From Hollywood to Bollywood: The whittling waistlines of Indian actresses

9th October 2009

From Hollywood to Bollywood: The whittling waistlines of Indian actresses

If I could travel to any part of the globe, India would be it. But as much as I love Indian food and culture, I’m not all that hip on Bollywood and the representation of Indian women in film. Luckily reader Kara (a.k.a. Filmi Girl) is a big fan. About 15 years ago, a friend gave her a cassette tape with the soundtrack from the 1980s hit Bollywood film Maine Pyaar Kiye. She was hooked. A few years later, she began watching the films the songs were centered around, and after realizing that her real life friends were uninterested in hearing her gush about Aamir, Preity and Rani, she started a blog. The 30-year-old librarian now spends her limited free time reading about her latest interest and watching large amounts of deliciously, over-the-top Indian films.  She guest blogs today about the ever whittling waistlines of Bollywood actresses.

I began watching Bollywood movies about 10 years ago. Amidst the colorful songs and costumes and dramatic storylines, I began to realize something else that appealed to me about these movies – the actresses were all of normal and healthy weights. By “normal weight,” I don’t mean Hollywood normal, I mean real life normal. From Madhuri Dixit, whose ample thighs supported her beautiful dancing to Kajol’s sturdy tomboyish frame to Karishma Kapoor’s gawky slimness, the actresses all appeared healthy and well nourished. Being beautiful included a variety of different weights and shapes and sizes, rather than a single hard-to-achieve standard.

Yet, something disturbing has happened over the last few years, the variety is disappearing and in its place has taken root something very familiar – the new global standard of beauty.

Skinny and gym-toned is the new ideal body of Bollywood, and with it comes a whole host of problems that should be familiar to Hollywood-watchers. Actresses fainting on set; mysterious nosebleeds; and, perhaps most importantly, the turning over of actresses bodies to public scrutiny to be scolded for weight gain and praised for weight loss. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see this happen over such a short period of time.

What’s even more amazing is that Bollywood is, so far, the only Indian movie industry to be embracing the global thinness ideal. The south Indian industries continue to cast actresses of all shapes and sizes in leading lady roles and the public continues to find them all attractive – thin and heavy. There is something different happening in Bollywood that not nation-wide and that thing is Western Influence.

One important thing to understand about India is that there is no unified India. India is built of a confederation of smaller states, each of which has its own language and cultural attitudes. Hindi, the language of the Bollywood film industry, is the language of much of Northern India – which includes New Delhi, the capital. While Bollywood likes to think of itself as the National Film Industry and of Hindi as the National Language, the truth is a lot more complex and regional film industries are often much more powerful than Bollywood in their markets. So, despite the heavy presence of western companies in places like Bangalore, where they speak Kannada, the native attitudes towards beauty in these regional markets remain the same as always. (And that’s not to say that they are perfect, either. To keep things in perspective, remember that India does a huge trade in things like skin whitening creams every year.)

So, where is this western influence coming in? One explanation is that growing power of the NRI (Non Resident Indian) market. Living in places like South Africa, Australia, the UK, and the States, the NRI market is making up a bigger and bigger piece of the Bollywood revenues and for better or worse they tend to share the same attitudes towards weight as their countries of residence.

Part of it could be the growing influence of Hollywood on the beauty ideals of Bollywood industry people. I saw a lot of this in the press after the Oscar win of Slumdog Millionaire, this idea that Bollywood was in competition with Hollywood or that they needed to “catch up” to the slick looking Hollywood films, which includes scantily clad and skeletal young women.

Whatever the explanation, there is no mistaking this perfect storm of factors has led to a whole new generation of Bollywood actresses. With the exception of a few actresses who were ‘grandfathered in’ by having a famous mother or father (sort like Drew Barymore), more and more actresses are being taken directly from the modeling runways and Miss India lineups. Talented but not model-weight actresses like Vidya Balan, who even just 5 years ago when she made her debut in Parineeta was considered strikingly beautiful, are now considered too hefty for mainstream work.

And yet, strangely enough, I still get the feeling that this size zero obsession has not yet caught on with the masses. While the high society starlets are showing off their flat stomachs, the decidedly healthy looking Ayesha Takia had a huge hit with the film Wanted, which was aimed directly at the masses. (it bombed in the NRI market.) And nobody staged walkouts because Ms. Takia’s stomach wasn’t perfectly toned.

Bollywood actresses

Sridevi (left), a big star in the 90s, was known for her voluptuous figure.
Actress Namitha (right), is currently working in South Indian films.
If you google “Namitha” and “sexy” you get a ton of hits.  She would
NEVER be hired in Bollywood today.

Bollywood Deepika

Bollywood actress Deepika “Size Zero” Padukone is one of the recent
crop of model/actresses who fit right in with the Hollywood beauty aesthetic

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This entry was posted on Friday, October 9th, 2009 at 12:43 pm and is filed under Arts and Music, Body Image, Fat Bias, Feminist Topics, Pop Culture, Race Issues, Television & Film. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 11 responses to “From Hollywood to Bollywood: The whittling waistlines of Indian actresses”

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  1. 1 On October 9th, 2009, ajnabi said:

    Wah! Wah! (That’s how Hindi speakers say “Wow, awesome!”) Kara, you have as usual hit the nail on the head. I can barely stand to watch Deepika Padukone onscreen, it’s painful and sad (and not just because of her lack of acting skills). And when I read about naturally slim beauty queens like Trisha Krishnan from the South working hard to lose weight for their Hindi debuts, it just saddens me further. Turning the Hindi film industry into a Hollywood clone where looking well-fed is perceived as unprofessional is the wrong way to go, especially in a country where people still starve to death on a regular basis–and not because of eating disorders, either.

  2. 2 On October 9th, 2009, rhilex said:

    Gosh, Sridevi looks gorgeous there. Whatever happened to healthy looking actresses like her, Madhuri, Kajol, Karisma, etc? =( But absolutely fantastic article! I love it when you talk about topic like these– you always hit the nail right on the head in terms of what I want to say but gets jumbled around and won’t come out right! And I, like ajnabi, also get saddened when hearing news like that of Trisha– she looks lovely already, people!

  3. 3 On October 9th, 2009, Katie said:

    that’s really sad :( i was beginning to think maybe some industries could widthstand the pressure. if they can’t, who can?

  4. 4 On October 10th, 2009, Layla said:

    Thanks to you and a few others, I finally got around to watching Billa, featuring Namitha. I loved how they flaunted her figure and her sensuality and how sexual a curvy girl could be.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with this post, and I’m joining the saddened crowd at the changes I’m seeing in the world of North Indian cinema. It’s a sad trend to see.

  5. 5 On October 10th, 2009, Raven said:

    Wow I thought Bollywood would be the last place to get hit by the Hollywood epidemic. I had high hopes for them too. But then again, after seeing the same thing happen in Japanese and Korean cinema (and especially so in Korean pop music), I guess it was just a matter of time.

    Is anyone noticing that Deepika Padukone looks kind of photoshopped in that picture? Her ribs and lower bra area looks fake and blurry. Maybe its just me.

  6. 6 On October 10th, 2009, Rum said:

    This article is sooo true, as much as i loved the publicity Slumdog brought Bollywood, the idea of skinny skeletal girls and size zeroes being transported to India is awful! What has happened to curves that Padma Khanna or Sridevi showed off back in their day, they were healthy women who still titilated the audience despite a rolly tummy! What’s so terrible about having the same acceptance in this current film era!

  7. 7 On October 11th, 2009, Kath said:

    Ahh it’s disappointing to hear this. I’ve not got very deep into the Bollywood culture, but the films I’d seen which are admittedly older ones, have always had lovely voluptuous women in them, rocking their womanliness.

    It’s sad to see Bollywood buying into this Westernised view of beauty that is almost unattainable.

  8. 8 On October 12th, 2009, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    This is so incredibly sad. I was so hoping it would be the other way around; that the global success of Bollywood would encourage Hollywood to cast a wider range of actresses. But I should have known; Hollywood is like the Borg (*Star Trek reference*). It sweeps through the sky, taking over every culture it comes across and destroying it, trying to turn every member of society into a drone.
    My husband is a Filipino actor. He sometimes works on jobs that are filmed in the States but released in the Philippines. Because of his dark skin, he’s ALWAYS cast as the villain, whereas the “hero” and, of course, the leading lady, are VERY light-skinned.
    If this is our legacy, it’s a shameful one.

  9. 9 On October 12th, 2009, sita-ji said:

    Great article filmi girl! I remember reading about Sridevi’s nickname was “thunder thighs” and then getting one of her films and thinking, where are they? I can’t see them. :) I’m glad you added this, “One important thing to understand about India is that there is no unified India. India is built of a confederation of smaller states, each of which has its own language and cultural attitudes.” Thought I mainly watch Hindi films, I too watch Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam films on occasion and I always like seeing the more realistic girls in the south Indian films. The photo of Deepika is a perfect example of how it’s gone too far. I remember being so concerned about how ultra thin she looked in that item number that it was difficult to watch, let alone enjoy. It’s time to accept all sizes and shapes for the movies.

  10. 10 On October 13th, 2009, Filmi Girl said:

    Thank you, everyone!! :)

    And, Alyssa, I love your Borg reference – sometimes it does feel like the Hollywood beauty standard is like the Borg – assimilate or be ugly are the two options they give us. :(

  11. 11 On October 13th, 2009, Heather said:

    Yes yes.. I have seen it too. I fell in love with Kollywood (southern Indian film industry) about two years ago and still my favorite Indian actress is Meena, a very beautiful woman with a little extra something on her stomach. My favorite Indian film is the Tamil movie Vaanathai Pola. :)

    I am seeing more and more Bollywood films because of my husband and his family (who are Indian), and I see all this skinniness happening and it makes me sad but if the acting is good then I’m happy :P

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