Indian comedy is rife with men portraying female characters. Why do we find this funny? Here are the answers.
A couple of years ago, I was travelling through the badlands of Uttar Pradesh (I like saying it like that because it sounds really badass) and I had a local theatre performance on my itinerary. Small town theatre performances are mostly open air, with the cheap seats on the ground and the town’s bigwigs straddling rented sofas up front. I was squeezed in between two of this particular town’s richest businessman on one such sofa; I was apparently deserving of a sofa seat because I was an “important reporter from Bombay” – that is how my host was introducing me to everybody.
The play was a hotch-potch love story, with all the ingredients of a commercial potboiler. A rich girl falls for a poor boy on a college trip to Shimla and they secretly get married. When it is time to leave Shimla, the girl proposes that the boy dress up as a woman and come home with her as a close friend. Much confusion ensues – including a horny postman falling for said “close friend” – and finally the truth tumbles out, with a happily ever after ending. It was a terrible play.
What intrigued me, though, was how the largely male audience lapped up the tawdry drag act. I saw them literally roll off their seats when they saw the male actor dressed in a ghagra-choli. They catcalled and wolf-whistled when he had to dance to an innuendo-laden item number, and the sub-plot of the horny postman falling for a man dressed as a woman (there was a cringeworthy scene in which, mid-cuddle, a fake breast falls out) left them in splits. The comments that were flying about were making my ears bleed. One of the fellows sitting next to me guffawed, “This actor is A-one! He looks so fabulous! Wah!” The actor was masculine, in garish make up, wearing breast pads and a wig and hadn’t even bothered to wax his body hair. I was confused. Was this latent homosexuality or a kind of gender transference?
Comedy Nights with Kapil
Men dressing up as women for comic relief is not new in India. If we go into the history of theatre and cinema, we find men essaying female roles because women were not allowed to be a part of the public entertainment space. Even during Shakespeare’s time, men performed female roles. When women started coming into the industry, male actors started dressing in drag or essaying effeminate characters for comedic purposes. This led to popular tropes in theatre and later, cinema – dressing in drag to fool the villain or to hoodwink disapproving parents or figures of authority in romances, the pansy sidekick or “nachya” in Marathi theatre – which trickled through pop culture over the decades.
There is a big difference in the way drag acts are written today. To a large extent, it is a practice much like how it used to be in Shakespeare’s or Dadasaheb Phalke’s time – men are essaying female characters and are not just portraying a male character who dresses up as a woman for a certain scene or purpose. When TV actor Ali Asgar dresses up as the drunk, horny grandmother on Kapil Sharma’s
comedy chat show, Comedy Nights with Kapil, Asgar is performing a female role. Sharma’s show has other actors like Sunil Grover (Gutthi) and Kiku Sharda (Palak and other characters) doing female roles too. Why exactly do we need men to perform female roles? Is it something audiences enjoy watching? How do heterosexual men react to this? I talk to a few men who follow the show and they immediately light up when I talk about the characters Asgar, Grover and Sharda play.
“Dadi is super funny, man,” laughs Anish Trivedi, a 32-year old IT professional from Mumbai. “I love the kind of stuff she does on the show… the way she is always jumping on the actors or trying to romance them and kiss them.” Subrat Roy, 35, agrees. “I think Palak is really funny too. It is the way she delivers the lines that does it for me. Even Gutthi, actually. Really funny.” But does it not bother them that men are performing these roles? When Ali Asgar is jumping on male actors and fake kissing them, how do they react? “I think it is funny, how it would be funny if I saw an actual old woman do that. I am not conscious of the fact that it is a guy when I am watching it, I guess,” Trivedi says. How does he react when he sees two guys getting cosy? Trivedi shudders. “I am not homophobic but I am a little creeped out, to be honest.”
For some reason, heterosexual men are able to make water-tight differentiations between the actor and the character. That might explain why they can laugh at two men canoodling while one is dressed in drag, but shudder at the thought of homosexuality. Is sex a scarier idea? Ashok Row Kavi, editor of Bombay Dost and chairperson of the Humsafar Trust, has an interesting explanation. “Gender is a social performance,” he says. “We are performing a gender role according to how society expects us to perform, and it is very stressful to be a straight man in our country. We are obsessed with being masculine. Look at every gym in every city – they are filled with mirrors. Straight men need a constant validation that they are macho enough. You should walk a certain way, talk a certain way, you cannot cry, your tastes and preferences have to be a certain way… if you are not manly, you are judged and ridiculed. Therefore, when they see other men dressed as women, it is a visual thrill. They can behave in any way they want, because the other person will not judge them. Drag is a relieving experience.”
The other observation that I can make is that the characters in drag are sexually ambiguous. Even though Asgar portrays a sexually active grandmother, the grandmother archetype in India is certainly not sexual. Grandmothers in Indian TV soaps and films are wise figures who comment on social norms and familial mores. Therefore, a “horny grandmother” can easily become a comedic motif. But how do heterosexual men react when men portray sexually desirable female characters?
A few months ago, a comedy adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles opened in Mumbai. Personally, the play failed to leave an impact, even though the script was quite funny. One of the devices the play used required actors to play multiple roles. Karan Pandit, the talented stage actor who played Sherlock Holmes, also played Mrs. Stapleton, the villain’s sister. In a funny twist, a romantic angle between Mrs. Stapleton and John Watson was also introduced. While Asgar and Sharda are portly, middle-aged men without any feminine features, Pandit is a leaner, younger chap who carries off women’s outfits comparatively convincingly. A veteran theatre director commented that “Karan makes for quite a pretty gal” and her chemistry with Watson was “interesting to watch”. How would the same people react if this garb of comedy was removed?
“No one talks about the serious issues,’ says Kavi. “Bollywood and the media make a caricature of cross dressing, and we have reached a crescendo today. This will always be restricted to comedy, because no one has a single, credible homosexual character in their films, which is something that always irks the LGBT community.” If we look for recent examples, Riteish Deshmukh is quite the poster boy of cross dressing in Bollywood, but how would people react if Deshmukh played a gay character in a film? “He would never take on such a role,” said a popular film-maker who did not wish to be named. “See, gender and sexuality are two different things. Dressing up as a woman for comic relief is okay, but actually acting upon it is not. That is why Riteish did a Lai Bhaari, in which he plays a violent alpha male. He is clearly telling you, the audience, that he is the macho-est of them all.”
This raises an important question about how we see gender roles in our society. If we look at comedy over the decades, the “butt of the joke” is always a character commonly perceived as a weakling – the village fool, the sloppy drunkard and the homosexual are popular examples. Are we adding “the liberal woman” to that list? Most of the female characters that male actors essay in drag are sexually brazen, foul-mouthed, liquor-loving and morally liberal – basically, the kind of woman society teaches you to criticise and look down upon. Does this not stink of hypocrisy? We are ready to laugh at men dressed as female characters who “misbehave” even though we reprimand those very misdemeanours as a society.
TV actor and Instagram star Gaurav Gera has made something of a sensation with his micro videos of Chutki – a seductive twenty-something who tries to woo a crassy shopkeeper in a million ways. Gera plays both roles, along with also playing Suyash (Chutki’s brother), her brother and her mother. If a female actor had made the same kind of content, she would quite possibly have been criticised, slut-shamed on Twitter and Arnab Goswami would probably have wasted a bunch of hours trying to ascertain what the nation thought of her. Gera, on the other hand, gets over 4000 likes on every video, and Chutki is one of the most popular tracks on Dubsmash.
Chutki is what most of us would refer to as a “bad girl”. The other female character, her mother, is also a nymphomaniac who has multiple lovers and does not give a damn about her daughter. Am I reading too much into something really simple? Gera thinks so. “I don’t masturbate in the brain and think about gender roles or stuff like that, or how any of this is affecting me. For me, this is just a role and I perform it, just like I would perform any other role. I don’t internalise or let the role affect me.” But why do we have this sudden spurt of cross dressing on television today? “It’s just like how every TV show was being set in Indian villages a while back,” Gera says. “It is a trend and everyone is jumping on it. This trend is working right now, and everyone wants to cash in on it.”
While one person says that this is just a trend, someone else believes that it is encouraging chauvinistic behaviour. A gay friend of mine once casually commented that most gay or bisexual men in India don’t even know what their sexual orientations are and lead straight lives. Like Ashok Row Kavi said, the pressure to be actively heterosexual is so immense that my friend might just be right. “I know a bunch of men who are alpha males outside, but when they are with me at my place, they dress up in wigs and sarees and have a great time. To escape the stress of being manly is such a relief. And surprise-surprise: they are not gay!” Kavi laughs.