In the early 2000s, Bollywood was saturated with sturdy heroes and docile, coy but yet witty & sexy ‘new’ leading ladies. But either way, the 90’s millennial queer-trans kids didn’t have much to relate to with no representation of queer-trans stars on the big screen. When my all-boy-school classmates were fanboying over Salman’s muscle toned body, and Shahrukh’s amorous boyish charm, Prity and Rani’s ‘Piya Piya o Piya’ or Devdas’s ‘Dola Re’ was my escape from the hyper heteronormativity. The new-age sisterhood, fierce dance, larger than life film sets were my getaway to the queer fantasy. But certainly, that wasn’t enough. When nobody even had the audacity to imagine the missing puzzle, enters the sultry-naughty-witty breeze of fresh air—Pakhi Sharma, famously known as Bobby Darling. She was unapologetic, sassy, plucky, confident—all that I and many other millennial queer-trans kids wanted to be but were too afraid to risk it.
Bobby Darling is a living ‘Icon’ who deserves her due recognition, acknowledgment, and celebration. As she herself mentioned in her Emotional Atyachar appearance, she is truly a brand. The cis-het industry is clueless and mostly indifferent in creating spaces for queer-trans persons in Indian cinema. But Bobby was determined, unique, and knew how to flirt with the camera effortlessly. Quite expectedly Bollywood even turned her into a caricature. Bobby knew how to treat those opportunities with sheer confidence, charismatic intimidation to bullies, and owning all that she was doing.
She meant many things to many people—a caricature, a proud queer-trans person, a reckless diva, a mockery of the queer-trans community, a desperate attention seeker. As they famously say, ‘You like her or hate her, but certainly you can’t ignore her.’ She didn’t do many lead roles or successful movies, but that has very little to do with the stardom she received. With her brief appearances in reality shows such as Big Boss, Emotional Atyachar, Sach Ka Samna, she became the first queer-trans person to be a household name in India. In the hush-hush and scoffing laughter, she existed with her Wispy Layered Short Pixie hair, sparkling dresses, sleek long legs, and high heels. You dare not to notice her!
It was after she read an interview featuring the legendary Rekha, she first saw dreams of becoming an actress. Rekha’s words—“If you’re famous, people love you for being famous. They don’t care about your personal life,” struck a chord with Bobby. Unfortunately, the internet is flooded with digs into her personal life, scandals, and unnecessary curiosity about her gender and body. Today I only want to embrace the star that she is, talk about what she actually means to queer-trans people, and why we need to celebrate her iconic presence in Bollywood.
With her imagination and aspiration of a queer affirmative future, she entered the industry with the big-budget movie Taal in 1999, followed by multiple cameos in movies and character roles. Where I found her flamboyance and queerness confident, the cis-het world took it as a plain caricature. I remember sitting through the comedy movie Kya Kool Hai Hum with my cousins as my body cringed in embarrassment witnessing how Bobby’s character was treated.
Bobby played the role Kiran, where she was misunderstood as a cis-women by Ritesh Deshmukh’s character Karan who was in head over heals with her. There were repeated humor around revealing her as a ‘man’ and not a cis-woman. The roles written for her are mostly crass, distasteful, and highly problematic. Either her character was anonymous or named ‘Bobby Mohabbati’, ‘Bobbylina Boywala’, ‘Mr. Softy’ to induce humor. The forced caricature succeeded in informing the world that anybody who appears like Bobby should be laughed at or it’s even ok to use the name ‘Bobby Darling’ to bully/offend queer-trans people.
Ironically, we used to get offended. We felt heartbroken and angry with Bobby as we thought she was the reason for our misery. We wanted to distance our identities from Bobby’s hyper-feminine queerness, as that was established as vile, over the top, unacceptable by the cis-het world. However or whatever ways we exist, we have to make sure we aren’t causing any discomfort or intimidation to cis-het people. Our acceptance depends on their approval.
That is how the cis-het world succeeds in shifting the accountability of our marginalisation among ourselves. They instill the conditioning that we need to ‘appropriate’ ourselves, make us ‘civil’ enough to fit in the mainstream. When they demand us to exist as a homogenous group to avoid their confusion, we often fall prey to that politics of erasure of our intersectionality and diversity. We were convinced that we will be accepted if we tell the world that Bobby doesn’t belong to us. We are better!
But behind the doors, when nobody was watching, me, a 10-year-old queer kid, who thought there’s no one like me in the whole world, Bobby meant the world. Soon I realised my desire to distance my identity from Bobby Darling is actually a facade. Deep down my queerness was intertwined with her queerness. I could never laugh at her, but I always laughed with her.
In Style or Apna Sapna Money Money, apart from being subjected to insensitive humor, she was also projected as a friend. A friend who was valued and treated with respect and dignity. I used to feel soaked in joy with that little personhood she is treated with. When she received the best-supporting actor award at Monaco International Film Festival (Monaco) for the Tamil film Navarasa, it felt close to home. Both her successes and failures felt personal.
For me, her success never lied in her acclaimed performances or commercial recognition. Her success was in making the writers write queer-trans characters in mainstream Bollywood movies in a time when it was unimaginable. Her success was in compelling the producers in investing in those characters and paying for her labour. Her queer presence in a largely cis-het industry was her success. Her success was instilling hope in queer-trans kids that they don’t exist in isolation.
Even after two decades, there isn’t any mainstream openly recognised queer-trans actor/star in Bollywood apart from Bobby. As much as that breaks my heart, it also makes me reflect on the labour Bobby must have to put in to make it across a sexist, deeply patriarchal industry. In one of her Zoom interviews, she mentioned her rejection from her biological family, the struggle of dancing at Mumbai Bars at night and auditioning for films in the morning. She spoke about the emotional, sexual abuse that she had to go through to shape her career.
After many many years, as I am distancing from my patriarchal understanding of queerness, I see how we are late in acknowledging the lived reality of Bobby Darling and celebrate her as the queer icon that we needed, wanted, and thrived for. Her non-melancholic, joyful, big-smile, sassy screen presence in mainstream Indian cinema and television was itself advocacy for queer-trans rights. Her presence was a reminder for us that we can exist with happiness and spontaneous queerness.
I am sorry, Pakhi, that we didn’t celebrate you enough.
We are sorry that we never acknowledged how you made us feel safe and less lonely. We are sorry that we couldn’t scream each time somebody used your name to ridicule us. We are sorry that we looked over your lived reality and wanted to appropriate your expressions, your flamboyance, and womanhood. We are sorry that we wanted to distance our identities from your queerness!
You are our true drama queen who deserves more screen presence than Parineeti Chopra and Sidharth Malhotra, as we flap our toes with the song ‘Ye Chori Bari Drama Queen Hai.’ Pakhi, Thank you for existing on the big screen unapologetically and informing us that queer dreams do come true. You are our true star and you deserve to shine like one.