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Apeksha Bagchi

IWB Blogger

Done With The Culture Of Body Shaming, Anuradha Rao’s Theatre Group Is Set To Battle The Stigma

  • IWB Post
  •  March 27, 2018

How many theatre performances, films, and TV ads have you seen where the plump guy or girl is, by default, the sidekick? Oops, forgot to add ‘always the dumb, bullied sidekick.’

Anuradha Rao has spent the better part of her life as a theatre actor, living this reality and unable to comprehend how talent is judged on the basis of one’s looks and body size. After establishing Untitled Arts, a not for profit organisation aimed to develop creative potential, she came up with The Big Fat Company, a theatre group which has one unshakeable condition – the dress size of every actor should be XL or above.

“Fat and Proud, that’s who we are. We don’t play the victim card in our plays neither are we rebelling against the society saying that we are better than you. We celebrate who we are for what we are. For us The Big Fat Company is about exploring possibilities as a performer, and spreading the message that ‘love yourself as you are,” says Anuradha.

As I dialed her number, I realized that today is March 27, World Theatre Day. Coincidence or fate? Well, that’s is a query to be solved later, first let’s chat with Anuradha here. Excerpts:

How did your interest in theatre and acting develop?

I have been acting for the past 20 years as a theatre actor. Well, the seed for my boundless love for the same was sown when I was in high school and there was a play we did. And boy, was I excited! It was there I was introduced and fell in love with the magical world of theatre.

Anuradha Rao

When I was in college, we had a well-established theatre club and I was involved in it a lot and even after college, I kept working with theatre groups in Bangalore.

The culture of fat-shaming is rampant in today’s time, did you also face the same in your career as a theatre actor?

Yes. And more than fat-shaming, I’ll call it typecasting based on one’s appearance. I remember doing a play when I was 19 and essaying the character of a grandmother. I was like “Oh, what a challenging role, playing the character of an 80-year-old!” At that time I did not realize that I was given the role because I was fat.

Anuradha Rao

And it happens to everyone like me out there. By the age of 25-30, you realize that you have been offered only that one kind of role- either you are the comic relief, the mother-in-law, the maid and that is it. Remember that advertisement on TV, of an antiseptic shop where a plump and short kid is washing his hands repeatedly. Just then a slim boy comes in and stops him from washing his hands, saying that the XYZ antiseptic soap can wash away the germs in one wash. Even this barely two-minute long ad gives the vision that fat people are dumb.

I always thought that art sets no boundaries except one should excel in their medium of choice, be it writing, acting or painting.

Only if it were like this. Like there is a lead role played by a slim girl or boy and WE are asked to train that person because apparently, their acting isn’t as ‘top-notch’ as required. So, if we can teach them how to play the role, why can’t we be the lead is always the question. So, the answer is that lead role means that the actor has to be slim, pretty and meet the beauty standards of the industry.

And unfortunately, this mentality ain’t gonna die anytime soon.

How will it? Especially with the kind of corporate culture being practised, where looking good has been made the only option. I mean look at the number of gyms which have cropped up, protein shakes and whatnot, there is this obsession towards having a perfect body. ‘Being fit’ has been swapped with ‘being slim.’

Yep, the goal is to be healthy but that’s kinda lost. So, coming to The Big Fat Company, what triggered its inception?

Well, the idea had always been there. And to be precise, it was formed 10 years ago when I had started rejecting a lot of parts because I was getting typecast in the same kind of roles. I have many friends who went through similar difficulties, so we would sit and converse around the same while sipping on tea. The Big Fat Company is the fruit of such countless chats and consists of those friends as well.

But what about the other actors? I mean, people feel insulted on being called fat and here you were, asking them to associate with the term deliberately?

Mostly, they were on the same track as mine and those who weren’t soon realized that there is no shame in being called fat or plus-sized. In fact, we take pride in it- Fat and Proud is our motto.

Amazing work you’re doing, trying to change the perception towards words like ‘fat’ and ‘plus-sized’. So, have you staged a play yet?

Yep, we recently had a show on 16th, 17th and 18th March. We had five actors in the play based on Girish Karnad’s famous play Hayavadana which talks about the complicated relationship between mind and body. It was a devised physical performance where we communicated more with our body movements and expressions than through words.

Anuradha Rao

Sounds interesting, what was the response from the audience?

Pretty good actually. Some were stumped because owing to their perception that fat equals dumb they had not expected us to perform so well which made them uncomfortable as it was something that forced them to question their judgement.

Anuradha Rao

So, do you think you will succeed in changing the mindsets of people?

Oh, no, no. That’s going to be a toughy. These stereotypes, this desire to insult is so ingrained in people’s mind that it is hard to uproot. During our play, one of the actors uttered his line, ‘Who I am?’ and someone from the audience shouted out, “You are someone who is constantly eating.” The stereotyping is so strong that it blinded this particular gentleman from seeing the talent of the actor and he chose to just comment on his physical attributes.

Anuradha Rao

People and their mentalities. Well, I used to take part in theatre in our university and often saw that it was rather difficult to rent clothes for the heavy-set people, did you find it hard too?

Very difficult. Arre, even the inner wear is so difficult to find. We don’t easily get bra sizes, they say XL but it is not for us. Their plus-size clothes are designed around the concept of slimness. People call Vidya Balan fat, so what am I, a dinosaur? (she adds, laughing).

So, when I was arranging clothes for my play, we went into a plus-sized shop and you should know that every dress, every top is designed to just cover our body. It’s like if you are slim you can wear spaghetti or you can’t. 

So, do you think that gender plays a part in how much someone is insulted for their body-size?

This fat shaming, this stereotype sees no gender, Apeksha, though the expectations from each gender can be different. Both are taunted with the prospect of never getting married because of their weight. But a girl is pressured to lose her weight and a man is more often than not advised to at least get a good job to balance out the scales in his favour.

You have observed this body-shaming culture so closely and lived through it, who or what would you call your constant support through these years?

The theatre community, my own madness for acting, my parents for having the patience to bear my madness, and my 13-year-old daughter, Sadhrasha, for believing in me.

Anuradha Rao

The Big Fat Company plans to take their work to teenagers and kids as well. Its next play is scheduled for 6th and 7th April and is open for kids above 8 years. Anuradha is well aware that the notion of body-shaming is instilled from a very young age, so better to combat it from that age itself.

So, is this the mission of The Big Fat Company, to shatter stereotypes?

It is not just about being fat, there are other kinds of body-shaming as well. If you’re bald then the industry has an issue, if you’re too slim them they have an issue, too dark, too fair. This is the sick dynasty of body-shaming.

And as far as The Big Fat Company is concerned, we are a voice for anyone and everyone who has been body shamed.

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