The movies are clear on the issue of body mass. If men are bulky, they need to be display evidence of treadmill time and protein shakes. Women, of course, must be svelte or, at, best curvy. Fat people can only be bit-part actors, the objects of ridicule, or villainous types who are too busy being criminals to watch the weighing scale.

Two new films challenge this taboo on depicting unacceptable body types. Saba Rehman’s recent documentary, The F Word, records her attempts to lose weight and regain confidence in her self-image. Sharat Katariya’s movie, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, produced by Yash Raj Films and being released on February 27, is about a thin man who is compelled by economic circumstances to marry a woman several times his size.

Both films have at their centre women who are never allowed to forget how large they are and how greatly they differ from the conventional standard of beauty. Rehman’s 52-minute personal documentary could have taken a generalised view of the automatic equation between slimness and desirability.  Instead, she chose to recount her attempts to shed her plus-size tag by signing up for a weight-loss programme and gym membership and putting on her running shoes.

The result is a touching, and often funny film about a young woman’s brave journey towards a lighter body and, hopefully, spirit. Rehman, a 28-year-old filmmaker in Delhi, screened The F Word most recently at the Vibgyor Film Festival in Thrissur in Kerala. Some members of the audience were “taken aback” by the film’s tone, Rehman said, but others appreciated the courage it took to explore a sensitive and potentially touchy subject.

“The exercise was to express myself through a medium and understand certain things about myself,” Rehman said in a phone interview. “Fat people belong to the same category as old people or even your parents – you don’t look at them as human beings.”

The F Word weaves in humourous animated sequences inspired by such films as (500) Days of Summer and Thelma and Louise and includes interviews with Rehman’s friends and family members. A male acquaintance candidly admits that he would think twice before dating a woman who is plump. The documentary aims to make visible the issue of a bias against overweight people, whether it is in the casual and unthinking use of words, phrases and limericks to tease or describe them, or the assumption that they don’t deserve the same opportunities that others do.

“Generally as a people, we are insensitive to anything that doesn’t fit out ideal notions,” Rehman said. One of her biggest challenges while making and editing the film was to put distance between herself and the personal nature of the material. “Since this is a film about body image, I had a really hard time editing it,” she said. “I had to be okay with seeing myself on the screen. I used to think that I look horrible in this shot, I can’t use it. Because of the film, in a sense, there was a weird sense of healing, since it pulled me out of my comfort zone.”

The one area that remains unexplored in The F Word is sexual desire. What do fat women feel about their romantic chances, and how do they deal with possible rejection based on their physicality? “What happened was that in the film, my own journey got foregrounded, and I kept only those strains of thought that directly came back to me,” Rehman explained.

In the bedroom

However, this delicate issue is taken on directly in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. The movie’s male lead Prem, played by Ayushmann Khurana, agonises over his potential sex life and his ability to be aroused by his bride Sandhya, played by first-time actor Bhumi Pednekar. The modestly budgeted movie has been billed as a small-town comedy, but at its heart is the complicated relationship between any newly married couple, emphasised Katariya, who has previously directed 10ml Love, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “The fun is in the situation of the odd couple,” Katariya said. “It is not about her being fat and not being able to fit into a chair. We avoided all these scenarios.”

Katariya was especially conscious of Sandhya’s characterisation because of Pednekar’s concerns. Pednekar is in the movie because of smart casting – she is a part of Yash Raj Films’s casting unit and has never appeared on the screen before. “We were very careful, and Bhumi was also conscious that she should not be made fun of,” Katariya said. “She is overweight, but we didn’t want to go into the comedy zone” that is usually the only place for female actors such as Uma Devi Khatri, whose screen name, Tun Tun, has become a pejorative descriptor for a fat woman, or Guddi Maruti.

Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann Khurana in Dum Laga Ke Haisha.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha doesn’t just buck the convention that an overweight character will never be allowed to pass through a screenplay without a crack or two about his or weight. The 110-minute movie is not a conventional romance about two beautiful people, Katariya said. “Prem is a very ordinary guy who leads an ordinary life,” Katariya said. “He runs an audio and video store that is losing money, which is why he is forced to marry Sandhya.” Rehman had to exorcise her personal demons while making her film, while Katariya faced a different problem: he had to interest potential producers in a movie in which the hero is anything but a man of action. “A male protagonist necessarily needs to be active, an alpha male, but I am a big fan of French comedies where the men are never as active as the women,” Katariya said.

When his screenplay was greenlit by the YRF division for mid-budget and offbeat films headed by Band Baaja Baraat director Manish Sharma, the studio head Aditya Chopra shot down tentative suggestions of a local Shallow Hal, in which Hollywood beauty Gywneth Paltrow donned a fat suit and prosthetic make-up to fit the role of an overweight woman. “Aditya Chopra said the purpose would be defeated, and I admire him for saying that,” Katariya said. The 36 year-old writer and director also avoided the trap of making Sandhya hit the treadmill and shed the kilos by the end of the movie. “I was also asked if she would lose weight in the film, but if she becomes hot and sexy, what is the point?” he said.

F for fat

Not too long ago, Hindi cinema used to allow what were euphemistically called “healthy” women ‒ wide around the waist and base and heavy on the chest. Many leading men have concealed their paunches (Rajesh Khanna for one) under cleverly designed shirts, but a prominent midriff didn’t prevent them from ruling hearts and the box office. But the rules have become stricter, and more restrictive, in recent years. Even run-of-the-mill male characters have developed pecs and abs beneath their crumpled shirts. It is even more difficult for the women, who undergo unrelenting scrutiny and censure if they let down their guard and pile on a few extra kilos.

Actors such as Vidya Balan and, more recently, Sonakshi Sinha, are never allowed to escape suggestions on what they could to improve their form. Conventional standards of beauty dictate that women need to be thin, even anorexic, to be acceptable. But every once in a while comes along a film or a documentary that suggests that being fat isn’t the end of the world. Rather, it could be the beginning of a meaningful conversation.