Review: Bent Bollywood

What do we all have in common? Bodies! How do our emotions and feelings go to shaping our concept of physicality? They’ll suggest some bold, sexy, artful, fluid-driven ways!
Photo: Hayden Golder

Two performers emerge as a genderqueer conglomerate being, representing Sri Ardhanaareeshvara, the half-male half-female Hindu deity. Amidst smoke and a sparse, dimly lit stage, their movements are slow, fluid, elegant and hypnotic – mesmerising the audience at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute where we’ve gathered to watch an hour of ‘Bent Bollywood’, described as ‘a moving dance innovation of diaspora, gender, transgression and filth’.

After Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai come to the end of their introduction, Peterson returns with a solo sequence called ‘Dust’, where gender is represented as the ‘dust’. Throughout their performance, ‘mudras’— gendered hand gestures from classical Indian dance and yoga—delicately tell a narrative of love and desire disintegrating, being celebrated, then move from progression to passage, through to an ambivalent end.

In Sri Ardhanaareeshvara’s initial appearance, mudras were used with such fluency and expressiveness, it was evocative of how one might imagine a vocalist conveying subtle emotional shifts and intensity with pitch variation. Everyone watches, transfixed.

Photo: Hayden Golder

It’s worth mentioning, to my embarrassment, that though some of my racial heritage is in the Indian diaspora, I know very little about it. However, ‘Bent Bollywood’ allowed me to momentarily shut out persistent postcolonial negative self-talk, and allows those present to also engage in a bit of cheeky self-love and celebration – in ways we might not conventionally expect.

Peterson and Pillai, in intersecting dual narratives, playfully connect to more contemporary iterations of desire. In their Bonds boyleg trunks, they hint at the giddiness of raw animal attraction. The camping up of the ‘wet sari’ Bollywood trope was a reference that amused and titillated the already raucous viewers – think hair flips, glitter and running water. When was the last time you were able to say that someone could convey so much in the most subtle of twerks?

Photo: Hayden Golder

The formal choreography shows us, then subverts and remixes, what it means to live queerly in gender and desire, then within Indian history, and within diaspora as multicultural beings, then within contemporary Indian entertainment, as suggested in the act’s title.

The performance overall reminds us too that queer narratives don’t have neat, convenient stories brought together into an efficient conclusion.

Long after, I continue to imagine the development of the separate narratives – is the twink handling a token of affection/lust/desire, or are they the token of affection/lust/desire? Is it metaphorical? Where can I find out more about Hindu deities who embody and celebrate these gender multiplicities? That’s how queer narratives are, and heteronormative ones can exist within them too.

Posing, and appearing as one ‘is’, or one ‘being’, is strongly linked to identity, and ‘Bent Bollywood’ has shown a wider audience that these explorations don’t need to be academic. It’s a safe space in which to consider our various valid emotional responses, which continues long past the ending reformation of Sri Ardhanaareeshvara. Here, the show distils into quieter, more thoughtful navigations of what possible gender definitions can be. It’s a fantastic celebration of bodies, histories, human emotions, and its delirious messiness made it a must-see at this year’s Midsumma Festival.

‘Bent Bollywood’ was presented at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Melbourne, as a part of the Midsumma Festival from 31 Jan-3 Feb 2018, performed and directed by Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai. 


Gemma Mahadeo

Author: Gemma Mahadeo

Gemma Mahadeo is a Melbourne-based writer and performer, whose family emigrated to Australia from the UK in 1987. Their poetry has appeared in national print and online journals such as Cordite, Going Down Swinging, and Tincture, and recent work can be found in Froth Magazine, Pencilled In, and Concrete Queers. Twitter/Instagram: @snarkattack / @eatdrinkstagger.

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