By Lipi Mehta:
In Mumbai, due to an initiative by queer collective Gaysi Family, I witnessed a drag king show for the first time in my life. I have heard of (and seen) drag queen performances thanks to many cringeworthy Bollywood films, but this was a unique first. The production titled ‘Tape – The King Of Drag’, produced by Gaysi Family, performed by The Patchworks Ensemble and written by Vikram Phukan, took place amidst a packed audience in the city’s Bandra area.
The plot is an interesting one. In an underground club (The Gentleman’s Club), women artists get together to essay characters of men, including those of Bollywood superstar Shammi Kapoor and artist Justin Timberlake. Shammi and Justin (played by Puja Swarup and Sheena Khalid) dance and swing without hesitation and the ladies in the audience absolutely love their charm. The story revolves around their lives, their aspirations and interests. We get a glimpse into who the women playing Shammi and Justin are in real life when a journalist documenting the lives of India’s drag kings requests them for an interview. What follows is a much-needed insight into the subculture of drag in India.
During the course of the play, I realised that I knew nothing about drag kings in India. Is there even a thriving subculture of drag kings? Are there enough spaces for these ‘alternatives of the alternatives’ to perform no-holds-barred? And that’s where one of the best things about the play comes in. It seamlessly takes you into a world where women become men for a living. You don’t question it, until you really question it and realise how this is an illusion (as the characters describe it too), and how it might not exist in this form in the real world.
While the writing is driven majorly by the actors’ performances, one thing I did notice was how cleverly the script used stereotypes to bash stereotypes. A comedian cracks sexist jokes while saying that he has been warned to not crack sexist jokes. A montage of ‘manly man’ roles in Bollywood and Hollywood (from Amitabh Bachchan to Marlon Brando) plays for the audience, as those roles the drag kings would ideally look up to. But in reality, it re-asserts what ‘being a man’ can do for you in a society that thrives on notions of mardangi.
There is a mention in the play of how some men are perceived as feminine, but how that’s generally frowned upon. Contrary to that, the women playing men in this performance don’t seem burdened nor embarrassed. They do it because they like doing it (no other explanations needed), and as the character of Shammi says while removing the cloth that he binds around his chest, “People say this is binding. But do I look bound?” Also, an important mention to the role that clothes can play in a person’s life. There is a marked difference between a golden shimmery dress and a four-piece suit (with a pocket square, don’t forget) to those who aren’t comfortable wearing the clothes their assigned genders are ‘supposed’ to.
The best part about the evening? This play has ample space for gold and red shimmer, foul-mouthed queens, some classic pelvic thrusts, and of course, Shammi and Justin, but the one thing it firmly closes its doors to is – gender conformity. So if this play is being performed in your city any time soon, I strongly recommend you watch it because you’ll be left with a lot to think about, just like I was.