Stereotypes associated with overweight characters need to be crossed out of popular culture, especially since the issue is rarely handled with subtlety or sensitivity.
The ninth and latest episode of a drama series called Oye Motti became the centre of social media outrage when it’s two minute promo went on air this past week. To say that it was distasteful would be putting it mildly. Hell broke loose across social media and the reason for public wrath: the clip, which was considered equal parts offensive and ridiculous. It subsequently drew attention to the entire series.
Episode 9 of the series revolves around an overweight girl (played by TikToker Kanwal Aftab), whose fiance (Furqan Qureshi) rejects her at their engagement ceremony. He challenges her to lose 90 kilos in a year, bringing her weight from 160 kilos to 70 kilos, otherwise he threatens to call the wedding off. The young lady, instead of throwing his ring at his face, accepts the challenge as she has inexplicably fallen in love with him (in a day) and is willing to do anything for him.
Several months of rigorous diet and training later, Aliya is around ten kilos off target when she collapses and gives up. Afraid of further rejection and ridicule, she volunteers to return his ring as she has failed the challenge. He takes the ring and leaves her hospital room, only to return – moments later - in a sherwani with a molvi saab in tow. He declares his undying love for her and admits that he only broke her heart to motivate her to get healthy.
In theory, it’s a welcome idea to write a series on the trials and turbulations that overweight people, mostly women, face in their lives. It begins with fat shaming at school, then the work place embarrassment and finally (and most significantly), the wretched rishta and marriage prospects. In theory it could have been a very powerful series had it been executed with a little sensitivity and lot more subtlety than what is projected in Oye Motti. To caricaturize every character as a fumbling, bumbling and awkward clumsy person is just the beginning of how this series defeats its very purpose.
The execution completely fails the cause. To put a thin actor like Hajra Yamin (Episode 1) in a sub-standard fat suit is, in my opinion, equal to black facing a white actor to pass him off as Afro American. Even Kanwal Aftab is nowhere close to 160 kilos as suggested and her inability to act makes her, as the proverbial fat girl, even more problematic.
When it comes to situations, the fat girls are served every stereotype in the fat girl starter pack. They eat too much and are obsessed with food, they’re made fun off in regular situations like no one else can get into a lift when the fat girl steps in. Rishta rejections and professional sidelining are part and parcel of every story.
What we need to see is the inclusion of overweight people in regular drama serials without necessarily making their weight the centre of discussion. Most overweight actors are restricted to comic roles, where they can be made fun of; that’s a stereotype that needs to be avoided now. The backbencher, the reclusive nerd, the girl who can’t get married, the boy who never gets selected in school teams: these are fat person stereotypes that need to be crossed out of popular culture.
Here’s a challenge. Name five fat characters in any drama serial on air right now. Forget five; it would be near impossible to come up with even one because fat people just don’t exist in the grand landscape of Pakistani drama serials. You’ll find slightly overweight actors when their characters are either elderly or interjected into the stories for comic relief. If you’re fat then you must be middle aged, single, a failure, funny or all of the above.
The one commendable example of how a ‘fat’ person should be portrayed, ideally, was the character of Shazia, played by Mariam Saleem, in Mehreen Jabbar’s Ek Jhooti Love Story. She was overweight and was shown to struggle with rishtas but then her cousin, the endearing Tanzeem ul Rehman Siddiqui (Played by Fawad Khan), is besotted by her irrespective of her appearance. She’s smart and rebellious and beautiful; eventually – and to everyone’s delight – she reciprocates his affections. Without having to lose weight.
Normalizing characters is the only way to make them acceptable. It’s called inclusion.