Sushant Divgikar, popular for their drag avatar Rani Ko-He-Nur, talks about drag becoming mainstream, representing India globally, and inclusivity in media today
With over 2 million followers on IG, multiple stints on Indian television and international stages, Sushant Divgikar has captured the imagination of the world. Photo courtesy: Sushant Divgikar
Mumbai-native Sushant Divgikar is a performer winning hearts across mediums, and nations. Known for their drag persona, Rani Ko-He-Nur, the trans artiste has emerged as an LGBTQIA+ icon and made it to the prestigious list of Forbes-Top 100 Digital Stars 2022, as well as a billboard at Times Square in New York City. Recently, Divgikar performed at RuPaul’s DragCon alongside 49 top drag queens from around the world.
In an exclusive chat with Mid-day online, the iconic queen talks about their experiences in the industry, representing India globally, and their life in Mumbai.
How has Mumbai shaped, and fostered your queer identity?
I was born, brought up, and raised in Mumbai. I think that the Mumbai queer culture has also sort of seen so many revolutions and evolutions within them. I'm so happy that I've been present to kind of see the baton being passed from generation to generation.
It's a very special feeling to kind of see the togetherness of all these three generations to fight for equal rights and equality and to spearhead the queer movement.
Bollywood is in Mumbai. So we used to emulate, of course, what we used to see on screen. And what we did see on screen was cis-het (cis-gender heterosexual) representation. So we didn't really feel represented in the films. But what did happen is that we saw a lot of underground movements taking place and a lot of queer groups that used to meet and celebrate themselves, which is when I felt like I'm not alone. I don't need to go through this journey alone. There are people who shared my journey, struggles, and accomplishments. I think that was the turning point for me when I realised that definitely, we all have biological families, well, most of us at least. And then you have chosen families. And the best part about the LGBTQIA+ community is that we get to choose our families.
This city has really shaped me to become the best version of myself. I think you can take me away from Mumbai but you can't take Mumbai away from me
Your stints on reality TV introduced drag to the Indian masses. Would you say it is becoming mainstream?
I will take a lot of credit for mainstreaming drag on Indian television when at a time people didn't know what drag was, or maybe they did know, but a very small fraction of society knew what drag as a performance art is. Everybody knew what cross-dressing was but cross-dressing is not the same as drag. Drag is actually a performance art form. I think that it's more than just cross-dressing. It could be a part of the art of drag, but it's not all of it.
You could be singing, dancing, doing comedy, while doing drag, there are multiple intersectionalities within this multidisciplinary art form. After I came on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 2018, is when people really saw what drag was, and it started getting more recognised. I'm taking the Indian context and Indian drag to the international platform, such as RuPaul's Dragon; I went on Queen of the Universe where I stood third runner up and very few publications actually covered it. Yours being the foremost; I would say Mid-day, was one of my biggest supporters, and they are the only ones, in fact, who covered me back then.
I'm so glad to tell you that I will be doing my OTT platform debut through a web series. I think it's going to be epic, spectacular and one for the history books.
Divgikar is the only Indian trans artiste to have performed twice at RuPaul's DragCon. Photo courtesy: Sushant Divgikar
What would you say to the media, and brands who turn to drag for tokenism?
I have worked with the best talent in this country and internationally, whether it is production houses, artists, or performers. I can tell you that I've faced this not just in India, but even abroad. There's a lot of tokenism, there's a lot of rainbow washing that happens. I do think that it is also a function of us turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to when people cry about these things, which are ground realities. I have realised only after I have done certain campaigns that these people are pinkwashing, and they really don't do ground level work, but it's a learning curve for all of us. After I have learned the reality of the situation, I don't really work with them. Even a lot of media houses practise tokenism because something is trending. We live in these realities every day of our lives, and to monetise that to get TRPs out of it is a very sad state of affairs.
You’ve performed in India and abroad, and interacted with the diverse queer community. How differently is your work received? Please share any insights about Indian audiences.
I performed in India, and internationally, but the one thing I have seen in India is that we are very quick to judge people.
I've seen women bring down women, queers bringing down queers, even drag queens bring down drag queens. I think that we are also to blame as communities, as anti-communities for doing this to each other.
I've seen so many cis-het people come to a bar or a performance arena to watch a burlesque show, performance, theatre production, regardless of what their gender or identity is while fully knowing that the performers belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. Because the art is so beautiful that it transcends all these characteristics. Art has no barriers, we are the ones who create it. So I think that what I have perceived is that when I'm on stage abroad, I'm perceived as an artist first and everything else later. But sometimes here I do feel that I'm perceived as trans or a drag queen first and an artist later.
You’ve been in the entertainment industry for 17 years, we hear a Bollywood debut is on the cards. Tell us about the changes you’ve seen in the industry in terms of inclusiveness? Are drag queens paid the same?
You just made me feel very, very old. I have been in the entertainment industry as a performer, singer, dancer, VJ, model, and TV host. Whether it's reality television, as a columnist, as an interviewer, I have seen a lot of changes in the industry in terms of inclusiveness. What has changed is that not only are they narrating stories beautifully, but queer stories are being narrated by queer writers and directors.
When the community asks for queer roles to be played by queer actors, people say an artist should be able to play any sort of role, if that’s true then let trans people also play cis-gender roles. I can't wait for my Bollywood debut to kind of forget my gender, sexuality and simply exist as pure art.
Are drag queens paid the same? If I have to be honest, I will say no. We are not paid as much as non queer artists, and they are definitely paid at least a substantial amount more than us.
I think times are changing. I'm pushing, but I just want to tell other queer artists that if you do the same job that I said no to do at that rate, if you do it, then we're never going to improve the market. I just like to say that hang in there, it will get better. But we need to stand in unity.
How was your experience representing India at RauPaul’s DragCon where 50 top drag queens from around the world were chosen to perform?
I'm the only queen from India who has made it to two consecutive DragCons in different countries. I always take my sarees wherever I go. I had such a blast showcasing my culture and mixing it with Western culture as well. RuPaul performed on the same stage and so did so many other wonderful queens, and I was the lone representation from India. I definitely hope to take India and the queer community in India many folds higher and to many more countries, and every other urban and non-urban and rural place within India as well.