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From Vyjayanthimala To Alia Bhatt: The Evolution Of The 'Thin Ideal' In Bollywood

03/03/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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The recently released Dabboo Ratnani 2016 calendar celebrated its 12th anniversary this year. For the past 12 years, this calendar has featured Bollywood's biggest and brightest stars. How exactly are the talents of these stars highlighted in this much celebrated calendar? Splashed across the 12 months of the year are their undeniably fit physical assets. As if the movies were not enough of a reminder of your physical imperfection, here is a calendar to remind you every month that your own South Asian body is so far off the mark that you might as well give up.

South Asian society is overly fixated on skin colour, waist circumference, hair thickness, optimal height, and just about every other superficial personal characteristic...

On the heels of this calendar's release, I remember very vividly an incident that occurred more than 20 years ago when I overheard an extended family member telling my mom that I had eaten three soft tacos at Taco Bell. The subtle implication of course being that since I was on the "healthier" side as a child, my mom should keep a closer eye on my eating habits. Thankfully, my mom herself never once made me feel that my body or weight impacted my worth as person. But, these careless comments hit deep and still remind me of desi society's unfair standards and ridiculous expectations: I had not even hit double digits in my years of life, but people already seemed focused on the size of my figure above all else.

Desi aunties and uncles across the world have been making these types of inappropriate comments for as long as I can remember. In college, when I would come home for winter break, somebody would inevitably comment on how "healthy" I looked--and, no, not in a good way. And then, when I would come home for summer break, there was always that one aunt who would wonder out loud about how much sun I had been bathing in because of the darker shade of my skin. Even in my 20s, these comments got under my skin enough to make me carry an umbrella around campus to shield myself from the sun. It is no secret that South Asian society is overly fixated on skin colour, waist circumference, hair thickness, optimal height, and just about every other superficial personal characteristic you can think of. So I guess it is no surprise that India's largest film industry not only supports this emphasis on external appearance, but also exacerbates this fixation on "perfect" bodies.

The changing standards of beauty

As an avid Bollywood fan, I have watched the film industry serve as an ever-evolving guide on what should be considered beautiful in India ever since the Golden Age of Hindi cinema in the post-independence period.

I have watched the film industry serve as an ever-evolving guide on what should be considered beautiful in India ever since the Golden Age of Hindi cinema...

In the 1950s and 1960s, in hit films with the likes of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Dharmendra, Vyjayanthimala, Nargis, and Dev Anand, you would be hard pressed to find many rock-hard abs or well-toned glutes. In 1955's "Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua", one of Bollywood's most memorable rain dances, serves as a stark contrast to the rainy item numbers featured in modern day films (ahem, "Tip Tip Barsa Pani"). This is because the focus in the Golden Age was predominantly on the performances, with very little emphasis placed on the physical attributes of our leading actors and actresses. Take for example the classic "Bol Radha Bol" from 1964's film Sangam starring Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, and Vyjayanthimala. Vyjayanthimala's Radha is wearing a bathing suit, and instead of the cameras panning to her waistline like they do in today's films, they are fixated on the not-so-fit Raj Kapoor singing to her from the trees:

These liberal body image standards held true even as we moved forward into 1970s and 1980s Bollywood. Actors and actresses during these decades mostly kept their shirts on, including the likes of Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor, Jaya Bachchan, and Sridevi. Although, by the 1970s, some of the actresses wore noticeably less clothing and had significantly slimmer waistlines than their predecessors, for example Dimple Kapadia's ever present midriff and long legs in 1973's Bobby. But the real game changer for Bollywood was Zeenat Aman in the classic "Aap Jaisa Koi" from Qurbani, an iconic 1980 video that really highlights the changing focus in Bollywood's take on body image:

Moving into the 1990s and the Bollywood actresses that I grew up with--Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, and Preity Zinta--all became progressively thinner. But in today's Bollywood they would all likely be considered terribly out of shape.

Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, and Preity Zinta... in today's Bollywood they would all likely be considered terribly out of shape.

I still remember watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai back in 1998 and reading the filmy magazine articles that spent more time commenting on Kajol's waistline than her stellar performance which went on to win her several best actress accolades. This problematic situation aside, 11-year-old tomboy me was given plenty of other food for thought. Because despite the following poetic speech about Kajol's Anjali finding somebody who loves her for who she is and not for her looks, SRK's Rahul seemed to never really see Anjali until she has glamorously long hair and a wardrobe made up exclusively of saris:

Perhaps as a nod to some semblance of fairness between the genders, Bollywood men in the 90s started to become significantly more fit than their colleagues from previous generations. Lean and lanky became the preferred look, most probably thanks to Amitabh Bachchan's popularity in the 1980s, and you can see this with the earlier films of many of our present-day favourite heroes.

Things started to change rather dramatically for men and women after 2000, and as proof, check out a shirtless Salman Khan in "Dholi Taro Dhol Baje" from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in 1999 compared to his later movies. Before the 2000s, even the most well-built actors had biceps that any healthy guy going to the gym regularly could aspire to:

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And then, in 2000, the world was introduced to Hrithik Roshan in Kaho Naa...Pyaar Hai. Bollywood had never before seen such ridiculously chiselled abs and pecs, both of which were on perfect display in Roshan's sheer shirt, at a nightclub in the middle of the day in "Ek Pal Ka Jeena:"

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Source: Tumblr

Suddenly, it was not enough for Bollywood heroes to just be fit and toned, they all needed ripped muscles. And slowly, but surely, this spread from Salman Khan to even SRK before the first decade of the 21st century closed out. We were all a little shocked by SRK's sheer shirts in "Suraj Hua Maddham" from the 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, but that was just the beginning of his transformation. In the 2007 film Om Shanti Om, SRK's "Dard-e-Disco" abs were the main attraction:

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Looking good is a full-time job

Speaking of Om Shanti Om, this is the movie that launched the now incredibly popular Deepika Padukone. Padukone along with Kareena Kapoor-Khan, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt make up just a handful of the clientele who rely on celebrity trainer Yasmin Karachiwala for their perfect physique--ironically, Karachiwala's gym is called "Body Image." From Padukone's perfectly toned body in "Lovely" to Kaif's ridiculous physique in "Kamli," these women credit Karachiwala with getting them in shape for their 2014 movies and then some. All of their stories are featured in Karachiwala's book Sculpt and Shape. Which honestly, leads us right to where Bollywood's portrayal of body image currently stands: sculpted and shaped, to a point beyond feasible for most people with day jobs.

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Source: Tumblr

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Padukone's Mohini from Happy New Year is a far cry from Madhuri Dixit's original Mohini in the 1988 movie Tezaab. And what many viewers fail to realize is just how much present-day actors and actresses train to maintain their pristine and well-toned physiques.

And then there are genes

I wonder how many moviegoers realize that the average Indian woman is about 5ft tall while the average Indian man is about 5ft 5 inches in height? These numbers serve as a stark contrast to the heights of many of our current filmy favourites: Padukone and Anushka Sharma at 5ft 9 inches along with Katrina Kaif and Kangana Ranaut at 5ft 8 inches.

I spent my whole life wishing to grow that extra two inches, not realizing that my 5ft 6 inches is pretty great for an Indian woman.

Then there are the men, with Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Arjun Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan all towering at about 6ft or taller. I guess I have a better idea of why I spent my whole life wishing to grow that extra two inches, not realizing that my 5ft 6 inches is pretty great for an Indian woman.

And as many rishta-seeking aunties have queried in the past, yes, I guess I am lambi. But I'm not so sure about the other two qualifiers attached to lambi as far as desirable physical attributes in women of suitable marriageable age: Gori hai? Patli hai?

The rise of eating disorders in India

It's not too surprising that studies looking into eating disorder epidemiology are rare in India given that international headlines tend to focus on the alarming rates of malnutrition in rural areas.

However, some surveys of psychiatrists in Delhi and Bangalore have noted that eating disorders are not uncommon in urban India.

And given the stark contrast in the discrepancies between the physical attributes of most of India and the so-called celebrity elite, it is also no surprise that constantly being hit with idealized body images can take their toll.

Idealized perceptions of body image that hinge on silver screen stars who are taller, skinnier, and fairer than the rest of us just compound existing mental health problems...

Studies have shown that this persistent exposure to "thin-ideal" media images can contribute to low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, and poor mood in women--all of which can then cause eating disorder symptoms. And this problem is not exclusive to women who are flooded with these images, because a similar impact on body dissatisfaction has been observed in men who are exposed to idealized images.

In a society where young men and women have countless other pressures, ranging from family obligations to career goals, these idealized perceptions of body image that hinge on silver screen stars who are taller, skinnier, and fairer than the rest of us just compound existing mental health problems for youth in India.

Thin, thinner, thinnest

Within the past few years, Bollywood has continued to dive off the deep end. It is increasingly clear that it is either the "fit" way or the highway. Actresses with normal body types who had successful Bollywood debuts, such as Alia Bhatt in Student of the Year and Parineeti Chopra in Ishaqzaade, have gone on fitness missions to lose weight. If I spent my childhood days hoping to lose weight back when the standards for actresses still were not as ridiculous as they are today, then I can only imagine the toll that this must be taking on young women today who see Padukone, Kapoor-Khan, and Kaif as the standards of beauty.

parineeti chopra workout photos

Parineeti Chopra even stated in an interview that she wanted to lose weight so she would stop being placed in the "overweight actresses category" and to "look better on-screen." And with a lot of behind the scenes work that has not been getting splashed all over magazine covers, it looks like she has achieved her desired look given a recent Elle India cover and her "Built that Way" Instagram campaign featuring her new body alongside motivational quotes. Chopra's decision to strive for this perfect physique was obviously a personal decision, but I am sure it was strongly influenced by Bollywood's unreasonable standards for form and figure. Why did it take a "new body" to give "new confidence" to this highly accomplished former marketing professional who successfully transitioned to Bollywood?

Given this attitude in the filmy world, I hope nobody was surprised when Yash Raj Films' latest heroine, Bhumi Pednekar of Dum Laga Ke Haisha fame, doubly lost the weight she had put on for the role. Whatever positive impact was made regarding body shaming thanks to this movie's story was lost when Pednekar described herself as a "regular plump girl" before her debut role now that she has achieved Bollywood's ideal svelte figure. And sadly, Vikas Bahl's Shaandaar could have been a victory for positive body image in Bollywood--but the film had such a weak script and did so poorly at the box office that most Indians will never even get to the end of the movie to see Sanah Kapoor's triumphant speech against body shaming.

A few role models for body acceptance

While movies still have a long way to go before they can set a good example for future generations of Indians, there are some actresses who have attempted to speak out against the body shamers and have tried to break down the societal constructs of "perfect body types."

I applaud both Vidya Balan and Huma Qureshi for their attempts to shed light on the huge problems with body shaming within South Asian society.

Very recently, Vidya Balan had to stand up against ridiculous comments regarding her body. It is pathetic that this talented actress has to deal with as much press coverage for her weight as for her phenomenal performances. Perhaps the biggest attempt by a Bollywood actress today to speak up regarding body image was Huma Qureshi's July 2014 Femina cover feature. I applaud both Balan and Qureshi for their attempts to shed light on the huge problems with body shaming within South Asian society, while much of the rest of Bollywood keeps gunning for chiselled abs and perfect contours. With more role models like these two, maybe my younger self would have spent less time in front of a mirror trying to figure out which outfit made her look her thinnest and thus obviously her best.

It goes without saying that it's high time for Bollywood to start focusing more on the performances and plots in their movies instead of on the waistlines and contours of their actors and actresses.

Maybe, just maybe, future calendars filled with Bollywood actors and actresses will focus on their talents beyond their allegedly perfect physique.

Likewise, desi society overall needs shift its focus from superficial characteristics and embrace the beauty of all our different sizes and colours alongside our individual strengths and unique personalities. Maybe then through some ripple effect, aunties and uncles will start laying off the criticism--from the number of tacos eaten to amount of recent sun exposure--and there will be some semblance of hope for future generations of Indians to be a little more self-assured and secure in their bodies.

And maybe, just maybe, future calendars filled with Bollywood actors and actresses will focus on their talents beyond their allegedly perfect physique.

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