"I remember playing a grandmother when I was 19 because of my size," says Anuradha HR, the artistic director at the Untitled Arts Foundation.
Anuradha went on to start The Big Fat Company (BFC), the idea for which stemmed several years ago from Anuradha's personal experiences of being treated unfairly.
The Bengaluru-based theatre group is bringing together 'fat' artists from theatre, TV, and cinema to challenge this discriminatory culture, and is hoping to bring about a positive change.
"BFC started with me being frustrated as an actor being typecast constantly to certain kinds of roles. As an actor, you constantly look at challenging roles you want to do, and in any group that approaches you for acting, you are cast as a mother-in-law or maid," she says.
Sushma SV, a theatre actor, director and choreographer, says that they always got stereotypical roles because they were fat. "Because we are fat, we always get stereotypical roles, such as comic roles or really drab ones. They won't even consider us to play vamps because nowadays even vamps are sexy. I don't understand what exactly sexy means, because I think we all are sexy and beautiful," she says.
To add insult to injury, directors have often asked Sushma to 'train' lead actors who don't perform well. "They won't give us the main role but can ask us to train the main actor," she rues.
Krithi, too, has essayed several roles in her career as a theatre and film artiste. But more often than not, the roles have been of older women. Many a time, she has been told that she would be given "powerful roles that suit" her.
"I've often asked them why can't I do any role that I want to. And they'll say for that you need to reduce your weight. I don't understand why a teenager who is fat cannot have a boyfriend or why a fat girl can't have a duet song on screen," she says.
Sushma and Krithi's experiences are, however, not limited to them. Actors across the industry, who are overweight or don't fit the conventional template of a slim-fair-beautiful protagonist, often find themselves sidelined as supporting characters.
BFC currently has around 13 members who are undergoing various sessions being facilitated by dancer and educator Shabari Rao. The group hopes to come up with its first production sometime early next year.
When Shabari asked the artistes to think of one character they would like to portray on stage, a surprising realisation hit them.
"When I look back," Sushma says, "there are so many parts that I wanted to play. But now thinking of them, it was not really the character that interested me. Many women protagonists don't actually get strong scripts. I realised that what we were missing was being involved in the process. The main characters are given time, attention, are explained what to do and why they need to do something. Supporting characters usually give one take and if we are just okay, they'll say 'fantastic'. There's no challenge there and we'll never know our potential."
At one of the training sessions on Sunday in Untitled Space, JP Nagar, the group assembled to put up a few impressive performances.
Members, including both full-time and part-time actors, shared how they had not only been deprived of opportunities because of their size, but also how it pushed many into depression.
One of them was mocked for putting on weight during her college years and was under constant pressure to lose weight. After years of misdiagnosis by a family doctor, it was found that the woman had PCOD.
Apart from the fight with one's own body image, for many, it is also a battle with their family and friends.
Shylaja remembers being fat since she was a kid with many calling her 'fatty'. She feels that the constant glare and suffocating judgment made her rebellious, a trait that was not in her nature.
BFC wants to be a space that encourages body positivity and inclusivity. The men and women behind the initiative want to start by breaking down the concept of 'beauty' for children.
"We want to show that a prince can be huge and princess who is fat can also live in a tower. It can be as simple as what Shrek as a movie did to the concept of beauty. So that in the longer run, art forms become a platform to help them empathise with diverse kind of people of different sizes, gender or colour. Then, we want adults to accept these differences and their own bodies," Anuradha says, signing off.