Does the Bollywood Heroine Ever Sweat?

Films which have recognised that a woman's life is of blood, sweat and tears, like anyone else's have truly distinguished themselves.

Mother India, of course, did sweat. But the ducts that allow for perspiration, a physical necessity in a hot country, seem to be disappearing of late.

In the universe of mainstream Hindi films and candy floss characters, perhaps the last film where the lead actress noticeably sweat with abandon was Madhuri Dixit, running around with Monish Bahl’s joote in her hands, her green outfit riddled with puddles of perspiration in Hum Aapke Hain Koun!!

Kajol too, in Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya, danced around in a brown kurta at what appears to be a village mela, with little regard for the moist discolouration forming under her arms. 

There was something real, even endearing, about heroines who got hot and flustered like the rest of us. Anyone who steps out of the house – for work, to go to college or school, to run errands or even be a vagrant on a weekend – cannot possibly remain perfectly coiffed. And yet, for years now, women on screen go through life without so much as a slight smudge in their makeup.

There are exceptions of course. But the only time female characters do break a sweat is either when they are being raped or if they are a version of Kali or Durga (Mardaani) or if you are watching them in a sports film. And on the off chance we do encounter a gainfully employed woman, the sheer everydayness of going to work seems to have been replaced with exoticisation and, at times, blatant objectification.

Also read: A Great Year for Women-Centred Hindi Cinema

This purging of all things ‘unattractive’, the aestheticisation of  polished, pruned and prettily-packaged bodies is symptomatic of a deeper desire: To make women the perfect sites for visual and physical pleasure, and nothing more.    

A still from ‘Choti Si Baat’. Photo: YouTube

It doesn’t have to be so. Take the 70’s classic Choti Si Baat. Running across a Mumbai street, a young woman, Prabha (Vidya Sinha), clad in a sari, carrying a handbag and a book, makes her way to the bus stop.

On the bus, there are several other women like her, all of them headed to work, pushing and shoving their way through. Prabha’s life at work isn’t excluded from the narrative.

If anything it is celebrated, everyday struggle, sweat and grime included. Her body isn’t as sanitised as the one’s today.

Sweaty underarms, of course, are shown as is her fizzy, sticky hair and the handkerchiefs used to wipe the brow.     

Similarly, in Chashme Baddoor, Neha (Deepti Naval) isn’t just a pretty girl who has three friends fall in love with her, but she is a fully fleshed out character with a job and other creative aspects to her life that form important plot points in the film.

Her commitment to work, which involved going door to door to sell Chamko washing powder in Delhi heat, is what made the film such a cult classic. She isn’t made up like a doll either but simply dressed in a white sari, her blouse slightly wet from walking around in the heat.

There are several, though not enough, such movies from the 60s to the 90s where women with regular jobs, degrees and ambitions filled the frames of Hindi films. Smita Patil as an actress in Bhumika, Waheeda Rahman as a dancer in Guide, Sridevi as a journalist in Mr India, Vidya Sinha as a PhD student in Rajnigandha, Sridevi as a full time homemaker in Judaai, etc. These women and their work life weren’t background noise. They were physically and metaphorically sweating it out, altering the story of their lives.        

A still from ‘Guide’. Photo: YouTube

Do the women in Hindi cinema today sweat? Or, do they just occupy spaces and professions that are completely divorced from all forms of physical discomfort? Not that there are too many professional or working women in films to begin with, but when they do make an appearance, filmmakers don’t seem to want to get into the actual ‘working’ itself.

Call me biased but my favorite examples of such work come from Priyanka Chopra’s repertoire. Over two decades she has played a doctor, school teacher, spy, a CEO, fashion designer, supermodel, a singer, television producer, and an actress among others -and seldom has she been caught with a sweaty brow or a perspiring armpit (barring the obvious exception of Mary Kom).    

Most female leads are like Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar, mostly mute, sometimes quirky, and essentially beautiful and mysterious (read: empty shell because the writer didn’t bother to develop her character) enough to torment, seduce, love and inspire male heroes who then find the courage to resolve the conflict of the story. In passing, their qualifications and careers might be mentioned but in the film they remain love interests and support systems.

Sonam Kapoor in Aisha, I Hate Luv Storys, Khoobsurat, Deepika Padukone in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, Desi Boyz, Kareena Kapoor Khan in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ra.One, Bodyguard, Katrina Kaif’s entire filmography, Alia Bhatt in Badri and Humpty ki Dulhaniya etc are unidimensional. 

Sonam Kapoor in ‘Aisha’. Photo: YouTube

In all these films, heroines, even if they are working or out and about, are expected to be perfect, glamorous, wearing stylish clothes, their noses perfectly powdered and not a hair out of place. No matter that it’s absurd for a physiotherapist to look like a supermodel as she does physically demanding work with sportsmen/women with grave injuries (Khoobsurat).

Or for a documentary filmmaker, like Anushka Sharma in Jab Tak Hai Jaan to be introduced in the film flaunting her bikini bod right before she stupidly jumps into a freezing river in Ladakh. And what in God’s name did Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) do for a living in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil? Her character is literally described as a “charming and funny” on the Dharma Productions website.   

It would be blasphemous for anyone to appear unruly or sweaty in Zoya Akhtar’s casually rich films like Dil Dhadakne Do and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara where everyone is obviously a successful businessman/woman. These are all characters who are so physically and financially comfortable that feminist/female struggles like being a part of the workforce and bursting glass cielings don’t apply to them. 

Kalki Koechlin in ‘Dev D’. Photo: YouTube

The exceptions are far and few in between. Preity Zinta famously played a gutsy reporter working in Kashmir in Lakshya where we see her doing an obviously difficult job that she was shown to be very passionate about.

Konkana Sen Sharma plays an aspiring writer in Wake Up Sid, working as an assistant to the editor while she secretly harbours dreams of writing her own column.

Kalki Koechlin plays a sex worker in DevD, as she uses the money she earns to complete her college education. Deepika Padukone dumps her insecure and possessive boyfriend in Break ke Baad as she flies off to Australia to be an actress.

Gayatri Joshi essays the role of a village school teacher in Swades. And recently Richa Chaddha played a college lecturer turned railways employee shunned away from her family,  due to the stigma associated with pre-marital sex in Masaan

There is however the fact that now, more often than not, if we encounter a working woman in a film, her “independence” is always framed as a choice and deliberate feminist action, sometimes accompanied by a self-aware monologue. That a girl would go out and work isn’t depicted as natural or obvious as it perhaps was in films from the 70’s.  

Perhaps the best working woman character has come from the unlikeliest source, Konkana Sensharma in Zoya Akhtar’s oeuvre-defying Luck By Chance. Sensharma plays Sona Mishra, an aspiring actress in Bombay who has been sleeping with a producer who promised her a film. When she realises that the producer has no intention of making her a lead, she breaks down, her dream dead.

Konkona Sensharma in ‘Luck by Chance.’ Photo: YouTube

But she gets back up and starts doing television. In the last scene, we see her walking out of her house to hail a cab to go to work, and as she walks, we notice all kinds of women in the background, making the daily journey through blood, sweat and tears to make a living. And to live in its making. 

 Tanushree Bhasin is a New Delhi based writer and photographer.