Pinky Padosan, Gutthi, Pammy Aunty and the problematic trope of Indian TV's cross-dressers
Clad in a pink saree, smacking her lips stained in a popping red colour and a high-pitched, putting-on-a-'sexy'-voice — Pinky Padosan is Bigg Boss' first contestant. She prides herself in being a gossip monger and promises to the audience that she will bring to them the latest scoops from the Bigg Boss house. She is also a persona put on by actor Gaurav Gera.
Pinky Padosan is only the latest addition to the long list of men who dress up as women on Indian television and films to provide comic relief. Leading this group are Sunil Grover with his Gutthi and Rinku Devi acts, and Ali Asgar's Naani. Some other examples of cross-dressing include Tusshar Kapoor in Golmaal Returns, Riteish Deshmukh in Apna Sapna Money Money and Ssumier Pasricha's Pammy Aunty.
What is common to all these personas is that their comedy is derived from a melodramatic disposition. Some, like Riteish Deshmukh's avatar have overly sexualised physical appearances and ways of behaving. Others, like Ssumier Pasricha's Pammy Aunty and Ali Asgar's Naani rely on the traits associated with nosy neighbourhood aunties — an overwhelming interest in other's lives, an obsession with finding rishtas for their family members, constant moralising, and nagging other characters.
It turns the act of a man putting on clothes into an elaborate joke which exists simply because a man has trespassed social norms by deciding to take on the identity of a woman.
It also provides a look into what society considers as being indicators of femininity, even if such characters are meant to be exaggerated.
The phenomenon of men playing women is hardly new. From Shakespearean times, men essayed roles of female characters because society's rules forbid women from appearing on stage. Pantomime dames and female impersonators in vaudeville became a regular part of entertainment in the 19th century.
Then there came the emergency of drag acts, and more specifically drag comedy practised by men for the purpose of entertaining people. Drag queens undertake these personas to entertain, to be fashionable, and to express and discover themselves. For many of them, it is an exercise in identity.
In India, too, men have taken on women's roles because women's entry into the world of theatre happened at a very belated stage. The stock character of a feminised, pansy man, called a 'nachya', came to become an integral part of the tamasha theatre in Maharashtra. This character was the defining difference between 'real' and 'fake' femininity.
In the critically acclaimed film Natrang, Atul Kulkarni plays a man who becomes a nachya. In films, one of the earliest and most memorable characters of this kind is Kamal Haasan's Mrs Lakshmi Godbole from Chachi 420. She was your quintessential granny-nanny, complete with a gajra, white hair tied into a bun and a traditionally draped sari.
Gutthi, Naani and Pammy Aunty all employ the method of drag queens, but fail to capture their spirit. Kamal Haasan's character had an alternate persona (who provided humour) because the script demanded it. On the other hand, their brand of humour works only because it involves men dressing up as women. Their garish dressing, fake breasts and long wigs provide material for physical comedy. Oftentimes, what lends humour to the situations they find themselves in is that a cis-hetero man falls in love with them or finds them attractive, or that they pursue a cis-hetero man. The audience laughs, because it knows that a man is falling for a man pretending to be a woman.
The success of this stock character is evident from their popularity among viewers, as well as the sheer number of personas that exist today. So successful are these personas that actors who portray them stand the risk of being typecast.
In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, Ali Asgar said, "It is not that I am dying to wear a saree, but there are no good roles or characters offered. In fact, I am waiting for such a script where I can say 'no' to play such female characters, once it happens you will see me playing different characters."
These characters are problematic because of the perception they creates of men who are trans or who are transitioning from a male to female identity or those who choose to wear women's clothes because they feel more comfortable in them. It undoes the progress that has been achieved in breaking the notion that men should not be feminine, or that they will be laughed at if they are. It seems to suggest that melodrama and the tendency to gossip are what distinguish women from men. It makes eunuchs prone to social discrimination.
"I don't consider myself to be those comedy queens, making dressing up in women's clothing one big joke," said Alaska Thunderf*ck at an event of the Drag Queens of Comedy LA. Maybe Sunil Grover and Gaurav Gera should listen to her.