Young men crossdressing at “India Night in Georgia.”
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
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. (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
Made to Marcus:
(Stridently). Ladies and gentlemen, it’s India Night from Georgia. (Ends lamely). Well, people talking about it anyway.
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 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.
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?
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?
Act two: the motive
Made to Marcus:
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 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.”
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.
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:
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, 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.
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
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:
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 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:
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, 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.