Strong, muscular, tall, macho, suave - we wouldn't blame you if you thought we were describing a man. The image associated with men has always inclined towards the physical aspect of the balance rather than the mental or even emotional one. Words like sensitive, compassionate, empathetic, woke have been used rather modestly when it comes to men. A man has been perceived rather unidimensionally for ages now.
To reignite the conversation on International Men's Day and actually understand the nuances of mental health from the horse's mouth, we got in touch with men from various walks of life. It's been commendable to see each of these stars letting us inside their darkest moments and how they overcame them, breaking stereotypes, and proving that it's okay for a man to feel weak and vulnerable.
This is Sushant Divgikar’s story. A drag icon, a performer, a reality TV star, Mr Gay 2014, Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia and much more, Sushant Divgikar a.k.a Rani KoHeNoor may seem like someone who has done it all, but, in some ways he is just getting started. As a content creator, Sushant is fearless. He is unapologetically himself. And unafraid to speak his mind.
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Where did you grow up? How was it growing up as a queer kid? Did it come with its own set of challenges?
I was always a very expressive kid. I was always an overachiever. I was a national level swimmer and I was the sports caption. So, I beat all the boys to it, that too in an all boys school. All in all, I didn’t stress on the fact that I was different. There were a lot of kids growing up that were different, and that is their journey, like this is mine. As an ‘influencer’ I don’t like the idea of going around telling people how to live their life, or how they should come out. I honestly believe that the worst thing to do is give suggestions, and I’m an industrial psychologist by degree. I have realised that the worst thing to do for someone is to give advice. Someone sitting in say … Nagaland may not have the same issues as me. So, for me to sit here, in Bandra West, and these suggestions are very fake and unbecoming of me. I’m not living my life to inspire people. That’s not my motto. Of course I love to break the glass ceiling, but that’s because I live life on my own terms. I’m just the way I am. And, that’s the only way I know how to. That in itself in a political statement in our country. And, if you don’t want to, just change the channel!
Did you ever face any form of bullying? In school or college or at work? How did it impact your mental health? How did you deal with it?
Yes, I won’t call it bullying but name calling happens everywhere. Regardless of whether you are gay or straight or of any sexual orientation, for any child, every child has to go through some sort of teasing. And this happens because it comes from one’s own insecurities. Unfortunately, this happens because through our films and TV shows and pop culture references we make fun of people who are away from the norm, and because of our absurd standards of beauty, technically everyone ends up being bullied or teased at some point of their lives.
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Of course, I have been called all sorts of names as well, not just at school or college, but also at the workplace. Even today, fellow co-workers call me all sorts of names. Not that it bothers me, it just shows what their upbringing is like and how they are insecure about themselves. Well, I’m just getting recognition for the work I do. I don’t even need to glorify these people by giving them any sort of attention, so all these people can bark while I collect my awards.
Even as a kid, I could protect myself well. All of my brothers taught me how to fight and protect myself. And I feel every child needs to know how to protect themselves if they are put in that sort of a situation. I used to whack people who used to say something unparliamentary to me because that’s how I protected myself. Unfortunately, there are kids who can’t protect themselves and for them I want to say, go out, seek help. It doesn’t make you weak if you ask for help. Learn to protect yourself, because in some situations there might not be people who’d be able to help you but always know that if you ask for help, you’ll get it.
I am sorry if this comes across as condoning physical violence, but I’m not going to wait for somebody to bring me justice. Or if tomorrow, something happens to my niece, I would want her to fight back if somebody tries to molest her. I’m not going to take the law into my hand and kill someone, but I need to protect myself.
But we need to empathise with the bullies rather than get angry with them because we need to understand that this comes from a place of extreme toxicity and they also need help.
Do you recall any specific incident of bullying that you would like to share with us?
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I was about 12 and a senior said something really nasty to me. I turned around and he was so tall that I jumped on to him and slapped his face without thinking about the repercussions. But then he got so embarrassed that someone so junior to him slapped him in front of everyone that he ran. He didn’t come back to hit me. Everyone agreed that he deserved what he got. And that’s what you need to make clear - you need to show the bully you are not weak and some repercussion will take place.
Even when I got into college and then started working in the entertainment industry, there were a lot of incidents. Anyone who thinks the entertainment industry is all butterflies and rainbows is unfortunately mistaken. But it’s not just the entertainment industry, there’s discrimination in all vocations. I have faced a lot of discrimination in the industry too but thankfully, there are a lot of good people too who have always believed in me. I’m really thankful to my mentors too who have held my hand in this journey and said it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, man, woman or transgender; you are talented and that’s what matters.
Speaking of the entertainment industry, could you highlight the problems plaguing it and how you’ve managed to successfully navigate your way through it?
This industry is tough and very cut-throat, so if you are not thick skinned, you will perish. But I think it goes for any industry, whether you are in the forces, in the government, an actor, an artist, a drag queen. Because unfortunately, realistically speaking, the world is not a very kind place and people will have a lot of opinions on you when you’re in the public domain. So, concentrate on the people who give you positive vibes. Let’s be honest, you’re not going to change people’s perspective because there’s Google now. It’s not your duty to educate people because if someone can use their phones to make a nasty comment they can surely use it to gain knowledge about things they are so blissfully unaware about.
Back in the day, you used to get a call (for Bigg Boss), and you’d go and meet the channel. So, I was very nervous and shy, like a very good kid from Bandra. And, I didn't know the tricks of the trade. So, my publicist called me and said why aren’t you being your fierce sassy self. I said I’m not going to be OTT, and clap my hands. I just can’t do it. This is how I am, and there’s a reason it’s called Reality TV. So, they called me back and I said exactly this, and in Hindi, and they got me on Bigg Boss. The representation of a queer person, minding his/her own business and living their true self on TV is still what I stand for. It may not be masala, or abuse, but at the end of the day, from my season, how many of the men are you interviewing right now? That’s the question!
What is your opinion on pronouns for different genders and what are you comfortable with?
I realised that I was gender fluid after 29 years and I thought it was important for me to put out my preferred pronouns out there. I’m comfortable with all three pronouns - He, She, They. So, I don’t think anyone can misgender me, because I’m comfortable with the synergy of male and female energy. This is something I’m okay and comfortable with. Other people should put out what their preferred pronouns are (referring to the popularity of pronouns being used on Instagram bios and email signatures) so that there is no ambiguity. Also, we are in 2020, so I would rather people talk about my art, and the kind of person I am, rather than my gender or my sexual orientation.
© Sushant Divgikar
It’s wonderful to see you present your unapologetic self in front of the world. What is it that you want your audience to know about yourself?
When I was on TV, I didn’t have too many references to look upto, so I wanted to be that reference. And I want people to understand that I’m the reality and not the stereotype we’ve been conditioned to all these years. So, when I started breaking this 11 years ago on television, I started living this reality. It's been a rollercoaster ride over the years, with lots of ups and downs, and with a lot of nasty people, but eventually I was on the cover. And the naysayers, well let’s just say, they can keep talking and I will just keep doing it. And, that’s the tea!