During one of their meetings, members of the Bangalore-based social group for the queer, We’re Here and Queer, were brainstorming on what they’d like to contribute to the upcoming Queer Pride: Bangalore 2012 festival. Discussion veered to a recent photo project by photographer Indu Antony, titled Bitch Please!, which had queer men dressed in drag. The women then realised that a role reversal would make for an exciting as well as a unique project.
“All of us ran with the idea of dressing up as a man. We then decided that by adopting various personae from popular culture, the project will become far more accessible and fun,” recounts Rohini Venkatesh Malur, the group’s facilitator. The idea of doing it as a calendar instead of a photo exhibition ensured that the audience association with it wouldn’t end with one viewing. The project was then titled MAN i FEST.
In all, there are photographs of 13 girls in drag — one on the cover while each of the remaining adorns the page dedicated to a different month of the year. Some of the characters who made it to the final list include Tom Cruise’s Maverick in Top Gun, Quick Gun Murugun, Chulbul Pandey of Dabangg, Zorro, Superman and Alex – the coconut seller in Channel V’s show Lola Kutty.
Earlier, the team planned to shoot in Antony’s studio, but they soon realised that taking it to an outdoor setting suitable to each get-up would do justice to the photographs. However, Antony had other concerns. “Crowds can gather in such situations and people can get rowdy with girls, especially in such get-ups,” she explains. Eventually, Antony relented and they spent a few days scouting for locations and brought on board a make-up artiste who could facilitate the transformation. “The idea of doing drag was exciting for each of us, especially since the sexuality of a man is quite close to where we find ourselves. This, therefore, was an opportunity to play it out too,” explains Vidya Pai, who donned a uniform and drove a white gypsy to enact Chulbul Pandey.
Eventually, Antony’s fears were unfounded and the team had fun while shooting for the project. Pai recollects that while the team was shooting on a pavement in front of traffic barricades, people began to gather and she was soon confronted by a policeman in civil clothes who wanted to know why she had dressed in the uniform. Sindra, on the other hand, recounts the tedious process of dressing up as Indiana Jones. “I like stubble on men and was very keen to sport it for my character. The make-up artiste came up with the idea of sticking tea powder on my face using glue. The effect was perfect but it was a pain to take off,” she says.
To experience oneself as male was an important part of the manifestation. The transformation, believe the women, was complete when they rolled up a pair of socks to use it give it the form of the male member. “It was a realisation of why the stance of a man is so different from the way a woman sits, stands or walks. For a moment while shooting, I felt physically stronger,” Malur explains. Pai adds that the shoot was an eye-opener about the way girls are trained from an early age to conduct themselves.
The project, say the women, is also their way of seeking acceptability in the society. “As a calendar, people will take the pictures home and keep them for a whole year. Over time, they may begin to view these queer girls as normal people,” points out Antony. Sindra, who was not keen to participate in MAN i FEST at first, agreed in the hope that other queer people will be encouraged to come out of the closet. “I go out with very few people since Bangalore is my hometown. I wasn’t comfortable with shooting for MAN i FEST, but then, I realised it might encourage others,” she says.
The photographs will be a part of an exhibition during the Queer Pride in Bangalore, a festival that will begin in two weeks. The calendars will be available for sale at the venue and the team is seeking sponsors to make them available across other major cities.