MISS MEENA & THE MASALA QUEENS @ WATFORD PALACE THEATRE

💓 😭 💞

ZM 21/5/17

SO, i only heard about this show because where I work, we share an office with another company that does ethnic outreach marketing. And they were doing the promotion for this play, so i saw the flyer for it on their desks and i was like “omg, what is going on here?” After finding out, dying, and telling them I am fascinated by the art of drag, love it n all that; they got me tickets to go on one of the preview evenings. It was like a rly fun work-night-out kinda things. 

 

Miss Meena and the Masala Queens;;;; The play is about Miss Meena, an old queen who runs a drag club; it’s old, dilapidated, no one rly comes in any more. Her friend Munni runs it with her and Munni tries to convince Miss Meena to spruce it up;::: and do things like Mujra nights, something to get straight punters in to the club n get it popping again. They could do hen nights, stag dos, use the queens who perform to pull in straight ppl as the clientele. Miss Meena is disgusted, she says the club isn’t here for straight people; she’s not here for her club to be gentrified, this is a safe space, the queens aren’t here to perform as circus freaks. this was deadpan. No explanation, no apology: U, a straight person, gentrify queer spaces by invading them n making it about u. I agree, i’m on board. 

 

There was one specific bit i wana address as like a beautiful rly cinematic and tender piece of theatre. There’s a moment where Miss Meena reveals that her namesake is Meena Kumari, golden age screen siren, cinema goddess. She goes to the back of her cupboard, pulls out a diamond necklace. She needs to sell it so she can afford to redecorate the club; fix all the dilapidation and ruin. She needs to get back on her feet; and so she must part with this cherished necklace. She carefully pulls the necklace out of its box. She holds it up to her face and the diamonds glimmer in a warm white spotlight. She lowers the necklace over her head, tightens the string at the back around her neck. Softly softly music starts playing: “Chalte challlteee,,,,,, chalte chaaaallllte,,,, yunhiiiii koiiiii mil gaya thaaaAaaaAaaaa, yunhi kooooiiiii,,,,, mil gayaaaaa thaaaaaaAAaa,;,;,;,;,;,;,;,;,; SAre rAAAhhhh chalte chaaalteeeeEeeeee” - - - Meena Kumari’s most faamous film, a song from Pakeezah “I met someone by chance while walking walking walking around the path, The night suddenly came to a standstill just as it was about to fade away” A figure swirls on stage, dressed in the same red orange Meena Kumari wears in the song. Softly gently mouthing the words she dances along to the song “wohii thamkeeeeee rah gayiiiiii haaaiiiiii,,,,, wohii thamkeeeeee rah gayiiiiii haaaiiiiii,,,, MERI RAaaaattttt dhalllteeee dhaaaalllllteeeEEEEEeeeeee” swirling her skirts, clapping in time with the drums as her feet stamp along to the music. Miss Meena looks on, still. We watch too. We watch the dancer, Meena Kumari. For us, in the theatre, as a predominantly asian audience, i don’t think i’m presuming a complicity that isn’t there when i say that this song makes us all feel the same feelings. Sadness, nostalgia, longing and that thing, that pit in ur stomach when u can feel ur eyes watering but it’s also happy too. This song is loaded; and they knew that when they chose it. We watch Miss Meena, watching the dancer: Meena Kumari. There was a really beautiful synchronicity to it all; something so subtle and soothing; but also powerful. Bollywood is notorious at weaponising nostalgia, and the same thing happened here. This was an exercise in feeling. Checking I still could. I still could, i cried. The dancer stops, swirls off stage. The warm spotlight on Miss Meena fades out as she takes off the diamond necklace and i think she was crying too. I am glad we shed these tears together, rather than us both alone. 

 

So much more happens in the play;;;;;; but this bit, this snippet where we are able to see Miss Meena in relation to Meena Kumari in Pakeezah;-;-;-;-; we’re able to position them both next to each other. This did make me think about what drag is, what it does, about performance and performing. Ru Paul always says that drag is about performing identity; by performing it, you mock it, you twist it and show it to be a sham. Idk about u, but there’s something kinda powerful about that. That power: of agency, ur own representation;;; this feels even more powerful when we think about it compared to the figure of the mujra (something we can only rly do bc of this particular bit in the play rly. otherwise the only real relation is performance as a vague blanket):::::: in the film, Pakeezah is a mujra (a courtesan). She’s held at the whims of a rich zamindar (landed aristocrat) and when she performs for him, there is always that undercurrent of the male gaze, his gaze specifically, and there’s something that happens. Her sadness, her pain isn’t her own. Her vulnerability doesn’t belong to her. There’s something violent and intrusive in that lack of ownership, but more specifically something violent about the way he claims her performance as his own without really saying anything. (I can’t believe I’m writing a feminist reading of Pakeezah right here right now) And that happens in that specific song as well as maybe all mujra numbers in Bollywood (as well as item girl numbers too bc let’s face it they use the same visual vocabulary, they fill the same space; maybe item girls are more liberated, reclaiming their position, but still it’s the same position, undercurrents of the male gaze uh oh.) The existence of a single man as the audience reduces what is a beautiful performance, ART really. It’s reduced to seduction. NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT, the problem is not that she is seducing HIM. But maybe this is problematised when we’re reminded of his presence, of his gaze; we’re reminded of his gaze as we are aware of our own. Camera and zaminder; we watch her dance together and we slowly slowly reduce reduce and her sadness is now an object. It is no longer her own, it is mine and his (not even shared). She is not her own, she doesn’t dance for herself THAT’S THE PROBLEM. 

 

After all of this, seeing this song performed as a tribute, a loving tender tribute;;; through drag with all the accompanying power of reclaiming  this moment of Pakeezah/Meena’s sadness; and the radicality of manipulating identity like it’s soft clay…..:::: I’ve never been happier to see anything ever. I was glad that this moment in a film; this moment that had been more about display and performing ur vulnerability,,,, that this was now private. Slow and tender tender tender it was on a different level. It was with love and reverence. It took care and it wasn’t about who was watching, for what purpose;.;.;. it was about remembering and longing. It was special, and i wasn’t expecting it to happen, but it was so beautiful that it did. I want all art to be like this. I want all art to be this beautiful and tender and loving and radical and fierce. I wish all art was as unapologetic and powerful as drag. I wish all art had the ability to make me feel as deeply and tenderly as this did. 

This is no longer on at Watford Palace Theatre, but it'll be back in London from 24th-27th May at Greenwich Theatre. The website is here if u wana have a peep. It was very very good.

 

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