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Saturday, December 03 2022
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Art beyond boundaries: Changing Indian theatre’s ‘Big Fat’ problem

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, at the top floor of a pistachio-green house in a quiet south Bengaluru neighbourhood, a small group of actors assembled in a brick-walled space.

Over the next hour, in front of an audience of a few friends and acquaintances, members of the group performed monologues and short skits in Kannada and English about the challenges of fitting in and their complicated relationship with food. One man struggled to break free from a vocal chorus that urged him to change everything about himself. A woman battled the contradictory voices of her conscience, played by two other actors, while attempting to enjoy a spoonful of chocolate ice cream.

This was a “sharing session” of Bengaluru’s recently established Big Fat Company, where each actor involved is plus-sized. The theatre company is the brainchild of Anuradha HR, a corporate trainer-turned-theatre professional. The 39-year-old envisioned it as a way to create opportunities for plus-sized actors like herself who were tired of being pigeonholed into specific roles owing to their physique.

“Either we were always maidservants or mothers-in-law, or [played] the comic element,” she told Quartz. “So as actors, we didn’t find anything challenging. And for me, personally, it was quite frustrating to just keep doing the same kind of role.”

Besides being typecast, there was also the lack of individual attention from directors who were far more likely to lavish praise or helpful advice on the stars of the show. So, in September, Anuradha brought together a number of plus-sized professional actors for a series of workshop sessions, led by dancer and performance artiste Shabari Rao, as a way to address the aesthetics of casting in India’s theatre scene.

“Say somebody takes up Macbeth as a performance,” Anuradha said Nowhere has Shakespeare said that Lady Macbeth is slim and pretty, but the director would typically cast a slim Lady Macbeth.”

She cited Hamlet, where the prince of Denmark was similarly usually played by someone in good shape, while the role of his father could be assigned to a plus-sized actor.

“Those stereotypes of linking a character to a particular physique is something that we want to question,” she explained. The Big Fat Company is currently raising funds to put on its first performance in December.

The fury of fat-shaming

Stereotypes abound across India’s entertainment industry, notably in Bollywood movies and television serials, where the starring roles almost always go to actors and actresses who adhere to society’s strict beauty norms: typically, to those who are thin and light-skinned. For decades, male and female plus-sized actors have been relegated to secondary and often demeaning roles, playing the dimwitted or food-obsessed sidekick, for instance. Moreover, body shaming on screen and off screen is cruelly commonplace, and has targeted curvy actresses such as Vidya Balan and Sonakshi Sinha over the years.

Of late, though, there have been some encouraging signs of acceptance, notably in the fashion industry. Since 2016, Lakme Fashion Week has presented plus-size fashion shows, and a number of brands are slowly waking up to the needs of plus-sized shoppers. Besides dedicated plus-size retailers such as Mustard and aLL, and the plus-sized collections at chains like Westside, e-commerce websites such as Amazon and Myntra are also offering clothing in larger sizes. There is also a growing crop of plus-sized fashion bloggers, such as Ragini Nag Rao and Tanesha Awasthi, who are proving that you don’t need to be skinny to be stylish.

For all this body positivity, however, the ordinary plus-sized person in India continues to battle unwanted opinions, disparaging remarks, and worse, which the actors of the Big Fat Company have all experienced.

At the end of Sunday’s session, the group sat in a semi-circle before the audience and embarked upon a freewheeling discussion about being plus-sized in India. They touched on issues such as dealing with doctors who blame every health problem on their weight (before even conducting an examination) and the perennial struggle to find affordable, trendy clothing that fits. The actors also talked about the growing pressure on young Indian kids to have the perfect body, as dictated by social media. This extends to adults, too, and partially explains the booming business of fitness in Bengaluru, and the explosion of gyms across the city. Altogether, the session highlighted what it’s like to be treated as a joke, or a problem to be solved, and being often derisively asked to just stop eating.

This kind of body-shaming exists in the west, too. But the rise of plus-models such as Ashley Graham and actresses like Melissa McCarthy and Chrissy Metz (from the show This is Us) has at least put diverse body types in starring roles and on the covers of magazines. In India, that kind of visibility and increasing normalisation of plus-sized bodies is still largely unimaginable for now.

“Here the formula system is working so well, so they would not want to do anything to challenge the formula,” Anuradha said, referring to the norms of India’s entertainment industry, which continues to put thin actors front and centre. “In India, I think there’s still a long way to go.”

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