashan is a Yash Raj Films production), turned everything on its head with Dum Laga Ke Haisha, and its plus-plus-sized, heart-warmingly real leading lady.

Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) sports honest-to-goodness adipose. She wears saris which look as if they have come from street-side shops. She wears blouses which cover front and back, not barely-there strings. She wants her new husband to like her, as a first step perhaps to something more, something deeper, something like love, but will not become someone who she is not to that end. Sandhya, also a Yash Raj creation, is a miracle. I literally caught myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief when she first appears, and found myself grinning widely right through the movie: the film and its leading lady carry its excess weight with aplomb and flair. Has there been a post-Sandhya dumping of constructed designer bods sporting designer threads passing off as Bollywood heroines? Of course not. It will be a long, slow crawl. Bollywood makes haste slowly. But that first crucial step has been taken.

Excerpted with permission from Fifty films that changed Bollywood by Shubhra Gupta, published by Harper Collins

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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