Prem Soni on Laila Manju: Not much awareness about drag culture in India

Updated: Jul 16, 2020, 08:52 IST | Uma Ramasubramanian | Mumbai

After an eight-year hiatus, Ishkq in Paris director Prem Soni returns with Laila Manju, India's first mainstream film on drag culture.

The poster of Laila Manju
The poster of Laila Manju

With Bollywood finally expanding its horizons to tell stories about the marginalised sections, it is only fitting that director Prem Soni is set to explore the subject of drag queens with his next, Laila Manju. Featuring Shashank Vyas of Balika Vadhu fame, Abhimanyu Tomar and Nehal Chudasama, the film revolves around two Southall boys who participate in a beauty contest.

Soni, who is returning to the industry after an eight-year hiatus, says, "Since I am coming back after a long time, it was important that my film offer a novel idea.

It is India's first mainstream drag [feature] film. Unfortunately, there is not much awareness about the subject in India. The drag culture has been embraced in the West, where they have stand-up comedians, singers and performers." If RuPaul — with his appearances and the wildly popular reality competition series RuPaul's Drag Race — brought global attention to the community, the culture is slowly gaining momentum in India with Keshav Suri's Kitty Su hosting local and international drag performers, in its bid to encourage inclusivity.

SoniPrem Soni

The director says the film, which also features Iulia Vântur in a key role, will shine a spotlight on the LGBTQIA+ community.

"The idea is to tell the audience that we cannot discriminate basis one's skin colour or sexual preference or style of dressing. For long, homosexuality was not considered 'normal' when in fact, we [who carry this prejudice] are the ones who need to shed our layers of conflict."

Iulia VanturIulia Vantur

The past eight years have been hard on Soni — the director says he battled depression after his films Main Aur Mrs Khanna (2009) and Ishkq in Paris (2013) did not receive a favourable response at the box office. "Post 2013, I was in severe depression and went through a suicidal phase. These eight years were tough for me. So many people came up to me and said, 'Your career is over. You can't rebuild it now.' I went through so many rejections. People stopped talking to me. They did not even have the compassion to understand that if a film does not work, it does not mean that the person is not talented. Even after 14 years in the industry, I have not been accepted here — it could be because my films didn't work, or because I am an outsider. The only person who supports outsiders is Salman Khan and I am thankful to him for supporting me."

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