What happens when Indians cross-dress for the screen?

Indian actors have frequently slipped into women’s clothing but not always under their skins.

At the 73rd Annual Golden Globes held on January 10, host Ricky Gervais introduced actor Eddie Redmayne as a “beautiful and talented actress” who is the star of The Danish Girl. Gervais promptly corrected himself, “It’s a dude,” seconds before the actor appeared on the stage. It was one of Gervais’s most outrageous jokes for the night, and it did not in one bit fluster Redmayne, a man not afraid to be introduced as a beautiful woman.

In Hollywood, great actors have cross-dressed for parts that do not call for great beauty. Dustin Hoffman plays an unkempt woman in Tootsie (1982). Robin Williams is a corpulent maternal figure in Mrs Doubtfire (1993). These roles do not call for men to be seen as objects of desire. In The Danish Girl, which opens in India on January 15, Redmayne plays an artist who, at his wife’s request, stands in for a female model for a series of portraits that become popular with art patrons. Redmayne’s character begins to cross-dress because he finds himself comfortable as a woman, and he eventually seeks gender reassignment surgery.


Playing a woman, and that too a stunning woman with no hint of masculinity, Redmayne sets a new benchmark for male actors taking on womanly guiles. The film’s director, Tom Hooper, had this to say about his choice of actor for the role, “Eddie was really the person I wanted to make the film with, and I was very passionate about that. I was a great believer in him as an actor. I think also there’s a certain gender fluidity that I sensed in him, that I found intriguing. I felt that there was something in him that was drawn to the feminine.”

Here is a role about a man who isn’t cross-dressing to address his gender identity crisis. Contrast this with what happens in Hindi films when a leading actor slips into a dress. They never let us forget that they are macho men bursting at the seams of their ill-fitted costumes.


It is surely, then, an anomaly to find Rishi Kapoor looking prettier than his lady love Neetu Singh in Rafoo Chakkar (1975), in which he disguises as a woman to escape a bunch of goons and befriends her on a train journey to Kashmir. The film was a copy of Some Like It Hot (1959). Both the original and the copy derive their laughs from the act of campy cross-dressing humour for comic relief. Ironically, by dressing up as the weaker sex, these men protect their masculine identity from being violated.

Consider also the Indian actresses who have cross-dressed: Geeta Bali in Rangeen Raatein (1956), Padmini in Mera Naam Joker (1970), Saira Banu in Victoria No 203 (1972), Tanuja in Do Chor (1972), Padmini Kolhapure in Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981) and Rani Mukerji in Dil Bole Hadippa (2009), all of whom masquerade as men to protect their female identities. The most famous of all, Sridevi, impersonates a wonky Charlie Chaplin in Mr India (1987).


Of these, only director Raj Kapoor can be credited for etching out Padmini’s character with a real sense of despair. Not that Meenu Master, as she is called, is confused about her gender. She is dressed as a man to survive in a man’s world. Kapoor does not exploit her for laughs. The scene that exposes her true identity is a flash of her flesh ripping out of her shirt. So long as no one knew, she is among equals.

How has Hindi cinema dealt with the sensitive issue of men who cross-dress to assert their gender identity? Director Amol Palekar’s Daayraa (1996) had Nirmal Pandey in the role of a transvestite theatre actor who plays female parts on the stage. He meets a gang-raped woman (played by Sonali Kulkarni) who now disguises as a man to protect her vulnerable identity. Although genders aren’t reversed, role-play empowers them. Kalpana Lajmi’s Darymiyaan (1997, which highlights the troubled life of a eunuch, is a notable exception in which a man (Arif Zakaria) goes through the rites of passage in the hijra community to learn about his third gender identity. Tamanna (1998) also has a eunuch (Paresh Rawal) at the centre of the story.

The aspect of a man cross-dressing to discover his latent gender identity as seen in The Danish Girl is not the plot point of these Hindi films, in which characters are established as transvestites or eunuchs.


Marathi cinema has fared better in its depiction of cross-dressing men. Jogwa (2009), Natarang (2010) and Balgandharva (2011) all feature men who dress as women, giving their parts equal dignity without resorting to gimmickry. However, cross-dressing does not leave these men with any actual desire to be women.

For his exceptional role in Daayraa, Nirmal Pandey won the Best Actress Valenti award in France in 1996. A feat that Redmayne might be able to repeat at the Academy Awards that will be announced next month.

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