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Javed Jaffri in Mr ShrimatiOften, inspiration is sought from popular Hollywood films such as Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire. Kamal Haasan’s chachi draws heavily on these two films, for example. While drag acts have been extremely popular over the years, they are suddenly in the news now, more than ever, with the success of the much-hyped Chachi 420 and the much-anticipated success of the equally hyped Aunty No.1 which promises to be full of Govinda-instigated hilarity.

Whatever the circumstances under which our heroes pop up in female attire, the ploy is common enough for it to have developed its own set of narrative conventions. Sometimes the hero has to don a woman’s dress to disguise himself from villainous elements out to get him. Sometimes the villain dons female attire, for example vamp Shashikala’s aide in the Shammi Kapoor starrer, Jawan Mohabbat, who poses as her deaf-and-dumb maid in order to evade detection. But more often than not, the hero does it to enter a closely guarded female domain and thereby get closer to the girl he loves. Rishi Kapoor and Paintal did this to hilarious effect in Rafoo Chakkar. Akshay Kumar and Depak Tejori did the same, though only for part of the film, in Khiladi. Occasionally a serious film like a Daayra or a Darmiyaan comes along, which uses drag as an integral part of a dramatic and serious subject.

But most often, drag is used simply to provide a comic diversion, often in the form of a song and dance sequence interwoven into the storyline. Chunky Panday in Lootere. Aamir Khan as Julie Braganza in Baazi. Naseeruddin Shah, Jaaved Jaffri and Aditya Pancholi in Tehelka. Amitabh Bachchan in Lawaaris. Shah Rukh Khan in Duplicate and Trimurti. Kumar Gaurav in Teri Kasam. Sanjay Dutt in Khalnayak. Mehmood, among other comedians, has done comic drag acts in countless films, like Dil Tera Deewana. In Mughal-e-Azam there were some famous comedians playing eunuchs. In Bombay Talkies films, even Mehmood’s father, Mumtaz Ali, a dancer as well as a choreographer, would often do his dances dressed as a semi-woman, in films like Jhula and Kangan.

Other popular drag acts of the past include Vinod Mehra in Parde Ke Peechhe, Shammi Kapoor in Bluff Master, Shashi Kapoor in Haseena Maan Jayegi and Kishore Kumar in Half-Ticket. Needless to say, the complete filmography of men in drag would be pretty long.

What is so appealing about crossdressing, that it continues to provoke and tantalise audiences, almost without fail? Take Mickey Contractor’s magazine cover for Cine Blitz for example, which featured Anupam Kher dressed as a woman. “The cover was very much appreciated,” says Contractor, “I don’t think the magazine has had such a successful cover in years. It gave Anupam a lot of mileage, while I became known across the country for that cover, more than for all the other good work that I have done. People in the industry thought it was extremely funny. In fact, it was so successful that nobody believed that it was really Anupam. So for the next issue we had to re-create a step-by-step transformation to show how we created Anupam’s look!” Mickey Contractor also made up Shah Rukh in Duplicate and Aamir Khan in Baazi. "All three men looked great in drag," he adds, laughing, "Aamir took his drag act so seriously, he bores you to tears with his endless and innumerable trials!"

GovindaSays Jaaved Jaffri, one of the few actors who has carried a drag act through an entire film, “I think it is generally men in the audience who find drag acts extremely funny. If you’re doing drag in a comic mould then it’s all about caricature. Just as a cartoonist may highlight his subject’s nose by making it longer, as an actor you highlight certain aspects of being a woman by caricaturing the voice, or hand gestures, for example.”

Some might say that the appeal of crossdressing lies in its vulgarity and the avenues it opens for bodily humour and double entendres. Jaaved Jaffri points out that some people might consider the act of cross-dressing as vulgar in itself. But discounting such extreme conservatism, there are plenty of examples to illustrate that drag acts need not be vulgar in order to click. Kamal Haasan made a point to create an elderly female persona in Chachi 420, because a younger character could give rise to lewdness. Biswajeet’s drag acts in Kismet and Biwi Aur Makan are also cases in point. His coy acts of confusion created ripples of laughter and appreciation, and are remembered with fondness even today.

Biswajeet remembers his roles in both movies as interesting and challenging ones. “Biwi Aur Makan was a great film to work on because the director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, was so good,” he says. “The film was actually a remake of a Bengali hit called Jaya Che Kali Boarding. And after we made Biwi Aur Makan, Sachin went ahead and made a Marathi film based on the Hindi version! It was a great challenge to act like a woman, and when I had done it I felt I had really achieved something.”

Reminisces comedian Paintal, “The situation in Biwi Aur Makan was that Biswajeet couldn’t get a house on rent as a single man because the house could only be let out to a couple. So he made his friend pose as the husband while he dressed up as the wife in order to rent the house. He did a very cute job of it. The fun of it was that he didn’t know what to do, and that confusion came across very well. A drag act works all the better when it is a well known actor who is doing it.”

Perhaps even more famous than his role in Biwi Aur Makan was Biswajeet’s female cameo in Kismet, directed by Manmohan Desai, in which he starred opposite Babita. With gangsters after the duo, Biswajeet decides to dress up as a woman as a last resort in order to avoid detection, and sings the hit song Kajra mohabbat wala.

In fact Biswajeet’s drag act in Kismet worked a little too well, remembers film historian and critic, Firoze Rangoonwalla. “Though Biswajeet was a hero for a long time, he was never portrayed as a very masculine hero. So when he put on a female disguise and sang Kajra mohabbat wala, the audience received it with wolf whistles, knowing very well that he was a man! I remember that one of the film magazines made a very caustic remark that if Biswajeet were to stick to these kind of roles, he would be much more successful. There was a controversy and Biswajeet filed a suit against the magazine, though the suit fizzled out.”

Whatever the controversy at the time, there is no doubt that Biswajeet’s drag acts are remembered with enthusiasm even today.

“A drag act does not need to be vulgar in order to be funny,” comments Paintal, “Because the situation itself is so strong. There are some gestures which are so natural and common to women, that when a man copies them well it becomes very entertaining. There does not need to be anything vulgar about it. For example, there is a scene in Rafoo Chakkar where I sit like a man, with my legs spread. I suddenly remember that I am supposed to be a woman, and I quickly draw my legs together. This is not based on vulgarity but on good observation.”

That’s all very well, but how do the men in question feel by putting their masculinity on the line in front of millions of goggle-eyed viewers? A quick survey of contemporary actors who have done such roles reveals that the feelings are mixed, ranging from extreme embarrassment to extreme nonchalance and even enjoyment. Depak Tejori, who, along with Akshay Kumar, donned a mini-skirt for a sequence in Khiladi, vows he will never ever do a drag act again. Unless, he adds in resignation, it is really necessary. “I just hated the way I looked,” he remembers miserably, “I didn’t want anyone to look at me, I didn’t want to be shot. As an actor it was easy to act like a woman but I could feel the discomfort women go through when they wear such dresses. And I sympathise with them. I was wearing a mini-skirt and I could understand how obvious it is for men to whistle at a woman who is wearing such a dress. We had to wear the costumes for a couple of days and it was terrible. I had to constantly keep in mind the position of my legs. I felt weird and embarrassed, and I kept thinking, 'Thank God I’m a man!' I'm sure Akshay also felt very weird. Let's just say it was a moment of truth for me!".

Kamal HassanAditya Pancholi, who donned a swimsuit along with Jaaved Jaffri and Naseeruddin Shah in Tehelka, did not seem as traumatised by the experience, but was nevertheless ambiguous about it, saying, “Personally I don’t like drag but as actors we have to do whatever is required of us. But it was a very strange feeling, there are so many people on the sets all looking at you...” And how did it feel wearing a sexy swimsuit? “I’m very tall, at 6 feet and 3 inches, so I looked extremely strange in a swimsuit, with lipstick and eyeshadow on my face. It’s okay for a comic sequence, I guess,” he ends, hesitantly.

Veteran comedian Paintal’s memories of Rafoo Chakkar are more pleasant, and he remembers the experience as a fun-filled challenge. Though he felt uncomfortable on the first day, the precise definition of his role and the situations helped to make him feel at ease very soon. “After the first day or so, the story and the role took over and I stopped feeling uncomfortable,” he says cheerfully. Biswajeet has similar memories, remarking mildly, “Yes, it was awkward initially but then one just got used to it.”

Jaaved Jaffri, whose favourite drag act is himself in Mr Shrimati, is casually dismissive of the Big Question: What did it feel like? “What do you want me to say, that it brought out the woman in me?” he counters sharply. “It’s just a job, man, and I didn’t find it embarrassing or anything. I’ve been used to being around women dancers in leotards, so I know very well how their bodies move. I’ve been observant. And fortunately, I didn’t have a hanging paunch, so I could carry off a female role convincingly.”

If Jaaved is dismissive about the experience, Chunky Panday makes no bones about the fact that he thoroughly enjoyed himself in drag as he pranced around to Paape bachale tusi in Lootere. He goes off into peals of unapologetic laughter at the memory, and begins his enthusiastic account in true Freudian style with the information that “My mother always wanted a daughter. Till the age of two she used to dress me up as a girl, and continued doing so till our neighbours started advising her to start dressing me as a boy, warning her that I might grow up to be effeminate! When Dharmesh Darshan asked me to do the drag song in Lootere I was really embarrassed, but then I went ahead and waxed my arms and legs, and tweezed my eyebrows. And the first thing I did was to call my mom. She was so taken aback, she wouldn’t let me into the house!”

After his mother’s reaction, Chunky had to contend with reactions on the sets. “On the sets the lightmen and the workers kept making passes at me because I looked so cute!” he chuckles, “I would sit with my legs spread out and people kept telling me that’s not how a woman sits. I’m doing a drag act again in Tirchi Topi Wale which is yet to be released, and I’m sure that will be even funnier than the one in Lootere.”

An appropriate point to bring up the rather touchy subject of the homoerotic appeal of drag acts. Though the appeal of homoeroticism is difficult to ignore completely when it comes to drag acts, most actors are quick — perhaps too quick — to dismiss it. Jaaved Jaffri is the most caustic on the subject: “I don’t think the appeal of drag has anything to do with homoeroticism. I find the whole pseudo-psychoanalytic thing weird. The whole Freudian thing of equating a pencil with a penis... It’s just reading too much into it.” While Chunky Panday nonchalantly laughs, “I’m sure there must be an appeal in this for gays in the audience, I bet they must be very happy with it!”

Kamal Haasan was very conscious of the homoerotic aspect of crossdressing when he made Avvai Shanmughi, the original version of Chachi 420. "It was like looking at the other side of a chromosome," he says, "The older age of the woman was crucial to eliminate vulgarity and keep out elements of homosexuality."

Kamal HassanHomoeroticism is not a new phenomenon in the tradition of Hindi cinema. The tradition of cross-dressing has its roots in the history of musical theatre. Earlier, since female actresses were not acceptable on the stage, male actors would take over the female roles. Often, if a male actor clicked as a female, he would continue to play only women. The director and theatre company would insist on it. This tradition continued with the advent of cinema, and it was only in the '30s that actresses became acceptable on stage and screen. Says Firoze Rangoonwalla, “When these boys used to act on stage they looked exactly like women, and the audience would also react as if they were women, by whistling and so on. They were practically taken to be women, since they usually had that kind of figure and face. Men who were typecast as women would sometimes even grow their hair, like the stalwart Bal Gandharva.”

He adds, “Homoeroticism certainly plays a role in the appeal of cross-dressing. It definitely satisfies some inner urges. Even for women, an inner desire is fulfilled through such characters. Take Chachi 420, for example, where we find Kamal doing all kinds of things as a woman. It's an indirect feminist message that even women can be as strong and powerful as this man who is dressed as a woman. The appeal of crossdressing is, after all, about sex and the change of sex. Part of the appeal, I feel, can definitely be traced to some transsexual urge in the audience. The screen always reflects what the audience wants and the audience absorbs what the screen projects.”

No doubt this is a theory which, though widely acknowleged, is also hotly contested. Still, despite the whys and hows, what is rarely contested is the box-office appeal of crossdressing. While a crossdressing sequence on its own cannot make a bad film sing at the cash counters, an imaginative and well-directed drag act in an appropriate context can have the audience in splits. One just hopes that on the heels of Chachi 420 and Aunty No.1, one won’t have to contend with reams of second-rate spin-offs trying to cash in on the current preoccupation with Men in Drag.


“Nobody could believe it was me!”
Amir Khan
I had never played a woman before Baazi. When the director, Ashutosh Gowarikar, offered me the script, he told me there was a sequence where my character, in order to expose the villain, Paresh Rawal, disguises himself as a woman. I had seeen many drag acts on screen before, and I had thought deeply about it. But I was sorry to see that none of them were very convincing. Various things, such as the voice, just wasn't right. Anyone could make out that it was a man playing a woman. So I decided to work on the character of Julie Braganza who dances in a club. I didn't feel embarassed about it. It was an integral portion of the film and I would never have accepted it if I thought it would look ridiculous. I decided that every aspect of the character would be so good that I would be absolutely convincing as a woman. The make-up was the most important thing and I discussed it at length with Mickey Contractor. Usually when actors play women they wear full sleeves to cover their arms. But I decided to wax my entire body. It took over a week to shoot that song, and it took me more than 6 hours just to wear the make-up everyday. I cancelled all my other shootings for this period of time and concentrated only on Julie Braganza. When I finally transformed myself into a woman, everyone was thrilled. Nobody could believe it was Aamir. When I sat on the sets and people came to meet me, they could not recognise me -- they would start looking around for me, and then somebody would have to tell them that I was sitting right there!

I could have allowed a woman to dub my voice, but I was hellbent on dubbing my own voice. I wanted my voice to be very convincing. Dubbing took a bit of time, but I kept at it till I was happy with the result. I was very satisfied with my performance, and all that work paid off in the end.

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