A few years ago, as part of Navratri celebrations in a neighbourhood in Andheri, a fashion competition was underway. After a number of flamboyantly-dressed men, women and children had walked the ramp, it was the turn of a twenty-something boy. A tad effeminate, he came dressed in a sari, with matching jewellery and make-up to complete the look. After an initial stunned silence, the audience erupted in protest as men and women mocked and insulted the boy until he fled and was never seen again. Rohan Kanawade, a resident of the neighbourhood, watched the scene in silence, sensing the humiliation the young man must have experienced.
The unfortunate event left a lasting impact on Kanawade. This is visible in the scene that opens the teaser of his upcoming short film, Sundar. “The protagonist of the film, Jayu enjoys cross-dressing, but he is ridiculed due to the stigma associated with the act,” says the 28-year-old independent filmmaker.
Kanawade, however, has used the medium to talk about cross-dressers simply because they enjoy it. “One shouldn’t feel judged or ashamed for something that makes them feel beautiful,” says the writer-director, who has posted the film’s teaser on the crowdfunding website Wishberry, with hopes of raising Rs 3 lakh to complete the film.
“I realise I work around darker themes, but I don’t go looking for them. These are issues of identity which each of us seem to increasingly struggle with. Also, such stories are rarely discussed, so the storytelling is more challenging,” says Kanawade. The director prefers to explore realistic themes and issues with his films, and his previous short, Ektya Bhinti (Lonely Walls) — about a father-son duo who are both closet homosexuals — was screened at several film festivals in the country.
But cross-dressing as a subject comes with immense baggage. “Indians have only seen the hijra community cross-dress and immediately associate any cross-dresser with a transgender. It is therefore widely unknown that there is a closeted group of people who enjoy cross-dressing because it fits their idea of beauty,” says Nishant Roy Bombarde, who plays Jayu in Sundar. Kanawade says that while researching the subject, he came across several blogs where Indian men and women shared stories of cross-dressing and how they immediately got slotted as homosexual/transgender.
The duo also blames mainstream Indian cinema for making a mockery of cross-dressing. “Cross-dressing is employed as gags or comic relief in movies. If someone dresses differently, it is viewed as a laughing matter. There have been sensitive portrayals of cross-dressers in films such as Matrubhoomi where both the man and woman dress like the opposite sex. But such movies have been few and far between,” says Kanawade.
This is why in Sundar, the lead dresses differently — not because he is obliged to, as in the Marathi film Natarang, but because he likes to. “It is a small attempt in rightful portrayal of cross-dressers, and by that logic anyone who lives differently,” says Kanawade.