Reclaiming queer identities that have so often been erased by mainstream media can be back-breaking work – the popular opinion is often swayed easily, the stereotypes endure and undoing this is a mammoth ask. Pankaj Dahalia is an independent and queer photographer who seeks to shift the narrative of queer representation from the sidekick to the main hero with his art project ‘Kya Aap Mujhe Pehchante Hain’. “Queering Indian streets ” as he describes it, using Bollywood-inspired posters as his medium, the dynamic artworks found their way into public spaces breaking down the concept of queer visibility to its very essence.
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Pankaj’s visual art is not just eye-catching; it makes you question a lot of things. For some, the posters out on the streets could be a war cry, a form of silent protest, perhaps the beginning of a conversation and for others, it could mean finally feeling seen. For an industry with tremendous influence, Bollywood has been quiet or indifferent to the community, with representation reduced to mere stereotypes or comedic tropes. Pankaj used his creative freedom to curate a project that’s making waves across the queer community. Started with an Instagram account, his work has now found plenty of visibility. He says, “I have dreamt and thought of these days so much. I can’t believe I am actually doing this. I have fought quite a few battles in my head to get here. I am most definitely proud of my queer ass to be able to pull all of this.” On the account of LGBTQ history month, we sat down with him for a quick chat about art, queerwashing, Bollywood, and more.
ELLE: Tell us something about your project ‘Kya Aap Mujhe Pehchante Hain?’
Pankaj Dahalia: ‘Kya Aap Mujhe Pehchante Hain?’ is a public art project whose motto is to take queerness to the streets of India. I along with other queers re-cast and re-construct iconic Hindi film characters from a genderqueer lens. This project is born out of our dreams and desires and with lots of passion to strike up a meaningful conversation in the country and spread awareness.
ELLE: What are your thoughts on queer representation in Indian media or this current”queerwashing” trend?
PD: Queer representation in the media, specifically in Indian media, is very limited and stereotyped. Among this limited representation, most opportunities and spaces are driven by agendas of sales, profits, and reach, with queerness and queer people serving as a lure to attract a new group of people. While the real issues and important dialogues are not acknowledged. Most media representation in the past has done more harm than good for the conversation. Lately, there is a more nuanced representation of queer people, but the stakeholders in these media spaces are still failing to give agency and stake to queer people. Having said that, I believe in the strength of my queer friends, and I know that in whatever limited capacity we have, we are finding ways to tell our stories of resistance, hope, and love!
ELLE: How do you feel about giving queer people a diverse platform through your lens or storyline in this campaign?
PD: Through this project, I am showing a side of queerness that is usually not discussed in the popular media. In the work, you look at queer people in larger-than-life visuals; you see joy, drama, excitement, dancing, lights, entertainment, entertainment, etc. and that’s a very important aspect of our lived experience and the normalcy we crave. You don’t look at anyone at work and feel bad about their sexual orientation; instead, you see an unapologetic person doing what they want to do with so much grace and joy!
ELLE: Which character has been your favourite so far in the campaign, and how do you choose such iconic characters to recreate?
PD: This is so difficult to choose from. Each one of my artworks is so unique, and each one of them brings out an individual idea about gender; hence, the experience and performance of every artwork in public are also unique to themselves. We chose these characters in a series of conversations with the queer performers who were going to play them. I would come up with some characters that I thought would work, and they would come up with some characters they wanted to do. It was fascinating to see everyone’s motivations for playing the characters they did. Vineet chooses to play Rekha’s character because Vineet is completely obsessed with Rekha’s persona. On the contrary, I choose to play Gabbar because I want to challenge the way everyone has always imagined Gabbar, and wouldn’t it be so much fun to see a well-written negative queer character? On the other hand, Mallika wants to play queer, and Haider wants to really tell everyone they could be fluid and look any way they wanted to. Everyone brought their unique ideas of gender representation to the work and added so much value.
ELLE: What will we find you doing if you are not in front of the camera or behind it?
PD: You would find me dancing to a ghazal or catching a train to a random place while I listen to the queen Farida Khanum.
ELLE: What are your plans after this campaign, and will there be a Part 2 with more characters making cameos?
PD: I have a lot of ideas that I have been thinking, reading, and writing about and finally I would start working on them. Where ‘Kya Aap Mujhe Pehchante Hain’ is concerned there is so much more left to show. More characters, more stories, and characters beyond the Hindi film industry also. It’s a revolution we are starting and it’s not going to end anytime soon so watch out for more!
To more about his artwork visit www.pankajdahalia.com.
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