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Sivakarthikeyan’s latest avatar stirs up the discussion of Tamil cinema’s age-old obsession with cross-dressing.

Be it Kamal Haasan’s iconic portrayal of the elderly caretaker in Avvai Shanmugi or Rajnikanth and Suriya’s brief transformations in Endhiran and Ayan, Tamil cinema’s fascination with actors in feminine garb is not something new. Many mainstream stars, including the likes of Santhanam, Vivek, Sarathkumar and now Vikram and Sivakarthikeyan, have dared to blur gender lines, making cross-dressing a lot more than just a mere tool for comic relief. With Remo reviving the cross-dressing culture on the silver screen, we find out how the trend has evolved over time and why it never goes out of style.

The perfectionist
Though Remo opened to a mixed critical response after all the noise surrounding its release, Sivakarthikeyan’s role as Regina Motwani has met praise from all quarters. Talking about the preparation for the part, Nicky Rajani, makeup artist for the film, says, “For 45 days, we spent four hours getting Siva ready for his character. He was extremely cooperative and followed a strict diet to ensure he maintained a feminine body shape and looked the part.” Rajani says that a successful portrayal happens only when people cannot identify if the cross-dresser is male or female. “Cinema before had always shown the LGBT community uni-dimensionally. I think today movies are portraying their look and lives as realistically as possible and that’s a welcome change,” concludes the artist.

Open to experiment
Essaying a double role in Iru Mugan, one of Vikram’s characters, the antagonist Love, is an eccentric effeminate criminal, who briefly dresses up as a nurse to gain entry into a hospital. Director Anand Shankar tells us that it took four hours to get him ready and another two to get him out of that look. “Acting involves dramatisation. Even a heroine exaggerates her movement and expression. When it’s a man trying, if it’s understated, masculinity is all you will see, failing that character altogether,” he says. Despite calling the trend old wine in a new bottle, Shankar lauds the writing in older films saying characters had more depth back then.

Beyond convention
When he was first approached to play a vengeful transgender in Muni 2: Kanchana (2011), R Sarathkumar had cold feet. “I was hesitant because I am big built and I didn’t know if I could pull off the look for a socially conscious film like this,” says the 62-year-old actor. With help from director and co-star Raghava Lawrence, he gave one of the most spirited performances of the year, receiving much acclaim for his portrayal of the third gender. “Audiences love to see cross dressers because you see your quintessentially macho action heroes in offbeat concepts like this and that’s food for entertainment. It piques their interest and never goes out of the public conscience,” says the star.

There’s no comparison with Hollywood because they invest in all the right areas. They spend more time on the required research to get the look right. While portrayals have changed and the intention and motives have  evolved in Tamil cinema, it still lacks styling.
— Karun Raman, fashion choreographer

The portrayal of cross-dressers and transgenders in cinema isn’t as close to reality as we’d like it to be. Serious cinema that does justice to them are few and cinema largely falls prey to a kind of stereotyping, which gives space for entertainment.
— Sadanand Menon, journalist and culture critic

Kamal Haasan
The veteran actor nailed the role of a divorced father who crossdresses as an old maami (Tam-Bram woman) to be a nanny for his daughter in Avvai Shanmugi (1996). Inspired by the Robin William-starrer Mrs Doubtfire, Haasan was lauded for his timing.

Vivek
In an otherwise forgettable adaptation of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer, Yes Boss, Vivek’s makeover as the fashionable ‘Lassi’ Latha in Guru En Aalu (2009) was among the highlights. Effortlessly comical, Vivek (54) took inspiration from actresses across generations to perfect his drag queen act.

Santhanam
Although his potential is often left untapped to its fullest, portraying female characters comes naturally to Santhanam (36) who has switched sides for a number of movies, including All in All Azhagu Raja and Singham Puli.

— Lavanya Lakshminarayanan

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