Parul Sharma had always wanted to try drag. Sexuality is fluid to this 21-year-old student, an avid footballer, who identifies herself as just queer. So when she got a chance to pose for a drag king calendar, she chose to impersonate a pastor — “I turned into a merciless, cold priest, who would do anything to get his way. I don’t want to box my sexuality. I can be with anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation,” she says.
Drag worked for tomboyish 22-year-old Antara Pal too because she had been around men all her life, and felt just like one of them. She became Clark Kent. “Now that I did it once, I know I can do it again,” she says.
The idea of drag, on paper, can seem like a fancy dress parade. But in reality, being a drag king involves both a physical and psychological shift. Men and women walk, sit, stand, and act differently. Mannerisms are different. Generally, men tend to throw back their shoulders and stand more upright. They walk with their legs apart. Women tend to sit quite neatly, but men take up a lot of space. The challenge before her, says photographer Indu Antony, was to translate these subtleties onto the photographs.
“I have always felt gender differences are superficial. But when I became Chulbul Pandey, somehow I wasn’t passing as a man. It took me several conscious reminders to change my stance,” says Vidya, who initiated the drag king calendar project with an email to a secret Facebook group. For Dolly (she too goes by just the first name because of political reasons — “I am a feminist and I don’t want to use my dad’s name”), who played Quick Gun Murugun, the act didn’t “change the person who I am”. But it did brush away her nervousness before camera. “There was a train passing by which stopped while we were shooting near the railway track. About 600 hundred people were staring at me, shouting and laughing. I felt a bit strange. Then I reminded myself that I was Quick Gun, and I was fine.” Dolly’s curves, hips and face structure are very feminine; “so my make-up took more than two hours.”
She was in the Quick Gun avatar when Vidya was shooting as Chulbul Pandey at Bangalore’s Cox Town market, near a police station. The team had borrowed an official-looking white Maruti gypsy for the shoot. Vidya stepped out of it, striking tough-cop poses next to a bright yellow traffic barricade. A curious crowd gathered, and vehicles slowed down to watch the act. “Out of nowhere, a man started questioning us rudely. He said he was a plain-clothed policeman. He was asking us for permission papers, ordering us to pack up and leave etc. Dolly just jumped into the melee, toy guns in hand. She began arguing with him. It was fast turning messy and we somehow managed to calm both down, and rushed back to our base,” Indu recalls.
The aggressiveness, Dolly says, came naturally to her. This IT professional has been active in the LGBT community for years. She identifies herself as butch — LGBT term describing a masculine person. But for Veena Kulkarni, 32-year-old teacher, who played Top Gun Maverick, the fake penis — socks in the pants — triggered a transformation. “I really bulked up for the act. I bound my breast with crepe bandage, padded my shoulders, wore two sweaters, a pair of jeans, and over them, the airman’s jumpsuit. Usually I am camera shy, crowds bother me. But once I got into this act, penis on, I had a manly stride. I was standing up taller, straighter. Friends tell me that I even got off my bike differently. There is a predominantly feminine side to me, which the drag completely purged,” she says.
“The manhood between my legs” gave an exhilarating surge of power to Sindra Jmini too. She is a day-time cyber sleuth and an all-time adventure junkie who played Indiana Jones. She was shot near a garbage yard, which resembled a jungle. “That moment, I felt so powerful. It’s a high,” she says, “an incredible high.” As for filmmaker Diana, penis power didn’t come into it; it was an emotional moment to be in the shoes of her childhood idol Michael Jackson.
The girls swear they could not have done it without make-up artist Rahul Pillai, who has been on the drag queen scene for a couple of years. It’s trickier with drag kings, he soon found, “as they enact men, who do not wear much make-up. All the girls had picked popular characters and everyone knows how they should look. I had to do my homework for each one to figure out how to accentuate the jawlines and temples, where to put the shadows, what to highlight, etc. It took me almost two hours to do the make-up for each of the characters,” Rahul Pillai recalls.
Rohini Malur’s Sherlock Holmes act was the toughest for him. “Her face didn’t match the character really. She had big eyes, and a feminine face structure.” But she was determined to play Holmes because “he was someone whose sexuality wasn’t clear; he could easily be queer.”
The act and shoot that began at two past noon on a Saturday, and finally wrapped up on Monday night at seven. It was very tiring but also extremely rewarding, says Rahul, who came onboard to see what’s on the other side of the gay wall, “what being a lesbian means.”