Monday, June 16, 2014

I'd better get those cha cha heels...

One of the strange side effects of thinking a lot about Bollywood is that I find myself less and less willing to bring the topic up with people. Part of it is I got tired of trying to explain my own bizarre dedication to the art--I almost never talk about my blog in real life--and the other part is that I'm tired of dealing with all the stereotypes of Bollywood out there. How do you get it through to somebody that a Bollywood film is different from a "musical," especially when the experience most Americans have with "musicals" is the crap on Broadway?

I was thinking, again, about how much I hated contemporary Broadway musicals this weekend because I finally got a chance to see I am Divine, the Divine documentary. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the divine Divine:

Glenn "Divine" Milstead had phenomenal charisma and screen presence, able to take John Waters's sublimely ridiculous plotting and soap-opera dialogue and turn them into something human and emotionally real. He's not a big, fat drag queen "pretending to be a woman," he's playing women's roles--it's a distinction that makes people uncomfortable because if they admit that a man can play a woman, they're admitting that gender (as opposed to physical sex) is a social construct. Although I was quite young at the time, I remember going to see Hairspray the movie with my father at the movie theater. And I remember when my father told me that Divine, who played Tracy Turnblad's mother in the film, had passed away. Maybe I'm projecting backwards but I don't remember any confusion over the fact that it was a "boy" playing a "girl." I just accepted it.

And later, especially as a tall, physically substantial woman, I came to appreciate his very physical, very aggressive performances of femininity. In a culture that fetishizes the tiny, helpless woman, there weren't too many on-screen heroines I could latch on to outside of a handful of asskicking roles like Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

But returning to musicals, what upsets me more than anything else about Hairspray: The Musical is the way all the complexity of Divine's performance as Edna Turnblad has been reduced to "fat guy in a dress, har dee har har." The literalness of it infuriates me. Even dressed in Edna's frumpy frocks, Divine was glamor; there's no glamor to "guy in a dress." All there is, is a big fucking joke at the expense of one of outsider film's biggest and most beloved stars.

This literalness, a refusal to see allegory, to accept that glamour is important, to trust audiences to use their imagination, to allow room for a large, aggressive femininity… it's why I turned off of American pop culture a long time ago. You used to be able to find these things in mainstream Bollywood but not so much anymore. More and more conservative literalness creeps in… films lose their power to give the audience a moment of transcendence.

What was mysterious and glamorous has now just become "camp," something to laugh at, to pick apart for flaws, to look down on.

I've only ever found two other male-to-female performances to equal anything Divine did. The first most of you have probably heard of, if not seen, and that's Jaye Davidson as "Dil" in The Crying Game. It's a wonderfully subtle performance all too often reduced to a punchline.

Those of you interested in delving deeper should check out 1968 detective film Black Lizard (aka 黒蜥蜴 trailer here). It's about as bonkers as Jewel Thief and stars famous drag performer Miwa Akihiro as notorious lady criminal… the Black Lizard.

I don't think I've seen anything similar in Indian film but I would love to know about it, if you can think of anything. All that's coming to mind at the moment for me is Biswajeet putting in his hands-down best performance ever in "Kajra Mohabbat Wala." What would Biswajeet's career have looked like if he'd been able to be a heroine instead of the dishrag hero he was… It's not about sexual identity or sexual confusion or anything so literal--Glenn Milstead never wanted to be a woman--it's about the PERFORMANCE.


Kimberly Tully said...

I was recently re-watching Raja Hindustani and was immediately turned off by the portrayal of the two comic characters whose gender-bending is made fun of throughout the film. So, yeah, I doubt that you could find anything done in the manner of Divine in Indian cinema.

On a slightly related note, I'm loving Orange is the New Black right now and the portrayal of the transgender character by a transgender actress is phenomenal.

Filmi Girl said...

I forgot about those characters!! Yeah, they weren't overly appealing… or funny. There does seem to be a strong discomfort with, especially, men stepping outside of the ultra-masculine. It's one of the nice things about East Asian popular/high culture that you do find men playing women's roles and being appreciated for their beauty.

I'd love to see a real item done by a man as a woman… I wish all the filmmakers who come to the US to be "edgy" would give us something like that.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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