On a recent Sunday afternoon, the multiplex in my small town was booked to capacity. A disappointed young couple who could not get tickets got ready to go back home when the woman turned to the man and said, “Even one ticket would do. I could sit on your lap." A wistful joke.

The boy then pulled the girl by her hand and said "Dum Lage Ke Haisha". The girl made a face and stepped on to the escalator while the boy gestured to her to walk back to him. Not a bad prologue to what I would be watching for the next two hours – the Woman on Top.

The film is about a romance, or rather the lack of it, between a medium-sized young man, Prem, and an overweight young woman, Sandhya, in Haridwar. It is 1995 and Prem runs an audio cassette store and spends most of his waking hours with Kumar Sanu singing in his ears. Sandhya goes to college and wants to be a school teacher. Prem does not like Sandhya but has to give in to his father’s persuasion.

So Prem has decided, even while saying yes to the marriage, that he won’t be able to love his wife because she is fat.

The plot progresses through a series of tragicomic comments and circumstances, including serving a divorce notice and the consequent six months of let’s-fix-it, to Prem, the almost good for nothing’s success in a race where he beats his friends and enemies by carrying his overweight wife in an amateurish shortened Hardwar version of a decathlon.

What I found most interesting about the film is its constant invocation of the Woman-on-Top visual rhetoric. Of course the Woman on Top is a fun sex position and all that, it might even be a feminist statement, but to incorporate this into a film set in Hardwar, a town known for its religious references, is a bit surprising. Even more surprising – and delicious – is the decision to use this in a film about what clothing companies like to call ‘plus size’ woman.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha therefore literalises the burden of the woman on top position, the trials of a marriage from a male perspective – that is why Sandhya has to be overweight, bulky, difficult to carry, eliciting taunts. We cannot forget that “Dum laga ke haisha” is a male anthem of collective masculinity, to carry, to break, to tear, to bear. Who has heard women sing “Dum laga ke” after all?

This is how the Woman on Top optic plays out:  

Sandhya climbs up a ladder in the library and looks “down” at her man reading in a room below; after their marriage has soured, she sleeps on the bed while Prem sleeps on the floor; the only instance of lovemaking we see in the film is when the woman initiates it – her face on top of the man’s; in the “Dum laga ke haisha” competition, when Prem and Sandhya fall into the water filled pit, the woman climbs up to the “shore” and lends her hand out to the man below.

When they are crying over their personal failures towards the end of the film, we first see Prem hiding behind a wall and weeping. When he hears muffled sounds of weeping, he gets up to see Sandhya sitting on the stairs and crying. The director plays this leitmotif throughout the film, the woman on top parable brought to us by clever camera angles or raised perspectives, on a staircase, on the ladder, and so on.

There is only one scene where the man is on top, and such is the failure of this “position” that it leads immediately to the crisis in the marriage.

Prem is with his friends on the terrace, his wife is dancing with the womenfolk below. A couple of drinks bring out Prem’s frustration with his wife’s size – imagine sleeping with a woman like that, he tells his friend. The result is a slap from his wife who’s climbed up the stairs and overheard the conversation. A show of equality follows: it is in the ethic of tit-for-tat, a slap for a slap.

Prem’s problem is not with the “size” of her body alone – he also cannot handle the size of his wife’s CV. Sandhya’s education throws his lack of it into relief in such exaggerated measure that it makes him take his board exams again. The marriage begins to get lubricated only when the man has found success – would the dum have lasted had the Prem-Sandhya pair not won the race?

When Prem and Sandhya discuss the possible contours of their separate lives after the end of their marriage, Sandhya makes a telling, even preachy, statement against lookism, about there being more to love and relationships than the indulgences of the eye, of a cookie cutter approach to beauty and size. A male voice in the audience came to annotate my viewing of that scene: “It’s her brain that is large – that is her problem.”

Sexist as that comment is in a certain way (Would that comment ever have come for a man?), there is an element of truth in it: The brain is, after all, right at the “top” in the hierarchy of the body.

Which patriarchal society has ever wanted to make love to a woman’s brain after all? And so we have an exhibition of Sandhya’s cerebral acrobatics – not just her academic results and the worldly success they are expected to bait, but the lovely scene, for instance, when Sandhya uses the word “metabolism” to explain her body weight to her husband’s aunt – but never of her body.

The man’s body is made visible to us in instalments – his legs jutting out of his RSS shorts, and when he comes out of the bath twice, wrapped in soap lather and a towel. The woman remains all covered apart from a hint of cleavage in the prologue of a lovemaking scene.

The “doh jism ek jaan” ethic that drives the Bollywood metaphysical machinery is here literalised and then subverted in primarily two ways: the optic of a bulky woman on a rather slim man makes him look like a poor coolie lugging this heavy baggage for a promised handsome fee; the surnames of the married man and woman are, surprisingly, different – Prem is “Tiwari”, and Sandhya retains her maiden surname “Varma”.

There is also something else: one human carrying another immediately brings in the connotation of dependence, and the person being carried is infantilised in our eyes – the infant, the child, the sick. But Sandhya resists being infantilised throughout the film.

Shakha-babu illustrates the essence of the competition, for instance – he demonstrates the demand for the partner’s infantility by making a young boy climb on him. In my mind, Hindi cinema’s most striking image of the woman climbing on the man’s back is Jackie Shroff carrying the petite and eroticised Urmila in Rangeela. Sandhya is, of course, no Urmila, and in spite of the VLCC weight shedding package advertised during intermission at the INOX in Siliguri, where I watched the film, she remarkably reveals no ambition to lose any body weight.

The film must end with the end of the woman-on-top position, and so the kissing scene where the man and woman share a kiss on an “equal footing”, and the concluding Dard karara song, modelled on 1990s Hindi cinema, have both the man and woman sharing “top” positions – a rock by the riverbed, a raised platform, and so on.

Only success will convert a man and consequently bring success to a marriage. Sandhya must plead with her husband to ask her to stop going to Meerut to take up a schoolteacher’s job. By giving up on her professional achievement and indulging her husband’s inconsequential success in a rather silly competition, she has to save her marriage.

In the end the feminist parable must also collapse – the woman cannot be on top. The camera jerks back to the same eye level as the man and the woman standing in front of the bathroom. For woman on top is not mainstream and cannot be allowed to be.

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.