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'Nobody likes a fat actress': Bollywood's body problem

Bollywood was a late adopter of the bizarrely narrow beauty standards that vex women worldwide. But sometime in the late '90s, perhaps with the arrival of Miss Worlds and miniskirts, everyone became a weight-hawk. The industry's Greek chorus trained its attention on thighs and midriffs and suddenly anyone who wasn't Karisma Kapoor, Shilpa Shetty or a former model was 'chubby'. To be thin has been part of a heroine's job description ever since.

Times are a-changin' ... but barely

Lately, we've been blessed with a number of female actors who do not possess the archetypal model's body, which, though rare in reality, is the norm on screen. Vidya Balan, Sonakshi Sinha, Parineeti Chopra and Huma Qureshi are all beautiful, talented and not twiggy, and they're all doing well. Their success has led some to believe we are witnessing a shift in the industry's understanding of beauty - but it's just not that simple.

They are constantly being congratulated on looking 'slimmer' and 'fitter', as though by aunts at a family wedding

The conversation around these women is still disproportionately about their weight. Even at its most polite, the press is preoccupied with the size and shape of their bodies relative to their last public appearance. They are constantly being congratulated on looking 'slimmer' and 'fitter', as though by aunts at a family wedding. It's as if nobody knows what to say to a woman who has a body and doesn't appear to be desperate to make it smaller.

The expectation that women in Bollywood must always be trying to lose weight is intact - what really counts is the way some women are responding to it.

For years, the idea that a leading lady ought to be reed thin went largely uncontested. All the top heroines - Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, Aishwariya Rai, Kareena Kapoor - seemed to be in a constant process of losing weight and unveiling newly shrunk bodies. The whole thing peaked when Kareena famously shaved herself down to a size zero.

Defeating the shame game

Then there was Vidya Balan. She arrived on the scene like a remedy, but quickly became a problem to be solved. The rough consensus: "terrific actor, must lose weight and get stylist". The scrutiny was so intense, Balan's confidence and career took a beating. But then, she decided not to play the shame game. She embraced her body, wore some gorgeous saris and proceeded to win four consecutive Filmfare awards.

What was revolutionary about Balan was that she refused to go on being shamed about her weight. She just did her job. And she did it so well as to render everything else irrelevant.

People have been talking about Sonakshi Sinha's weight as long as she's been around. Her response? To act in hit film after hit film, post selfie after stunning selfie, and declare she would never be a skeleton. Huma Qureshi, for her part, got on the cover of Femina to say she doesn't owe anyone 'perfection', and remains stuck like a thorn in the hearts of anyone who watched Gangs of Wasseypur or Dedh Ishqiya.

If there is the seed of body positivity in Bollywood, it is in these women refusing to apologise for the way they look, and being so successful as to make absurd the idea that they have anything to apologise for. They are the vanguard.

But there's still a long way to go.

Two steps forward, one step back

After her debut in YRF's small and wonderful Dum Lagake Haisha earlier this year, Bhumi Pednekar received a flurry of attention. But very little of it was in praise of her superb subtle performance. Most was a giddy fascination with how much thinner she was than her character Sandhya.

The expectation that women in Bollywood must always be trying to lose weight is intact

It seemed a great relief to people that Pednekar was not fat in real life. Which would imply that we can love a fat character, but, in the words of Parineeti Chopra, "nobody likes a fat actress." (Chopra, sadly, seems to have taken after Kareena rather than Balan.)

Of course, the semi-articulate gushing over Pednekar totally misses the point of Sandhya. The point of Sandhya is not that she is fat, but that, like Balan, Sinha and Qureshi, she refuses to be shamed into submission. The point, as her husband learns, is that no amount of taunts can diminish her utter competence.

The point is that her body is beside the point.

Devika Bakshi

Devika Bakshi @devikabakshi