'A lot of sass': Bollywood drag night comes to Edmonton

"Welcome to the first Bollywood drag night in Edmonton!" host Lady Tenderflake told the audience Thursday, before a drag queen named Agnes took the stage to lip-synch in Hindi.

'Bollywood was basically my first exposure to drag'

Crème Brûlée wows the crowd at the Edmonton Bollywood drag night. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

An androgynous and flirtatious drag queen named Agnes lip-synched in Hindi as she weaved through a crowd of cheering fans.

"Welcome to the first Bollywood drag night in Edmonton!" host Lady Tenderflake told the audience Thursday evening, before Agnes stepped on stage.

Sachit Vashisht, 18, started performing in drag last month as Agnes.

Online, Vashisht describes Agnes as senile, sweet and ferocious — with excessive hair growth.

"Agnes was basically me thinking of what's least representative of what I do," Vashisht told CBC's Radio Active on Thursday. 

"I don't look like an Agnes, and my performance is not very Agnes-like. You think of an old grandmother, and that's not really what I do." 

He said he likes the fact that his persona defies expectations. 

"It's like an old lady that you don't know when they're going to bite," he said. "You expect someone to come onstage and be cute, and then they do a death drop or a split and you're like, 'what just happened?' "

Agnes was among the group of drag queens who took the stage Thursday at Evolution Wonderlounge, a downtown club on 103rd Street, for Bollywood drag night.

The Hindi film industry based in Mumbai, Bollywood has become famous worldwide for its prolific output of epic films with elaborate song and dance numbers.

Sachit Vashisht, 18, started performing in drag last month. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

That's part of what inspired Vashisht, who grew up in India's northern province Punjab.

"Growing up watching Bollywood movies, watching actresses all decked out —  all of their clothes, fashion, and makeup — just this over-exaggeration of femininity, the first time I saw that was in Bollywood films," he said.

"Bollywood was basically my first exposure to drag."

Sass, the common denominator

Bollywood drag night organizer Anchal Verma said the inspiration for the March 21 event came from a recent trip to Los Angeles, where she saw drag performances in west Hollywood.

Verma co-founded Rasa Entertainment last year, a group that hosts pop culture events and parties in Alberta with a focus on South Asian culture. She said it immediately seemed like a natural fit.

"Why has this never happened before with Bollywood music? Because Bollywood is made for stuff like this," she said.

"It's meant to be a very sexy, jam-filled kind of genre. It has a lot of sass in it.

"With drag nights and drag queens that's also one of the things that really comes with it: that sass, that owning your body and getting into the groove and dancing."

Andra Jini lip-synched to Cher's song 'Half-Breed' at the Bollywood Drag night. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

When they started planning the event, she said, Verma and her business partner, Shrishti Ghosh, spent two months trying to find drag queens who had Indian or Pakistani heritage. They couldn't find anyone.

"The initial idea was to get other South Asian drag queens to empower the community and break from the taboos and the barriers," she said.

"We were getting desperate enough to start looking out in Calgary. And we're like, 'All right, we'll pay for anyone from Calgary to come to Edmonton and do this.'

"The only one that we found was one in Toronto, and we didn't really have the budget to fly them out of here and pay for their hotels and everything."

Verma said there can be stigma among some South Asian people towards LGBTQ communities. She also noted that in India, gay sex was illegal until a Supreme Court ruling deemed it was constitutional last September.

The pair decided to make their event a multicultural night and started reaching out to other drag queens in Edmonton.

They recruited Andra Jini, a Métis drag queen who took the stage Thursday, lip-synching to the Cher song Half-Breed, along with Crème Brûlée, a drag queen with a background in cheerleading who used splits and back flips in her performance. 

'Bollywood was basically my first exposure to drag,' says Sachit Vashisht, who performed as Agnes in an Bollywood drag night in downtown Edmonton. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

That's how Verma said they discovered a growing group of local South Asian performers.

'When it comes to Bollywood, there's no limits'

Several of the performers were, like Vashisht, new to drag.

Comedian Rizwan Mohiuddin, who co-hosted the show with Lady Tenderflake, also made a surprise cameo in drag. 

Until recently, South Asian drag performers have often been overlooked in North America popular culture.

Rupaul's Drag Race, the hit VH1 television program also distributed on Netflix, drew more than 450,000 viewers per episode during its 2018 season, according the network.

Yet despite the program's multicultural cast, a drag queen of Pakistani or Indian descent has not appeared on the show in the last decade.

But that could soon change. And just as the drag world is changing, so is the world of Bollywood, said Verma.

"We are seeing a bit of an evolution," she said. "A lot of that evolution is coming from people who were first- or second-generation, non-resident Indians who are realizing that it doesn't always have to be the same straight idea of Bollywood.

"It's not that popular, it doesn't have a huge crowd. But that's one of the things that we're hoping with this: that it gets people envisioning that when it comes to Bollywood, there's no limits."