Pakistan’s drama industry is currently on a mission to discover itself, and in recent years, they have experimented with different genres. One experiment that managed to click with the audience began with Zahid Ahmed’s performance in Ishq Zahe Naseeb where he played a person suffering from a split personality disorder and liked to cross-dress for an odd reason. Not only did that performance win him praise from the audience but he also managed to take home all the awards that year.
After Zahid Ahmed, it was the turn of female actors to return the favour and Saboor Aly and Yumna Zaidi took the challenge. While the former played Bubbly Badmash in the uber-hit Parizaad, the latter is currently earning praise from all quarters for her performance in Bakhtawar. While Saboor Aly’s character was that of a girl who believes she is a boy, Yumna Zaidi deliberately tried to pass on as a boy so that she could earn a living, which wouldn’t have been possible had she remained a girl.
The act of cross-dressing might seem new to the audience but it has been going around since the advent of the entertainment industry. In the early days, when women in this part of the world weren’t allowed to act, men used to play female characters until a few brave women like Durga Khote decided to end that custom. However, some filmmakers continued to use ‘cross-dressing’ as a tool in their films, sometimes as a comic element and sometimes for the good of others.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and discuss the eight best cross-dressing performances that went on to become iconic because of their impact on the audience.
- Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot (1959)
Although veteran actress Gloria Swanson had imitated Charlie Chaplin in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and won praise from everyone who saw the performance, the first time two leading men cross-dressed on screen was in Some Like It Hot. The comic geniuses play two musicians who are on the run from the mob, after witnessing a murder. Their idea of seeking safety from the gangsters is to join an all-female jazz band, led by the hottest of ‘em all, Marilyn Monroe. Things begin to go awry when a millionaire falls in love with the female avatar of one of the musicians, while the other falls in love with the lead singer. The film went on to become a huge hit and even today is considered amongst the best screwball comedy films ever produced.
- Mumtaz in Himmat (1970)
Although many India film actresses had cross-dressed on screen in films, Mumtaz’s ability to fool the audience made it one of the best performances of her pre-Rajesh Khanna career. She played a damsel in distress who runs away from her home but not before donning the male guise to confuse her followers. When the film’s main lead, played by Jeetendra, finds out that the guy is actually a girl, he falls in love with her and thus begins their love story. Three years after the film’s release, the same boy-meets-girl-disguised-as-a-boy scenario takes place in Waheed Murad’s Jaal where Nisho plays the boy/girl and Waheed Murad is the one who fell in love with her.
- Munawwar Zarif in Rangeela Aur Munawar Zarif (1973)
If you ever come across the song Sa Sanwala Chehra from Rangeela Aur Munawar Zarif and start wondering who the blonde girl was, dancing alongside Rangeela, then don’t be surprised to know that the drop-dead gorgeous person was none other than Munawar Zarif. The comedian donned a wig and female attire just to make Rangeela’s on-screen girlfriend (played by Saiqa) jealous but ended up making other directors take note of his hidden talent. Despite being the parallel lead in a film that paid tribute to both Rangeela and Munawwar Zarif, it was the latter’s different avatar that won over new fans from across the world.
Munawwar Zarif in Shararat (1975)
Two years later, Munawar Zarif was back on screen as a non-male character, and this time it was to help his friends – again. The only difference was that instead of being a damsel in distress, Munawar played his friend’s aunt who comes over to Pakistan from South Africa. While the plan was to impress that very friend’s relatives, it backfired when one of them (played by Lehri) fell in love with the aunt, in a twist inspired by Some Like It Hot. How Munawar Zarif was able to play both the out-of-work actor as well as the friend in need at the same time is what made this film one of the best comedy films ever made in Pakistan.
Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982)
Cross-dressing got a new lease of life when a struggling actor (Dustin Hoffman) used his talent to land himself a major role in a soap opera, without realizing what he would do when the ruse was discovered. Slowly and gradually, he starts falling in love with his co-star (Jessica Lange) while many were also falling in love with his new avatar, including the girl’s father. The film’s biggest asset is its ability to respect the characters and that’s why it has stood the test of time. And if you are wondering why the plot seems so familiar, well Moin Akhtar’s play Rozi was based on Tootsie, the film where Dustin Hoffman played both Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, his alter ego, without realizing that it would be nearly impossible to revert to his old self.
- Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1994)
Had the makers cast any other actor in this flick, it might have gone down as a crappy effort, but with Robin Williams playing the titular role, everything fell into place. He plays a freelance voiceover artiste named Daniel Hillard who dresses up as a female housekeeper to stay close to his children after his ex-wife (Sally Field) took them away from him. Robin Williams’ brilliance as an actor and his ability to play a character for which a female actor would have been perfect, not only makes the audience accept this creepy plot but also adds colour to it, making it perhaps the best comedy film produced in the 1990s. His influence on the script and the film was so huge that nobody remembers that the future James Bond Pierce Brosnan was also part of the film.
- Martin Lawrence in Big Momma’s House (2000)
At a time when every African American actor wanted to either play a comic character or an action hero, Bad Boys’ Martin Lawrence gave them an option like never before. He plays an FBI agent in this film who is asked to go undercover as his former girlfriend’s estranged grandmother so that he can keep an eye on her current boyfriend’s activities. Make that boyfriend an escaped convict who has loot to protect, and you get a film that’s a laugh riot. By the time this film ends, you will not only forget that Martin Lawrence is a man but would also be a fan of his perfection in playing a character that is anything but him. The film managed to spawn two more sequels, while in Pakistan, actor Humayun Saeed played an inspired version of the character who helps a rich guy dupe his grandfather by posing as his girlfriend.
- Liu Yifei in Mulan (2020)
Among all the protagonists mentioned in this piece, Mulan is undoubtedly the noblest, the strongest, and the bravest because she chooses to help her father by becoming a boy, and had no other motive. The story takes place in Imperial China where men from all over the country are summoned to join the military. Mulan disguises herself as a man and goes in her ailing father’s place making him both proud and worried about his daughter. However, after Mulan is expelled for being a girl, she discovers that the battle is a diversion, and convinces her unit to change tactics, thus beginning a journey where she manages to save the emperor, and destroy the threat that would have changed the face of her country. –Ends