By Pooja Das Sarkar Mar. 08, 2018
Back in the ’90s, Bollywood actresses had bodies that were whole, full, and jutting out in parts. At that time, we could be them and they could be us. But the perfectly crafted bodies of younger actresses have stripped us of that joy.
One of the first few points of discussion around Sridevi, is the issue of body image and beauty. It feels a bit unfair to take apart and scrutinise the specifics of her personal life and choices, especially since her life and work brought us so much joy. But in this noise, one aspect has gone completely unexamined here – how women’s bodies in real life and those in Bollywood are connected.
Actors from the South of India, who made their entry in Hindi cinema as dancers are women we have grown up watching. We’ve admired Vyjayanthimala’s voluptuous dancer’s body, Hema Malini’s curvy hips, and Sridevi’s love handles on multiple Sunday reruns on TV. Then there is Rekha’s earlier plump avatar and Vidya Balan’s revolutionary stomach folds in Dirty Picture to her perfectly rounded “homely” body in Tumhari Sulu.
There is Madhuri too, who made us feel good about having ample breasts and a round derrière (although didi’s extra AF deewana devars can keep their hands to themselves). We also had Tabu singing “Ruk Ruk Ruk” in those high-waisted jeans and tucked-in T-shirt. Kajol and Rani Mukherjee reigned in our adolescence and we, as teenagers in the nutty ’90s, did our own version of “Mere khwabon mein jo aaye” with towels clumsily wrapped around us.
We could be them… because they could be us.
We would shamelessly imitate the designs of their blouses and salwar kameez in our own lives, with a wedding or a Durga Pujo pandal to attend.
Their bodies were real and fantastic at the same time. They had what you would now perhaps mockingly call an “Indian” body – a body that is not ashamed of being whole, full, and jutting out in parts. For today’s times, this body might not be “modern” enough, but we were okay with our leading ladies being “on the healthier side” and having realistic bodies. If anything, it only made them sexier and more relatable in our eyes.
They looked beautiful in their chiffon saris, filling out their backless cholis and tight-fitting salwar kameezes and gauzy gowns, even stodgy cardigans. We would shamelessly imitate the designs of their blouses and salwar kameez in our own lives, with a wedding or a Durga Pujo pandal to attend. When Madhuri wore chiffon dupattas and outfits in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, we would ask the tailor to copy the same designs. And we knew we would look good too, because just like them, we had curves and folds and handles and were “pleasantly plump” enough to carry off the said clothes.
What we did not anticipate is that, by the end of the ’90s, the acceptable size and shape of the body of women in cinema would also undergo a massive change. Did it start with Urmila’s new sexy avatar in Rangeela or with Karisma Kapoor’s sculpted look and gorgeous gym clothes in Dil Toh Pagal Hai?
I loved Karisma in that film – she was fiercely talented, competitive, and not afraid to tell the hero how she felt, even at the cost of humiliation and rejection. But she was the antithesis of the heroine, Maya (Madhuri Dixit). Maya was traditional, and in hindsight, a bit too nice and boring. But we lapped it all up as heteronormative #goals as our hormones raged and we sought attention from our local heartthrobs.
Then came the other Kapoor sister, who only added to our misery – Ms Kareena was perfectly healthy and normal-sized in her first film Refugee. But come Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, she resorted to make us all feel like unfit, unlovable bodies with her character Poo. By the time Tashan rolled around, zero was both the size of her waist and our collective morale.
Or was it the entrance of models, which changed the shape of our heroines? Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Priyanka Chopra and Bipasha Basu brought in a different body aesthetic to the screen. Shilpa Shetty has become a yoga guru and Katrina Kaif gives today’s actors their body goals. Even our beloved, relatable Kajol looks nothing like her previous self. With the clubbing of the fashion industry with Bollywood, our actresses not only act on the big screen, but have to constantly look good on TV appearances, on fashion show ramps, in advertisements and in social media with those perfect gym selfies.
The advent of social media and the Internet did something else too – it gave us other influences and a platform to discuss and critique the very things, which made us insecure. It brought in other stories – alternative images of women and perhaps a more open discussion about the choices of fitting in versus being okay with one’s body. So for every perfectly photo-shopped star’s Instagram, we also had access to a Harnaam Kaur who did not shy away from reclaiming her facial hair.
Not only were regular people challenging body norms but older, inaccessible art began to resurface. Lisa Steele’s “Birthday Suit”, for instance, is an example of video art (1974) in which the artist strips naked and shows all the scars and imperfections of her body, along with a commentary on how she received each scar. Women were sharing, talking, discussing and letting each other know that we were okay, the way we were.
But despite these other influences, Bollywood still looms large over the Indian psyche.
To younger women today, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, and Anushka Sharma have become new icons. They want to wear designer outfits that Sonam has flaunted at Cannes, what Deepika’s character wore in Cocktail and Tamasha, and Anushka’s wedding outfits. What happens to that part of the audience still figuring out their ideal body type when they look at the hype around these perfectly crafted bodies?
Cashing in on their large fan base, these three icons have started their own fashion labels: All About You, Rheson, and Nush. In a mission statement that couldn’t be more tone deaf, All About You flaunts manufactured feminism: “You are your biggest strength and can conquer anything when you are with you.”
Three you-s in one sentence? Naah. Not for me.
Buying clothes from fancy fashion labels doesn’t really fit my pocket. And maybe I won’t go to the local darzi to stitch Bollywood-inspired clothes anytime soon. After all, my round body has no mirror there anymore.
Instead, I’ll watch another song with Sridevi in it and feel good about a time when it was okay to have a body without sharp edges.
Compulsively curious about how humans think, one can always find Pooja asking well-intentioned questions to strangers at a party, rickshaw walas, guards at restaurant bathrooms, directors post screening, sales people at mall counters, lift men and Koli fisherfolk. Her Facebook page @filmwalis documents women in Indian cinema.