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Wearing the pants

At a rehearsal of Tape.  

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The writer checks out Tape, a new stage production, India’s first one that features drag kings — women in men’s roles

I was late, as I always am when I visit Andheri. When I finally ring the bell, a frown greets me, followed rapidly by a wide smile once I am identified as the unpunctual woman who has come to do an interview. Many apologies and some manoeuvring of beautifully formal chairs and bottoms (in said chairs) later, the smiles become warmer and less media-conscious. “We’re also crazy, by the way!” I am told. ‘We’ is a group of people who exude theatre along with the slight sweat of stress of an approaching debut performance. They are getting ready for the first show of Tape, a new stage production produced by the Gaysi Family, devised and performed by The Patchworks Ensemble of Puja Swarup, Sheena Khalid and Rachel D’Souza, written by Vikram Phukan. There is no formal, crystallised script; instead, the actors feed off each other’s lines, moves and body language, reacting and improvising as they perform, all working together in a general direction to showcase the wonderfully theatrical and colourful world of drag. This would familiarly evoke images of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or The Birdcage or even Aamir Khan in Baazi, but this group is veering off the beaten role slightly by portraying drag kings instead — women dressed as men — expressing their masculinity and enjoying every moment of it. They are flamboyant, the personalisation of a gender, but in no way does it reflect, or even hint at sexuality, as Gaysi’s Sakshi Omprakash Juneja explains.

It started with an open-mike event called Dirty Talk, in which Asif Ali Beg sang ‘I wanna be a man’. Phukan, who has worked in theatre for a while, was working on a project with the Gaysi Family then. “Sakshi said that if I ever wanted to develop it into a full play, then Gaysi was willing to support it. At the same time I met Puja.” At the end of a ‘jamming’ meeting with the actors, he asked if they would play drag kings. “Drag queens, or men dressing as women, was seen on and off in various forms. This was women dressing as men. Everyone thought it would very interesting.”

Gaysi did too. As Juneja says, “With Gaysi, we try and explore different creative spaces. Drag kings as a minority within a minority was quite an interesting idea. The concept is not about preaching but about initiating a dialogue — just to say that they exist. Drag kings are a woman’s expression of masculinity. They take all the known masculine habits, but put them forward in their own comfort zone.”

The concept is unusual, rarely formalised as a culture, Phukan acknowledges. “In films, sometimes men dress as women, to hide their identity or whatever. It’s been around, but the drag king culture that we were thinking of is rare. We created a situation in the play where drag kings rule the roost.”  The more familiar drag queen makes her appearance in the play as well, “but it’s not loud and over the top, but someone who plays with adaa, gravitas.” But the drag king characters are not portrayed as funny. “They are normal people with their own quirks that you could meet. We are not making a show of masculinity, but there is an element of exaggeration. As you take something and play with it, the exaggeration becomes a performance.”

Swarup, who plays a Shammi Kapoor-type character, is a theatre wala who has “been doing this since 2003. Patchworks is my entry point into helping me become a more responsible and mature adult.” In a beautifully projecting voice, she proclaims, “I love these girls!” A chorus of reciprocation resounds. “Shammi chose me,” she says, but admits that it was Vikram who suggested it. “It is beautiful to watch Shammi on screen, the way he dances and moves.”

Sheena Khalid, part of the production and marketing effort, says, Ila “In collaborating with Gaysi and Vikram, we’ve been creating on the floor, improvs, script… it’s a back and forth process and quite enjoyable, a story we were excited to tell.” Khalid plays “a drag king and a drag queen and a woman who talks about men”. The humour is not slapstick or even overt. It is based on the interaction of the characters; one performer finishes the act but does not come backstage and instead stays on to cheer the new actor on. Each performance is an evolution, with the learning from one leading to new improvisation in the next.

Shammi was often called the ‘Indian Elvis’; “and Elvis is a big thing in drag abroad,” says Phukan. “Shammi is a local icon, the only one who had that theatricality, flamboyance. He’s a bit of a ham, but still adorable. Shammi had charm. He fell in love with Geeta Bali when she was playing a drag role and her heroine was an actress called Shammy — we call that ‘meta meta meta’!”

Soon, I am evicted, albeit politely. “These are not open rehearsals,” Khalid tells me firmly. And in spite of the medal of dubious honour I have been given during our chat by Swarup who declares, “You are damn shady”, I leave perforce, hopefully to find my way back home without too many stops for directions.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2017 5:26:21 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/ramya-sarma-on-tape-indias-first-drag-king-show/article7719924.ece