Hidden fat shaming in
Dum Laga ke Haisha

by Diksha Mittal

A development in critical theory, fat studies is useful in media studies, and in particular I find its methodology necessary to critique neoliberal India’s media landscape. My purpose is to expose the contradictions between a purportedly rising “fat-feminism” in India and yet a continuously awful treatment of Bollywood actresses and other women in India who are not thin. My work represents an attempt to fill some gaps in fat feminist studies in Indian media and culture. Here I ask a question about the social acceptance or not of fatness as related to one Bollywood film, Dum Laga ke Haisha (2015) that seems to be progressive in its use of an ample-figured actress. I textually examine the film’s costume, color palette, camera movement and script to examine whether the performance of the fat actress Bhumi Pednekar (Sandhya) becomes an act of subversion against society’s bias towards weight or if her character becomes victimized at the hands of the weight loss industry and media complex.

The film Dum Laga ke Haisha features a fat actress as a protagonist which is rare even today. In the beginning of the film, the character’s confidence and carefree self-respect lead her to attempt to rebel against prevalent societal prejudices against fat female bodies. However, as the film progresses, I argue that these feminist attempts to reclaim a fat positive space are undercut. The film adds elements that allow it to meet narrow commercial expectations; it needs to perform well among a conservative Indian audience where women’s thinness is still glorified. My goal here is to examine cinematic construction to see just how the character development and performance of the fat actress’ body in one Bollywood film Dum Laga ke Haisha (2015) works to reinstate patriarchy and male voyeurism under the disguise of subverting normative gendered expectations. I am relying on textual analysis for understanding the actors’ performance in the film. My conclusion is that while the film positions the central female protagonist as aggressive, it undercuts her fat activism by promoting traditional masculinity. And for this paper, I am using the word ‘fat’ as a neutral term free from bias to refer to women whose bodies do not fit into the culturally mediated standardized BMI standards.

The ‘return’ of the fat actress

Dum Laga ke Haisha is a low-budget film directed by Sharat Kataria, an Indian filmmaker. It was declared as a semi-hit by the box office with a total net gross of approximately 30 crores or 333 million U.S. dollars (Box Office India). [open bibliography page in new window] The Indian press received it quite well and hailed the entry of a fat lead actress, yet on deeper examination of the reviews, I found that almost none at that time critically engaged with the representation and portrayal of the fat actress Sandhya.

The post-2010 era in Bollywood cinema in India was characterized by the beginnings of representations of fat actresses in significant roles with substantial screen time. This ‘return’ came after almost two decades of imitating the Hollywood trend of featuring thin actresses as protagonists while relegating insignificant and unattractive roles to the fat actresses. The Bollywood movie Dum Laga ke Haisha is one such romantic comedy film that casts a fat actress—Bhumi Pednekar (Sandhya)—as a protagonist opposite a thin actor—Ayushmann Khurrana (Prem), who plays her husband.

In the film, Aayushmaan Khurrana plays a high school failure Prem who is forced to marry an obese young woman Sandhya, played by Bhumi Pednekar, who is portrayed as a bright school teacher. The plot is set in the 1990's, the beginnings of globalization of India which was then trickling down to small towns like Haridwar (a small mountainous town in India) that had a close-knit, patriarchal, joint-family system.

This rise of neoliberalism in India in 1991 tightened body standards for women’s weight and imported the trend of fashionable slimness and body shaming of fat actresses. Historically, Indian culture celebrated curvaceous women. The special relation between women’s weight and desirability, and Indian cultural history can still be seen in sculptures from past times. For example, the central Indian Khajuraho temples built in 10th and 11th Century A.D house curvaceous carvings of ancient Indian women deities and human beings. “Khajuraho: A Celebration of Cosmic Union” describes the erotic carvings of women in divine and human form who are “heavy breasted and broad-hipped, they pout and pose for the tourist camera for all the world like Bombay starlets.” (Forbes)

Sucharita Sarkar in her essay explains the Indian historical association of fatness with prosperity. She refers to the title of her essay, “May My Children Always have Milk and Rice,'' which is an often expressed wish by Bengali parents that is borrowed from a popular eighteenth-century ballad. In the ballad, a poor boatman asks Hindu goddess Annapurna (goddess of bounty) to let her children have enough rice and milk for their meals. In this way food has been metaphorically used as a marker of health and prosperity in Indian culture from pre-colonial times. (Sarkar, 2008)

Extending this metaphor of prosperity to cinema, Hindi cinema in India largely featured fat actresses up to 1990’s with complex roles and substantial screen time. For example, Indian media used to sexualizs and refer to Sridevi, a famous actress of the 1960s, with the sobriquet “thunder thighs.” So then, film director Ram Gopal Verma, in his autobiography Guns and Thighs praised Sridevi’s voluptuous beauty as “thundering thighs” in her role in the film Himmatwala (1983). (Verma)

However, the 1990’s globalization of Indian media led to the “Hollywoodization” of Indian cinema including the entry of skinny women’s body sizes as the ideal. Culturally, the 1990’s was marked by the emergence of beauty queens, proliferation of gym culture, flourishing of cosmetic enterprises and circulation of Indian editions of international magazines like Vogue. Even Sridevi, much later, in the year 2013, looks much thinner on the cover of Vogue (August) edition in the article "50 going on 30? The Incredible Transformation of Sridevi.”

The movie Dum Laga ke Haisha (2015) offers a reflection on the treatment of female fatness as ugly and inferior to thinness in the Indian society of the 1990's. The patterns of costuming and color, sound and camera suggest a fat bias towards the protagonist Sandhya while also subordinating her status and agency to her husband in spite of her higher educational qualifications and wisdom.

How globalization redefined beauty in India

In India, one of the ways beauty gets commodified is through Femina, a popular beauty magazine which is a major player in advertising beauty products and getting sponsors and advertisers for the Miss India contest. Vanita Reddy in “The Nationalization of the Global Indian Woman: Geographies of Beauty in Femina,” writes that ‘beauty’ is more than a physical attribute; it is a “telos toward which the female subject, transformed into a consumer subject and essentially Indian, moves through these decades of globalization and national chauvinism.” (Reddy, 2006) Femina constructs an ideal Indian woman’s body in such a way that it is negotiated through different ‘texts’ (advertisements, billboards, social media, etc.) targeted towards middle-class Indian women who have the purchasing power and who can dream to climb up the social ladder by performing the “third shift of bodywork.” Valerie Palmer-Mehta, and Sherianne Shuler (2017) in "Rising Against the Third Shift: Reclaiming the Postpartum Body in ‘A Beautiful Body Project,” define this “third shift of body work” which means that to add to the double burden of household chores and office work, women nowadays are expected to engage in the “third shift” of energizing bodywork or fitness or “reworking bodies to fit into idealized images of femininity” (360). Such ideas about bodywork are perpetrated to the middle class through media images of thin Bollywood actresses.

Considering this problem in more general terms, Camille Nurka (2014) in "Moderation, Reward, Entitlement: The “Obesity Epidemic” and the Gendered Body" writes that women invest in their bodies as a form of “cultural capital” and slender bodies are viewed as a sign of good womanhood, respectable femininity and as a repository of honor, culture and traditions. She states that attitude of abjectness towards a fat body is formulated in the public mind due to the “construction of the slender body visible as the object of (bourgeois masculine) national desire.” Nurka argues that “slenderness, as an ascetic practice of moderation, grants the female subject a range of entitlements—to femininity, to the middle class, to national belonging—the reward for which is happiness.”

Middle-class Indian women receive these ‘incentives’ for conforming to the prevalent beauty ideals in the form of job promotions, publicity and career boost. For example, popular Bollywood actresses who started out as middle-class commoners like Aishwarya Rai, Lara Dutta and Sushmita Sen got easy entry to the Bollywood by securing a position at the Miss India pageant and by eventually winning Miss Universe and Miss World titles. In this way, these media figures become aspirational models for women.

In contrast, middle class women who deviate from the thin body norm suffer not only on the desirability and career front, but also in their personal lives. They often experience tougher access to a getting a husband and children. This is apparent in the film where we see that Sandhya at her job interview not only received condescending remarks about her mismatched size with her thin husband, but also experienced constant humiliation from her husband and his family. In addition, she has scenes intended to produce disgust for her in the audience. For example, Dum Laga ke Haisha depicts the fat Sandhya binge-eating without any care in the world from a plate stacked with food. At the same time, we see the visible disgust of her thinner husband Prem. The screenwriters seem free to draw upon such a cultural disgust, which stems from popular, historical associations of the thin body with self-mastery and associations of fatness with gluttony that infiltrated into India through globalization.

In this regard, Amy Farrell (2011) in her work Fat Shame writes about how fatness as a sign of person’s financial prosperity and influence in the 19th century United States changed to be a metaphor of the threat of U.S. monopolies, unbridled capitalism, and political corruption linked to business interests. A common consensus grew in the country that though business growth is at the root of prosperity, unchecked business interest and excessive greed makes one fat, and representations of business greed were through images of fat rich people. One example of this association is given in the section “Hunger as Ideology'' of Susan Bordo’s work Unbearable Weight where she writes that upper class women in Victorian age had “conduct manuals” that taught elite women to refrain from “the dangers of indulgent and over-stimulating eating. Eating was supposed to be performed in a feminine way with “utmost precaution against unseemly show of desire.”(112) This association of thinness with eating less later got imported into Indian media and culture through western media. For example, in the film’s plot trajectory, the carefree, fat bride Sandhya who ate ‘shamelessly’ at her wedding with her plate full of food (to the disgust of her thin husband) ended up going on a diet towards the end of the film.

How colonialism introduced weight prejudice in India

In “How Colonialism Shaped Body Shaming,” Livia Gershon (2019) borrows from the historian Christopher E. Forth, who argues that such weight-based prejudice in Asia and Africa was forged because of the colonial influence. For example, the British treated fatness as a widespread cultural trait without understanding the intricacies and variety of Indian body types. Forth writes that nineteenth-century European and American writings about Asian people were biased and generalized based on a few elite sections of society. For example, the British described the “rotundity” of the upper-Hindu Brahmins (who represent only a small proportion of Indian population) and ascribed it to the intake of “ghee” and laziness. Forth also gave the example of missionaries who selectively obsessed over Ganesha, a popular Hindu Deity with a round stomach as an accurate representation of common people’s desires for similar form. In another example, missionaries also labeled Indians as “uncivilized” for their supposed desire for heavy women. These colonizers’ writings created a scholarship which pitted the Western, thin female body as a superior in opposition to the Eastern, fat, inferior female body. Yet this did not impact women on a mass level in India unlike it did in England in Victorian times.

One reason for the relative impenetrability of the thin ideal in the colonial era is that the western, white woman was still looked upon as the “other” and impure by the Indian men who wanted to protect their women against external influence. Also, the foodscape in India had not changed and primarily consisted of Indian-grown crops. It was only after the implementation of 1991 economic liberalization policies in India, globalization of the media, the entry of diet-products and gym culture in the Indian market, combined with the entry of women in the public sphere that a fertile ground for infiltration of the western body size ideal was created.