Over the years, Bollywood has made some iconic films and characters which we can recognize at first glance. There are some evergreen dialogues such as Kitne admi the and our brain immediately flashes a picture of Amjad Khan as the notorious pistol-wielding dacoit, Gabbar Singh in Sholay or Ja Simran ja jee le apni zindagi and we are immediately reminded of the iconic scene where Simran(Kajol) runs after her lover, Raj(Shahrukh Khan), who extends his hand from a moving train in DDLJ. To Indians, Bollywood is more than just a film industry — it is nostalgia, cultural reference, emotions, memories associated with childhood and so much more.
A space like Bollywood offers us so much familiarity. What’s interesting is how we can tap into the emotions of familiarity that we associate with Bollywood, and subvert it to deliver our own message. That is exactly what Pankaj Dahalia’s public art project Kya Aap Mujhe Pehchante Hain?/ Can You Identify Me? is doing. In this project, the photographer is recasting queer people in iconic Bollywood film posters of popular characters. A queer person himself, the independent photographer Pankaj Dahalia, is using this visual art project to explore the discourses surrounding gender identity, culture, and memory. Throughout his career, Dahalia has been interested in the gender politics of representation and his practice spans the mediums of theatre, photography, and performance art.
Dahalia’s public art project seeks to show his resistance to gender binaries and to the societal suppression of the existence and desires of queer and trans people. His aim is to use the photographs from his series and challenge the existing heteronormative societal norms and carve out a narrative for queer folks. It’s been two years and the work is still ongoing. Dahalia spent the initial days of the KAMPH project reading, researching, and writing about gender. Then he started visualizing the photographs and his cast. All the participants in his project are either queer, non-binary, or trans. He brainstormed with his cast and asked them to name five of the most impactful Bollywood characters. Together, they decided which character fit their persona best. After that, the photographer finalized the characters and started imagining them from the cast's gender perspective.
Dahalia’s hope is that this project will affect the viewers in a way that they may feel chaotic, accepting, denial, disgusted, loved, or maybe just confused. The idea is to make trans, non-binary, and queer people visible in public spaces and create an avenue of engagement or confrontation with the audience. He wishes to make the project more accessible to the masses by putting up these photographs on more streets and other places around your everyday life.
In these stories or characters, we queer people fleetingly see parts of us, and then go back home and celebrate those parts behind locked doors. We would dress up, act, and behave like them, giving us so much joy by making us feel like we could actually fit inside the societal circuit, and hence, I chose Bollywood.
You can find out more about Pankaj Dahalia and his works here.