The Unfits

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Art imitates life, no matter how unfortunate the source of inspiration

One of the best episodes of the seminal comedy show Alif Noon opens with a shot of Rafi Khawar aka Nanha wailing on a bed. Asked why, he replies that he never cries except when hungry. When Allan aka Kamal Rizvi finally comes home, he has brought dinner with him. It is a bag of roasted chick peas. Then follows a round of witty rebukes from Nanha, which finally ends with Allan convincing him to eat the chick peas because one should be grateful to God for whatever food he has given them.

This was quintessential Nanha. The portly, simple minded man who could cry for food and would be easily manipulated. This is how Pakistani shows and films depicted fat people. The clumsy fool who, it was implied, had a rather low IQ. Alif Noon, no ordinary sitcom, gave Nanha’s character many more dimensions, most crucially his heart of gold and scruples. Ever the truthful man, he foils Allan’s fraudulent get rich schemes again and again by refusing to lie. Alif Noon was immensely successful, and Nanha its breakaway star. The triumph of Alif Noon enabled Nanha to get what few, very few, other overweight actors had gotten- meaty roles.

Back in the glory days of Pakistani cinema and film, there were many stout actors and actresses who were trying to break into the industry. Then, as now, a certain type of body and face were distinct advantages. Film is after all a visual medium and a hero or heroine who was not perfect looking was a disadvantage. And though the ripped physique of today was not a requirement back then, the starring roles would be handed out to actors bearing certain physical traits. Being overweight was not one of them. One cannot fault the directors for doing so. After all, a hero has to look heroic, however stereotypical that ideal may be. But what one can fault them for was stripping away the dignity of the actor who was overweight.

Aahat, one of the 1980s’ enduring romance movies, depicts this most clearly in a scene so exaggerated that it boggles the mind. Nadeem’s poor boy hero takes the rich heroine Shabnam and her friend Romana out for lunch. Romana, weighing just slightly more than Shabnam, is dressed in men’s clothes and wearing a short wig throughout the film. She orders nearly the entire menu, then is shown eating and drinking very fast from a piled plate. Probably not happy that with her pace of hogging the food down, the film makers speed the footage up, resulting in an amplified caricature of the female glutton; dressed like a man, eating like ten men, draining a poor man’s wallet. In comparison, Shabnam is the delicate wall flower dressed in a silk shirt, a beaded clip adorning her flowing hair, picking at her food, giggling affectionately at her friend’s greed; secure in the femininity that contrasts perfectly off of Romana, the butt of the joke.

Art is a reflection of society, and this is how society sees people who are not physically fit – the butt of the joke. Yes, cinema is not real life. But there is a likeness of actuality there, even in the aggrandised banalities that the subcontinent specialises in. The fat person is a glutton, in art, in film, on tv, and in the public’s mind. The fat person is laughable because of their physique, amusingly weak willed, appallingly lazy. The fat person is asexual, not given to romance, not partial to desire and definitely not attractive to anybody. The fat person is simple minded, as was Nanha in Alif Noon, naïve in his world view, unsophisticated in his dealings. This is how they have been portrayed over the ages. This is how the impression of them was shaped. Whether by art or by society is an argument for another time.

Perhaps the only actors who managed to transcend the clichéd fat man roles were Nanha and Khalifa Nazeer. Talish, with his mercurial changes of temperament, also managed to expand beyond the stereotype. But that’s about it. Khalid Saleem Mota, Chun Chun, Munna Karachi Walla, Begum Parveen, Naheed Khan and many others only found work as living laughingstocks.

All this should have changed with the dominance of Punjabi cinema and the forces of nature that were Sultan Rahi and Anjuman. A pot bellied lead hero, a curvaceous lead heroine and a supporting cast of hefty presences should have been enough to make weight a non issue where roles was concerned. But it was not to be. Whatever accommodations were made for body types were imbalanced by other adjustments. If the fat person was no longer the butt of the jokes, then the thin and dark skinned person was. A new breed of comics was born who lampooned their own looks mercilessly. We got Mastana, Babbu Barral, Shauki Khan and a host of other talented funny men from the bargain. And if we did not get abhorrence for skewering someone based on their appearance, at least we got immensely gifted performers who would not have broken through otherwise.