RIFCO Arts newest production written by Harvey Virdi, Miss Meena & the Masala Queens, is a respectable piece of theatre, openly discussing the cultural pressures affecting the South Asian LGBTQ community. Set in contemporary Birmingham, the play perceptively confronts the stigmas, family pressures and traditional ideologies that often echo in the lives of those defying heteronormative society, especially where love and marriage are concerned.
Raj Ghatak, who plays Miss Meena, melancholically projects his strained relationships with his family, the heartaches that followed and most notably the complex relationship he shares with his brother Kabir, played by Ali Ariaie. A sincere relationship between Miss Meena and 19-year-old Shaan, played by Nicholas Prasad, who is also estranged from his family, pleasantly plays out on stage too. The complexities of these relationships might well be only too familiar to members of the LGBTQ audiences, although the wonderful thing about the play is that such issues can resonate with anybody. Miss Meena endearingly narrates a story about her family, the battle for social acceptance in a predominantly conservative British South Asian society, but more importantly she reveals a journey of self-discovery; something almost everyone can relate to.
Miss Meena on the left instructing Shaan how to do drag proud. On the right we see Council workers Preetho and Pinky from left to right waiting to ‘drag’ Shaan out!
Cousins and council workers Pinky and Preetho, played by Vedi Roy and Harvey Dhadda, really bring the stage and script to life! Flamboyant in expression, hilarious in comedy and lovable in character. The two work well on stage, meeting with applause and an excited reaction from the audience almost every time they appeared. Their Bollywood performance to 90s classic ‘Hawa Hawai’ from the film Mr India (1987) in particular is both enjoyable and nostalgic.
Not only can these men act in platforms they can Bollywood song and dance in them too, and they do it Bollywood well. The audience simply *love* Pinky and Preetho; their mannerisms, dialogues and stage presence were wonderful and very entertaining. Even now, as I write about them, it brings a smile to my face as I recall how they made us all laugh. The best part for me has to be the rather comical manner in which the two refer to one another as ‘Penji’ (meaning sister in Punjabi), or as they eloquently put it through camp: ‘Peeeeeenjiiii!’. They often use camp here as a performative gesture to echo how South Asian aunties love to exaggerate their affection for one another, only with Preetho and Pinky you do see it as genuine and sincere.
Pinky (Vedi Roy) and Preetho (Harvey Dhadda) dancing in all their glory to ‘Hawa Hawai’.
It was a bit of a shame that we do not get to see more of them, purely for selfish reasons, as they are an entertaining pair with contagious energy who stand out among the cast – two actors to look out for in the future!
Jamie Zubairi plays the ‘vamp’ of the show who later reforms her menacing ways, quite like the Bollywood vamps of the 70’s and 80’s that many of us who grew up in filmi households will remember. Jamie plays the manipulating temptress Munni, who stops at nothing to get what she wants; now imagine that in drag. Yes, quite a character, who brings a lot of masala and mayhem to the lives of Miss Meena and her fellow queens.
Miss Meena in pink saree (Raj Ghatak) and Munni (Jamie Zubairi) on stage.
The play is well-intentioned, extremely entertaining in parts, heart-warming in others and at times a little slow in terms of the narrative. The play deals with a serious and meaningful subject matter, sometimes with clichés, but has done a decent job in sharing the story of family estrangement, self-sacrifice, self-rejection, forgiveness and eventually acceptance. Miss Meena is certainly praiseworthy for its efforts. Actors Raj Ghatak, Vedi Roy, Harvey Dhadda, Nicholas Prasad, Jamie Zubairi and Ali Ariaie have all done well in embracing their characters and in projecting the lives of South Asian drag queens and the sometimes-fraught relationships that surround them with care and sensitivity.
I caught up with Movement Director and Drag Stylist Andy Kumar for an interview for my weekly show The Asian Mix on BHBN Hospital Radio and asked him about the production of Miss Meena and its ultimate message. Andy is the former presenter of India’s Got Talent, was a contestant in India’s version of Big Brother in 2011 finishing fifth and has also starred in a few Bollywood movies himself. With links to the Indian film and television industry Andy is also one of the patrons for RIFCO who told me how he trained the actors to dance, run, climb stairs and act in high heels higher than any pair I will ever own, in just five weeks! Of course, credit was also given to the cast for their hard work and efforts but Movement Director Andy did note that ‘teaching men how to walk in high heels’ is not a job for just anybody.
There are some real moments of brilliance in the play: Raj Ghatak emulating Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit to the song ‘Aja Nachle’ in a replica lengha (a traditional Indian 3 piece dress) ordered from India required far more material for the skirt portion than that worn by Madhuri Dixit! These deliberate references to Bollywood, as Andy put it, are to showcase a true representation of British Asian drag queens and the time and effort it requires to look one’s best.
‘In the Asian gay night clubs, that’s what they do – as Indians and Pakistanis we love Bollywood so why wouldn’t we put it in there? When it comes to Indian drag a lot of the drag queens like to emulate the actresses and I think it was really important to put that in the show’.
The beautiful costumes worn by the cast only heighten the presence of Bollywood on stage. Miss Meena’s hot pink saree which merited a chorused ‘Ooooooo’ of justified approval from us women in the crowd is clear evidence of that.
It has to be noted, the confidence in which these men perform drag in heels in front of a live audience whilst staying in character is highly commendable. Ali Ariaie who plays two very different characters on stage (Miss Meena’s brother Kabir and Munni’s love interest Ranjeet, the corrupt council official) has done well to convince us of a dual presence which parallels the drag queens lives as well.
Miss Meena and her Masala Queens in full drag on stage.
Andy importantly noted that this play is about issues that ‘our community needs to understand’ and this intention is apparent on stage.
‘Miss Meena’s is not just about being a drag queen or coming out as gay, it’s about wanting to do something for your own life. There’s a lot of people out there that might have married a partner that’s not agreeable to them. The more we understand them the less alienated it becomes. At the end of the day Miss Meena is about family.’
That it is, at the very heart of what was being conveyed in the play was the story of family, of belonging to one, being estranged from them, to then ultimately creating your own safe haven which may not always fit the stereotypical connotations of a family, but will feel like one.
I came away feeling that Miss Meena is better intended perhaps, for a stage larger than theatre. Miss Meena could be developed and thrive as a TV drama or even as a mini soap-opera, where more space and time could be given to develop better the issues being raised. Furthermore, it would give the LGBTQ movement space to reach a wider audience and help to challenge some of society’s conservative norms. One could not help but notice the large female make-up of the audience, perhaps suggesting an affinity with gender and equality issues that the play seeks to explore. Admiration for RIFCO then, for having the determination to place Miss Meena and the Masala Queens on the South Asian map of artistic creativity.
Overall, this is a show that is worth seeing, not only for its Bollywood-style entertainment value (of which there is quite a bit as one might imagine or expect from RIFCO Arts), but also for dealing with a pressing issue in the British Asian community more widely, pertaining to LGBTQ issues and drag in particular. If you love Bollywood, love a musical, like watching important subject matter unfold in narrative and look forward to learning about the under-represented parts of British Asian society then Miss Meena’s is a good show to consider. These sassy drag queens have glitter abound and family in their hearts – if this sounds like your cup of masala chai then you have until June 17th to go watch them!
Behind the scenes with Miss Meena and the Masala Queens.
All images are courtesy of RIFCO Arts: http://rifcoarts.com/shows/miss-meena-the-masala-queens/creatives