Sushant Divgikar is a busy person. When he’s not wowing the world with his vocal skills through song covers on Instagram, he transforms into Rani Ko-HE-Nur, his drag persona, and redefines what it means to be a multi-talented performer. Divgikar has traced a long and extraordinary journey, from participating in the Indian reality competition Sa Re Ga Ma Pa to representing India in the international reality show Queens of the Universe, where drag queens from all over the world come together to compete in a singing competition. He is also the first Indian drag artist to be featured in Forbes ‘30 Under 30 Asia’ list.
This is aside from his vocal advocacy for the rights of LGBTQ+ community in the country through his content on social media. Divgikar is a busy person.
“It’s hectic but it’s amazing!,” says Divgikar, when I ask him how he’s doing. He is in the middle of preparing for a shoot, while undergoing treatment for a slip disc that’s not going to stop him from performing because he knows what his presence on screens, stages, and pages of magazines mean to hundreds and thousands of kids around the country. In between all this, he managed to carve out some time for HELLO! and chat with us about trans representation in Bollywood, RuPaul’s Drag Con and so much more. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…
HELLO!: How did you find Rani Ko-HE-Nur? Can you tell us more about your drag alter?
Sushant Divgikar: “So Rani is basically the more flamboyant and elevated version of Sushant. I’ve seen that a lot of drag queens, out of drag, are very boring. It’s as if their drag persona is their way to live life to the fullest. But even as Sushant, I live life to the fullest, so Rani is just a few more notches elevated than me. I’m equally as fabulous as Sushant, as I am when I’m Rani.
I wanted to do it for the people because Sushant is for me. I wanted to show a queen who can be a jack of all trades. Rani is the empress of everything and, through her, I want everyone to know that you can do whatever you want. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do this or that. Rani is a living example of this statement.”
H: Where do you draw the energy to do it all from?
SD: “I do it for the people. I’ve been entertaining for 16 years now. In fact, I’m nursing a slip disc as we speak and I’m nursing a hot pack on my back. But I’m still working with my doctors to find a way to get back to performing as soon as possible because I can’t take a break for, like, a month as prescribed by my doctor. I don’t like being told that something is impossible, so I think I need to find a different doctor! I want to do it for the next person because I don’t want anyone to feel that they’re not being represented. If I’m seen, they’re seen. Before me, I hadn’t seen any representation like this in the mainstream. There may have been a lot of artists who did their bit, but when it comes to mainstream, there’s nobody who has stuck for long. People have been throwing stones at me constantly but what I’ve done is that I’ve collected all these stones and built a f*cking empire. I love that about me! I used to be that kid who used to be insecure and doubtful about everything, but today I’ve reached a place where I can say ‘If you don’t like my content, f*ck off!’. I have worked hard every single day to reach here and today I can decide what I want to do or not.”
If instead of Kangana Ranaut, Vicky Kaushal was selected to play Jayalalitha in her biopic, would people have accepted it?
H: You’ve brought up the issue of non-trans actors playing trans roles in Bollywood movies in one of your viral Instagram posts. Can you elaborate on it?
SD: “Let’s be completely honest. It’s not a challenge to play a queer character, it’s just another person! These people are always like ‘Oh! I picked it up as a challenge’! Shut up, b*tch! I know so many exemplary queer artists who are at the top of their game and it’s so frustrating to see mediocrity float in our industry. As much as they are entertainers, we are also entertainers. It’s not like they should get any special preferences because they’re cis-het. In fact, I think trans people are the amalgamation of both energies and people are losing out by not tapping into this talent. It’s a huge opportunity being lost. I go all around the world and meet so many extremely talented trans people and I come back here and I’m shocked at the huge market we’re losing by not promoting our own queer artists. Do you know how much money there is in the Pink economy? It’s in millions and billions of dollars!”
H: A lot of people argue that casting famous cis-het actors in these roles ensure that a larger amount of people come to watch these movies. What do you have to say about that?
SD: “Mainstream films have such an impact on people in this country. It’s either cricket, politics, or Bollywood. So if you’re going to misrepresent us in your films, then I don’t have to have representation in the form of Vaani [Kapoor]. I’m so tired of people being like ‘oh but at least we made a film’. You have done nobody a favour! Of course, the script of Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui was very beautiful and very nuanced at some points. It has been directed very well and the production was also fantastic but, if you expect me, as a trans person, to feel represented by Vaani Kapoor, it’s not happening. If instead of Kangana Ranaut, Vicky Kaushal was selected to play Jayalalitha in her biopic, would people have accepted it?”
H: Since the problem is rooted in ignorance, how do you think this can be combatted?
SD: “The same internet that you use to scroll through rubbish throughout the day and make pointless Reels, showing your transition from mediocre to mediocre + 1, can be used to read up about the transition of people from male to female. It’s so tiring for people like me to educate people on these concepts. We’ve been around for so long, there’s enough information out there about artists like me for you to educate yourself. Read up! Why is there such a task for us not to get representation? People are so careful about not misrepresenting religion in movies, then why can’t they give the same respect to us? This is why I studied psychology to try and understand why people are so mad [laughs].”
H: Did you find any answers?
SD: “I haven’t! I think I’ve started going mad now. I don’t want representation from Vaani and Shah Rukh. They can represent themselves, thank you. Don’t use my community name to make a film because it’s trending or it’s cool to show that you’re an ally. We need to concentrate on policies, empowering trans people, and making people understand the nuances of the LGBTQ+ community first. We need to include it in our education systems. This conversation that we’re having right now, needs to be published and read by a lot of people so that they can understand that we don’t want anyone feeling bad for us. Who the f*ck are you to feel bad about me? I pay more taxes than you! We don’t need sympathies, we need jobs. We need to be represented by our own community. It’s like blackface. If you cast a white actor to play a black person or any person of colour, it’s considered a crime! They’ll be cancelled and drop-kicked out of the industry. Here, people take it up as a challenge to play someone ‘different’ than them.”
H: You were a part of RuPaul’s Drag Con this year, which is amazing. Can you tell us about your experience?
SD: “Why can’t we make our people so big that people are like ‘oh we came to Rani’s Drag Con’? Why can’t our country understand that we’re such a big market and people are looking to invest here? Here, I still have to remind people that my pronouns are He/She/They! It’s terrible! When I was speaking to this one very amazing drag queen, who has also won a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who is also a dear friend, and amidst all that chaos, she just held my hand and said ‘I know, it’s tough’, I don’t know what happened to make her say that because she’s very fun and not very serious when it comes to conversations, and she just held my hand and said ‘You know, what mother Ru went through in the ’90s is the same transition and revolution that is going on in your country today and you’re helming it. All the queer artists who are going out everyday to perform or fight for equity in society are a part of that revolution and you can’t give up and you have to hustle harder’.
When she said that to me, I was shocked because it hit me at that time that yes, we are in the middle of a revolution because we live in a democracy and we still have to ask for equal rights. Whether it’s in politics, or healthcare, or education, or performing arts, you can pick whichever sphere of society you want and you can see how ridiculously horrible things are in terms of equity. I’m talking about equity between men and women, let alone trans people.”
Education, advocacy, and sensitisation are the three weapons that will change people’s perspective.
H: How do you think we can reach a point where people stop ‘othering’ the LGBTQ+ community?
SD: “This is why representation matters. You have people like Trinetra, Saisha Shinde, or Grace Banu. Grace Banu is a dalit trans woman and she portrays intersectionality so beautifully. She talks about how caste discrimination exists within the community, where a fairer skin person would be booked over a darker skin one. Imagine! Even in the trans community, you would be preferred if you’re an upper class Hindu! When is it going to stop? Education, advocacy, and sensitisation are the three weapons that will change people’s perspective towards trans people and only then will people understand what a big deal it was for Rani Ko-HE-Nur to actually go to RuPaul’s Drag Con and perform there with all these legendary performers. They will understand the gravity of what I’ve been doing. I’m not just representing the LGBTQ+ community, I’m representing the country on a huge international platform. I’ve put India on the map and it should be celebrated. But how can it be celebrated if they’re still calling me ignorant slurs?”
H: What is the role of a strong support system while growing up in this process?
SD: “Support system is everything. As a kid, all you want is to feel safe. That is needed so that kids can blossom into their full potential. If they’re curbed in the first two institutions of life, family and school, how can you expect the child to be ok? All the money that people spend on therapy when they grow up is because their childhood was f*cked. We need to provide an environment where the child blossoms. We keep saying that children are our future, but how are we taking care of them? I have been supporting so many children from the money I earn from tours, and I know so many other creators like me are doing the same, but where is the institutional support? We need to ask these questions. It’s a very bad state of affairs for children today. Things like acceptance and unconditional love is something every child deserves and if they don’t get it while growing up, they’ll continue to look for it their entire life. Parents must understand that if they didn’t have a child, they wouldn’t be called mom or dad. You are a parent because you have a child. So value and respect the role that you’ve been blessed with.”
H: Do you have any advice for young people who are confused about their identities and are still figuring out their place in the world?
SD: “There are so many conflicts present within these kids. Should we come out? Will we be safe? Will people support us? Will we be accepted? I just want to tell them that there is no hurry. You don’t have to come out because of anyone else’s expectations. Take your time. Be sure of when you want to come out. I, as a privileged person from Mumbai and with all the support I needed from my parents, understood that I was trans in my 30s. I always like to convey through my platform that please believe in yourself, do not let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. And come out in your own time. You have your own journey and there is no deadline.”