When Kate Winslet walks on to the setting of Mare of Easttown (2021), the first thing that strikes you is just how beautiful she is! Try as she might, she can’t look anything but striking. Winslet wears her age proudly, with lines and wrinkles and greying hair. Dressed in loose casuals without any make up for most of the show, Winslet plays the part of a grandma, a grieving mom and a committed police detective to perfection. Speaking to media in the West, she made it clear that she insisted on her lines being intact; and her belly fat showing up on screen while making love to Guy Pierce (he ages like wine). She wouldn’t settle for artificial beautification.
In India Vidya Balan has led this below the surface but powerful movement of women looking like themselves on film. She did it before any of her contemporaries. What began as body shaming for a brilliant actor in the abysmal Heyy Baby (2007), turned in her favour when Balan owned her weight and delivered outstanding performances. It’s worth noting that she has never been anything but beautiful in saris or other outfits. With Sherni, her upcoming release on Prime Video, she sheds makeup and dons regular outfits that working middle class women wear. Her outfits might not fit well but they fit in perfectly with her character. While Vidya has led this change, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the face of ethereal Indian beauty, also created room for a body image positive conversation when she walked the red carpet at Cannes with postpartum weight. Ash was subjected to humiliation by regressive news media and TV news channels here at home. Overseas the press applauded her. Because, to have gained weight after one has a baby is a perfectly natural thing.
It’s not limited to a few actors anymore. Elizabeth Moss, perhaps the most established star (gender no bar) on TV and streaming, looks overweight in the latest season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Moss has never glossed over her figure in any of her roles. Yet she pulls off each performance with such finesse that one can’t quite imagine anyone else in that part. And she remains strikingly attractive, even as a handmaid or rebel fighter in the making, make up and styling aside.
Streaming content has opened up room for natural and real looking people to play starring roles. For instance, Pooja Bhatt in Bombay Begums looks stunning as Rani, the ace banker. She also delivers a kick ass performance, making us want more of her. Shefali Shah doesn’t beautify herself one bit in Delhi Crime. Priyamani looks like a hassled mother of two in The Family Man; and Nithya Menon looks credible as a chef and tragedy struck mom in Breathe: Into the Shadows.
A conversation around women onscreen and their body weight is not new. But this change is welcome. Looking normal is now the norm, and kudos to that change. While actors like Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor Khan have also emphasized that surgical alterations or forced physical changes were never their choice, the fact that they have glamorous personas and svelte physiques makes their experiences hard to relate with.
When we see a hassled looking woman with un-blow dried hair and a straggly hand bag working hard on screen, we can connect to that. Being thin and pretty has cost many women their health and sanity. Not pandering to this forced imagery in showbiz will have a definite positive impact on keeping ourselves real.
Trivia: Google threw up that there’s actually a show called Fat Actress! If anyone has watched it, do tell! Will publish if you want to write about it.