Through the mirror


Combining art, entertainment and gay activism ... "Gulabi Aaina".

Combining art, entertainment and gay activism ... "Gulabi Aaina".  

WHETHER it is Amitabh Bachchan in "Laawaris" singing "Mere Angane Mein", or Camille Paglia characteristically attacking Hillary Clinton as a "drag queen", the figure of the drag queen has often been caricatured. In the West, there have been movies like "Tootsie", "Victor Victoria", and "Mrs. Doubtfire" in which men have dressed up as women to entertain; in

Bollywood, too, we have seen Biswajeet in "Reshmi Salwar Kurta Jaali Ka" from "Kismet", Rishi Kapoor in "Rafoo Chakkar", Aamir Khan in "Baazi", and Kamal Hasan in "Chachi 420". Hijras have also been portrayed in Bollywood: notably Paresh Rawal in "Tamanna" and Sayyaji Shinde in "Darmiyaan". And although Sadashiv Amrapurkar played a drag Maharani in "Sadak", it was a negative role.

"Gulabi Aaina" ("The Pink Mirror"), Sridhar Rangayan's 40-minute narrative film about drag queens, was made in December 2002 in four days. Following a long quest for financial support, it was finally made and its actors are still to be paid. Yet, at the 35 festivals to which the DV-format enterprise has travelled, it has been regarded as an entertaining look at this colourful, human facet of India's gay subculture. Choosing to avoid the documentary form in favour of the Bollywood framework is an important reason for Rangayan's success. Critical reactions have lauded the film's effort to combine art, entertainment and gay activism. As one viewer has remarked, "`Gulabi Aaina', as it travels into the world of the Maharanis, is located somewhere between Deepa Mehta's `Fire' and Kaizad Gustad's `Bombay Boys'."

"We didn't want to make a melodramatic film that would be preachy," explains Rangayan, who has worked with Sai Paranjpe and Kalpana Lajmi. "We wanted a film that the queens would enjoy as their own, but which was also interesting to a wider, non-gay audience. It was a fine line. We wanted the audience to laugh with the characters, not at them."

"Gulabi Aaina" takes us into the house and lives of two drag queens, Shabbo and Bibbo, for the space of an evening. The characters, Rangayan says, were first conceived of as "Gulabi" and "Noorie" during the making of "Darmiyaan". Using the format of Bollywood (where they have been caricatured for so long), with its song and dance routines, the film inverts the genre to tell this story of the aging diva-duo Shabbo (Edwin Fernandes) and Bibbo (Ramesh Menon), their young gay friend Mandy (Rishi Raj), and the bisexual hunk Samir (Rufy Baqal).

Before we are taken into the queens' flamboyantly decorated boudoir, we see Shabbo performing "In Aankhon Ki Masti Ke" from "Umrao Jaan", oblique glances, delicate gestures and all. But at the end of the performance, when the lights dim, Shabbo is shedding silent tears. "Gulabi Aaina", like Shabbo's performance, shows us not only the bright and colourful world of the divas, but also the devastating realities of Elisa and HIV.

The two drag queens live together in a non-patriarchal, mother-daughter relationship, typical of the queens' family lives that is at once competitive, tender, jealous, bitchy, and supportive. The house, too, is filled with colour and texture: gold, glitter, satin, lace, feathers, and yards of diaphanous fabric. Their language is even more colourful. And the pink mirror, framed in fabric like everything else in the house, is the central point of their lives. It is here that the drama of their lives is played out: here that they quarrel, make up, cry, smile, and apply layers and layers of foundation before going out into the world outside.

The film, shown recently at the British Council, Mumbai (which has also supported its screening at the Commonwealth Film Festival in the U.K.), was seen by a full house. The British Council event was the film's 100th screening. More remarkable for its courage than for its aesthetics perhaps, what is also interesting is the film's deliberate attempt not to wear its "sensitivity" or "advocacy" on its sleeve. As Rangayan explained, the primary goal was to entertain, which was why he chose the Bollywood format, with its conventions and its clich�s, and layered the narrative inside a snug nest of camp humour and raunchy language, in this warm and moving portrayal of a section of the community that has been neglected for so long. Through songs like "Choli Ke Peeche", "Morni Baga Ma Bole", and "Hothon Pe Aisi Baat", and their idolising of Bollywood divas like Rekha, Sridevi and Madhuri, we see their aspirations and desires.

The film does have its flaws, and the mannerisms of the queens, as well as the colours in the film, are exaggerated, sometimes annoyingly. Yet the narrative is well put together, moving with humour and spirit from scene to scene, and at the end of the story we feel that we have understood the queens' lives a little better.

Rangayan is now working on his next film, "Night of Flamb�", a bittersweet love story about a gay couple living in Mumbai, struggling to give their relationship the space and strength to flower within a homophobic, patriarchal society. This will be the second in a seven-part series, entitled the "Rainbow Series", about India's gay subculture.