How to train your drags

A DIFFERENT ROLE Kamal Haasan in "Chachi 420"  

Many actors have played drags effortlessly on screen. A look at some of the roles in English, Hindi and Tamil films

No prizes for guessing what films “Tootsie” , “Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Some Like it Hot”, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, “Chachi 420”, “Kismat”, “Rafoo Chakkar”, “Avvai Shanmugi” and “Aanazhagan” have in common — male actors in drag.

While Dustin Hoffman took drag to new heights in “Tootsie”, Robin Williams played a housekeeper-cum -nanny — a ploy to find his way back into his ex's house, in “Mrs. Doubtfire”.

A new league

Donning the part of not-so-attractive girls (members of a band), Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis warm up to Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot”. The comedy “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, was in a different league, with a group of drags romping across a desert. Taking a cue from “Mrs. Doubtfire”, Kamal Haasan essayed the role of a nanny in “Avvai Shanmugi”. Rishi Kapoor and Paintal did justice to “Rafoo Chakkar” that embraced “Some Like it Hot”.

Biswajit was one of the earliest actors in Hindi, to venture into the drag territory — dressing up as a woman for a song sequence (‘Kajra Mohabbat Wala') with Babita, who masqueraded as a man in “Kismat”. Big B raised eyebrows when he did a sequence in Prakash Mehra's “Lawaris” in drag. The versatile Aamir Khan was in drag in Ashutosh Gowariker's “Baazi” for a number, and Ashutosh Rana played a transsexual politician Shabnam Mausi — a role he's said to have enjoyed playing.

Actor Prashanth says he did a drag role in “Aanazhagan” because he felt an actor worth his salt should have done it all. “I did it at the right time, age was on my side. Had I been older, it might have been difficult to pull it off.” Ask Prashanth what the most daunting aspect of playing a woman was, and he chuckles: “The waxing, the threading, the works…. Wearing a sari in summer, doing a bharathanatyam sequence in a woman's costume, and getting the nuances and variations right were the other challenges. But, I had a rollicking time, and even learnt to pleat the sari, thanks to my mom.”

He recounts a hilarious incident that happened when two of his friends landed on the sets — they could not recognise the actor, playing a woman. “I put my arms around them, and they took to their heels. Only when I spoke did they realise it was me.” Would he do another drag role? “Not for a million dollars,” he says.

It started long ago…

Earlier, male actors had to play female roles as well because of social taboos.

Music historian V. Sriram mentions doyens such as Rangavadivelu Mudaliar, P. Nagarathinam Aiyar and E. Krishna Iyer — members of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha — who donned female roles with aplomb. Apparently, Viceroy Lord Minto refused to believe that Rangavadivelu Mudaliar was not a woman!

“And, how can one forget T.K. Shanmugam who played Avvaiyar with perfection? Even actors such as Sivaji Ganesan had done female roles in plays. They even had to sing!” he says.