By Preeti Prakash
Few people would have heard of or seen the video for “Idhu Gangamman Style” (“This is Gangamman Style”), an item song of sorts in the Kannada film Rangan Style. While Kannada films occasionally rope in ‘bombshells’ like Veena Malik or Sunny Leone to lend oomph to their songs, music director Gurukiran chose an unlikely candidate to anchor his high-energy song – Bharti Singh.
The song features Bharti dancing with trademark abandon while the little-known hero and heroine try, valiantly, to keep pace. Released in late 2013, the film Rangan Style sank without a trace. Perhaps the filmmakers anticipated its dismal showing at the box office, launching the song as a ‘special attraction’ weeks ahead of the film’s release, hoping to cash in on the fading Gangnam wave, and on Bharti’s recognisable face.
Chances are you’ve seen Bharti. Eliciting laughs on the most popular TV shows in India, from Jhalak Dikhla Ja, Comedy Nights with Kapil, Comedy Circus, India’s Got Talent, FIR, and most recently on Comedy Classes, Bharti is everywhere.
While promoting Rangan Style during a visit to a radio station in Bangalore where I worked, music director Gurukiran spoke glowingly of Bharti and openly admired her “guts” in pulling off the song and dance routine with a figure such as hers. It is that kind of well-meaning but cringeworthy remark that comedian Mindy Kaling referred to recently when she spoke about folks who want to know where she gets her confidence from. “Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?”
Bharti certainly should feel like she’s worth a gazillion. She is also one of India’s most successful and highest-paid female comedians. Here, as well as abroad, women are rare on the comedy circuit. As Mumbai comedian Aditi Mittal said last year, “I was asked to choose what I identified with more, being a woman, or being a stand-up comedian. Being asked to choose implies that if I am one I cannot be the other. I’d like to borrow a quote from a report released by the detachable-genital department of Johns Hopkins University, when I say ‘You can’t’.”
From Raju Srivastava, who has now been relegated to a side act, to Sunil Pal, and current sensation Kapil Sharma, laughter on Hindi channels is courtesy men, and now, men dressed as women. Our latest obsession is laughing at Ali ‘Daadi’ Asgar, as he mock-molests our biggest heroes. We roll with laughter as ‘Daadi’ plants SFX-heavy kisses that leave giant, red lipstick marks on everyone from Salman Khan to Farhan Akhtar and Ranveer Singh. Sunil ‘Gutthi’ Grover draws attention to her hairy legs as a bemused Shah Rukh Khan looks on, Kiku ‘Palak’ Sharda challenges reigning Bollywood queens to dance-offs, and Navjot Singh Sidhu erupts, on cue, into sher-o-shayari and paroxysms of laughter.
Bharti stands apart in this landscape of funny men, and men pretending to be women. She shot to fame in 2008 as second runner-up in The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (Season 4), playing a cute, breathless schoolgirl called Lalli. She was 22 then. People loved Lalli because she was so endearing.
Bharti is now 28 and carries an air of virtue and innocence, in comic opposition to her attempt to be seen as a femme fatale of sorts. For, all through the fifth season of Jhalak, Bharti professed her love for the choreographer judge, Remo. She flirted outrageously and danced suggestively in front of him, threw kisses in his direction and sulked when he complimented other women, including actor Kareena. Remo, for his part, blushed dutifully and looked at her indulgently, against the backdrop of audience cheers. They needed no prompting to hoot with laughter, as the idea of a romance between Remo and Bharti was ‘just so cute’. And presumably just so impossible. In another sketch, Bharti proposes marriage to the dishy Michelin-starred chef, Vikas Khanna. She imagines how they will settle in the US with their three kids as Vikas covers his face. Her co-hosts and guests laugh uncontrollably. At an awards function, Bharti requests Manish Paul, her long-standing co-host on Jhalak, to sing a romantic song and serenade her. Manish obliges grudgingly, and as a romantic track begins, Bharti scrunches up her face and burps loudly. The faux-romantic mood broken, the audience roars its approval as Bharti remains unchanged, innocent, and comically clumsy in her half-hearted attempts to seek male attention.
We are glad she is only joking, convinced she cannot be serious. Because, clearly, we do not see her as a legitimate object of male sexual desire. We cannot believe – for one moment – that even outside her scripted television avatar, Bharti is a fully grown woman, a sexual being, with her own individual set of desires.
(Image by Bollywood Hungama via CC BY-3.0)
Bharti’s (unofficial) fan page on Facebook, and official Twitter page only confirm this ‘family-friendly’ sentiment. Fans, young men, boys, girls, uncles, aunties, grandfathers and grandmothers address Bharti as Lalli, as beta, di, didi, sister and behan. They love the innocence and wholesome goodness Bharti stands for. They look forward to her wishes on Navratri, Lohri, Raksha Bandhan and ‘V-Day’ alike.
Scrolling through post after post on her Facebook page, all I find are endless affirmations of her non-threatening cuteness. And try as I might, I cannot find a single suggestive post by an anonymous ‘horny man’, no indecent proposal, abuse or explicit content of the kind celebrities are routinely subjected to on the Internet.
Is this only on account of Bharti being overweight? I wonder. Shilpa Shirodkar is trying to make a comeback via TV serials, but this time around she is older, more subdued. In her heyday, however, actresses like Shilpa Shirodkar and Nagma had their fan followings, and were certainly sexualized – almost fetishized for their voluptuousness. Bharti is certainly not the only overweight female on screen, but she is unique in how her persona has been de-sexualized. All of 28 years and in her so-called ‘prime’, is Bharti perhaps the female equivalent of Alok Nath? (Not so long ago the Internet went wild with Alok Nath memes that made fun of his overtly religious ‘babuji’ persona. Much humour was generated by imagining how Alok Nath drank ‘Gangajal’ and not Vodka to get high, and how he would ‘Aarti All Night’ instead of grooving to ‘Party All Night’. You get the drift. His sober persona provided many a laugh until he neatly debunked his own myth on MTV, no less.)
In an act of desperation, I Google ‘Bharti Singh hot pictures’. I wait curiously for the images to load. All of them feature a pretty, respectable, fully-clad Bharti. One picture stands out, in which Bharti has her hands placed like horns on her head, her tongue sticking out at me in an instantly recognizable, childish gesture of defiance. I abandon my search.
On her television appearances Bharti has danced alongside everyone from the hyper-sexualized Malaika Arora to ‘bubbly’ Parineeti and ‘classic’ Madhuri Dixit – everyone in the narrative box set for them. All of them look delighted and amused to be shaking a leg alongside her. Very clearly, there is no sense of rivalry – real or exaggerated – among the women on stage. For there appears to be no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to who is the more attractive and desirable between Bharti and her Bollywood counterparts. Just as there is no doubt about who is the ‘real woman’ when Kiku ‘Palak’ Sharda and Priyanka Chopra do a dance-off on Comedy Nights with Kapil.
When Palak stomps her feet and insists that the guest decide who is the better dancer between ‘herself’ and the original star and proceeds to flail her limbs as if possessed by the spirit of Dara Singh, we all laugh, knowing well how silly the whole thing is. For there can really be no contest between a hairy man with fake breasts and two plaits and a reigning Bollywood actor. Just like there is no contest between a short, squat, ‘funny’ Bharti and a Bollywood heroine.
Recently, there has been speculation about Bharti’s supposed hush-hush engagement to comedy writer Harsh Limbachiyaa. A website tried hard to drum up scandal, suggesting Bharti takes the much younger Harsh on all her tours and has also bought him a car. But scandal and Bharti are unlikely bedfellows. Photos of Harsh with a casual arm around a ghunghat-clad Bharti stand no chance when one learns that Bharti calls Harsh ‘brother’ on the set. And as this stray link-up story bites the dust, one is forced to concede defeat.
On desi screens, comedians have long found it difficult to be seen as desirable and funny. Aditi Mittal reports that a journalist once asked her unable even to make up his/her own typecasting, ‘So you’re a funny woman, they’re either considered crazy or sluts. Which one are you?’ I said ‘Both’. But not everyone has such finesse in destabilising their own image. If Kajal Bhai – played by Bhairavi Raichura in the 90s television show Hum Paanch – had to be a tomboyish dada, permanently wearing an angry look and a cap, then today, Kavita Kaushik as the aggressive Jat cop Chandramukhi Chautala on FIR beats up burly men to draw laughs.
Sometimes, the very presence of openly expressed desire for male attention by a woman is enough to lampoon her. Today, Upasana Singh as Bua in Comedy Nights with Kapil plays the over-the-hill and overly lustful aunt to draw laughs. A few decades ago, Pooja Aunty on Hum Paanch was unforgettable in her “Aunty mat kaho na” avatar.
Male comedians, too, sometimes set themselves up as romantic or sexual failures to milk the laughs. Ali Asgar, for instance, has been on TV since the 80s, first as a child actor, and then in Bollywood and TV serials. But he has only found dizzying fame and real recognition as a grandmother-in-drag. The nation’s darling of the moment Kapil Sharma fares no better. Sharma, playing Bittu Sharma on the wildly successful Comedy Nights with Kapil, may look increasingly well-dressed but his attempts to flirt with the leading ladies on his show fall flat. The women humour him, ignore his come-ons, lampoon him or turn him down, seeming to suggest that it’s mildly flattering but ridiculous that a comic could hold out any real romantic appeal.
But for Bharti her comedy is one joke told over and over again: her weight. Karan Johar and Kirron Kher applaud Bharti for carrying her weight graciously, for dancing with abandon in spite of it. Madhuri Dixit nods and says “Purrfect”. The audience, ever dependable, goes wild, cheering, at such ‘love’ and encouragement. On the same show, in the next segment, her co-host Manish continues to make sickeningly repetitive jokes on how the wrestler Great Khali’s services are required if Bharti has to do an aerial act.
Last year, Bharti was called onto ‘The Bachelorette India, Mere Khayaalon Ki Mallika’ (the Indian version of Bachelorette), where a host of tight-jeans-clad, testosterone-charged ‘hunks’ vied for Mallika Sherawat’s attention. Bharti threw down a challenge for the men in the house: they had to prove their masculine prowess by doing the impossible – lifting her. As expected, the entire show was an extended gag with jokes about her weight.
During this year’s Holi special show on Life OK, Bharti and the hunky Karan Wahi were co-hosts, with Yo Yo Honey Singh as a special guest. The teaser featured an entire crew of male dancers falling into the water as there was an earthquake caused by Bharti walking onto the stage. I had the misfortune of watching the show, during which the stage literally gives way and Bharti is caught ignominiously in the crater that is created, screaming and with arms flailing for added effect. Yo Yo Honey Singh looked chastised, and did not seem capable of any rap involving female body parts.
Occasionally I get a glimpse of the destabilising Bharti can be capable of. An interviewer asks her about her other, sporting past, given that Bharti is a national-level pistol shooter and archer. But Bharti dismisses the question with a laugh, “Main aaj-kal akhiyon se goli marti hoon [I shoot from my eyes, these days],” she says, triumphantly. In the Bachelorette episode too, one of the challenges were that the bachelors had to do a full split. Why because Bharti can do a full split, is famous for it and makes it look so effortless.
As if in another, wonderful universe, Bharti carries on. Perhaps she is too much of a mainstream celebrity to say anything that rocks the boat. She points out, her weight is a non-issue: “Today a fat girl like me is earning while slim, beautiful ones are sitting at home,” while she is laughing all the way to the bank. She doesn’t have the time or the bandwidth to feel bad about the jokes at her expense. She has to be ‘a sport’. And in perhaps the saddening and most honest admission of all, Bharti says, “If I were thin I would not have been able to become what I am now.”
Perhaps Bharti, like most modern women, has clearly bought into the entire beauty myth. Encouraging and revelling in the jokes about her weight, she fuels it, continuing to lift muscular men who are well over six feet tall. While I worry, perhaps needlessly, about what would happen if her back were to give way. I know what would be worse than Bharti getting injured – and what would happen if she were to actually lose weight.
Just what makes Bharti so popular among diverse audiences? For one, her success lends credence to the dream that one can achieve celebrity despite coming from small-town India. As Bharti has said in numerous interviews, she comes from a part of Punjab where women still have little agency and remain within the home. Having broken barriers, stepped out of her town and having achieved fame and fortune, Bharti then compares herself to a trailblazer a continent away – Kalpana Chawla. Her victories take on a larger meaning, for herself and for others who may aspire to a similar platform for their talent.
While Bharti readily claims that exposure to the larger world was limited in her village in Punjab, she is quick to celebrate her love for all that has come to be regarded in popular culture as quintessentially ‘Punjabi’ – a love for food, dance, fun and being ‘bindass’. The presence of Bharti on TV, then, seems to be a triumph of ‘earthy Punjabiyat’ over the hoity toity ‘English speaking types’. Not surprisingly, Bharti frequently reinforces patriarchal, sexist mindsets in her skits by making fun of ‘skimpily dressed women’ like the ‘hot’ anchors of the show she is a part of. Seeming to reassure the audience that she is just like them. At other times, she is your friendly, familiar, racist neighbour, as she, in a deeply offensive quip, says to Mary Kom that she has ‘hakka noodles’ ready for her backstage. Everybody roars with laughter. Mary looks momentarily stunned. But Bharti sails away, unchallenged, because she belongs. Her appeal is intact, because she is not the ‘other’. Nudge nudge wink wink, she is, clearly, one of us.
Preeti Prakash is a writer interested in popular culture. She teaches documentary film and radio, and works as a freelance communications consultant in Bangalore.