gender studies

Gender Disguise in the Indian Entertainment Industry: Cross-Dressing

Sandra Bem had emphasized that the only factor that makes someone or something male or female is their genitalia. Thus, a toy truck, a task, profession or an outfit cannot be either “male” or “female”.

Earlier, when women were not allowed to act, men would cross-dress as women. In the first motion picture, Raja Harishchandra (1913), the female lead of Taramati –Harischandra's wife – was played by a male actors Anna Salunkhe and Phalke's son Bhalachandra. Since acting was considered to be taboo, men dressed up as women. However, the rationale underlying it was merely convenience and to have female representatives as counterparts.

Cross-dressing in the real world is an attribute of the transgender community, who have emerged essentially to claim themselves as independent identities not bound by rigid gender stereotypes.  Cross-dressing in Indian society is an attempt by men to wear clothes and other accessories commonly associated with women in Indian culture. The purposes for which it has been used in media involve disguise, comfort, and most importantly to generate humour. The idea of cross-dressing has by and large been ridiculed in the entertainment world and hardly any attempts have been made to project cross-dressers as entities independent from cultural stereotypes.

It may be easy to accept when a woman dresses as a man with attire such as a trouser and a shirt. In fact, it is the dress code of many women working in the corporate sector. A woman in stereotypical male clothing is hardly ever found out to be unique or striking. A similar situation when emulated by a man becomes perhaps the most salient aspect of his appearance and creates perceptions that are difficult to rule out. It is ironical to see how women in the real world have restrictions imposed on them in various arenas. But in the reel world, restrictions imposed on a man's dressing are very apparent. Thus, with a shift from real to reel, there are changes in gender-reversal in the area of “unacceptabilities”. Cross-dressing in the Indian entertainment industry has been prevalent since more than ten decades and has been a subject of mass appeal.  Since a man dressing as a woman is considered to be so unusual, in the contemporary entertainment world it has been highly celebrated.

The role of Kamal Hassan, as Chachi, in Chachi 420 (1997) has used stereotypes to make an impact, because as a male, he could have never achieved what he wanted, that is, his wife and daughter. Chachi’s persuasion for Amrish Puri works marvellously well but Hassan's persuasion would have drastically failed. Being disguised as a woman has repeatedly been used to evoke sympathy from other men. Women have been viewed as soft targets who can use their so-called gentle prowess to have their way with the dominating male community.

In some movies [like Ritesh Deshmukh’s character in Apna Sapna Money Money (2006)], males disguised as females are used merely as distractions to hinder other male characters from achieving their goals. They portray features that could be associated with femme fatale – a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms entrap her lovers in bonds of irresistible desire, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. This portrayal of a woman as a distraction is contradictory to the oft-quoted saying that “Behind every successful man is a woman.” Thus, what emerges is perhaps the biggest drawback of cross-dressing – sexualization of women. Importantly, when a man cross-dresses, it suddenly makes him very desirable to other men in the drama. This probably establishes the idea that beauty is essentially the prerogative of women and when cross-dressed, even ugly men become highly coveted. This has been very well exemplified in the movie Aunty No. 1 (1998), where Govinda as a woman, wins the affection of three men ready to woo “her” in every way possible.

The role of Dadi in Comedy Nights with Kapil (2013) exemplifies the rather unusual character of an alcoholic and seductive Indian Dadi who has extraordinary power and strength, showcasing her masculine prowess and is desperate to woo the male celebrities that participate in that show. Since it is a male (disguised as a woman) seducing men, the effect of seduction is toned down to the element of humour. At the same time, we could say that the character of Dadi is both progressive and regressive. Her humour makes the notion of an alcoholic woman acceptable. She is able to break the shackles and stereotypes associated with a woman only because she biologically is not a woman. 

Cross-dressing has often been used an escape mechanism to surreptitiously enter in the male-prohibited areas. They disguise primarily to achieve what they could not have achieved as a male. In a television series called Mrs. Pammi Pyareyal (2013), the protagonist cross-dresses to get accommodation into a home where only couples are allowed to live. She is shown as a beautiful lady who is very intelligent and can solve almost any home-making problem. However, the intelligence is that of a man who can skillfully combat relational issues but is only acknowledged in form of a housewife who is stereotypically very high on interpersonal intelligence.

In most comedy shows, when male characters dress up as women, they present themselves with some dramatic differences, such as unwaxed legs, very wide hips or large busts. Such appearances only reinforce the stereotypical notions of beauty in our culture. Also, the attire of a woman in revealing clothes is used mainly to titillate the opposite sex. Disguised humour is used as an instrument to assert the notion of beauty without brains.

It is really fascinating to see how cross-dressing has evolved in the Indian entertainment industry. What started off merely as an availability phenomenon, has gradually taken the form of sexualization of women. Femininity has become associated with a “safety escape” from danger as people are generally less suspicious of women committing higher order crimes; cross-dressing is more of a safety valve.. Thus femininity is mainly “performed” under many such stereotypical facades reinforcing negative stereotypes of womanhood in Indian culture.

It has been proposed that within every man there is a woman and within every woman there is a man. So where is the man and where is the woman?

Pooja Gala


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