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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

The Big Fat Company: the theatre troupe standing up for plus-sized actors

“We celebrate a relationship free of guilt,” Vidya Ulithaya, one of the actors. “Let the world think whatever it wants, I love food and will eat it the way I like.”

The Big Fat Company players show off their versatile skills but the profession is unforgiving, keeping lead roles from bigger actors. Courtesy Priti Salian
The Big Fat Company players show off their versatile skills but the profession is unforgiving, keeping lead roles from bigger actors. Courtesy Priti Salian

In a scene from Head to Head, the actors on stage pick up cake and eat it with abandon. No, they are not celebrating a birthday, just their connection with food. “We celebrate a relationship free of guilt,” Vidya Ulithaya, one of the actors tells The National. “Let the world think whatever it wants, I love food and will eat it the way I like.”

Ulithaya is one of five actors in the bilingual English and Kannada play Head to Head. She was picked for the role not just for her dramatic skills but also for being plus sized. She is a part of The Big Fat Company, an ensemble set up by actor and corporate trainer Anuradha H R, who produced Head to Head. Her call was: “If you feel you’re big and fat, come join the BFC.”

Anuradha’s personal experience of theatre – about “being constantly asked to do comic roles and playing dumb characters” – led her to create The Big Fat Company. She wanted to prove that actors with a bigger physique were as capable as anyone else in leading roles and could play heroes rather than sidekicks.

“Shakespeare did not describe Lady Macbeth as slim. Why can’t a fat woman be cast in that role?” asks Anuradha, who also stars in Head to Head.

The Big Fat Company aims to question bias around plus-sized bodies and addresses the impact such prejudices can have on people. Head to Head is the BFC’s first production, launched this year, and was staged for the seventh time last Saturday.

“If you feel you’re big and fat, come join the BFC," says one of its members. Courtesy Priti Salian
“If you feel you’re big and fat, come join the BFC," says one of its members. Courtesy Priti Salian

A mix of monologues and dance, it features excerpts from famous Indian playwright Girish Karnad’s play Hayavadana along with the actors’ personal stories to start a dialogue about the diversity of bodies.

“We chose Hayavadana because the issues of mind, body and identity are at its centre, which totally fits with the theme of our play,” Anuradha says. Using humour and clever narrative, the plus-sized actors deal with the question: where does our identity lie – in our mind, body or both?

Krithi Bettadh, a 33-year-old actor was never fat shamed by her parents and always felt comfortable in her skin. But the profession she chose wasn’t as forgiving. She starred in Kannada-language television, film and theatre productions since she was a child but is still waiting for her dream role. “My producers always tell me I have great timing as an actor, but all they have on offer for me are parts as the main lead’s sidekick,” she says. She often played the heroine’s overindulgent, food-loving friend who provides comic relief, with her role focusing on her weight and eating habits.

However, in Head to Head, Bettadh and the other actors get a chance to celebrate their bodies, play lead roles, dance and be manipulative, all at the same time. “With The Big Fat Company, I found a platform to use my emotions the way I like,” says Ulithaya.

The bias against plus-sized people makes its way into every aspect of their lives, Bettadh says. She is often told that it would be easier for her to find the right partner if she kept her weight in check. Anuradha has been disrespected for her physique, even as a corporate trainer. “Fat people’s problems are regularly associated with food,” Ulithaya says, which is why it was essential to have a scene in the play dealing with food.

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Read more:

Plus-size models give voice to fat-shaming and body-image issues in India

How women in theatre are addressing gender inequality in the UAE

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While The Big Fat Company is trying to break stereotypes, Anuradha says that India’s biggest media influence, Bollywood, should also do away with some of its double standards. She points out that the recent production Veere Di Wedding cast the plus-sized actor Shikha Talsania, but at the same time the producers waited for actor Kareena Kapoor to shed her pregnancy weight before playing her part in the movie. “So what if she wasn’t slim? Influencers like Kareena Kapoor need to show what it means to be comfortable even when you are not in that perceived perfect form,” Anuradha says.

“Who should decide whether I should fit in? No one but me,” she says. This is the thought that runs throughout the play.

Audiences have given mixed reactions to the production. A group of dancers was fascinated with the way the troupe moved. “They told us they had never seen big bodies move so gracefully,” Anuradha says. However, some people told the case not to attempt physical movement on stage.

“We have not played victims or rebels,” Anuradha says. “We don’t want to say the world treated us badly. We’re all victims as well as perpetrators.

“Being fat doesn’t make us any different from others. All we ask is to be treated as any other performer,” she says.