Chapal Bhaduri, alias Chapal Rani or Queen Chapal, is India’s last living female impersonator in the folk theatre.
Bhaduri, 77, had been the leading lady in Jatra, a popular Bengal’s travelling folk theatre, which generally comprises of long plays followed by a musical concert.
At the age of seven, Bhaduri was introduced to acting by his mother Prova Devi, who was a famous theater actress.
After his mother passed away, he and his sister were thrown out by the family.
“When I grew up, I was asked to play Morzeena in Ali Baba, a female character, in exchange for a job in the Eastern Railways. Morzeena brought me fame and I was flooded with female roles. I consciously quit the Railways and joined Natto Company, a Jatra group with a monthly salary of Rs 75,” he said.
His life changed after that. People would swoon through the window of the improvised green room to catch a glimpse of their favorite ‘Chapal Rani’,
His big hits were Raja Debidas, Chand Bibi, Sultana Razia and Mahiyashi Kaikeyi.
“In the 1960s, I was one of the highest paid ‘actresses’ of the Jatra. I performed night after night in villages, districts and small towns of my home state, taking the audience by storm,” he recalls.
Playing a female impersonator wasn’t difficult for him. Bhaduri felt and think like a woman since childhood.
“I also realized that mentally and psychologically, I was more woman than man,” he said.
In the mid-1960s, his career came to a halt when women starting performing female roles. Also, he was thrown out of the Jatra company because he was gay.
“My problem was more than the rest because I was a cloistered gay. The Jatra company showed me the door when the ‘master’ learnt that I was gay. In the 1960s, preference for the same sex was something no one even knew about. I was not surprised,” he said.
But, he turned it into a new opportunity and started playing Shitala, an Indian deity who was worshiped as an antidote to small pox.
“People who organise the Shitala show in different neighbourhoods told me that there is no play, no script, the way one is used to in jatra or amateur (urban) theatre. They said, ‘we’ll tell you the story of the goddess, and you can take it from there’,” he said.
He understood the details, the character, the make-up and he created Shitala by himself. He used to play the goddess saga for Rs 40-60 at different places.
In 1999, Navin Kishore of Seagull Foundation of Arts made a 44-minute documentary on the unsung actor.
In 2010, he was applauded for his performance in Kaushik Ganguly’s Just Another Love Story.
Bhaduri, who is a bachelor and lives in Kolkata, still plays an occasional female role for the Jatra lovers.
He gets Rs 1500 per month from the West Bengal Government as a fund for ‘distressed artists’.
“Intense and ongoing struggle has been a part of my life. One struggle is the outer one- to earn a living, alone, forsaken and forgotten. The other is the inner struggle with my sexuality, my alternative preference that I needed to hide from everyone. It has been a lonely journey but it has been on my own terms,” he sums up.