He is a drag icon, a performer, a reality TV star and also Mr Gay 2014. And Sushant Divgikar recently added another feather in his cap by becoming the first drag artiste from India to ever feature on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia List. “Overjoyed” is how Sushant, who is also known by his drag name Rani Ko-HE-Nur, describes the feeling. In conversation with indianexpress.com, the drag artiste, who featured under ‘The Arts’ honorees and ‘Celebrities’ category, talks about about his life, performances and how while the LGBTQI community is slowly gaining acceptance in the mainstream, there is still a long way to go.
You recently featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia List — how does it feel?
I am ecstatic and extremely proud to be featured in the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list – Class of 2020. I feel blessed and honoured to receive this recognition of international repute for my art and artistry. All the hardships and struggle I had to endure in the last 14 years to establish myself as an artiste has paid off. I am extremely grateful to my family for letting me be me and believing in me all through my journey.
Did you ever expect to make it on the list?
If I have to be completely honest, I had a good feeling about making it on the list; but when I saw my name on the list, I was overjoyed.
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On INTERNATIONAL DAY OF HAPPINESS , I would like to tell you what makes ‘me’ happy , MUSIC , when I sing and see all of YOU enjoying my music ! THAT is what makes me happy. You can see in these pictures how genuinely happy I am and that the smile on my face is because my heart is full of love and joy when I’m singing and I am able to do this and reach out to so many of you through MUSIC. I haven’t performed for a very long time because of the COVID19 pandemic that has struck with a vengeance. Today , what will really make me happy is when each and every one of us understands what the world is going through and that WE play a very integral part in what might happen In the near future. We all need to fight this Pandemic together but this will only happen when we are united and exercise SOCIAL DISTANCING ! We need to make sure that we don’t allow this to spread more than it already has. Yes , it will seem tough for some of you but also realise and understand that this is only going to benefit all of us. So please don’t be reckless and please be at home as much as you can. Also , for those of you that have House helps , chauffeurs , workers that travel every day and come to your residence daily , excuse them and let them be home with their families too. They are an integral part of our lives and their lives matter just as much as yours. While you’re at it , pay them their salary just like when you use paid leave so they don’t suffer. Be as kind as helpful as you can. These are testing times for us all. Sensitise and sanitise ! Spread facts not the virus ! Biggg hugs. Oh and I forgot to mention , Im thinking of singing from home for all of you , how does that sound ? You all up for it ? Also , I’ve been exchanging a lot of ideas with @arthurlobo22 and @vaibhavsahay and we might just drop some goooooddd music that we had worked on so that everyone sitting at home can chill to our tunes ! But let’s see Haan ! Only if you all promise to be good and don’t make me say , “POOOOJA WHAT IS THIS BEHAVIOUR”. #internationaldayofhappiness #happy #positivity #positivevibes #united #sushant #corona #covid_19 #besafe #behappy #pride #lgbt #gaystagram
What inspired you towards drag? How did you begin and at what age?
As a child, I always loved to dress up. I’ve always been fascinated with make-up, accessories and fabulous costumes. I would participate in fancy dress competitions and always dress like a mermaid or Madhuri Dixit; once I even dressed up as Tina Turner. But back then, I never knew what drag was. As I grew older, I started reading about it and observed other drag artistes from around the world and knew this is what I wanted to do!
I always enjoyed playing female characters because they had so much depth and character. But I started performing only in 2017 and from there on, there was no looking back.
In 2015, I got my first opportunity to perform in drag in Vikram Kapadia’s theatre production Merchant of Venice. Later, I went on to host several live events and even international film festivals in drag. While doing these events, I was spotted by Ishaan Sethi, who told Mr Keshav Suri (executive director, Lalit Hospitality Group) about me. I was invited by him to perform in 2017 at his night club KittySu in New Delhi along with world renowned drag queen Violet Chachki. The audience and, especially Mr Suri, loved my performance and he encouraged me to take up drag professionally as performance art and therefore, Rani Ko-HE-Nur was born.,
You have always received great support from your parents, but it is not so for many others from the LGBTQI community. Can you share your views on this?
My family is my biggest strength and they have been very supportive of whatever I do. I am privileged to come from a broad-minded and progressive family. They don’t discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, caste or creed. There are a lot of people who say one thing and do the exact opposite. My parents have taught us to treat everyone with love and respect regardless of who they are and where they come from. I think every family should be like mine.
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Ready for you 2020. Here’s wishing everyone an abundant 2020. It’s the end of a decade and the lord knows it has been a roller coaster ride for all of us. I only wish the best for each and every one of you. Kill it and make sure you become the best version of yourself. 📷- @shantanu_pawar Outfit – @bipintanna Location courtesy- @kittysuindia 💄- @arvindshilpkar Boots – @houseofpriscilla Nails – @blingnailspasalonbandra #newbeginnings #newyear #2020 #drag #dragqueen #lgbt #pride #happyholidays #artist #singer #yass #positivevibes #newday #newslay
Why did you opt to keep your stage name ‘Rani Ko-HE-Nur’? Is there a story behind the same?
So, there is no fancy story as such. It was Mr Suri, who is my mentor, who named me Rani Ko-HE-Nur at his nightclub franchise. I’ve had the good fortune of performing with some international pop culture icons which he made possible and I’m absolutely thankful for it.
Mr Suri told me that you have to be known as Rani Ko-HE-Nur and there is a reason. It is spelt with a HE in my drag name because when Rani gets out of drag she is Sushant and ‘HE’ is the one who is responsible for giving life to Rani. So she’s a queen but HE is also a boy at the end of it.
Sushant Divgikar and Rani Ko-He- Nur… how do you handle them both? Does your drag identity help you express yourself better?
I think it gets hard for people sometimes. A lot of people tend to call me Rani when I’m Sushant and Sushant when I’m in Rani’s getup. I don’t find it annoying and think it’s rather hilarious.
For me, it’s two parts of my whole actually. I’m Sushant but I’m also Rani and I’m comfortable making that distinction too. I’ve always been very expressive and the drag identity definitely alleviates that. But Sushant and Rani are the same ultimately. It just gives more room for physical expression when I’m in my drag avatar.
But it’s new for the audience and even though they have seen Sushant on TV for years and therefore they identify with that identity, they are now very fascinated with Rani as well. But I think people prefer calling me Rani because of how regal it sounds and has a certain air of grandeur attached to it.
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Merry Christmas lovers. This new year , make a promise to NOT BE BASIC ! Mediocrity isn’t our middle name hennnnny. Lots of love , light and good make up choices to all of you. #merrychristmas #feliznavidad #happyholidays #happynewyear #queen #drag #dragqueen #yass #lgbt #festive #red #allredeverything
How do you transform yourself into Rani Ko-HE-Nur? What goes on in your mind?
As Rani, I always try to come up with various different looks and themes for my performances. I always try and do better than what I did at my previous show. I think every artiste must try and better themselves as opposed to trying to compete with another artiste.
Can you talk about the drag culture in India as compared to the West?
Well, I had the privilege of being the first mainstream drag artiste to take drag as a performing art to the Indian masses through television. Hopefully, we have many more shows and pop culture references in movies, on TV, in music that celebrate drag as a performing art. We can learn a thing or two from the West only in terms of representation and to normalise LGBT+ characters as well as drag artistes in the mainstream.
There hasn’t been a drag queen before you on TV. You decided to sing in your drag queen avatar on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa show. How was your experience, how did people react to it?
True, there hasn’t. And I realised that this is an art form people in our country will love but they have never had access to a modern version of it! Plus, it would be a waste if I didn’t share my talent and vocal abilities with the world.
I do feel that I broke several barriers as Rani. I think it was important to have paved the way through my success so that upcoming queens and performers that belong to the LGBT+ community are respected for the talent they bring to the table and not just used for comic relief or as jokes.
I think viewers appreciated my talent wholeheartedly; even when I visited tier 2 and 3 cities for fan meets and greets, they accepted me there as well. The adulation I received from them made me very emotional and I realised that genuine talent can win hearts and rescind homophobia way more effectively than verbal confrontations and unnecessary maligning.
People love Rani. I think they might love Rani a little more than Sushant (laughs).
Do you feel things were a little easier for you after you participated in the reality show? Did it actually work as a platform for you?
It was a big opportunity and a historic moment for Indian television to have someone who identifies as a gay man and performing in drag on such a prestigious show which is one of the longest running music reality shows in the world. Yes, a lot of people showered me with a lot of love and respect while I was shooting as well as once the show was over and even till date, I get a lot of adulation and love from my audiences.
Has people’s perception and acceptance to the drag culture increased over the years? Or do you feel there is still a lot more to go?
Thanks to my appearance on one of the most-watched TV channels in our country, yes I would say acceptance has increased but I would still urge directors, producers, TV channels, filmmakers and everyone in general to give equal opportunities to all of us. There’s a long way to go.
Have your parents ever attended your performances?
My mum and dad attend or at least try to attend each of my performances. They absolutely love it and are very supportive.
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Saw this powerful and compelling video by @aslisona and @myntrafashionsuperstar and I was inspired to share my story. In the past, I've been shamed for being unapologetically myself and being too effiminate and campy. For being too loud, too out there and too fabulous even! I've been gay shamed and even femme shamed. But I chose to rise above it and take it in my stride and created RANI who is the epitome of femininity and the gender bender of the millenium. Here's me saying that I am #biggerthanthem , and telling you it doesn't matter what anyone thinks of me because this is who I am and this is who I'm comfortable being and that will never change. #Myntrafashionsuperstar #MFSMentorClub #DoesntComeEasy #BeWoke
From being Mr Gay 2014 to being a singer you have come a long way in your career. What’s next on your list?
Yes, it’s been a long journey and hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies. I have come across all sorts of people but as I say, I always hope and strive for the best. I work harder every day and I know my journey hasn’t been the easiest but I just want to make sure that the generations that come after me can get it easier and don’t have to face so much discrimination and ridicule. I also would like to take this opportunity to thank those who came before me and made sure we had it a bit easier than them.
Going forward, I want to pursue all my dreams and aspirations with much more vigour and zest. I want to make my own music, song, act, host, write and eventually help other LGBT youngsters fulfill their dreams. I have so much to offer to my audiences, all I need is their support and the opportunities.