Director: Satram Ramani
Writers: Sasha Singh, Mudassar Aziz
Cast: Sonakshi Sinha, Huma Qureshi, Zaheer Iqbal, Mahat Raghavendra
Every time I open an empty Word document after watching a substandard Hindi film – or, actually, a ‘bad’ Hindi film (if there’s one thing that Double XL taught me, it’s to not sugarcoat politically incorrect terms) – a single question echoes through my wounded mind: “Where do I begin?” It’s not an unusual reaction to have. But I often wonder if it’s a line worth typing in a review – because it’s so rudimentary, so plain, so unbecoming of a film critic sitting down to dissect a movie. Yet, for music lovers in particular, there’s another pressing problem with this line: It’s impossible to think of without singing it to the tune of Andy Williams’ famous Love Story song (Where do I begin / To tell the story of how flawed a film can be?) You get the gist. My belief is that if I sing this anthem in my head and keep paraphrasing, perhaps the review won’t be as basic as the film itself.
This cheap thrill – or brain fart, actually, who am I kidding? – has everything and nothing to do with Double XL, which is not the first mainstream Bollywood film to be so chuffed with its (socially significant) theme that its design becomes a distant afterthought. The premise revolves around two overweight young women who join forces to take on this body-shaming world. There’s Rajshri Trivedi (Huma Qureshi), an aspiring sports presenter from Meerut whose dreams feature ballroom dances with cricketer Shikhar Dhawan; Rajshri shoots and edits her own videos in the hope of getting noticed some day. And there’s Saira Khanna (Sonakshi Sinha), a funky Delhi-based fashion designer who dreams of starting her own label.
Their professions, as you might notice, aren’t exactly rooted in notions of inner beauty. Again, not the worst idea on paper. Rajshri travels to Delhi to interview with a top channel, but is rejected on the basis of her size. Saira catches her very Delhi boyfriend cheating, and so for some roundabout reason finds herself without a director for a fashion video she’s slated to make in London. This is when their paths cross – in a washroom of all places, with both of them howling their guts out. And voila, just like that, Rajshri agrees to be Saira’s director, and Saira becomes Rajshri’s ticket to London so that she can confront the CEO of the sports channel and prove her worth. Completing their team of misfits is a weed-loving Tamil cameraman named Srikanth (Mahat Raghavendra) and a flirty Muslim line producer named Zoravar (Zaheer Iqbal). I’m not sure if the message is that birds of a marginalized feather flock together, but if so, the problems with Double XL start with its oblivious gaze.
For a film that positions itself as sensitive and authentic (especially with the cast), it is frightfully detached from reality. For starters, the presence of a male director (Satram Ramani) and co-writer (Mudassar Aziz) means that nearly everything comes from a space of social appropriation. The two women – with their “condition” – are presented the way humans look at animals: with a curious mix of apathy and sympathy. As per the norms of a culture afraid of confronting its own double standards, humour becomes a cheap front for insight. Most of their moments are played for sound-cued comedy, as if to say: If we can fat-shame ourselves, you won’t need to. In her first scene, Saira tears an XL dress in a trial room. In her second scene, Rajshri debunks the term “healthy” and chastises a small-town male suitor. The only half-decent quip features a Dum Laga Ke Haisha nod; the mother taunts Rajshri’s eating habits, wondering if even Ayushmann Khurrana will marry her.
Even their sadness is fetishized. In the washroom scene where they meet, the two converse through cartoonish sobs. When Saira catches her boyfriend red-handed, the moment is diffused – through a girl stranded naked in the balcony – on the brink of seriousness. When Saira is heartbroken, the camera first titillates us with a slew of empty food boxes before revealing her kebab-roll-stuffed face. At different points in the film, we see packets of chips and burgers and shakes – even alcohol and weed and, well, slim women who smoke at house parties – through the lens of vacant comedy. When Saira and Rajshri reach that unapologetic screw-society stage in London, they speak to each other in stand-up punchlines rather than actual words. They are also shown eating pizza crusts while watching Fashion TV to drive home the revolution.
The issue with Double XL is that it genuinely seems to believe that it’s the first movie ever to explore the prickly relationship between body weight, self-confidence and societal scrutiny. For instance, Saira’s decision to become an inclusive fashion stylist (“one size for all bodies”) is framed as the sort of brainwave that might put Isaac Newton and his apple to shame. Has nobody met the internet? Evidently not, from the way Rajshri randomly lands an interview with Kapil Dev, whose movie-cameo career has reached a point where nothing less than long-haired-rockstar silhouette shots will do. Needless to mention, montage-like music drowns out this career-making chat, because scripting a neat sports interview would require the sort of research that might have made Saira’s clothes – and fashion line – look more human(e). It would also require the kind of knowledge that allows the film to distinguish between presenter (anchor) and cricket commentator. Rattling off Rohit Sharma’s statistics is as deep as the writing goes to reveal Rajshri’s passion. But phrases like “most popular sports show in India” are par for the course in this film. One language for all words, I suppose.
Fortunately, or not, this ignorance extends to the world at large. A British server at a fast food outlet speaks as if he’s putting on a fake British accent. The team is on a limited budget in London (from whatever network greenlights “fashion label videos”), but live in a pretty boutique hotel by a lake so that they can stare at said lake during introspective moments. When they visit Zoravar’s ‘humble’ home for a dinner where Srikanth breaks into a Tamil song to offset the Urdu vibe, they arrive by speedboat no less. The romantic tracks are some of the most forced in recent history, defined solely by men giving women the push to succeed in life.
Which brings me to those men, whose brief seems to be: Imagine if a Rajpal Yadav character were not a Rajpal Yadav character. There’s Zoravar, the A-grade creep who makes rape jokes in a hospital but is supposed to be Saira’s knight in cross-cultural armour. He delivers a “not all guys'' monologue to her seconds after jokingly threatening to exploit her. He wins over Saira by placing life-size cutouts of her all over his quaint cottage – a red flag not as blatant as his annoying catchphrase (“Zo Zee Zaa”), which suggests that the film thinks he’s a charming fellow. Srikanth, for his part, delivers an endless emo monologue about how his father never lived to see him become a cinematographer, but the dubbing of his dialogue throughout the film suggests that he might have been better off as a sound designer. The way London is shot, too, reminded me of the glorified Swedish tourism advert that was Jia Aur Jia (2017), another tacky female-buddy dramedy starring two capable actresses. I had opened that review with: I have so much to say. Which is more or less the spiritual prelude to: Where do I even begin?