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A look at Bollywood’s most iconic body transformations: But are they good for health?

Actors often go to extreme lengths to play their roles, even changing their body shapes to be true to character. It’s great for the audience and the box office – but does it take a toll on their well-being?

brunch Updated: Apr 23, 2017 16:12 IST
Lubna Salim
Lubna Salim
Hindustan Times
Rana Daggubati,Kunal Kapoor,Randeep Hooda
Bollywood actors like Kunal Kapoor are pushing the limit and transforming their bodies to fit movie roles (Subi Samuel)

Here’s what most wannabe actors heading for Mumbai and Los Angeles don’t get. Sure, if they’re successful they get fame and fortune: the two biggest rewards of a career path that can be more evanescent than any other. But along with the fancy cars, fancy mansions, and fans comes solid hard work: work that often goes above and beyond the call of duty, in ways that often affect the actors’ health.

Actors play roles. Occasionally, they play two roles in a single film, for instance, if their characters have to age, or dive into flashbacks. And they have to be the characters, which means, often, completely changing the way they look and live so that their audience never, for one second, gets the feeling that what’s happening on that screen is just an actor acting.

All actors these days are able to change their body shapes at will to better suit a movie role. The key words here are ‘at will’, because if they really want to give a role their all, they have to master themselves physically and mentally, right from the start, in ways that take the usual gym-diet routine to a whole new plane.

We’ve all gaped at Aamir Khan, for instance, in his Dangal roles: gaining so many kilos to successfully pull-off his role as a paunchy, fleshy former wrestling star, but also changing for a few scenes as the wrestler in his prime. Preparing for these roles in ways that would not harm his body too much took him months, all to give an audience a couple of hours of entertainment. Was it worth it? In terms of acting cred, certainly. In terms of box office returns, oh yes, baby. In terms of health? Well, only Aamir and his family can answer that question.

Before Aamir in Dangal, there was Farhan Akhtar in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The actor-director trained with such dedication that he could run about 100 metres in just 11 seconds – the speed of a national level athlete!

Then more recently there’s Kunal Kapoor who bulked up for his film Veeram. Kunal admires Hrithik Roshan for his body, and Akshay Kumar for making fitness a part of his lifestyle. “Akshay is incredibly strong,” he says. “He trains to actually be physically strong, not just to look muscular.”

He isn’t the only actor willing to ignore the limitations of body shape and a skeletal system created by genes: all actors are transformers today. It’s good for us; we get movies that blow us away. Is it good for them? Let them tell you.

Kunal Kapoor
“I had to look physically intimidating, but my director didn’t want my physique to look like one built in the gym. So I had to work out the traditional way.” - Kunal Kapoor
I needed to get brawny without going to a gym: Kunal Kapoor

It took me five-and-a-half months to put on 12 kilos of lean muscle. I dropped 12 per cent of my body fat, and it was not easy, considering I have an uncontrollable sweet tooth,” says Kunal.

The actor gave his body a 360-degree makeover to play a 16th century warrior in Veeram, the trilingual historical drama directed by National Award-winning filmmaker Jayaraj. And then, he had to sweat it out for a completely different movie.

For Kunal, acquiring the desired body for his role was daunting. “Ihad to look physically intimidating and almost like I could bulldoze people, but Jayaraj sir didn’t want me to look like a warrior built in the gym. So he didn’t want any of that six-pack stuff,” explains the actor, who also trained in Kalaripayattu for the role.

The idea was to build a body that was aesthetically good-looking and fit to fight. “We experimented with different things like push-ups in Olympic rings and flipping tyres. I worked with kettle bells and weighted pull-ups till my arms fell off. In the gym, we stuck to basic exercises like bench presses, squats and of course, Kalaripayattu. The workout included weapons training as well,” says Kunal.

Solid hard work

A dictionary could give a whole new meaning to the word ‘dedication’ when it comes to an actor working out for a role. Every day, Kunal hit the gym first thing in the morning for two hours, beginning with cardio, and continuing to strength training, functional training and other body challenges.

In the afternoon, he’d head for 90 minutes of martial arts training with weapons, and then end the day with 30 minutes of cardio.

The difficulty level increased when he had to work out even while filming. “It was very challenging because we were shooting for about 18 hours every day,” he says. To deal with it, he had to break up his workouts into short blocks: before breakfast, at lunchtime, and after the shoot. The last one, he says, used to be particularly taxing because he just “wanted to hit the bed and fall asleep.”

Mind over matter

Hard as the workouts were, for Kunal, the most challenging part of body transformation was his diet. “When you’re trying to build muscle, your diet is the biggest change you’ve got to make and I’m a foodie!” he says, laughing wryly. “For four-and-a-half months I lived on fish, egg whites, chicken, broccoli, oats and sweet potatoes. When I finished the film I never wanted to see these foods ever again.”

Strength to strength

Fitness has been an integral part of Kunal’s life since his teens. As a child, he was constantly ill, but that changed when he started working out.

“At 16, I went to a gym for the first time. It was one of those old-school akharas where I did an hour of dand baithak,” reveals Kunal. His latest favourite form of exercise is mixed martial arts, something he began eight months ago as part of his training for an action film.

He’s also done gymnastics and yoga. “I keep challenging my body and changing the workouts,” he says. “I also read up on fitness to keep abreast of all the new things people are doing, and I incorporate these into my workout.”

As a result, despite being on the wrong side of 30, Kunal feels stronger and fitter with every year. “I can do a lot of things now that I couldn’t do in my teens,” he gloats.

I had to gain 18 kg to look powerful: Rana Daggubati

“I am 32 years old and I’ve always been reasonably fit. But for my film Baahubali, I was required to gain 16 to 18 kilos. I weighed 90 kilos and it took me 12 weeks to achieve my target. To do so, I completely let go of cardio workouts and switched to heavy-weight lifting instead. My daily fitness regimen comprised two workout sessions – one in the morning that lasted for 30 to 40 minutes and the second one post shoot, for an hour. Since I had to build a lot of muscle, there was very little fat left on my body. In fact, I dropped four to five per cent of body fat in the process.

Rana Daggubati

My diet too underwent a sea of change and was packed with carbs and proteins to hold the muscle. But I used to eat carbs only till 7pm. I’d consume eight to nine meals at regular intervals in a day, all of which were carefully measured and cooked mostly in olive oil.

However, since I packed much more weight on my body than my normal weight, every activity became more strenuous – I feel I could have done many action scenes more easily if I were lighter.

When we undergo these kind of transformations, we tend to become injury-prone because we are not conditioned athletes. ­— Rana Daggubati

Additionally, I did a lot of weapon training too for the war scenes to look very Indian. Thankfully, this journey was smooth, although at the end of it I almost looked like an amateur body builder! Again I had to lose nearly 11 kilos for my film The Ghazi Attack, and getting back to my original body weight has been another challenge.

To achieve it, I cut down on protein, and became vegetarian for a month and shed 11 kilos. I also stopped heavy-weight training and switched to cardio. When we undergo these kind of transformations, we tend to become injury-prone because we are not conditioned athletes. So, my aim is to get stronger and work on building my core strength.”

Many actors have gone through some striking makeovers to fit their roles.

Randeep’s transformation was supremely unhealthy.

The actor’s nutritionist sister says she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone! By Dr Anjali Hooda Sangwan

Randeep Hooda

My brother Randeep is a brilliant actor and prepares for all his roles with great intensity and sincerity. But when he told me he wanted to lose a lot of weight for a movie, it was a red flag. After all, he was not overweight to begin with.

I’m well-versed with obesity/medical weight loss, but Randeep’s weight loss for his film meant a greater challenge because he is a sportsman, and losing weight means losing muscle too. I didn’t want him to do this, but he told me that either I helped him lose weight as healthily as possible, or he’d do it anyway, unsupervised.

Of course, I couldn’t let him do that. I’m a doctor. I had to make sure he was not putting his body at risk.

So we started by getting basic blood tests done and decreasing his calories. Now his diet was limited to proteins with very low or no carbohydrates.

To ensure he did not end up with nutritional deficiencies, I put him on daily multivitamins.

Randeep is a man with a good appetite. Though he doesn’t like junk food, he does love hot chocolate fudge and paratha, so those were his treats for meeting his weight targets.

For one month, I stayed with him off and on, assessing his diet and the effect it had on him. Every morning, I’d assess his intake, calorie burn and weight loss. He insisted on riding his horses, which meant that he’d be expending extra calories – not possible on such a low-calorie diet. Every day, I had to adjust his routine like this, and scold him at times when he wouldn’t listen.

Randeep lost 18 kilos and the weight kept dropping even after that because by then, he couldn’t eat. He had to be forced

I advised him complete rest except at shoots. As days passed, his weight started dropping. He lost his appetite and increased his coffee intake. This was not good. Sometimes he’d skip a meal and just have coffee. I’m dead against skipping meals.

After 15 days, Randeep had dropped about eight kilos and was craving a chocolate fudge. So I allowed it. But it had to be eaten over half an hour, which was impossible for him as he gobbles his food. It was the same with his paratha: he had to eat one paratha over 30 minutes. And then he’d ride his horses despite my advice, and I would blow my fuse because he’d be dead tired.

Even the director told Randeep to take it easy, but he wanted to know how a tortured prisoner would feel. On non-shoot days, he shut himself in a room for hours and sometimes days, with no conversations to play the role correctly.

He lost about 18 odd kilos that month, and the weight kept dropping even after that because by then, he couldn’t eat. He had to be forced. I took off from work to be with him, got his blood tests done again and started introducing one food item into his diet at a time. Again, he wouldn’t listen. One day, he wanted to eat waffles. I refused, as too many carbs after a prolonged restriction can cause refeeding syndrome and electrolyte abnormality. It took him another month after the shoot to recover fully and return to his horses, favourite foods and workouts.

Dr Anjali Hooda Sangwan, Randeep Hooda’s sister and a specialist in obesity management.

The author specialises in obesity management and is a consultant at Fortis C-DOC Hospital, New Delhi. Her repertoire includes celebrities, politicians and industrialists.

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From HT Brunch, April 23, 2017

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First Published: Apr 23, 2017 13:45 IST