When Aamir Khan acquired a six-pack (or eight-pack or whatever) for Ghajini, it was still a novelty, It was the first time a serious actor, as opposed to, say, Salman Khan, took to such obsessive body-sculpting — and it turned into a great publicity gimmick. Suddenly, we were hearing all about this exercise or that one, this diet schedule or that one — it was the same with Kareena Kapoor, when she went size zero — and the film was constantly in the news.

But what did the washboard abs do for Aamir Khan’s character, who suffered from memory loss? You could argue that his fanatical exercise regimen gave him something to do while he blanked out, that it was a reassuring routine, but did we ever see him at the gym? Besides, given that memory loss, how would he remember what exercises to do, how many reps, or even where his gym was? Wouldn’t we have accepted him even without this chiselled form? This is, after all, a film about the mind.

And this craze — maybe we should call it madness — is now everywhere. Every hero is expected to bare his torso in front of the camera, from newcomers like Arjun Kapoor in Ishaqzaade to established stars like Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om. (And of course, Hrithik Roshan in Krrish 3, which is the reason behind this piece.)

You could argue that there are reasons for these bodily enhancements — that the Ishaqzaade character is a small-town boy who perhaps worships Salman Khan and therefore hits the gym reverently, that the Om Shanti Om character is perhaps spoofing this muscle mania, that the Krrish 3 character is a superhero and therefore deserves those super muscles. But, as in the case of Ghajini, would these characters have lost anything if they’d been normally built? Did all that ab-flashing — for just a few minutes — change the way we looked at the rest of the story? I’d say no.

When Hollywood stars get all testosteroney, there’s usually a purpose. In all-action movies, we want to see mountains of muscle like Schwarzenegger or Stallone or Dolph Lundgren. Stallone was a boxer in the Rocky films, and those painfully sculpted muscles made sense. Schwarzenegger was an unstoppable killing machine in the Terminator movies, and that almost-alien physique made sense. Lundgren played He-Man in Masters of the Universe, and it makes sense that he’d have those he-man muscles.

You can make a case for James Bond or Ethan Hunt (from the Mission:Impossible movies) to have that kind of body — they are spies, after all, and they need to be in peak condition. You can argue that Sunny Deol or Dharmendra, too, could have used some extra definition in their bodies in the films where they uprooted hand pumps from the earth with their bare hands.

But why take all the trouble to beef yourself up for Krrish 3, when you’re just going to open a door and stand in profile so the audience can see your abs, and, later, walk around shirtless during a song sequence? It’s this use of one’s abs as a super-cool accessory, this metrosexualisation of muscle, that’s annoying. There’s no narrative context for today’s heroes to look this way.

It’s just a glamorous selling point on posters and glossy magazine covers, and the actors get to add a bit of “credibility” to their process by saying things like “I gave up gulab jamuns and gnawed a strip of chicken for eight months, and also woke up at 5 a.m. and spent five hours at the gym” — what’s left unsaid is “so please, please like me, and like my performance.” Perhaps there’s some subtext here. Perhaps, in the absence of a solid character, these actors seek solidity in other, superficial ways.

It’s gotten to a point where we’re hearing about Kareena Kapoor building a six-pack for her upcoming film with the director Karan Malhotra. A tabloidy news item posed this breathless question: “If Kareena has been asked to build a six-pack, how many packs has Karan asked of Hrithik? Any guesses?” From proudly flaunting curves to proudly flaunting the lack of them, the Indian heroine has sure come a long way, baby.

That’s why it’s refreshing, sometimes, to turn to Tamil cinema. When we see a big hero like Ajith (in the Deepavali release Arrambam) show up with a slight paunch and greying hair, we sense a solid man, someone who fills up the screen in more ways than one. Even better is the hulking Sharath Lohithaswa, who plays the villain in Paandiya Naadu (another Deepavali release). When the villain looms this large, it’s all the more satisfying when he falls. If you asked them about six-packs, they’d probably head to the refrigerator.


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