The freedom to express our individuality has often been hindered by the confines of society. Thankfully there have been waves of unapologetic young Indians carving space for themselves, breaking out of the cages they were once boxed into. With the constantly-expanding definition of what is considered ‘socially acceptable,’ many people have refused to follow traditional, singular paths and chosen instead to jump headfirst into exciting and unconventional ways of being.
An architecture student turned theatre actor and full-time drag queen, everything about Suruj Pankaj Rajkhowa is deeply inspiring. His effortless smile is contagious and it’s apparent that he speaks from the heart as he takes us through the ups and downs of his diverse journey through life.
Born in Golaghat in Upper Assam, Suruj tells us his first experience with drag was really with his mom, as he recounts excitedly trying on her sari and make-up. He tells us that the Northeast is actually a pretty liberal space relative to the rest of India, even though he had to be careful about how he dressed in public.
In his adult life he attended architecture school in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, but soon found it uninteresting and stifling. Unlike what most people would do, Suruj dropped out of college in his fourth year and stayed firm in his resolve. He needed to find “another way,” one that was more stimulating and fulfilling for him in his personal life. He turned to being a professional drag queen by the name Lil Mickey. While drag is a relatively common concept in the West, in India it is still frequently conflated with men simply “cross-dressing” – but, as Suruj’s story reveals, it’s much more than that. It’s an expression of freedom and identity that is mirrored by many drag artists around the country.
“It was amazing. As a drag queen, I was celebrated – for a change! When I put on that costume and that make up, I was fierce. I studied in a small city, but I’ve been bullied all my life. I was shy and timid and introverted. I’ve always felt suppressed because I was so feminine,” he says softly. “I don’t say anything nasty or mean to anybody but I always ended up being the target. The moment I was in drag – I found this alternate character for myself where I could say whatever I wanted to, be as mean as I wanted to – I could finally fight back. It gave me a voice. It gave me the confidence I’d been lacking for so long.”
Along with a friend he opened Café Fitoor in the heart of Bhopal – a “drag café” where anyone, especially artists from the queer community, could just come and chill and be free to be whoever they pleased. It was also in his café that he was scouted by a French director who asked Suruj to join her absurdist theatre group, starting a fulfilling acting career for the young artist.
“I’ve done a couple of plays, my favourite being an absurd comedy one written by Samuel Beckett. It had a lot to do with body movement and dance and singing,” Suruj says as he details his time with the troupe. He admits that through theatre he really opened up; he felt liberated and was able to resolve many internal conflicts. “I became so free that I just stopped caring about what people thought of me or what they said to me. I was finally at peace with myself.”
After dropping out of college, he travelled around India and ended up in Auroville – a little community outside of Pondicherry – for a year. “They welcomed me with an open heart. I wasn’t a ‘fag from the corner’ anymore. I was just another human being, cooking chilling, eating, going to the lake for a swim, and so on. That experience really made me who I am today.” The appreciation and nostalgia for Auroville is clear in his voice as he fondly recollects his time there. He also mentions it was in the commune that he found the courage to send his parents a 30-page letter where he came out to them as queer. He describes them as “simple and innocent,” and emphasises that there is no bad blood between them.
As many young creatives do, Suruj eventually moved to Mumbai in pursuit of an acting career. He’s done some drag acts at the infamous Kitty Su but is still struggling to establish a full-time career. After having lived in the close-knit communities of Assam and even Auroville, he found Mumbai to be a much harsher, less soulful space. Other than a few close friends, he describes many of his professional relationships to be shallow. As a model and actor, he was frequently typecasted for being both, queer and Northeastern. The Indian entertainment industry, particularly in Mumbai, is known for its exclusivity and favouritism – even nepotism – making it especially difficult to break into.
“In order to get jobs you have to lick a lot of people’s asses,” he exclaims, “even to get a gig as a drag queen. When I do get acting gigs, it’s always for the same queer character. I think I could play any character, but I never get the opportunity. I’ve been rejected from almost all modeling agencies – I was never tall enough, or they didn’t like my dreadlocks, or I didn’t butter someone up enough. I can’t afford to maintain this social status of going out for ‘networking drinks’ or buying expensive clothes,” he says with visible frustration.
His experience is symptomatic of a larger structural issue. Without a pre-existing supply of social or financial capital, it’s almost impossible to join the “inner circle,” so to speak. More so if you come from a marginalised or otherwise stigmatised identity group. And if you refuse to allow yourself to be stereotyped to appease the masses, it usually comes at the cost of your livelihood. Just having talent – no matter how much – seems to be sadly inadequate in today’s capitalist world, if you don’t also have connections or money. Suruj sighs and admits that while he does enjoy being around showbiz, it’s exhausting. “This just isn’t my craft. I want my work to speak for itself.”
Suruj is optimistic, however, that things will change. With more and more people forging their own paths and challenging the status quo, he discusses all the exciting projects he’s been a part of and all the genuinely wonderful people outside of the mainstream industry that he’s gotten to work with. He also talks about his long-time lover and confidante who has given him the courage and support to battle most storms.
“I’m in love with myself. Maybe Bombay brings out insecurities that I didn’t have before. Maybe it’s people always telling me I’m an ‘alt’ person rather than just a regular person. I still have issues with my confidence,” he admits, an experience that many urban millennials likely relate to. “I’ve stopped caring about most things. I guess I just need to find a middle ground. Drag liberates me and brings me closer to who I want to be. I always keep room for learning and I don’t think I’ve entirely found myself yet.”
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