Adoor Bhasi | Malayalam cinema’s favorite cross-dresser

PJ Antony and Adoor Bhasi in Nadhi Cross-dressing onscreen in Indian cinema isn’t anything new, in fact it has been one of the reliable tools of generating guffaws in an onscreen narrative when the going is tepid or lack-lustre. Same has been the case with Malayalam cinema too, and more so owing to strong, polarised, testosterone-dripping “maleness” that have come to be associated with the onscreen leading personas since the past six decades – ever since we got the “bi-polar successions” of SathyanPrem Nazir, MohanlalMammootty and hopefully it would end with the last.

But there is  quite an interesting  chapter in, arguably, one of the most prolific actor of our times, Adoor Bhasi, that some how seems to have been passed upon –  the sheer number of drag acts that he has brought alive on the Malayalam screen!  And if one looks closely, it turns all the more intriguing is the fact that NO OTHER male actor in Malayalam cinema has obviously expressed himself onscreen, in borrowed attire from the opposite sex,  the way Adoor Bhasi has, in Malayalam cinema. I am sure it would hold good for the acts in Indian cinema as well, but then again, that would warrant more research.

The number of  movies that Adoor Bhasi has been a part of in Malayalam films makes it next to impossible, like most of his peers’, to get a grip on the variety of characters he brought to life onscreen. When one looks at Prem Nazir’s films, Adoor Bhasi was the staple ingredient that powered his acts onscreen, and in a way, chronicling the Evergreen Hero’s movies are in itself, taking stock of Adoor Bhasi’s onscreen performances. The more you think about his ‘excursions in drag onscreen’, the more curious it gets. For me, none of the instances of cross-dressing that he did on screen for the characters he did had any significance in taking the narrative forward. It looks like more of  him spelling it out to the director during the script narration ( if ever there was one), “This point in the screenplay seems to be a great excuse for me to dress up in drag. Just plug that in there.” I mean, even after watching and re-watching these movies ( and I am sure there a whole lot more ), for the life of me, I just can’t seem to figure out the “relevance” of that specific drag-act helping the proceedings in any manner. My best presumption is that  it was sheer self-indulgence and nothing else. The unique position he commanded as a brand, ( he was the irreplaceable Next Man to the Hero for close to 3 decades ) and the power and clout that brought with it could have also made it impossible for the director/producer to disagree, is what I think. I could say with a reasonable amount of confidence that there has been no other actor in Malayalam cinema who has put himself in the tunics that Adoor Bhasi did in the screen roles they brought to life onscreen. This has been a unique phenomenon as far as an actor is concerned in Malayalam cinema. The “Why” of it beats me. Then again, its just me.

Given below are a few drag-acts that come to my mind. I am sure there are a lot more ( with over 800 [?] movies, its a strong possibility), so please do write in.

Cochin Express (1967)

Adoor Bhasi in Cochin ExpressOne of the manic detective, crime capers from the late 60’s, in the vein of CID Nazir (1971), Danger Biscuit (1969), Taxi Car (1972) and everything in that class, this had Prem Nazir as the Investigating Officer and Adoor Bhasi as Unnikrishnan Nair, the prime witness to a robbery and murder that takes place in a train – the latter inevitably becoming close friend and Man Friday in the investigation ( duh ! ). As usual, they manage to ‘infiltrate’ the gang’s lair, this time a brothel, where Adoor Bhasi jumps into his drag act to entice the suspected gang leader ( Kottarakkara Sreedharan Nair, with a tonsured head of course ! ). The Dance of Seduction is cringeworthy to look at, and thankfully lasts only for a couple of seconds before Sheela steps in ! Adoor Bhasi stays on for the song Kathayonnu Kettu Njaan / S Janaki, playing the sax interludes for the dance number, but as usual, makes you keep wondering, “why is he doing this?

Adoor Bhasi in Cochin Express (1967).

{ Check out from 1:27.  }

Kalli Chellamma (1969).

Adoor Bhasi is the part-time Karyasthan of the local feudal chief, the Yajman, and moonlights as a Kakkarissi artiste (though there is only one instance in the movie, sadly). It is not that I dislike Adoor Bhasi in the folk song, its just that it might as well be another artiste who is one in the real world, and we wouldn’t have even missed him. This song seems to be MG Radhakrishnan‘s debut as a Playback singer too ( correct me if I am wrong ). So there, Adoor Bhasi gets a song picturised in drag, in a P Bhaskaran film.

Adoor Bhasi in Kalli Chellamma (1969)

Rest House (1969)

Adoor Bhasi in Rest HouseAnother mad-caper from the KP KottarakkaraSasi Kumar team which I firmly believe was a story built around 8 fantastic songs. Adoor Bhasi does a double role of Professor Das and “Beatle” Appu ( probably the only direct homage to the Fab Four in Malayalam Cinema🙂 ). Adoor Bhasi ( as Professor Das ) lands up with his bunch of male students in the same hill-station Rest House where Meena (Professor Laxmi) is staying with her group of students, and it isn’t before long that sparks begin to fly, and each one begins to woo one from the other camp, including the professors themselves. The boys in drag, “successfully” infiltrate the girls’ dormitory ( what a great excuse ! ) and Adoor Bhasi as usual leads the pack in the role of the Granny whose daughters the rest profess to be.

Adoor Bhasi in Rest House (1969)

{Check out from 4:00.}

Taxi Car (1972)

Adoor Bhasi in Taxi Car

Directed by Venu and considered as the un-official sequel to his CID Nazir , the screenplay of Taxi Car (1972) was by Sreekumaran Thampi. The  movie more or less  follows the CID films format, with Adoor Bhasi the official Man Friday to the Prem Nazir’s Investigating Officer. In a scene reminscent of CID Nazir with its exotically fancy gadgets, Adoor Bhasi steals a moment to dress up in drag and manage to pull out a Satellite phone and report to the control room on the movements of their mark. And I watch it and think, it would have been perfectly fine if he had been dressed normal too🙂.

Ara Kallan, Mukkaal Kallan (1974).

Adoor Bhasi in Arakkallan Mukkaal Kallan (1974)

Ara Kallan, Mukkaal Kallan (1974) was directed by P Bhaskaran, a total Vadakkan Pattukal-esque costume drama which is quite interesting for the director whose ther releases for the year was Oru Pidi Ari and Thacholi Marumakan Chanthu, another Northern Ballads story. Both Ara Kallan, Mukkaal Kallan and Thacholi Marumakan Chanthu were scripted by N Govindankutty for P Bhaskaran. As Mukkaal Kallan, the separated-at-birth of Prem Nazir ( Ara Kallan ), Adoor Bhasi does the tried and tested method of stealing into the Princess’s Royal Bath in the way he knows best, in drag.

Maybe, N Govindankutty who did the screenplay of the movie, employed the easiest route available, a modus operandi which we have got quite used to, from his Vadakkan Pattukal scripts🙂. Both the brothers are after  a hidden treasure whose details are in the locket of the Princess’s jewellery, and Adoor Bhasi takes the “obvious” way out.

Adoor Bhasi in Ara Kallan, Mukkaal Kallan (1974)

{Check out from 5:50.}

Kannappanunni (1977)

Prem Nazir and Adoor Bhasi in Kannappanunni The Leading Man and the Next Man are it again, this time in a full-blown Vadakkan Paattukal costume drama from Udaya Studios, directed by the one and only M Kunchacko. The excuse is the same – access by stealth and drag into the Princess’s  Quarters, but compared to the blink-and-disappear operation in Ara kallan Mukkaal Kallan (1974), this is a slightly extended operation – more akin to Arjuna’s Brihannala act, just stopping short of teaching dance to the Princess and her entourage, they live in the Princess’s quarters, along with her maid servants as one of them. Prem Nazir as Kannappanunni is there to make the Princess Ponni (Sheela as the man-hater princess ) love him, Adoor Bhasi who plays Thankakkudom his dear buddy (duh ! ) is also in drag to offer support .

Ithikkara Pakki (1980)

Adoor Bhasi in Ithikkara Pakki (1980) With Ithikkara Pakki (1980), it wasn’t any different. And like in Kalli Chellamma (1969), Adoor Bhasi gets to do a song in drag.With good partner onscreen Prem Nazeer as Ithikkara Pakki disguised as the young bride, Adoor Bhasi sits in as the Mother who wants to marry her off to the local feudal heavy weight, Beeraan, a much-married aging warhorse at that. It is interesting and a bit of consolation to note that Jayan who is the aging singer in disguise chose to stick to a flowing beard than flowing chiffon.🙂

Adoor Bhasi in Ithikkara Pakki(1980)

So, there.Looking at Adoor Bhasi’s performances, whether it was leaned more towards performance or personal fulfillment, we may never know.But the fact that, as a film actor, he owns a special place in the choice of roles he brought to life onscreen can never be disputed.

I am sure there are much more than the ones above that you might recall.

Please do write in.

16 thoughts on “Adoor Bhasi | Malayalam cinema’s favorite cross-dresser

  1. അടൂര്‍ ഭാസി ശരീരഭാഷയില്‍ പലപ്പോഴും പെണ്ണാവാന്‍ ശ്രമിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ടെങ്കിലും ശബ്ദം ഇപ്പോഴും ഒരു പോലെ തന്നെ ആണ് . നസീര്‍ മുഖത്ത് ഒരു മുന്തിരി ഒട്ടിച്ചു വച്ചാല്‍ പിന്നെ “പെറ്റ തള്ളയ്ക്കു പോലും ” തിരിച്ചറിയാന്‍ പറ്റില്ല എന്നാ നിലയില്‍ ആയിരുന്നു പഴയ സി ഐ ഡി ചിത്രങ്ങള്‍ . അത് പോലെ തന്നെ ആയിരുന്നു ഭാസിയുടെ ഈ ശബ്ദവും. ഇന്നത്തെ കാലത്ത് ഈ സ്ത്രീ വേഷങ്ങള്‍ കാണുമ്പോള്‍ അതൊരു കോമാളിക്കളി പോലെ തോന്നും എങ്കിലും അന്ന് തീയറ്റര്‍ കുലുങ്ങുന്ന ചിരി ആയിരുന്നു ഭാസിക്ക് കിട്ടിയ സമ്മാനം . ഒട്ടേറെ നടന്‍മാര്‍ അന്നും ഇന്നും ഈ വേഷങ്ങള്‍ ചെയ്തിട്ടുണ്ട് എങ്കിലും ഇത്രയും സ്ത്രീ വേഷം ചെയ്ത ഒരു പുരുഷ നടന്‍ ഇല്ലെന്നു തോന്നുന്നു .മമ്മൂട്ടി സ്ത്രീ വേഷം ചെയ്യുമ്പോള്‍ പോലും മീശ എടുക്കാറില്ല എന്നോരോര്‍മ .
    (കുമാരസംഭവത്തിലെ മല്ലാക്ഷി യും അതെ വര്ഷം എം ജി രാധാകൃഷ്ണന്‍ ആലപിച്ചതാണ് . ഏതാണ് ആദ്യം എന്നറിയില്ല )

    1. ഒട്ടേറെ നടന്‍മാര്‍ അന്നും ഇന്നും ഈ വേഷങ്ങള്‍ ചെയ്തിട്ടുണ്ട് എങ്കിലും ഇത്രയും സ്ത്രീ വേഷം ചെയ്ത ഒരു പുരുഷ നടന്‍ ഇല്ലെന്നു തോന്നുന്നു“, അതുതന്നെ ആണു ജയ് ഞാനും മനസ്സിലാക്കാന്‍ ശ്രമിക്കുന്നത് , എന്തുകൊണ്ട് ഭാസി ? എന്തേ ബഹദൂറും എസ് . പി ആശാനും ഇത്രത്തോളം “കെട്ടി ആടിയില്ല ?”ആര്‍ക്കും വ്യക്തമായ ഒരുത്തരമൊട്ടില്ല താനും.🙂.cinematters

  2. CM, it’s interesting you should post this; I remember watching many of the Nazir-Bhasi capers in my misbegotten youth and thinking ‘Okay, when is the drag act going to come?’ It was almost guaranteed that if Bhasi was there, there would be a drag act.🙂 And for heavens’ sake don’t remind me of Kannappanunii – I bought a VCD of it a couple of years ago because I remembered the songs; gosh, it was horrible! It was more than horrible! It was an abomination that should never have been inflicted on mankind! Ugh! Just thinking of it makes me shudder!

    1. “Misbegotten Youth”😛 deserves misbegotten movies, dear Anu.Regardless of whatever you hurl at me, Kannappanunni is one of my favorites, it was kitsch and hamming at its best🙂 But Adoor Bhasi’s drag acts still remain an enigma. Thanks, cinematters

      1. Perhaps he was a closet cross-dresser, cinematters. Perhaps this was the only way he could legitimately indulge in his desires. Why not? Unless you can think of a better reason for his continuous drag queen turns? A simpler (and perhaps, more truthful explanation would be that the first time he appeared in drag, the theatre erupted in laughs, and so they decided to flog a dead equine to a gory mess.)

        1. Both possibilities sound equally strong, Anu:) But then again, one might never know. Regardless, a unique addition to the multitude of “characters” played by Adoor Bhasi, if I may say that. Thanks, cinematters

  3. Well, I just think that cross-dressing is a favourite laugh-getter in Kerala. Just look at all the comedy shows on TV. At least Bhasi was cute. These others nowadays make me nauseous.

  4. Come to think of it, you are right, CM! He has done a lot of these “cross-dressing” roles.

    Like Viju, I also remember him in that triple role, but t he name had escaped me, too. So it was Paadunna Puzha!

    Thanks for the article!

  5. Thanks Gopal!! I wonder why I couldn’t remember the movie!!! Had seen the movie a year or so back!! But seen it for the songs!!! Thanks for reminding me!!!!

    1. Hi Kishore,
      It has not been just “fancy dresses”, if you actually take a moment to think to the WHY of it. Isn’t it curious that amongst all his peers, the number of “fancy dresses” he has done onscreen with lipstick and kohl beats all the rest of others’ put together? Thanks, cinematters.

  6. Hi CM
    I don’t remember in which movie but in one of the movies he acts as a mother of 2 Adoor Bhasis. And there u can see him in drag throughout- in the sense that like a John Travolta act in Hairspray a full length role as a woman. And he was indeed too good in it.

    Regards
    Viju

    1. menon…. after reading this article… i was wondering why that role was missed in this, otherwise a nice article… PADUNNA PUZHA is the film… plenty of such roles can be seen in THIRUVABHARANAM… KOTTARAM VILKKANUNDU… TOURIST BUNGLOW, KARUTHA KAI etc…

    2. Dear Viju,
      Thank you for this. Guess I have got the answer to it now🙂 and sadly I haven’t watched it. Another one to the “Have-to-See-Movies” list. Thanks, cinematters

    1. Chechi,
      The sheer number of his roles in drag is something that is unique in our movie history, atleast for me. I keep thinking, why didn’t SP Pillai, why didn’t Bahadur – in the sense of the number of roles.It would be very interesting if more could be shared on this by the ones from the industry itself🙂 Thanks , cinematters

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