Dressed in an aqua-coloured, net anarkali, Madhubala’s character, Anarkali, in the ill-fated romance Mughal-e-Azam, shed layers of hesitation as she confessed her love for Prince Salim. The lines, “Pardah nahin jab koi khuda se, bando se pardah karna kya?” echoed in the palace as she danced fearlessly aware of their eyes following her every movement. Drawing inspiration from Anarkali’s dialogue, Delhi-based genderqueer artist Pankaj Dahalia is experimenting with cinema, iconoclasm, public art, photography, performance and design in his project – Kya Aap Mujhe Pehchante Hain? (Can you identify me?). Dahalia identifies iconic scenes and characters from popular Hindi-language cinema and employs photography and digital technology to recast and reimagine these characters through a queer lens and experience. Dahalia then transports them back to the public realm for community engagement and conversations, questioning the prevailing heteronormative patriarchy.
KAMPH is a process in building and sustaining a public discourse on queerness by presenting the wide gender spectrum through publicly displayed posters of one of the most popular media of entertainment and communication – cinema. While doing so, the project asserts the identities of LGBTQIA+ people in our society, and acknowledges their hopes and dreams of being ‘seen’.
Exasperated by the ‘othering’ faced by the queer community, the seed of the project was planted in Dahalia’s mind two years ago. “I realized that we are considered the anomaly, the irregular – our lives misshapen and contorted. We are the ‘other’. To be gender queer is to be abandoned and assaulted. To be visible is to choose to be violated,” he reflects. Talking about the exclusion suffered by queer people in every leg of life, Dahalia adds: “All attempts are made to ‘hide’ us and erase our existence. Years of anguish, pain, and disappointments led me to envision this public art project. It is a manifestation of a deep need I felt to revolt, disrupt, and demand visibility.”
Initially he connected with friends, acquaintances, and strangers – both virtually and physically – and exchanged stories of their queer identity and rejection of the gender binary. Their conversations led to a collaboration where they began imagining Hindi-language films (a space that often mistreats queers with jibes and mockery) with characters and stories that have influenced and affected the cultural narrative. This led to an intense process of reimagining, reconstructing and recasting protagonists of these larger-than-life, immersive stories with individuals who do not generally find themselves in these spaces. Each collaborator brought their unique gender expression and every character was re-cast with an individual genderqueer lens.
Talking about their experience of working on this project, Mallika, a model based in New Delhi, shared: “Working on this project has been a safe space for queer people and queer identity. It’s important to see a queer person to express themselves and involve more queer people. Representation matters because it challenges ideas of normalcy and heteronormativity.”
Each chosen film is one that has held a personal relevance to the re-casted protagonist; these are films that have been watched, analyzed and cherished across India and globally. Besides collaborating with the protagonists, a team of stylists, makeup artists, and performers also collaborated bringing input from their specialized fields.
From Gully Boy’s Murad to Munna Bhai’s Circuit – Dahalia has superimposed queer presence in various scenes of the chosen films. Borrowing visual cues from the original, several new elements have been introduced in these posters. Retaining the posters’ recall value, these new elements provoke the viewer to question what is missing or different in the new posters.
“I critically studied the original posters of the film, its time, its genre, and followed the same color schemes as the original movies. Iconic dialogues have been used on some posters, which lead us into the world of the characters. The styling and makeup have been done strategically to increase reliability while simultaneously building a confrontation. Every poster is layered with gender cues that are individual to performers. These cues do not lead to direct answers. Instead, they become initiators of emotions, confusions, and conversations in open public spaces,” Dahalia adds about his process.
Dahalia has already started conducting various public drives. In a test drive in Nehru Place and SDA market opposite IIT Delhi, he put up the posters behind autos, outside theaters, road crossings, markets, and food stalls. In their second public drive they distributed flyers to people at Govindpuri Metro Station, the bus stop and to people visiting the India Art Fair – making these public spaces a site for the performance. He says, “After these posters are put up, they will, as tangible objects, carve a path of their own. These desire-driven objects will provoke several socio-cultural and political questions, and initiate uncomfortable yet much-needed conversations in enclosed spaces like homes, offices, malls etc.”
Each poster carries a QR code that will allow interested audiences to visit the project website and its social media pages to connect and converse with the larger queer community involved or connected to the project. Dahalia and his team have been documenting the public encounters of the works at various spots. Their objective with the initial drives has been to engage and interview the public, and initiate conversations on gender in everyday life around them. He is currently planning the next few public drives to take the work as far as possible and is hoping to now use the work as flyers inserted into newspapers which would help the work enter households, offices and other spaces.
Dahalia ends by saying, “My hope is that these posters will navigate the complex cosmos interwoven with issues around geography, class, race, desirability, and self-fashioning – some might be torn too soon, some might decorate the walls of a household and some might slip into diaries as hidden dreams. These posters and flyers will be a reminder of our existence in ‘mainstream’ society, lending visibility to our legacy and cultural and collective memory. These posters and the performance within them are a response to the years of suppression – a performance through which we reclaim our identity, embody our protest, create memories and build environments; where we find ourselves in the distorting mirror of the heterosexual ‘mainstream’ discourse and create a space for queer identities to exist in the heart of our lived spaces: the streets. As we register our resistance and attempt to bring our marginalized identity to the ‘mainstream’, we demand space in a realm that has often been out of our reach. We ask the audience to consider and reflect on the gender spectrum and the denial of visibility and opportunities to those rejecting the heteronormative.”