Cinema
Drag queens and artistes speak about how cinema has used drag for mockery and comedy, in contrast to the performance art which is about exploring gender and sexuality.
Shantanu Pawar & Kitty Su Mumbai

The news that a male, mainstream Indian actor is going to play the role of a woman immediately creates a buzz about how he’s going to prepare for the role. Information about the make-up and prosthetics involved and the actor’s commitment to the art steadily make the headlines, delighting fans and setting up the anticipation for the moment when the ‘first look’ will be revealed.

Occasionally, the actor plays a trans woman, like Vijay Sethupathi recently did in Super Deluxe or Jayasurya in Njan Marykutty. More often, however, the character is a disguise that the hero – a cis heterosexual man who performs the same gender and sexual orientation on screen – adopts for a reason. Several TV shows, too, have anchors and performers dressing in drag, as the performance art is called.

Barring a few examples, drag in popular visual media is a subject of comedy and mockery, especially in south India. However, drag isn’t entirely new to the Indian performing arts.

Traditional drag

As Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a 27-year-old dancer and drag queen from Hyderabad says, drag has been part of traditional dance forms in India for years.

“I’m a classical dancer and performance artiste. As a part of my analysis, I wanted to create a proper drag scene in Hyderabad, inspired by the ones in Bengaluru and other cities. The reason I wanted to do drag is because there’s already such a culture in our country. For instance, in Kuchipudi we have something called Roopanuroopam where a guy dresses up as a girl. Other art forms like Kathakali have drag, too. Performing in drag gives your body a lot of confidence,” he says.

In June this year, Sastry and two other performers put up their first show in Hyderabad. They were expecting only around 20 people, but more than 150 turned up to watch the show.

Mohini D’vi, Sastry’s drag persona, is inspired from Mohiniyattam, a traditional dance form from Kerala. Interestingly, Mohiniyattam has its roots in the mythological story of Lord Vishnu dressing up as a woman to seduce the Asuras into giving her the Amrita (nectar of immortality), which she in turn distributes to the Devas. The last name, D’vi, is ‘Devi’ shortened to give off an Indo-Western vibe and also pay tribute to the artistry of Leonardo da Vinci.

Sastry as Mohini D'vi

However, drag in traditional art forms didn’t quite originate from a desire to break out of gender moulds. Rather, it was about conforming to certain patriarchal restrictions when it came to women. As Nadika Nadja, News Editor with Silverscreen.in, points out, drag was used in traditional art forms more for practical reasons than as an exploration of gender and sexuality.

“In theatre or other traditional performing arts, I don’t think the larger driving force was to express any kind of femininity. It was probably because women weren’t allowed to get out of their homes, so the men had to dress up as women. Here, in the modern drag culture, people are saying that this is an aspect of femininity or gender that they’re exploring. There’s a change in what’s driving the performance,” she says.

Nadika also adds that traditionally, drag wasn’t at the centre of the performance, it was part of the storytelling. In modern drag, however, it is the assertion of the gender exploration that becomes the focus.

Traditional drag was also a means to livelihood. Fifty five-year-old Vannarpettai Thangaraj, for instance, is a now-retired Therukoothu (a form of folk art) dancer who used to perform in the female role. He shot to the limelight after he acted in the critically acclaimed film Pariyerum Perumal as the father of the hero.

“Since the age of 17, I’d been doing this. I’m now 55. I stopped dancing at 53 and got the opportunity to act in cinema after that. That’s how I became a part of Pariyerum Perumal,” he says.

Asked why and how he got into performing folk dance in drag, Thangaraj says, “I had to earn money for my family. I was following this art form for a long time, and decided to join them. I do the make-up myself. All the clothes and jewellery are mine too. Since I’ve been doing this since the age of 17, I know how to do all of it.”

A way of performance which began for practical reasons has now evolved to accommodate a deliberate awareness and has been embraced by those looking to break out of gender norms.

Sastry was 15 when he watched a launda nautch performance for the first time. “This is an erotic art form and we don’t have too many of those in India. Initially, it was performed by men in the traditional format, because women wouldn’t step out. Then, it turned out to be an erotic dance where the drunk men sitting before the performer would start throwing bottles and stuff. But it is being revived now. There’s an entire lineage of performers in launda nautch. There are people in their 70s who are coming and performing.”

Modern drag

For 30-year-old Alex Mathew who hails from Kerala and now lives in Bengaluru, his drag persona called Maya, or Mayamma, was created partly for fun and partly for social messaging.

“I started performing drag in September 2014. The reason I started doing it was because it was fun, the idea of dressing up and entertaining people. But around that time, there was a 4-year-old girl child who was raped here in Bengaluru. Keeping this and Nirbhaya in my mind, I felt I had to make a change when it comes to individualism, gender equality, and feminism. In my own way. That’s when I created Mayamma, the drag queen, who is from Kuttanad. I started including messages in my performance and people liked it,” he says.

Alex Mathew as Mayamma

Initially, Mayamma was dressed in a simple saree with flowers in her hair. Over the years, however, she has evolved to fit the idea of a woman from a small town who comes to a big city and adapts to it. Alex says that from people mistaking him for a trans woman, or a cross-dresser, they now understand who a drag queen is – baby steps, as he puts it.

“Drag should not be mixed with gender or sexuality. A lot of people think after this we’ll transition (into a trans woman). It’s an art form,” he says firmly.

Speaking of Mohini D’vi, Sastry draws a distinction between imitating real women and performing drag: “I believe that drag is a persona played to an infinite level. If you just imitate a regular woman, it’s impersonation. It’s when you pull that persona to an infinite level that it becomes drag. I wear a saree and am very comfortable in one. I’m inspired by mainstream heroines and singers who carry off the saree beautifully. I use pink, purple and blue in clothes. The wig that I use is always either pink, green or white. I work with a lot of neon make-up. As for the jewellery, traditional drag artists usually don’t wear much jewellery but I wear a lot of Indian jewellery.”

Drag in south Indian cinema

In mainstream cinema, the interpretation of drag is still different – it’s neither for practical purposes (the film industry has enough and more of women actors) nor for an exploration of gender and sexuality. It’s mostly to generate humour.

In the south, there have been several instances when male comedians have dressed in drag. Chandrababu, Nagesh, Adoor Bhasi, Brahmanandam, Vivekh, Vadivelu, Jagathy, and Santhanam, to name a few, have done such roles – for a sidetrack or a song.

The heroes, too, have played such roles occasionally. Sivaji Ganesan dressed in a saree in the film Kungumam (1963). Rajinikanth dressed up in a saree for a song in Panakkaran. But perhaps the drag performance that is most remembered today is Kamal Haasan’s Avvai Shanmughi which was heavily inspired from Robin Williams’s Mrs Doubtfire.

The 1993 Hollywood film sparked off remakes in India, with Kamal Haasan playing the role of a dance choreographer who disguises himself as an elderly woman in order to win back his estranged wife. Avvai Shanmugi, which released in 1996 was a blockbuster and was made in Hindi as Chachi 420, with Kamal playing the lead once again but with a different heroine. The Tamil film was dubbed in Telugu as Bhamane Sathyabhamane. Kamal is in drag for nearly the entire length of the film. He also did a small drag performance in Dasavatharam, where he acted in 10 roles, one of which was that of an elderly woman.

Some other films where the hero has appeared in drag for a good portion of the film are Madam (Telugu – Rajendra Prasad), Mayamohini (Malayalam – Dileep), Remo (Tamil – Sivakarthikeyan), Jai Lalitha (Kannada remake of Mayamohini), Chitram Bhalare Vichithram (Telugu – Naresh), Bobat Hendthi (Kannada remake of Chitram) and Aanazhagan (Tamil remake of Chitram). Vishal in Avan Ivan played an effeminate man who falls in love with a woman cop and the performance involved a song where he danced in drag.

While the offbeat Kannada film Harikatha Prasanga/Chronicles of Hari was about a Yakshagana actor (Krishnamurthy) who performs female roles and has to deal with his own sexuality and society’s judgment, mainstream south Indian cinema has rarely represented or explored drag as it’s performed off screen.

It is perhaps only the 2018 Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal, directed by Mari Selvaraj, that has portrayed drag without turning it into a subject for comedy or mockery. In the film, Thangaraj plays a folk dancer who dresses as a woman (as he does in real life). His son, Pariyan (Kathir), a law student from a Dalit caste, cares about his father, but is also ashamed of what he does for a living. The character is written to make the audience empathise with him.

Director Mari Selvaraj, who hails from Puliyankulam village in Tirunelveli, says that he knew Thangaraj even before he cast him in the film.

“I’ve seen him performing during my childhood. When I was writing the script, I had decided that the father character would be like this and went searching for him. But he’s old now and wasn’t sure if he could do the role. However, I met him in person and convinced him. I knew what the appearance of the character should be – a man who has been such an artiste for years, in an art form that is excluded,” says Mari.

According to Thangaraj, who does not perform any more, there are three other male dancers in Tirunelveli now who still perform in women’s roles.

Elaborating on why he created such a character as the father figure in the film, Mari says, “We haven’t seen many such characters who are marginalised. They are not represented because they don’t have the kind of heroism that we see on screen. Those who are humiliated in society never become the heroes on screen. That’s why I wanted to put such characters at the forefront in my film. If we ask why Tamil cinema hasn’t had such characters so far, it’s because oppression exists in society – we ignore them in real life, give them no importance, we taunt them. So such characters are not required for cinema. But if you wish to speak the truth through your politics, you cannot speak without including them. Your art form will not be complete without that.”

Just as there are very few drag kings off screen, in cinema too, women have dressed up as men only a handful of times. Anushka Shetty in Rudramadevi, playing a woman who has to dress like a man in order to keep control of her kingdom, is one example as is Gautami disguising herself as a boy for a few scenes in Rudra.

The politics of drag

When discussing modern drag, it’s impossible to ignore the American reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race which premiered in 2009 and recently concluded its 11th season. The show has been a huge influence on modern drag culture. However, it has also been criticised for stereotyping femininity and its problematic politics when it comes to trans women. Most of the participants are gay men and there’s little more than tokenistic representation from other communities.

Sastry readily acknowledges the problems with RuPaul’s and adds that one mustn’t conclude from watching the show that it’s the only way to do drag.

“When we talk about the world of drag, there's patronage of the drag community which is coming from Rupaul’s Drag Race and the majority of the drag queens come from there. But when you learn about the history of drag, you will see that there are different kinds of drag and not all of them are coming from the same space. I, for instance, have seen a performance of drag by a Japanese person where the point was to disgust the people in front of them – it’s like a horror drag. He brings in Butoh as an art and presents it with a performance of drag. Drag as an art form does not believe in stereotyping femininity to one particular level or costume,” he explains.

Alex points out that in mainstream cinema, women actors themselves give over-the-top performances of “femininity”.

“We’re playing them onstage and we’re not making fun of them,” he says. He adds, however, that if anyone points out that he’s made fun of women in some way in his performance, he’s ready to take that as constructive criticism and make changes in his future performances. The spaces where he performs have also taken efforts to be inclusive of trans people, he says.

Even if drag queens may not intend to be disrespectful of any gender, the trans community has often criticised drag culture for the misconceptions that it may end up creating.

Nadika, who finds RuPaul’s to be entertaining but problematic as a trans woman herself, says, “There’s definitely the perception that trans women just put on wigs, clothes, make-up and become women. That keeps getting reinforced over and over again in lots of places – cinema, TV shows, and other art forms. The minute someone is playing a trans character, they’re made to sit in front of a mirror, they put kajal, lipstick, and say this man is now a woman. That becomes the issue. Femininity for trans women is seen as just a performance. A lot of drag performances reinforce that onstage, especially when they say they’re exploring their feminine side and they can take it off and put it on whenever.”

Nadika points out that these perceptions have real life repercussions for trans women who are often pushed into doing sex work or begging because of the degree of marginalisation that exists in society. “They’re seen as a man in a dress. This also hurts the trans women who have to hide themselves and are performing other roles,” she says.

Sastry believes that the traditional drag scene in India is more inclusive. He cites the example of launda nautch and jogwa natyam, two art forms which are considered to be conduits for exploring gender and sexuality, and says that though he follows the RuPaul show, he’d rather take inspiration from such art forms that offer alternative performances.

Gender as performance

When it comes to a mass medium like cinema, where toxic masculinity is celebrated and those who don’t conform to gender norms have historically been vilified or humiliated on screen, performing drag and playing a trans woman have both been equally problematic. Both become about the male actor wearing a wig rather than an exploration of identity.

There have, however, been a few performances which have stood out for their relative sensitivity.

“Clearly, there’s a difference when you perform for comic relief and where you perform otherwise. In Muni 2: Kanchana, we all thought Sarathkumar’s performance as Kanchana (a trans woman) was fantastic. It’s clearly not set up for comic relief. It was a performance which would make you feel for trans people. You may or may not like Super Deluxe but you do appreciate Vijay Sethupathi’s role as Shilpa and it’s not just fun and jokes but you’re seeing the side of what trans women face every day, from kids to adults, the police etc,” Nadika says.

This is probably why Jayasurya in Njan Marykutty was applauded by a majority of the trans community in Kerala, too. Though it was a cis heterosexual male actor playing the role in a film which had its share of problems, the narrative was largely perceived to be empowering.

Nadika feels it’s important to see who is doing the performance and for what purpose. The final effect which the filmmaker hopes to achieve in his/her audience makes a big difference.

“In Pariyerum Perumal, when the villains are taunting Pariyan’s father as “potta”, “ombodhu” and all that, the gaze is different. You know these men are evil and that this is how society treats those who are even slightly deviant – you don’t have to be a trans person or dressed in drag at the moment. You just have to deviate a little bit on what male or female is and you’re taunted,” she says, contrasting this representation with what Prakash Raj played in Appu – an evil trans woman running a brothel.

Some may argue that gender itself is a performance and that drag (whether in cinema or stage) is but a performance of another performance. Analysing it, therefore, is a futile exercise.

Nadika laughs ruefully at this and says, “It’s a fantastic argument in the classroom. When you’re doing Gender Studies in TISS or a Stella Maris or JNU, and you’re reading Judith Butler, you can discuss gender as a performance. But outside the classroom, nobody understands it. How many people on bikes and cars on the roads who see a trans woman begging understand that gender is a performance and that they themselves are performing masculine men? They only think of themselves as men who can do anything. Parents don’t understand that gender is a performance. That’s why a large part of violence towards trans kids comes from families. It’s a nice thing to say but it has no relevance outside the classroom.”