Actresses are shedding pounds to succeed in India’s biggest film industry. This piece also appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.
By Andrea Roxas
Illustration by Gina Kim
This past summer, under Syracuse University’s “Bollywood and Beyond” internship program, SU senior Andrea LaMothe traveled to Mumbai and worked for a Bollywood company on a feature film. While she did not interact with the lead actress for the movie, LaMothe caught peeks at on-screen images of her. The actress had a beautiful face and a slender body with curves in all the right places. When LaMothe began working on the film, the actress had returned from a two-month break from shooting worse for the wear; she was suffering a hip injury that had already been operated on twice and was scheduled for a third surgery.
LaMothe watched the actress at rehearsal as she performed a chair dance routine to accommodate her injury and could not believe the star’s drastic weight loss. The dance instructor led the actress in moves that relied on sensual facial expressions, like puckering her lips and seductively squinting her eyes. The actress also had to arch her waist and run her arms up and down her torso — all the while trying to look sexy. But the instructor’s powerful, fluid movements contrasted greatly with the actress’ broken, feeble attempts at dancing.
LaMothe instantly connected the actress’ hip injury to her extreme thinness. “I looked at her and thought, she is crumbling,” she says.
LaMothe remember the pain on the actress’ face as she struggled to get through the dance. Later that day, LaMothe told one of the film’s assistant directors how skinny she thought the actress looked. The assistant director replied that the star had requested those two months off from filming to “get in shape.” LaMothe’s suspicions were confirmed. “The thing that I learned from my internship and experiences was that anorexia was hitting Bollywood,” she says. “I had no question about that.”
“Size zero” has invaded Bollywood. Where once Bollywood actresses embraced the curves inherent in the bodies of Indian women, now, super-thin in is. For the past decade, one has had to be skinny to be a Bollywood actress, says Tula Goenka, an associate professor in SU’s Newhouse School, who teaches a course on Bollywood. In 2006, Indian papers reported that Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai, often called one of the most beautiful women in the world, dropped a whopping 22 pounds in just three days for a new film. Two years ago, Bollywood blogs went crazy over actress Kareena Kapoor’s new ultraslim body.
As can be seen by their whittling waistlines, Bollywood actresses are responding to the demands of the industry. But whether they take the healthy or unhealthy approach to shedding pounds remains the elephant in the room for film directors and producers. Actresses Rai and Kapoor, for example, refuse accusations that they suffer from eating disorders. They credit working out and dieting as responsible for their new bodies. Professor Goenka recently served on a panel with a Bollywood actor now in his 50s. Goenka bluntly asked him if he could talk about anorexia in Bollywood. He turned to Goenka and randomly changed the topic to Indian director Anurag Basu, completely dismissing Goenka’s question. Goenka was annoyed and remained quiet. She assumed the actor didn’t want to talk about weight because he was so conscious of his own weight gain. However, later in the conversation, he turned back to Goenka and referred to director Basu again, showing he had understood the real question she was asking, but was intentionally ignoring it. Goenka calls this behavior “typical” for those in the industry. The issue of weight (and weight loss) is pushed under the rug.
The industry’s changing body image has been partly influenced by Bollywood’s globalization — namely, its absorption of “western” traits. The songs and dances in Bollywood movies are now infused with hip-hop elements, leading to “sexier,” more complicated choreography. Actresses’ bodies must pull off tighter dance outfits that are a far cry from the more forgiving traditional Indian sari.
But while the slimmer bodies of Bollywood actresses and the skimpier outfits they wear reflect heightened sexuality in the industry, traditional Indian morals still regulate actresses’ conduct. Indian women are extremely modest; this has presented problems for the industry. Jillian King, a senior television, radio and film major, also traveled to Mumbai under the same program as LaMothe. King served as a production assistant for the new reality show “India’s Next Top Model,” a spin-off of the highly popular “America’s Next Top Model.” Many of the show’s models refused to pose in skimpy clothing, so the first photo-shoot of the show had to be changed from shooting the contestants in bikinis to shooting them in bikini cover-ups and sarongs.
King doesn’t believe the show will take off in India because of these modesty issues and the fact that most Indian women simply aren’t born with the “rail-thin” bone structure of European and American models. “These girls have curves and they’re beautiful, but they’re trying to do something that just won’t work in Indian society,” King says.
Bollywood society, however, rarely reflects the reality of Indian society. It is grounded in escapism, a kind of luxury and extravagance that impoverished Indian moviegoers can only dream about. And this is where LaMothe believes some of the pressure for actresses to be thin originates. “The idea that audiences want something that’s out of this world means that they want to see women who are out of this world,” LaMothe says.
Unfortunately, such fantasy comes at the cost of these actresses’ health. Some Bollywood stars are bringing new meaning to the term “starving artist” and with no end in sight, only time will tell how far these girls will go in their struggle for the limelight.