Young men crossdressing at “India Night in Georgia.”

Early image of Amitab Bachan, heartthrob and superstar of Bollywood film.

Amitab in tough guy macho role.

Poster for the film. These films are characterized by themes of violence, abandonment, and love.

Amitab crossdressing in Laawaris, dir. Prakash Mehra, 1981.

Amitab does a dance where he dresses as five different women.

Amitab dances as moti or the fat one.

Amitab as kali or the dark one teases a fair-skinned woman in the audience.

Amitab mimics the mannersims of a hijra.

Amitab strkes a languid pose as lambi or the tall one.

Amitab as the dark one.

Why the dancing diasporic desi men crossdressed

by Anandam P. Kavoori
and Christina A. Joseph


Announcer (walks to center of stage):

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We have a special treat for you. It’s a first. This first research paper written as a performative text.[2] (Pause for sense of exaggeration). A research play, if you will. If you know of others, we suggest you keep that knowledge to yourself (Pause for humor). It’s a multi-media play—auto-ethnographic, self-reflexive, bilingual and perhaps humorous.

Its narrative is structured through conversations between three sets of protagonists. The first are two anthropologists/ authors (referred to as A1 and A2—this rhymes with R2 and D2, if you know what I mean) who discuss the text of a Hindi film called Laawaris which means Orphaned and was made by the Bollywood director Prakash Mehra in 1981 and a dance by Indian film superstar Amitab Bachchan in the film where he dresses up as five different women. (Pause). Yes, Five.

The dialogue between the anthropologists/ authors is interspersed with extracts/interpretations of interviews with the second set of protagonists, three Indian students at a southern American University who performed a version of the dance. Two Indian members of the audience who watched the performance make up the third set of protagonists. (They are referred to as R1 and R2, for Respondent).

Finally, two narrators named “Made-to-Marcus” and “Vivid Mani” provide commentary/context/framing at different points in the play. You are probably wondering what the names “Vivid Mani” and “Made to Marcus” mean. Well, you’ll need to until the end of the play. When I come back. Don’t worry about it right now. What’s important (and what you came to see anyway) is this research play, which begins with the discovery of a mystery. Enjoy the show.

Act one: the mystery

A1 and A2 stand under two spotlights at two ends of the stage. Projected on the screen between them are three images of billboards. The first has the words “Laawaris” emblazoned on the top with a picture of Amitab Bachchan dancing in a white suit, his chest open to midriff and his eyes hostile. The second billboard is for a show called “India Night in Georgia,”[3] with a picture of four cross dressing men in the foreground. The third billboard reads simply “Crises of Representation” with blood dripping dramatically from the letters.

Made to Marcus:
“The popular Hindi film proves a considerable element of commonality to Indian communities, even among those were Hindi is not spoken, a profound homage to the Hindi film’s rooted-ness in the deep mythic structures of Indian civilization. Across the globe, the popular Hindi film commands an extraordinary allegiance from Indians.”[4]

Vivid Mani:
“The borderline work of culture demands an encounter with newness that is not part of the continuum of past and present. It creates a sense of the new as an insurgent act of cultural translation. Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or aesthetic precedent; it renews the past, re-figuring it as a contingent ‘in-between’ space, that innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The ‘past-present’ becomes part of the necessity, not the nostalgia of living.”[5]

(Stridently). Ladies and gentlemen, it’s India Night from Georgia. (Ends lamely). Well, people talking about it anyway.

Lights fade from the billboards. A1 picks up a chair next to him and moves to the middle of the room. R1 and R2 join in from the other side of the stage. They hug each other, exchange abuses in Hindi, open cans of Budweiser and light cigarettes. Behind them the screen shows a concrete block of buildings with the words “Graduate Housing” written. An old Honda with a smashed headlight is superimposed on the building. A2 stands on one side of the stage.

A1: So what do you think of these guys crossdressing and dancing?

R1: I actually found it quite crass.

A1: Were you surprised to find who was playing Amitab Bachchan’s role?

R2: I mean, if you know the guy, it’s hard to believe it.

R1: Yeah, especially given that he was doing it. He’s a seedha[6] guy and it was just a surprise to see him do it.

R2: Actually, the guy’s family is you know really part of the community and well regarded. It was just the contrast...

R1: You know it reminded me of Hijras. Just the whole thing was a turn off. Just can’t understand why they chose to do that dance.

A1: Yes, they did remind me of Hijras in India.

“There is in India a community of people known as hijras described variously as eunuchs, transvestites, homosexual, bi-sexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynes and transsexuals. Hijras dress in women’s garments. They imitate a woman’s swaying walk, take female names upon being initiated into the community and affect in a comical way, women’s mannerisms.”[7]

A1 walks over to A2.

A1: So, the mystery is simply this: Why did four middle class good Indian-American boys, raised to behave properly, crossdress and dance lewdly in front of their families?

Made to Marcus:
“Men have cross-dressed for what have been considered erotic reasons deriving from psychopathological drives. In most western societies being a man and demonstrating masculinity is more highly prized than being a woman and displaying femininity. Some non-Western societies however are more tolerant and even encourage men to behave like women and women to act like men.”[8]

A2 (pointing to R1 and R2): You know for audience members like these two students from India, this may be crass but I am sure that the performers didn’t have hijras on their mind. I mean they grew up in America.

A1: Well, let’s talk to them. But they did watch the original dance by Amitab Bachchan in Laawaris. First let’s see what that’s all about. What do you think, Made to Marcus?

Made to Marcus:
“Identity groups are about themselves, for themselves, and nobody else.”[9]

Act two: the motive

R1 and R2 pick up their chairs and leave. A1 and A2 move to two ends of the stage. The screen at the center of the stage now shows a medley of Amitab Bachchan shots from his various film magazine covers between the 70’s and 1990’s.

Made to Marcus:
“Among the constituting elements of the Hindi film industry, the single most dominant group is the film’s stars. With a powerful grip on people’s imagination, ‘star texts’ compromising narratives of the film-stars’ lives, are a constant preoccupation of film magazines.”[10]

Vivid Mani:
Amitab was not just a creation of film magazines. “Amitab introduced the motif of the angry young man to Indian cinema. This is at a time in the mid 1970’s when domestic politics was in a period of great turmoil, student unrest was height, and the employment prospects for educated young men were bleak at best.”[11]

A1: He articulated a sense of unrest and paradoxically of community. I will always remember the time Amitab almost died during the making of the film Coolie. I can’t think of anything else that drew India together—besides the assassination of Indira Gandhi—than those hours when we all thought that he was dead.

The screen turns to a somber image of Amitab with his hands folded. A ticker tape at the bottom of the image runs the following statement as somber classical Indian music is played as background:

“The passionate affection of the people in this country through prayers, are moments that I will carry as a huge debt on me, to my grave. There are no words to substitute this feeling of the extent of affection of my fans and well wishers and the awareness towards the potential that one human body possesses.”[12]

A2: What I can't figure out is what possessed him to crossdress in Laawaris.

A1: Well, you got to see it in terms of the movie itself. Laawaris is a humdinger of a class conflict movie. It’s got all the redemptive pathos of The Wizard of Oz with its reiteration of the mythical centrism of the American farm.

A2: Where is the American farm in Laawaris? You're stretching it.

A1: No, of course, it’s not the American farm, but it is about redemptive pathos Bollywood-style where cultural and class centrism are unproblematically gendered.

The screen shows a sequence of scenes from the movie Laawaris with commentary from Made to Marcus and Vivid Money. A1 and A2 move to different corners of the stage.

Made to Marcus: Laawaris literally means “Without an Heir” but it can also signify “Orphaned” more generally, somebody who has not been claimed by anybody, somebody whose parents do not want to acknowledge or accept. Somebody, in short, that society rejects. The movie Laawaris tells the story of one such boy.

Vivid Mani: Here is how his story begins. A famous woman singer and a rich man are lovers. It is the rich man’s birthday (also India’s Independence Day). After performing one of her songs, she rushes into the arms of her lover backstage eager to tell him that this was a special song for him and to give him a special message—hat at the end of the year there will be three of them and not just two. The rich man withdraws from her and says:

(Film excerpts plays on screen with subtitles)[13]

Rich Man: Who is this third person? Who is coming between us?

Singer: The third person is no stranger. He is yours, a sign of our love.

Rich Man: Don’t say such disgusting things, such evil things. One’s youth is meant for having fun, not for having kids. And there are so many people who want you. Don’t tell me you are trying to pass this kid off as mine when there are so many others in your life.

The Singer slaps the Rich Man

Rich Man: Today is India’s Independence Day, so go announce it from the Red Fort,[14] go announce it on the radio, go sing the song of my humiliation. And if you are not satisfied, then go somewhere where you will not have to reveal the father’s name.

Vivid Mani: The baby is given away to a drunk who beats the boy whenever he is drunk or so inclined. The boy grows up to into a strong, insolent, aggressive and self-confident hero. Amitab Bachchan plays the hero.

(Cut to film excerpt.)

Amitab: (in an aloof, rough voice) So where do I work?

Factory Supervisor: You will work in that area of the factory. Hey, why are you speaking so angrily? Soften up.

Amitab: This is my soft style, If I use my hard style, you will be quaking in your feet.

Factory Supervisor: Ok, Ok, just do your work

Need to Marcus: Amitab Bachchan displays a
contraction between detached stability into explosive force and back into self-enclosure. A device employed by other hero figures such as Clint Eastwood but in Bombay cinema it has become a distinctive marker of Amitab Bachchan. It is this behavior coupled with a distinct physical appearance that has been harnessed by Bachchan and the film makers in a series of roles that have inscribed him into contemporary Indian culture as a disruptive modern force that cannot be ignored.”[15]

Vivid Mani: The young man goes to work and makes money. On his way home, his father asks him for money for alcohol. Amitab refuses and says he will beat him up if he asks him again. His father turns to him angrily and says:

(Cut to film excerpt)

Father: Oh, go away. You are trying to scare me? Just because I'm getting old, you are showing your strength? You are someone’s else’s child, that’s why. If you were my child, you would have given me money for my drink. I spit on your money...

Amitab: You are lying. You just want money for your drink, tell me that. If you are not my father, then whose son am I?

Father: You belong to the garbage, rich people’s garbage. These rich people eat and throw their leftovers in the garbage. You are that leftover.

Made to Marcus: This paradigmatic scene in the film throws Amitab’s already embittered life completely off balance. He goes into a shouting and raving fit, which culminates in his going to an adda[16] and drinking himself into an aggressive somnolence. He finds a man in the adda who is crying because his father is dead. Amitab addresses him:

(Cut to film excerpt)

Amitab: So your father died yesterday and you are still crying? I just killed my father, do you see me crying? Let me tell you something. These are all false relationships. Leave them all behind and live like me, like a laawaris. You've spoiled my mood, yaar.

Vivid Mani: Amitab turns to drinking and womanizing. In a whore house he meets a rich man’s son who employs him as a hired thug. He earns the respect of the rich man’s father (who happens to be his own father) and through a complex series of incidents finds validation and affection from the rich man’s sister and gains approval from the father. In a climactic scene where these relationships are established through the bonds of raakhi,[17] Amitab says:

Amitab: I have been abandoned all my life. That is all my worth is.

Rich Man’s father: Son, until yesterday you did not have a family. Today, you have a sister and a father.

Amitab: I have had such a hard life that I thought my heart was not capable of any feelings. But today, my wounds have been healed and my heart is alive with feeling. If this is a dream, I hope that my eyes never open again.

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