Actor Ali Asgar makes more money playing a woman than he ever did as a man.
“I’ve been working since the mid-1980s, I’ve put in more than eight years on a top soap like Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki; my body of work includes big films,” he says. “But two years ago, when I was stuck in Mumbai traffic during the Ganesha immersions, a crowd of revellers took one look at me and said, ‘Arrey, Dadi baithi hai!’ I had to get out of my car and dance my Dadi moves before they let me pass.”
Asgar has been playing women since 2007, when he and comedian Kashif Khan competed in the first season of Comedy Circus, a TV reality contest. His turn as a buxom Sohni to Khan’s Mahiwal turned them into the show’s favourites, won them the season and opened TV up as a platform for the standup, sketch shows and on-air gags still popular today.
Watch Nani aka Ali Asgar in action
His Dadi from the TV sketch show Comedy Nights with Kapil (on Colors) transformed into Pushpa Nani in April as Asgar moved to The Kapil Sharma Show (on Sony). He wears his wig in a demure grey bun; amply pads his chest, hips and behind; and favours pastel saris.
He’s also played the courtesan Begun Luchi, the starlet Babynaz, and other female characters, “jiggling my legs to get comfortable every time I need to keep my knees closed onstage”.
Several other male TV comics have included female characters in their routines over the past decade. Sunil Grover was the dim but loveable village girl Gutthi on Comedy Nights and plays Rinku Bhabhi, another dim but loveable woman, on The Kapil Sharma Show. Kiku Sharda, who previously played Pankhuri and Palak, is now Rinku’s sister-in-law Santosh and a nurse called Bumper. Chandan Prabhakar plays Vimla Devi and Pakori.
On Comedy Nights Live (Colors), Sidharth Sagar plays the garba-obsessed Mangala Mufatlal. Meanwhile Ssumier Parischa’s popular web character Pammi Aunty has a role on Comedy Nights Bachao (Colors); while Gaurav Gera’s characters Chutki, Billi Maasi, Binnu, Baarish, Kumari Kusum have found fans on the web and social media.
TURNING THE TIDE
Gera, who also plays several male characters, writes, edits and creates his own material online, says that his female roles constitute only a fraction of his work. “Why is it a big deal that a guy is dressing up as a woman?” he asks.
Why indeed? Folk theatre across India has long used men in drag for laughs, a remnant of the time when women weren’t allowed to perform on stage. The current explosion in on-screen male-to-female transformations, however, is taking female characters down paths they’d never have taken with female actors.
Drag allows more leeway with a female character, says Kiku Sharda. There’s more horseplay, you can make age jokes, size jokes, looks jokes, act horny and exaggerate stereotypes relatively safely. “As a man, I can shove and get shoved and jump around the place with parts of my body jiggling,” he says. “Our characters can say the things we can’t; they can voice mass opinion at no cost to the individual. Even if we cross a line, it’s easier to forgive.”
Playing a caricature of a woman also frees up the actor to be petty, politically incorrect, gossipy, vain and silly — all great fodder for comedy in the Indian setting. Gaurav Gera is looking for a good way to get Chutki to call Donald Trump, Donald Trunk. “That’s the kind of ignorance I can’t have as myself, but my characters can,” he says.
In the airbrushed world of Indian TV, where bahus fall asleep in full makeup, cry into kanjeevarams and drip in diamonds even as they make rotis, Sharda feels the women played by men offer a refreshing change. “They’re not embarrassed about their shape or weight, they just go ahead and laugh at their own jokes, being happy with themselves,” he says. “It sends a nice message that a woman’s confidence needn’t be connected to her looks.”
GENDER AND GENRE
For all the actors, cues for female alter egos come from watching the world around them. They draw from mothers, sisters, relatives, neighbours and friends and how they deal with technology, sophistication, the news and their lives. And then they exaggerate.
To create Pammi Aunty and her circle of gossipy Punjabi women, Ssumier Pasricha focuses on his community’s stereotype. “The women all create drama out of nothing, and are happiest when grumbling and nitpicking among friends,” he says. He then checks Twitter for current affairs that might penetrate Pammi’s world.
For Mangala Mafatlal, Siddharth Sagar found that the script could only take him so far. He had to invent Mangala’s signature waddle and garba move himself.
What is Pammi Aunty complaining about now? Find out in her post-Navratri video
Gera, on the other hand, makes sure to start with the basics: his female alter-ego’s social standing, likes and dislikes; adding layers and secondary characters later. Billi gets to call her neglectful husband ‘Ganja’ behind his back. Chutki can be more outspoken, and enjoy saying the word ‘cock’. Binnu can hum tuneless songs for no reason, while Kumari Kusum, a fictional Haryana boxer, can throw punches with abandon.
“It helps that we’re not playing actual people,” Asgar says. “In comedy, the Indian woman is not the Nirupa Roy type, sighing at the silai ki machine. She has to be fun.”
The Kapil Sharma Show team constructs detailed backstories for each of their characters, says Sharda. “We visualise what their lives must be like in a small town, leaving dal to cook while you step out, probably all sleeping in the same room. So many comic situations come out of that.”
Not all drag roles find success. The most memorable characters, Sagar says, are the ones that forge a connection beyond the idea of a man in costume. “Your woman character, regardless of whether she’s a rude village aunt or a posh city girl, should ultimately be good of heart. If she’s not loveable, she won’t be loved.”
Roshan Taneja, who has been training actors for stage and screen for 50 years says there’s always a worry that such comedy might disintegrate into farce. “You need to find the female side of yourself and respect it for the character to shine, no school can train you for it,” he says.
Gera recalls watching old films in which the man, dolled up as a woman, would still find the need to conspicuously scratch his behind. Today’s drag artists are more careful — no sideburns peek through wigs, no ironic looks at the camera. “If you’re going to be an aurat, be a kamaal ki aurat,” Parischa says.
Could you get on board with Gaurav Gera’s short silly clips as Billy Maasi and Baarish?
MAKING IT WORK
TV’s newfound space for comedy means stars like Asgar and Sarda often spend days playing women on one show, taking off makeup, rushing to play a male character on another programme, and rushing back to their female personas for more scenes.
“The makeup room is a weird zone,” says Sharda, who also plays a very macho Akbar on the show Akbar Birbal. “It’s the only time you have to get into character or out of it.”
Those whose work goes online find there are different kinds of challenges. A phone screen is for shorter, more intimate material. Gera gets by with wigs, a bit of makeup and Snapchat filters. “I can lie in bed and make a video, no elaborate acts needed,” he says. Pasricha needs his green face-pack and his hair covered by a towel to do one-take videos of under a minute. As a comic, he’s busier than ever.
And the audiences are lapping it up. Women often tell Sharda they wish they had a daughter like his Santosh or Palak. Fans requesting selfies call the actors “Ma’am”. There’s a second glance, but rarely a double take.
There are times when the heels get uncomfortable, though. Asgar stopped playing women two years ago, after his son, now 12, kept getting bullied by peers. He was left without work for nearly eight months before he took up a children’s show and went back to drag this year.
And sometimes, the gender bending takes a weird turn. Asgar was in his Dadi costume at an event in Delhi in 2014 when he was mobbed. “There were big male hands on my front and back, grown men wanted photos with their heads on my bosom,” he says. “They either knew I was a man and didn’t care, or thought I was a grandmother and still manhandled me. Either way it was unsettling.”