Unhealthy, desexualised, or comic relief: Plus-sized character depictions in films

TNM takes a look at the representation of plus-sized characters in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi films.
Actors Huma Qureshi (L), Sonakshi Sinha, Anushka Shetty (R)
Actors Huma Qureshi (L), Sonakshi Sinha, Anushka Shetty (R)
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When the Sonakshi Sinha and Huma Qureshi starrer Double XL was promoted before its theatrical release in November this year, the film was seen as a silver lining by a small, yet substantial number of movie buffs and critics who observe films through the lens of representation and portrayals of body image. Double XL  is among the first few Indian films narrating the stories of two plus-sized women and unlike movies in the past featuring actors in superficial ‘fat’ suits, Double XL has lead actors who look the part. However, having said that, the Sonakshi Sinha and Huma Qureshi starrer fails to impress on the whole, despite hitting a few right notes.

At a rather important point in the film when Huma Qureshi’s Rajshree Trivedi is on the verge of giving up her dreams, she says with a frown, “Humko yahi life mili hai” (this is the life given to me), implying that she is forced to endure it. Unfortunately, that is the sentiment shared by the audience too. A viewer among the audience in the theatre responded, “Humko yahi film mili hai(This is the film given to us).

Rajshree, who is from Meerut, aspires to be a sports commentator. She is bogged down by her infuriating mother who either forces her to get married or constantly shames her body weight. On the other hand, Saira Khanna (Sonakshi Sinha), a fashion designer, is inching closer to her dream of launching her label. Saira, dating an aspiring model and gym enthusiast, ignores the red flags in her relationship and eventually gets cheated on by him.

Both the personal and professional lives of the leading women of Double XL come crashing down due to reasons that are partly associated with their body image. The two women meeting each other when they are amid mental breakdowns and discussing their lives is a sequence that had the potential to be a poignant reflection on systemic fat phobia and its implications, but it turns into a flimsy scene because the makers of Double XL refuse to take themselves seriously (which is evident from the clothes designed by Saira in the film).

Rajshree is denied an opportunity to interview for the position of sports presenter despite being qualified because she is plus-size. Instead of focusing on the character’s emotional struggle at the time, director Satramm Ramani places an animated scene that fails to make viewers feel empathetic towards Rajshree. The makers shy away from discussing whether fatphobia has failed to create a level-playing field for professionals, excluded people based on the way they look and whether it is a common practice across the board in the field of sports journalism.

Similarly, as a fashion designer and a plus-sized woman, Sonakshi’s Saira could have been a good plot device to take a critical look at the fashion industry, especially concerning the experiences of plus-sized models and actors. Saira’s big idea of starting a brand for plus-sized women is presented as a novelty in the film without acknowledging how the body positivity movement has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years, specifically post the involvement of plus-size influencers in the discourse.

Nonetheless, some of the criticism against the body positivity movement about it being rooted in consumerist ideals, not being inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community, being limited in scope only to a few social media users, elitism, omission of people with disabilities, and posts by body positivity influencers coming across as a subset of toxic positivity are also applicable to Double XL.

Double XL’s failure to authentically represent the lived experiences of plus-sized people on the big screen hardly comes as a shock. Time and again, filmmakers have fallen prey to typecasting plus-sized people rather than offering them roles that cinematically map their experiences without being trite.

‘Fat’ is equated with being unhealthy

Be it the representation of lived experiences on the big screen or the dialogue around body positivity, the conversation is often ambushed with the subject of obesity and its health risks. On social media or otherwise, these counterarguments are mired with factual inaccuracies. There are glaring similarities between the irrational objections to the movement and their on-screen portrayal. In cinema, plus-sized characters are always shown as unhealthy people who are obsessed with food.

Bombat Hendthi, a 1992 Kannada film depicts politician and actor Girija, popularly known by her screen name Sruthi, as a plus-sized character obsessed with food. Even a strong comedy writer like Crazy Mohan relies on fat jokes directed toward child actor Bharath in the popular 2002 Tamil movie Panchathanthiram to elicit laughs.

Double XL, a movie that claims to authentically represent plus-sized characters, which hit the big screens 30 years after Bombat Hendthi, features Sonakshi delivering a powerful monologue slamming people who body shame, only for it to be followed by a scene where the lead characters can be seen gorging on burgers and fries, thus reinforcing the existing stereotypes that equate ‘fat’ with unhealthy.

Should filmmakers then not feature plus-size people eating on screen? On the contrary, there are discourses around plus-sized people not being able to eat comfortably in public spaces without being looked at in a disapproving manner, or shamed for their food choices – a predicament their small-bodied counterparts seldom have to deal with. If director Satramm had set the right context in Double XL by mirroring how the mere act of eating makes them susceptible to shaming, viewers might have seen the leads in the film relying on food for comfort as an act of rebellion rather than blunt patronisation.

Such half-baked discussions neither do justice to the dialogue around body positivity nor health. Obesity, for instance, could be caused by a range of factors including lack of socio-economic access to a nutritious diet, hereditary factors, consumption of mental health medications, hormonal disorders, or other factors.

Films fail to delve deeper

Over the past years, if not decades, plus-sized actors have been cast in movies only for comic relief. Problematic dialogues dished out under the garb of comedy are hardly called out. Each film industry is likely to have a set of plus-sized characters who become the butt of fatphobic jokes. Actors Vidyulleka Raman, and Deepa Shankar, child actors Bharath, and Harathi in Kollywood, late actor Kalpana in Mollywood, actor Geetha in Tollywood, actor Doddanna in Sandalwood, and several others serve as examples of this.

Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Neethane En Ponvasantham (2012) dedicates a huge chunk of its run time to feature a parallel romantic track starring Vidyulekha and Santhanam, a segment peppered with ‘fat’ jokes, hardly leaving room for the nuances that get lost in the mix. Other films like Vijay’s Tamil film Bigil (2019), and the Kannada movie Hatavadi (2006), go to the extent of interspersing trumpet sounds with visuals of dark-skinned, plus-sized characters on screen, to compare them with elephants. Vijay, one of the most prominent Kollywood stars, also uses adjectives like ‘Gundamma’ (fat woman) and says hurtful things to supposedly ‘inspire’ and ‘motivate’ one of his students to perform better in a football match, in Bigil. It will perhaps take more years and unlearning for Tamil filmmakers to understand the impact of weight stigma on mental health, but it is disheartening to see such scenes open to applause in theatres, normalising such attitudes. 

Similarly, the 2015 Tamil-Telugu bilingual Size Zero starring Anushka Shetty in the lead role as Soundarya or Sweety is only ridden with cliches about plus-sized bodies. It is only after almost an hour into the film that Sweety becomes invested in finding out the perils of slimming centers.

Every aspect of Sweety’s life is connected to her weight, perpetuating the stereotype that plus-sized people cannot lead full lives unless they lose weight (the audience might have as well turned to their judgemental aunts instead of watching this film). Such scenes make the viewers wonder whether the filmmakers, in their attempts to condemn fatphobia, have given a platform for the very thing they set out to question. In what can be construed as another variation of the ‘damsel in distress trope, we see Sweety being unhappy with her life until her romantic interest enters the picture. The 2017 Hindi film Noor, and Karan Johar’s 2003 Hindi film Kal Ho Naa Ho’s treatment of Jaspreet or Sweetu (Delnaaz Paul) are also in the same vein.

The 2018 Hindi film Fanney Khan, a film that supposedly focuses on the journey of Lata ( Peehu Sand), an aspiring singer who is ridiculed for being overweight, puts the spotlight entirely on Prashanth Kumar or Fanney Khan (Anil Kapoor), her father. 

Women actors not having well-rounded characters to play or being roped in only to support the male lead in the story is not uncommon in Indian cinema. This is also true for actor Shikha Talsania’s role in the 2009 Hindi film Wake Up Sid. She is the hero Sid’s (Ranbir Kapoor) ‘bubbly’ and ‘positive’ best friend who is there to support him at all times. When the makers finally give a moment’s screen time to explore who Laxmi is as a person, it is utilised to show her having a breakdown about her body weight and confiding in Sid that she has had a tough time following a fitness regime to shed her weight. While it is true that treating a plus-sized character with empathy is a rarity, especially in Bollywood, Wake Up Sid does not truly invest in Shikha’s character. The scene plays out minutes before it finally dawns on Sid that everyone around him has their share of struggles. But what about the supporting actor’s character arc? One cannot help but wonder why filmmakers chose to depict plus-sized characters, who are already so scarcely seen in movies, without fully committing themselves to the idea.

Depiction of plus-sized people as undesirable

A clip from popular singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s music video ‘Anti-Hero’ courted controversy when it was released in October this year. In the clip, the musician steps onto a bathroom scale, and when the dial spins, the word ‘FAT’ pops up instead of numbers. Taylor looks up at her doppelganger who is visibly disappointed. Observing that the clip was fatphobic, many social media users pointed out that the scene equates ‘fat’ to being ugly or undesirable. “Taylor Swift’s music video, where she looks down at the scale where it says ‘fat,’ is a shitty way to describe her body image struggles. Fat people don’t need to have it reiterated yet again that it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to look like us,” eating disorder therapist and body positivity blogger Shira Rose tweeted.

Though many of Taylor Swift’s fans argued that the intent behind the clip was to critique  internalised fatphobia, it was countered by social media users citing how someone like Taylor Swift, an artist with a global fan following, can adversely impact audiences with such misplaced messaging. They also noted that despite Taylor having opened up about her struggles with eating disorders in the past, it was irresponsible of her–  a White person conforming to conventional beauty ideals – to use the word ‘fat’ in the aforementioned context without understanding its connotations. Shortly after the clip sparked a row, it was removed by Taylor from her YouTube video.

A similar response is hardly seen by Indian creators when their art is under scrutiny for being fatphobic. Arjun Reddy (2017, Telugu), which was condemned for its sexist plotline, was also opposed for an appalling scene where the protagonist asks his girlfriend to befriend a ‘fat’ classmate because he believes that ‘fat’ people are like ‘Teddy bears’ and are loyal.

Plus-sized characters or even actors who do not conform to accepted beauty ideals are presented to viewers as undesirable and desexualised. Attributes like ‘chubby’ and ‘bubbly’ are generously tossed around to describe them. They are often seen as the supportive best friend to the hero, the tomboy, or the down-to-earth girl, whose personality attracts the hero, but not their physical appearance.

In the 2022 Tamil film Thiruchitrambalam, Dhanush who plays the titular role is best friends with Shobana (Nithya Menen). He falls head over heels in love with other conventionally prettier women but professes his love for Shobana because of her personality. But what about his romantic or sexual interest in her? Aren’t they crucial to a romantic relationship? If the protagonist does not find their plus-sized partner to be sexually attractive, is he making a compromise? Doesn't it imply that in the ‘hero’s’ eye, his partner is not viewed as his equal?

The 2019 Hindi film Udja Chaman revolves around Chaman who experiences premature balding and is unable to find a bride for himself as a result. He matches with his to-be-partner Apsara (Maanvi Gagroo) through a dating app. A few fat-phobic jokes and a dreary scene later (where the couple meet with an accident while driving because of Apsara’s weight), Chaman becomes romantically interested in Apsara, a plot point that is not only fatphobic but also insensitive.

Positive representation

Few and far between, a handful of movies have shown well-researched and nuanced plus-sized characters on screen. The 2006 Telugu film Kithakithalu and the 2015 Hindi film Dum Laga Ke Haisha share a similar plot line: The male protagonists are forcefully married to plus-sized women they do not like. But the similarity begins and ends there. Kithakithalu’s reductionist approach is in stark contrast to Dum Laga Ke Haisha’s which is set in the 1990s and tracks the lives of Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar) and Prem Tiwari (Ayushmann Khurrana). The well-educated and talented Sandhya marrying Prem, a man who underperforms professionally or otherwise, is advantageous to both families. Prem’s dislike for Sandhya partly stems from his aversion towards plus-sized women and his incompetence. The perennially bad-tempered Prem shames Sandhya before his friends and is displeased to even look at her. The rest of the film tracks the emotional journeys of the two characters and closely offers a peep into the evolving relationship between them. Unlike most of the other films featuring plus-sized characters, Dum Laga Ke Haisha represents the qualms of living as a plus-sized woman – the stigma she has to endure and the lack of support from family or friends, without taking away her agency. Prem’s insensitive comments are not encouraged, nor is he condescendingly applauded for dating a plus-sized woman, as was the case with the films discussed previously.

Malayalam films like Da Thadiya (2012) and Kakshi: Amminippilla (2019)  were also praised at the time of their release for better portrayals of plus-sized people. Masaba Masaba is perhaps the only recent Indian web series to cast Rytasha Rathore, a plus-sized woman in a role that does not slot her under that category. The third season of the Hindi Amazon Prime web series Four More Shots Please! which was released in October this year, opened to mixed and negative responses. Nevertheless, Sidhi Patel (Maanvi Gagroo), one of the lead characters, has a rattling sequence that prods audiences to think about the ramifications of ‘fat fetishism’, a topic that is seldom discussed.

Representation of plus-sized characters on the silver screen will be normalised only when filmmakers stop exoticising them and relegating them to roles offering comic relief wherein subjecting them to humiliation becomes the basis of the humour. Plus-sized characters are not people who need to be ‘saved’ or motivated to change themselves in ways that society demands to pursue their dreams. It is high time that filmmakers reevaluate how the commonly used storylines centered around plus-sized people mirror societal prejudices and instead, narrate stories based on lived experiences that are treated with honesty and empathy.

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