Darn. Didn’t do too well on the last health check—just discovered I have pre-diabetes and the lipid profile isn’t in line either. The doctor tells me I can reverse it by eating sensibly and exercising regularly. He packs me off to a dietitian. “Eating sensibly” and “exercising regularly”—the equivalent of water off a duck’s back for me—suddenly start taking shape as we discuss goals and plans. She wants me to shed 10% of my body weight in the first year. I have to exercise at least six times a week. My waist-to-hip ratio has to change. Breakfast-lunch- and-dinner as I know it are transformed into several small meals. There’s no wiggle room for self-delusion—I have to keep a food diary documenting everything I eat.
Also Read | Radha’s previous Lounge columns
And that’s when it hits me—with rising panic—that the task at hand is nothing short of reshaping my body. I discover that most of my life I have been marching (okay, mostly sitting) to the wrong tune. I was doing my own version of eating sensibly and exercising regularly, and then I’d look around me and by comparison think I was doing fine. Turns out that’s precisely the problem—my comparison points are off. My standards are so skewed that what my eyes see as “normal” is actually “excessive”.
I suspect that’s true for a lot of Indians. We are eating our way up to diabetes capital of the world—heart disease too—because our eyes have been conditioned into accepting an expanded figure as healthy. This is a crisis of mistaken benchmarks and incorrect role models. If you have been pooh-poohing supposedly size-zero Kareena, think again, her trim figure may be closer to a healthy benchmark than one realizes. In fact, Sheila and Munni—and their slim, toned bodies—may be exactly what the doctor prescribed.
Cutting down: Dimple Kapadia in Bobby
Unlikely as it seems I believe that popular culture—movies, fashion, celebrities, music, television, sports—can play a crucial role in national health, namely that of recalibrating overly generous Indian standards down to a trimmer, fitter one. Bollywood in particular—with its stranglehold on our collective imagination—is well positioned to redefine what the ideal Indian body is.
And to its credit that’s exactly what it has been doing—Bollywood has been shedding weight and resizing with a vengeance. Rewind a couple of decades, and see in your mind’s eye the gorgeous Madhuri Dixit swinging her hips to Choli ke pichhe—she is a personal favourite, I must confess—and then compare that picture to the lovely Katrina shaking it up in Sheila ki jawani. Or the impossibly elastic Malaika spinning to Munni badnaam hui. Standards have changed dramatically—Madhuri’s buxom figure would be out of place in today’s less-is-more scenario. Rewind another couple of decades to the 1970s superhit Bobby—can you see Dimple in the koli dress simpering to Jhoot bole, kauwa kate? Compare her with, say, Deepika’s debut in Om Shanti Om. Cute-and-chubby is out; athletically toned is in.
The Bollywood babes are working out, and some are even stepping into the fitness business. Shilpa Shetty’s lithe figure of today is different from her plenty-of-flesh-on-the-bones version in Baazigar. Even the ultra- curvaceous Bipasha Basu has condensed into a tightly packed fitness guru. Sonam and Sonakshi prove that losers are winners, their new shapes coaxed out of a considerable mass, much like Michelangelo sculpted David out of a block of marble.
The same shift to lean-and-mean repeats itself in the men’s department. Rajesh Khanna made it to super-stardom with a rounded body. The Kapoor clan has produced a string of well-fed male actors who have enjoyed enormous success. From Sanjeev Kumar to Govinda, girth didn’t come in the way of popular appeal. Even the villains, whose sole purpose was to fight, were overweight—Prem Chopra, Amjad Khan, Ranjit. But all that has changed. Six-packs are the new norm, and a chiselled body the price of entry. Those who didn’t have the necessary muscle power have transformed themselves—Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om, Aamir Khan in Ghajini are examples of well-established stars falling in line with the new norms. The villains too know which side their bread is buttered—take Sonu Sood in Dabangg, when he pulls off his shirt for the final fight, he is ripped. Even the musical show Zangoora—at the Kingdom of Dreams in Gurgaon—was a muscular feast, with every male dancer sporting a six-pack. And now we wait with bated breath for John Abraham to reveal the eight-pack in the forthcoming Force.
Is the lofty on-screen norm percolating to society at large? I’d say early signs are hopeful. While I was waiting in the dietitian’s reception, in walked a pretty young bride-to-be who wanted a pre-wedding slim-down. She had come all the way from Punjab and was booking weekly appointments till the shaadi. A decade ago she would have passed off as pleasingly plump, but now she wants to fit a more stringent bill, not to mention a line-up of well-cut wedding outfits. Her hook is no doubt beauty-on-the-big-day rather than long-term health, but at least she is walking down the right aisle.
The need for setting the bar right is most acute in an emerging economy where newly minted money tends to get deposited in fat cells faster than you can say “Munni badnaam hui”.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book.The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury.
Write to Radha at email@example.com