The burden of beauty in The Zoya FactorUpdated: Sep 21, 2019 23:21 IST
A couple of minutes into The Zoya Factor, we learn that our heroine Zoya has been dumped by her dentist. The reason this development devastates our heroine is that this rather unappealing dentist is, Zoya feels, as good as it gets for her. She can’t hope to snare a better man because she is overweight; has unmanageable hair that has earned her the nickname of “Jharu”; and is guaranteed to bungle the most unbungle-able of situations.
Unfortunately for both, director Abhishek Sharma’s film and all overweight women with unmanageable hair, when the stunning Zonam, sorry Sonam, Kapoor says she can’t hope to do better than a dumpy dentist, The Zoya Factor feels less like a rom-com and more like a feminist nightmare. During the pre-release publicity for The Zoya Factor, Kapoor told the press that she liked playing “normal” women, and one of the features that attracted her to the role of Zoya is that she’s a “huge mess”. It says a lot about our insane beauty conventions and standards that the Zoya we see on screen is supposed to be a deglamourised Kapoor.
As far as her appearance goes, Kapoor looks luminous, and if she really did put on 10 kilograms for the role, it’s done nothing to diminish her statuesque figure. Zoya’s hair is enviably well-behaved – curling obediently when she wants it to and sitting flat as a sculpted helmet when straightened. Kapoor may appear occasionally on Instagram without make-up – still radiant despite the hint of dark circles – but The Zoya Factor is empty of such feminist fist-bumps. On the big screen, she’s always flawlessly made-up. Not just that, there isn’t one unsure look in the mirror or much surprise when the lady-killer captain of the Indian cricket team, Nikhil – played by the delicious Dulquer Salmaan – starts flirting with Zoya aka Jharu. She takes it in her long-limbed stride, as you do when you’re gorgeous.
This is not to suggest beautiful people – particularly women – don’t bear the burden of insecurities. Blame it on the fashion magazines or popular films or socialisation, but the bottom line is that most women feel browbeaten by beauty ideals. There’s a reason that self-love and body positivity usually begins with an introduction to feminism, and is sustained by a support system of friends and loved ones. Popular culture tends to relentlessly hammer home how we’re not pretty/ thin/ fit/ healthy enough. We’re taught to compare ourselves to others and focus on our flaws. Beauty is a contest that no one is winning.
Consequently, most of us are constantly seeking devices and strategies – diets, exercise routines, cosmetic procedures, products – that will make us feel like we’re conforming to an attractive mould, even while reconfirming our suspicion that we’re still falling short. But not Zoya. She doesn’t have a mental checklist of all the things that she thinks are wrong with her face and figure. In her fantasies, she looks the same as she does in reality. She cracks no self-deprecating jokes about her appearance – the most-used weapon in the insecure woman’s arsenal — because we’ve all learnt from an early age that attack is the best form of defence.
All this sounds grim, but there’s a lot of humour to be mined from this internal conflict. Instagram, for instance, is filled with brilliant artists like Gemma Correll, Prudence Geerts and Maria Qamar who mix wit and insight in comics that interrogate beauty ideals. Unlike women who display their vulnerability but still come across as strong, Zoya’s claims of insecurity seem inauthentic. She radiates Teflon-like confidence and flawless composure. When Zoya tries to pull a Fleabag by talking into the camera, there’s none of the sense of communion and shared intimacy with the audience that Phoebe Waller-Bridge inspired in her award-winning show. Zoya isn’t confessing to anything. There are no hidden depths or chinks in her armour. The only “huge mess” visible here is Kapoor’s attempt at acting.
Fortunately, even though Kapoor is the focus of The Zoya Factor, the film is held together by Dulquer Salmaan and the hormones he unleashes in us audience members. His Nikhil of the dreamy eyes feels credible, despite being a creature of impossible fantasies. Rather than just Zoya, all of The Zoya Factor is a damsel in distress that needs a Prince Charming. Thankfully, if there’s one thing that Kapoor has consistently done for her viewers, it is finding handsome, bearded actors who can play that part to perfection. First Fawad Khan, now Salmaan. Amen.