By Ranjani Krishnakumar
“Please let the Mahalakshmi come first,” suggests the landlady. The Mahalakshmi of the house is beckoned. We first see her feet peeping out of the autorickshaw adorned by an anklet and a toe ring. Then her hand wraps around the vehicle’s handle in an exaggerated ‘abinaya’, her bangles clinking and revealing her bright red nail paint. She lifts herself up from the seat — the camera focusing on her long hair and swaying buttocks. The camera stares at her breasts and exposed waist as she walks. After seeing her part-by-part, we finally see her face.
This is how Lakshmi is introduced in the film Aanazhagan (1995). Lakshmi is, in fact, Raja in disguise as a woman. The hero Prashanth received high praise for his acting prowess and for the authenticity of his role — legend has it that his own friends could not recognise him during shoot. “An actor worth his salt should have done it all,” he told The Hindu about his motivation for appearing in drag.
This line of thought — an actor’s credentials depending on his ability to play a woman — is a Tamil film staple, a residue of Tamil cinema’s history in stage-drama. Theatre was the birthplace for Tamil film, with several of the initial talkies being “celluloid version of stage plays that were already popular”. Muktha V Srinivasan lists in his book Tamil Thiraippada Varalaaru several actors from the Tamil stage who went on to be successful in cinema.
On stage, owing to the general shortage of female performers and the belief that women will disturb the troupe’s propriety, men took it upon themselves to play women too. This continued in early films as well — the inauspicious role of a widow in Menaka (1935) was played by a male actor, while all female roles in Bhakta Ramdas (1935) were played by men. It appears that the journey to playing ‘raajapart’ (Tamil theatre lingo for lead role in a play) is lined with the customary drag, or as we say in Tamil cinema, “lady getup”.
From heroes with personal legacy in theatre like Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran to the young stars of today, everyone appears — sooner or later — in drag. Most heroes have done it several times in their career, accumulating praise for being “beautiful”, “natural” or “unidentifiable”. Sometimes, it is a small gimmick element, as in Vijay’s Vet-taikaaran (2009) or Rajnikanth in Endhiran (2010). In other cases, it is a full-length feature with a purpose and other embellishments — like Kamal Hassan’s role in Avvai Shanmugi (1996).
Throughout its history, popular Tamil cinema has created protagonists safely at either end of the gender binary — women as homemakers and men as breadwinners, women as seducers and men the seduced (or the predator), women to uphold honour through good behaviour and men to defend their women’s honour through violence. Even a slight deviation from this structure is vehemently eliminated — a shrew is always tamed, a hero with a male lack is masculinised or killed. Therefore, a cross-dressing hero — even if entirely performative — becomes the discomfiting other, requiring such transgression to be adequately reconciled.
In fact, reconciliation begins even with the characterisation and portrayal of the hero in drag. The performance of said femininity is disproportionately exaggerated — a high-pitched voice, batting eyelids, dramatic covering of one’s breasts with the sari, flicking of hair. As if a normal extension, the hero in drag takes physical liberties with the women present in the scene — touching them, standing too close, holding their hands etc. In Maaman Magal (1995), the hero, disguised as his mother, casually touches the chest of his love interest saying, “oru pombala manasu oru pombalaikku thaan theriyum [only a woman knows another woman’s heart]”.
The man in drag is also hyper-sexualised. In Aanazhagan, Raja’s sexuality — as Lakshmi — underlines that part of the story. His fake breasts and shaved thighs are shown to distract the men around. His speech is punctuated with suggestive moans and sighs. There is even a scene where he is lying naked in the bathtub covered in foam. Nearly every gender-fluid/cross-dressing character overplays the sexuality: To evoke laughs (for which several comedians can testify), or emphasise the villainy, like in Iru Mugan (2016), where Love, the cross-dressing gender-indeterminate antagonist is constantly applying make up, checking his nails, touching his hair or propositioning the hero.
This exaggeration serves the purpose of making the audience uncomfortable about seeing the hero in drag, and keeps them in that discomfort until it’s reconciled. In the heteronormative hero-worshipping world of Tamil cinema, the end to this transgression comes in the form of a hyper-masculine other — often written within character or played by the same hero.
A cop is an oft-used hyper-masculine other to balance (or overcompensate for) the feminine role-playing. Almost every hero of this generation has played a cop in the last decade. As the new millennium dawned on Tamil film heroes, the angry young men of the previous decade assimilated into law enforcement with their baggage of morality and hunger to restore justice. A cop in a Tamil film is often a benevolent dictator — he clearly knows right from wrong, believes that reaching the destination trumps a righteous journey, and is practically invincible, whoever the adversary may be.
Such a cop is a perfect yin to the cross-dressing yang. The overcompensation of the cross-dresser by the hyper-masculine hero in Kandasamy (2009) is exemplary. Vikram plays a Robin Hood super cop with an inclination for histrionics — his superhero costume is that of a rooster. He grants wishes to common folk. On hearing this, a group of horny men wish for Kandasamy to appear as a woman and dance like Aishwarya Rai for them. Kandasamy obliges, wanting to teach them a lesson, and appears on their terrace on a drunken night, dressed in sari like Aishwarya Rai in ‘Dola re dola’ from Devdas (2002), dancing demurely to her film songs.
As the situation intensifies and the men try to grab him, the music he’s been dancing to switches to ‘Kundrathile Kumaranukku Kondattam’ — a peppy devotional number about Lord Murugan. His hair, thus far in a neat bun, comes loose over his shoulders. He fights fiercely and takes them down. Lesson taught. His hair returns to a knot, he jumps off the terrace, only to be rescued by four other men — his accomplices, who touch him without any visible discomfort, even though Kandaswamy is still in drag.
For Kandasamy the super cop, his role as Robin Hood is an act within the film, where the rooster and drag are merely costumes. Immediately after this scene, he is restored to his hyper-masculine self inside the sanctum sanctorum of a temple where the priest calls him the reincarnation of Lord Kandasamy himself — the protector of Dharma, righteousness.
However, in cases where the ‘act’ of a hero in drag isn’t as much a staged performance (with background music and stunt property) as in Kandasamy, even if performative, the reconciliation isn’t as smooth. Kamal Hassan in Avvai Shanmugi, for instance, dramatically reveals his flat chest to put an end to his life in drag. Vishal as Walter goes through a rather violent and public undressing out of his drag, by fellow women, in Avan Ivan, much to the amusement of the zamindar he was performing for.
The generosity, warmth and humour that is allowed to heroes who cross-dress as an act within a film are not accorded to characters who cross-dress to assert a gender identity. They, on the other hand, endure violent vanquishing. The anklet-wearing transwoman mobster Ardhanaari of Aadu Puli (2011) meets a violent death at the hands of a hyper-masculine hero, after insulting his manliness and inviting him to a duel. Maharani of Appu (2000) wasn’t treated kindly, so much so that Prakash Raj, the actor who played Maharani, recently regretted being part of the film that was insensitive to an entire community of people.
Effeminate playboy villain Bhagavan from Aadhi Bhagavan (2013) is indeterminate — his loving girlfriend, effeminate demeanour, and obsession with nail paint, makeup, and jewellery make him an unresolvable contradiction in the gender spectrum. At one point, he meaningfully asks a bartender, “Babe, is there a fag?” The female bartender promptly gives him a cigarette and lights it for him.
The violent end for Bhagavan comes at the hands of Aadhi — his hyper-masculine lookalike. In fact, Aadhi Bhagavan doesn’t even pit the good hyper-masculine man against the evil cross-dresser. It places two evils against one another: A woman and a cross-dressing man on the one end and a hyper-masculine man with a mother and a sister on the other. No points for guessing who scored on this one.
While cross-dressing doesn’t evoke homosexuality in Aadhi Bhagavan, it does so in Endrendrum Punnagai (2013), even if equivocally. The ambiguously named Baby acts in a bra commercial as a man curiously trying on a bra left behind in the trial room of a clothing store. The fire alarm goes off as his shirt catches fire, and he is forced to run out dressed in the bra. This advertisement pitch is presented to Sunny, their client, who, it is implied, is gay — coloured hair, effeminate body language, and broken Tamil commonly associated with new young heroines who don’t know the language. He is instantly smitten.
Sunny, though present to be a recurring joke (perhaps also a hat-tip to gay men in creative industries), is an important checkpoint in the otherwise problematic storyline. In this highly-sexualised relationship between three misogynistic men, the predominant aspect that establishes them as straight — code for hyper-masculine — is their collective disgust for Sunny’s inclinations.
In Endrendrum Punnagai, it appears that the appearance of a straight man in a bra tickled the fancy of a purported gay man. In Varalaaru (2006), the effeminacy of Shivashankar’s dance costume — even if not cross-dressing — extends to himself. He is chided several times for his demeanour, implying he is ill-equipped to satisfy a woman in bed. When his marriage is fixed, his bride, who dreamt of marrying a Mr. Madras or a sportsman — an-other code for hyper-masculine — is appalled on seeing him and dumps him at the altar.
Kathak dancer Viswanath of Viswaroopam (2013) also faces similar suspicion from his wife. In both cases, it is violent hyper-masculinity that presents the intervention for the uncomfortable effeminacy. In Varalaaru, Shivashankar rapes his ex-bride to prove his masculinity; in Viswaroopam, there is the good old gruesome fight to save the damsel in distress. Coincidence or not, Pandian of Avvai Shanmugi is also professionally a danc-er/choreographer.
Drag for these heroes is a conquest in several ways: As a test to prove that they are worth their salt, deserving their stardom. And a way to evoke femininity in them, exaggerate it and then eliminate it — restoring their hyper-masculine heroics as normalcy.
(With inputs from Rajesh Rajamani)
Ranjani Krishnakumar is a writer from Chennai