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Big, big stars

Sushumna Kannan | Updated on April 08, 2019 Published on April 04, 2019

Size up: Head 2 Head uses large masks that alternately cover and reveal the body, inviting audiences to engage directly with the corporeal forms on stage

Challenging decades of prejudices about body types and looks, Bengaluru-based The Big Fat Company puts plus-size actors centre stage

“Where does Shakespeare say Hamlet was lean or that Lady Macbeth was slim?” asks Anuradha HR poignantly. She is the founder of Bengaluru-based The Big Fat Company, a one-of-a-kind theatre group with an explicit agenda to cast only plus-size actors in its productions. The first of these, Head 2 Head, a retelling of Girish Karnad’sHayavadana, was recently staged at the Nepal International Theatre Festival, Kathmandu (February 25- March 4, 2019).

Hayavadana is well-suited for the theatre group’s objective of interrogating embodied identity. Its heroine Padmini is attracted to two men — Devadutta for his intellect and Kapila for his athletic body. When, in a strange turn of events, the two men decapitate themselves at a Kali temple, Padmini manages to reattach the heads with the goddess’s blessings, except she mistakenly switches the heads. The men come back to life and, over time, their bodies return to their original state, implying the dominance of the head. Head 2 Head does not agree with this ending, and instead questions the working of the mind-body complex.

Anuradha launched the company in 2017 after more than a decade of thinking things over: “The frustrated actor-me with no challenging roles to play came up with the idea in rebellion against stereotypical casting practices in theatre,” she says. The lead role, whether in a marquee production or a school skit, invariably goes to a presentable person, no matter how bad an actor they may be. The media too is complicit in promoting a certain kind of look — tall, slim, fair — while eclipsing all others.

Writ large: “To make real theatre with real-looking people” is the motto of plus size theatre artistes. - Supratim Bhattacharya

Writ large: “To make real theatre with real-looking people” is the motto of plus size theatre artistes. - Supratim Bhattacharya

 

A common lament about the cinema industry in India is that the cast, especially the lead actors, is often selected solely on the basis of looks. The country’s theatre industry is usually expected to project a more conscientious alternative, especially given that much of its early history in independent India was shaped by the leftist and socially-conscious Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). In reality, however, Anuradha and her fellow professionals at The Big Fat Company say theatre is equally rife with prejudices and stereotypes about looks.

Harking back to playwrights like Shakespeare, Anuradha points out that they rarely ventured beyond a one-sentence description of a character’s clothes or looks or props, before allowing the character to speak for itself. These minimal aids to the director never mention a body type or beauty as requirements. If our performative arts are leaning towards certain body types, then that is entirely the doing of deep-rooted cultural prejudice, reinforced by directors and viewers, she says.

The Big Fat Theatre Company of the UK, founded in 2018, echoes its Indian forerunner’s thinking. “Where in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did he say that Juliet had to be a specific body type?” it says on its website. The plus-size actors reinterpret the classics, “to make real theatre with real-looking people”.

Asked what it would take for her company to keep doing what it does, Anuradha replies: “We do not want the company to be around forever; the whole point is to make it redundant.” She hopes plus-size actors will eventually find space in all plays, normalising their presence. After all, the role of the body in art forms is as “a site for defining individual identity, constructing sex and gender ideals, negotiating power, and experimenting with the nature of representation itself”, she says, adding, “and thus it holds the power to formulate resistance as well.” Her agenda is to offer deeper understanding of personhoods and communities beyond the body image, but using the body itself.

In Head 2 Head, this is achieved by eschewing traditional theatrical devices of narrative, character and dialogue. For example, Padmini interjects with a personal story — through movement — that is not derived from Hayavadana at all. The other personal stories in the play, too, are all about what it means to inhabit a plus-size body— the struggles with eating, relationships, sex, career, clothing choices and so on. Then there is a scene where the characters simply eat a Black Forest cake — one kilo of it — with zero dialogue to explain. The use of huge masks that almost cover the body and stand in for it, or alternately unveil it, is meant to draw attention to the corporeal form, inviting the audience to directly engage with the bodies on stage.

Head 2 Head was made possible by a combination of crowdfunding, financing from Untitled Arts and Anuradha’s own funds . Ahead of the play’s opening, there was a three-month workshop for 13 actors — who responded to an ad calling for plus-size actors — and another three months of production work with director Shabari Rao. The production has on board seasoned professionals such as Kriti Bettadh, Vidya Ulithaya, Sindhi Hegde and Goutham Upadhya. “Understanding and exploring the possibilities and limitations of our own bodies, both as individuals and performers, was the most exciting and challenging part,” says Anuradha.

After seven shows in Bengaluru, the group plans to take Head 2 Head in English to audiences outside Karnataka. Also on the cards is a one-woman show on sexual violence, which will go on stage next month.

Sushumna Kannan is adjunct faculty at San Diego State University

Published on April 04, 2019
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