In 1997, when Chachi 420 first released, it was a Box Office hit. To date, it remains one of the finest Hindi movies to have been inspired by Hollywood. However, when I revisited the film, the one thing that struck me the most was Kamal Haasan’s portrayal of a man playing a woman.
Because in 22 years, cross-dressing has been used to create caricatures out of characters, but rarely, if ever, has it been used as a natural plot point as it was in Chachi 420.
Kamal Haasan, who also co-wrote and directed the film, plays the role of a choreographer Jaiprakash who is denied visitation rights after he separates from his wife. Consequently, he devises a plan to dress up as a matronly nanny, Lakshmi Godbole (I still laugh at how he conceives the name in the film), and meet his daughter.
A well-made film, it had just the right amount of drama and the right kind of humor. But it was Kamal Haasan as Lakshmi Godbole that made the film more than just another family entertainer. Because he ensured that at no time, does the character become a topic of joke, perverted gaze, or misogynistic ideology.
For starters, as far as outward appearances go, Kamal Haasan’s transformation–performed by American make-up artist Michael Westmore–was superbly done. Kamal Haasan did not sport a garish make-up, with certain aspects unduly exaggerated to show that a man is playing a woman. Rather, he truly transformed into a different character – of a middle-aged woman, Lakshmi Godbole.
It wasn’t just the physical appearance that was spot-on. It was also Kamal Haasan’s mannerisms. Here he proved his acting prowess because he did not adopt token gestures when portraying Lakshmi. Rather, he ensured his performance was devoid of any fallacy by truly getting into the skin of the character. From his bodily movements to his voice modulation, he was completely believable as Lakshmi Godbole.
From showing topics like divorce, remarriage as normal to raising awareness on religious discrimination, the film was definitely far ahead of its time. However, one of the most woke aspects of the film was that none of the comical scenarios in the film arose out of the concept of cross-dressing.
Rather, it was focused on a cheating staff member, the mystery of Lakshi Godbole’s origin, a suspicious, sycophant secretary (Om Puri), a naughty daughter, or a pesky landlord (Paresh Rawal). Even the odd reference to Chachi’s physical strength was actually celebrated rather than ridiculed. Like when she saves Janki’s father’s life or defends Janki from goons.
Of course, the film’s story, the complete cast, and the eclectic and delightful soundtrack contributed to making it an above-average grosser. But, it’s important to note that at the time the film released, Kamal Haasan’s character was far removed from the typical Bollywood lead hero. And yet, Kamal Haasan ably carried the film on his ‘dual-role’ shoulders.
It’s been over two decades since the film first released. But even today, there is yet to be a character who nailed the gender duality of a role with the finesse, subtlety, and sensitivity that Kamal Haasan did in Chachi 420. In 2019, we still have movies using cross-dressing characters as a comical element. Perhaps such movies could take a lesson or two (or hundred) from Lakshmi Godbole. As the title track went,
Chaachi ke paas mushkilon ki saari chaabiyan hainSociety mein jaanti hai kya kharaabiyan hain
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